Bhante or Ajahn?

You may have noticed that i usually call myself Bhante, whereas most of the monks who come from the Thai tradition call themselves Ajahn. Why one or the other?

Here’s a little history of the word ‘Ajahn’.

It’s a Thai word, derived from the Sanskrit ācārya, which is equivalent to the Pali ācariya. The root is car, which means conduct, so ācariya is literally ‘conductor’, although obvioulsy not used in the same sense. In Pali, ācariya is used of a person in a specific teaching capacity. For example, an ācariya has a student, antevāsī. An ācariya need not be a monastic. Ācariya is never used as a general title or term of address for monks. The nuns, of course, have their own version, ācarinī, which is used in a similar way.

In Thailand, Ajahn is used as a general title for a ‘teacher’, especially one with some seniority, such as a college professor. It is not commonly used by itself as a title for monks. The normal title for monks is ‘phra’ or ‘tahn’. When Ajahn is used of a monk, it is usually prefixed to become ‘Phra Ajahn’ or ‘Tahn Ajahn’. These titles are usually used for senior monks. In all of these cases, however, there is considerable variation in different regions, so that it’s not really possible to point to a ‘correct’ Thai usage.

Just as a little point of detail, the Thai spelling, which is derived from the Sanskrit rather than Pali, uses two identical long ‘a’s. So, depending how you want to depict a long ‘a’ in Roman transliteration, it should be spelled ‘Aajaan’ or ‘Ahjahn’ or ‘Arjarn’. These look pretty weird, though, so mostly we use something like Ajahn.

It is sometimes said that a monk becomes an Ajahn after ten vassa. This stems from a misunderstanding of the Vinaya contexts. In some of the places where a monk acts as an ācariya, he must be ten vassa. But in other cases this does not apply. In any case, the restriction as to vassa refers to the role that he plays, not to the use of a title.

This misunderstanding, while being neither Vinaya nor ‘Thai culture’, has become normalized in Western monasteries. The convention has become to use the title ‘Ajahn’ of a monk or nun when they reach ten vassa, as if it’s a privilege or promotion.

In the original texts, bhikkhus are referred to as āyasmā and bhikkhunis as ayyā. These are from the root āyu (life, long life), and so we translate them as ‘venerable’. The terms are not entirely consistent in the early texts. Sometimes bhikkhus are referred to as ayya, and sometimes the bhikkhus refer to lay people as āyasmā.

But nowhere do we find any system of titles or promotion. The most senior bhikkhus, such as Sāriputta and Moggallāna, are called āyasmā, and the most respected bhikkhunis, such as Uppalavaṇṇā and Khemā, are called ayyā.

These days, we often refer to the bhikkhunis as ayyā. Logically, we should call the bhikkhus āyasmā, but it sounds a little weird and hasn’t taken off. Instead, it has become a common convention to use bhante as a title for bhikkhus.

Bhante is used very widely in the early texts as a form of address for monks. The monks and laypeople use it referring to the monks, and the monks use it speaking to the Buddha. It is a vocative, and so is not normally used as a title. Mostly it is used by itself as a vocative, but in the Milindapañha it is used together with the vocative form of the monk’s name: ‘Bhante Nāgasena’.

So the use ‘Bhante Sujato’ is a bit of a stretch of the original usage, but not too much. (If we’re going to get picky about grammar, then it would be better to use ‘Sujata’ rather than ‘Sujato’, but that’s a lost battle…)

Bhante is not used as a title for monks in contemporary Buddhist cultures, all of which have evolved their own complex system of titles and forms of address. It has, however, been adopted in new Buddhist contexts, such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia – and Australia.

When I arrived in Sydney, most of the well-known Theravadin monks were being referred to as ‘Bhante’. I like it because it’s simple, authentic, and cross-cultures.

If someone wants to call me Ajahn, that’s fine. But I really don’t like this thing of promoting monastics just because they get to a certain seniority. The Pali texts are remarkably free from the sense of hierarchy and status that stains so much modern monasticism. Away with it all! Monastics are just monastics. If someone is respectful enough to call me ‘Bhante’, this is already a huge thing, and a great responsibility for me to live up to. There’s no need for anything else.

And, this being Australia, if someone wants to call me ‘dude’ or ‘mate’ – which happens! – then I’m cool with that.