While we generally follow a lot of the etiquette of the Thai forest tradition at the Hermitage, the casual visitor need not be put off by their lack of familiarity with this. An interesting passage occurs again and again in the Buddhist scriptures, having been preserved for 2600 years:
…Some of them, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. Some of them exchanged courteous greetings with the Blessed One and, after an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, sat to one side. Some of them, having raised their hands palm-to-palm in front of the chest, sat to one side. Some of them, after announcing their name and clan, sat to one side. Some of them, staying silent, sat to one side…
MAJJHIMA NIKAYA 35
Note the complete lack of judgement in this passage – people arrive to visit the Buddha and they respond in whatever courteous and respectful manner that suits their temperament. There is never any commentary saying that one kind of response is right and one is wrong.
Any person with good intentions is welcome to visit the Hermitage, and the established etiquette here is something they can take on over time if they wish. For those who are interested in familiarising themselves with the etiquette of the Hermitage, a brief description would include actions by body and actions by speech.
The most basic etiquette by body is based on the idea that the Hermitage is an area of ‘abhaya-dāna‘ – it is a place where we have the responsibility for giving others the ‘gift of freedom from fear’. Absolutely no violence or aggressive behaviour is tolerated in the Hermitage, and stealing is likewise another way to make yourself completely unwelcome. The consumption of alcohol is not permitted at the Hermitage.
At a more refined level much of the etiquette arises due to the celibacy of the monks. Monks will not have direct physical contact with a female, including shaking hands or receiving items directly hand-to-hand. An ‘offering cloth’ is used for receiving items and an añjali (hands held palm-to-palm in front of the heart) is a preferred greeting. Monks will usually nod politely in return. Another consideration based on celibacy is that a monk is unable to meet privately with a female – another male ‘chaperone’ must be present. The same principles apply to Nuns, but naturally in this case a female ‘chaperone’ must accompany any males.
In traditional Thai Buddhist culture one’s feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, which they often are! Therefore it is polite to sit in a way in which one’s feet are not pointed towards the shrine or the monks. Wearing shoes in any of the buildings is not permitted.
For people who take the Buddha’s teachings as their genuine refuge bowing is a natural expression of veneration and respect. Devotees will often bow three times to the shrine and then three times to the monks when entering the main hall and the reverse is done upon leaving.
Bowing in this tradition is done while kneeling, sitting on one’s heels. One bows forward so that one’s elbows and hands touch the ground with enough space in between the hands to also touch the forehead to the ground. When done three times it is good to recollect the three aspects of the religion – i.e. the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha – with one dedicated bow for each.
Speech is really the first avenue where greed, hatred and conceit find a place to express themselves and our speech can often be more revealing than we realise – and not necessarily in a good way. Basic honesty, friendliness and circumspection (i.e. only saying things worth saying) is the rule. An attitude of mutual respect between people is highly encouraged.
Monks are given a new name in the Pāli language when they ordain, which some monks will use, while some will continue to use their regular names. When in doubt the easiest way of addressing a monk is either as ‘Ajahn’ meaning ‘teacher’, or as ‘Bhante’ –pronounced ‘Bun-tay’ – ‘good sir’. Usually devotees will use one of these in front of a monk’s name when addressing them by name as well.