Most of us are familiar with the image of the monks with shaved heads, in fact, you never see images of monks with hair. Is it out of respect, dress code or does it have religious meaning? Why Do Monks Shave Their Heads?
The word is called “Tonsure,” it’s the practice of cutting or shaving the head as a sign of religious devotion. When they shave their heads, it’s showing that they are giving up society’s beauty and materialistic standards.
The Buddhist Way
In Buddhism, specifically, it’s done as a monk rite of passage. It’s done when the Buddhist leaves home to live among and study under the monks. Buddhist monks keep their heads clean shaven.
In one Buddhist tradition, it was said that the prince who later became the original Buddha set out to discover the path to becoming enlightened, he shaved his head. Not only did he shave his head and beard, he gave up meat and spicy foods and gave up other worldly pleasures. After he gave everything up and found his calling, others would follow him in tonsure when they become monks.
In early Catholicism, long hair was a sign of sexuality, vanity, fertility and was linked to human desire. Due to the association, Catholics would practice Tonsure when they became Catholic monks, even Nuns would shave their heads.
What is Pabbajja?
The ceremony of Pabbajja technically means to “wander forth.” It’s the ceremony when a normal person starts taking the role of “novice” and moves out to live among the Buddhists.
This is the beginning ceremony towards becoming ordinated. In some countries when a boy hits puberty, they become a novice- and practice tonsure.
When they practice tonsure, they have their head and face shaven clean. They are also given the robes to set up for consecration. Not every Hindu sect would practice Tonsure during the early initiation.
What is Upasampada?
Upasampada is the Buddhist ceremony of becoming a monk. Unlike Pabbajja, where they become a novice, Upasampada is the ordination to becoming a monk. They must be free from debt and disease (like STDs), they need to be at least 20 and have their parental consent, they also have to be exempt from military service.
Both ceremonies could be done multiple times throughout their lives and they could be dropped from the order.
Once they have had some education in Buddhism, they could be initiated as a monk. Part of the monk’s dress code is to shave every 2 months. They don’t have a major code for facial hair but must shave every two months.
History of Tonsure
Tonsure is thought to have originated in the days of Jesus’s disciples. Male slaves would also have their heads shaved, so the act of shaving was to symbolize that the monks were slaves to their God. Those are two of the theories.
The shaved haircut was so important, monks can lose their ranking if they don’t make sure they keep their heads shaved.
Since hair is seen as a sign of fertility and sexuality, it can show the desire to give up worldly pleasures and desires. Men of clergy in many religious sects take up vows of poverty.
They also give up worldly desires- sex, relationships, kids, money, and other stuff “of this world.” Since hair is seen as sexual and was desired, they would cut their off.
Buddhist monks are not the only men of God to shave their heads, it was also a Catholic and early Christian sign of devotion to their God. Many Catholic and Christian men would shave a spot and leave a “crown” of hair to show the symbol of the crown of thorns.
Jain and Taoist monks also used to shave their heads. Jain monks would pluck the hairs from their head without using razors, blades, or scissors.
In ancient times, a monk could never become a king and kings couldn’t have short hair. Thanks to that, some kings would have their competitor’s hair cut and monks would keep their head shaved or hair cut short.
Even women would shave their head to denounce their feminine sexual attractiveness and to show they were devout to their God and religion. Now, most nuns aren’t required to have shaved heads, but they still must take the vow of celibacy.
Do Monks Still Shave Their Heads?
The Catholics left tonsure behind in the 1970s, but Buddhist monks still practice as a rite of passage. Long hair is a sign of a higher financial class in some regions and that goes against Buddhist principles of giving up worldly pleasures. Shaving their heads is to show that they are no longer wanting to be attached to the material world. It’s a complete dedication to their religion.
Shaving all the hair from their head gives monks freedom away from their worldly debts and attachments. Since a monk can’t become a monk with debt, they already aren’t indebted to anyone. The symbolism of shaving their head frees them from being indebted to pleasure (food, monetary) or sexual desires.
The Buddhist monks are the original monks with other religions taking ritual ideas from them. Jainist monks still pluck their hair.
Some Buddhists shave every 2 months, some wait until their hair grows about two inches, some shave every couple days and some every month. It’s all a matter of where they live but they are primarily the monks who still shave.
Hair Meanings Broken Down
Buddhists- Hair is seen as a sign of vanity and fertility. They gave up worldly pleasures to become monks, so shaving showed they were devoted.
Catholics- Long hair is seen as vain and a sign of sexual desire. Shaving showed a devotion to God and giving up sexuality as part of their vow of celibacy as well as a detachment from worldly desires.
Jains- When they leave their lives behind, they leave everyone and everything behind. They also denounce violence and believe hair is a sentient being so instead of cutting, they pluck the hair from the roots. The ritual is often done twice a year and symbolizes giving up worldly attachments. It’s also said to help the person learn to handle pain.