Personal Development

How to Live in a Monastery

My house was gone and I needed somewhere to live. I wanted to save money for my travels—even a studio apartment was pricey. So I went to a monastery.

Since then that post has become one of my most popular ever. Apparently a lot of people want to live in a monastery. I get an email a week asking how. So here it is: if you’re wondering how to get started living in a monastery, this is your guide.

The monastery where I lived in Minneapolis.

1. Are You Religious?

I moved into a Buddhist monastery even though I am not Buddhist. However, I am a priest of another religion and I have respect for Buddhist practice. I was able to hold conversations about meditation, chanting and other techniques and trade thoughts with the head lama.

You don’t need to be an advanced practitioner, but if you want to live in a monastery for free you should think about why. Monasteries exist to create a supportive environment for the religious practices of the monks or nuns who live there. They may have other missions as well—charity work, teaching classes—but at a minimum they support individual and group religious practice.

Are you religious? Are you part of their religion? If not, why would you live there?

If you’re “spiritual but not religious” you may not have a place in a community of dedicated religious clergy. Monasteries aren’t hostels; while they perform a lot of charity work to help outsiders, bringing in a roommate who doesn’t support their shared beliefs is hard on the whole community.

Maybe you can still find a place in a monastery regardless of your beliefs. I did. But the most obvious way to live in a monastery is to become a monk or nun.

2. Ask

When I decided to approach the monastery, I did it with a clear proposal for how I would earn my keep.

In my case, I already knew the head lama from my past interfaith work, but we were by no means close friends. I wrote her a formal letter pitching my idea. I sent it more than two months before I needed to move (don’t rush it!). I waited about a week, then called the lama and left a message saying I’d like to follow up.

You can see the actual letter here, but here are the highlights:

  1. I explained my situation and made a clear request. I didn’t seem needy or desperate.
  2. I established a clear timeline for when I’d be arriving and when I’d be leaving.
  3. I offered a service of value to the monastery.

Of these, the last point is by far the most important.

3. Offer Value

I believe this is the only reason that I, as a non-Buddhist, was allowed to move into a Buddhist monastery. Maybe if you’re starving they’ll take you in out of kindness, but if like me you’re just some kid looking for a free room—you need to give back in some way.

The services I offered were circumstantial. They were based on what I’m good at doing, and on what  they needed. I had already done my homework and seen that the Monastery had a bad website and no social media presence. Since they acted as a meditation center for the greater Minneapolis area, that was a problem (and it was one I could solve).

What you offer might be very different. Maybe you know that your monastery wants to put in an organic garden, and you’re good at landscaping. Maybe you’re a roofer and they have a storm-damaged roof. Maybe their office is a mess.

The point is to make a useful offer: don’t offer to organize the office and answer phones if they already have an administrative assistant on staff.

(Offering general labor is fine too—“I’ll spend this many hours a week doing whatever needs doing”—but I’m convinced that’s less appealing than offering a specific skill. The monks all pitch in for random unskilled work; more hands may not be needed.)

One word of warning: Decide how much time you’re willing to give. In the business world, work-for-lodging is always bad for the worker—if it was cheaper to pay you a wage and charge for the room, that’s what they would do. In a monastery there may be a purer intention, but non-profits are always starved for help and often work volunteers relentlessly.

Know your boundaries and offer a fixed number of hours per week.

4. Meet

If your offer is appealing you’ll probably be asked to come in and meet in person. Most people don’t accept a roommate sight-unseen, and many monasteries won’t either.

Being asked to come in and meet doesn’t mean they’ve accepted your request. Put your best foot forward, but be transparent: they’ll see the real you soon enough if you live with them.

At my meeting with the lama, she:

  • Wanted to know more about my travel plan and why I was doing this
  • Asked me to justify my proposed social media work, and wanted to know how it would benefit the Monastery’s mission
  • Proposed other projects she would want me to help with in addition to the work I had offered

But this is a two-way interview. I also asked questions about the rules of the monastery and what it would be like to live there. I needed to know that I could come and go at my own hours, that it was understood that I was not a practicing Buddhist, and that we had the potential to be mutually happy roommates.

5. Negotiation

I had expected the monastery’s goals to include increasing attendance at the meditation classes, and attracting more newcomers. This was not their goal at all—recruitment just wasn’t a priority for them.

I did make a case for how social media would still be useful, and ultimately the lama agreed with me. But the value of the social media work was less, and she asked me to take on other projects as well. I had to consider this carefully, go back to my own boundaries (remember that warning above?) and told her yes, but with very clear limits on how many hours I would put in. (One afternoon per week gardening.)

She also wanted me to pay $50/month toward utilities. I considered this fair and accepted. Since I wasn’t charged rent, I still consider that I lived there for free.

6. Monastery Rules

Ask about the rules of the monastery and which ones you, as a lodger, have to follow. For instance, if the monks are vegetarian are you allowed to eat meat, or not? If they have a communal cook, are you allowed to eat the food or are you on your own? What behavior expectations do they have?

Ask specific questions about potential problems. I told the lama I am not a huge drinker but I do like to relax with a drink in the evening. If she came down to the kitchen one night and saw me drinking a margarita, would it be a problem?

“I’d probably ask you to make one for me, too.”

I lucked out because this monastery was small and easygoing. As long as I was respectful I could pretty much do as I pleased. I didn’t have to follow their diet code and there was no curfew or lights-out time.

But if there was, I would respect it.

Even though you’re an outsider, not a monk, it’s completely fair to tell you to follow the monastic rules. If the monks have an early pre-dawn prayer hour, yes you do need to be silent in your room by curfew. If they are sworn off alcohol, it is rude—maybe even downright mean—to pop open a beer in front of them.

I wouldn’t expect to have sex in the monastery, by the way.

In Western monasticism, the Rule of an order is the definitive feature uniting their way of life. In Buddhism monastic rules exist to help limit attachment and craving. Either way, house guests who don’t follow them create a roadblock for everyone.

If you can’t follow the rules, don’t move in.

A Perfect Life

The reason I offer so much caution is to help you make the best arrangement possible. If you follow the advice above, you’ll maximize your chance of being accepted and create a sustainable situation.

Life in the monastery was really idyllic. There were tough moments (I’ve scaled a monastery wall in a thunderstorm and picked a lock to sneak in) but also great ones (I’ve high-fived a lama). One night I made dinner for the whole group of us and served it in the garden with a bit of wine. It’s one of my fondest memories.

My life at the monastery was extremely low-stress. There were day to day tensions, like dealing with a very sick cat or defending my time boundary on how much gardening I could do. But I was with peaceful people who led a simple life. I had no money concerns and I could spoil my friends while paying down my debt. It was relaxing to wake up there, and relaxing to come home.

The greatest experience was seeing how human these practitioners are: a lama is a human being. Many Buddhists never see that.

I gave up that peaceful life for one of risk and challenge. I prefer to struggle for greatness, to make love to the world, to love her as she is. The monks may inherit the earth: today it’s for those who struggle.

Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

I’m launching a group bicycle ride across Mexico with some of the most fascinating adventurers in the world—including beginners and experts, 20 year olds and 60 year olds, women and men. You can help out & join us from home every step of the way: The Fellowship of the Wheel