22 August 2016, 9 pm
People have a lot of freedom at Shwe Oo Min. They come and go and make their own schedule. But there are two sessions everyone attends with religious punctuality every day. You guessed it, it’s the meals. You can skip the 4 am sit, you can avoid sitting all day. But at 5:30 am and 10:30 am, everyone is lined up for the two holiest moments of the day.
So how does it work? We line up in our assigned lines in the covered walkways (see pics), monks, nuns, lay men and lay women in four separate queues. We wait in silence for the wooden gong to sound (see pic). The monks go in first, help themselves to the buffet (see pics) and head upstairs. Then the nuns go in, followed by lay men and lay ladies. There are three buffet tables, one for men meat eaters, one for lady meat eaters, and a third for men and women vegetarians. We help ourselves and sit, and wait for everyone to be seated. There are two minutes of chanting (blessings), and we eat, still in silence. There are no second helpings. Everyone washes their own plates and bowls, and the party is over.
The food is alright, though fairly basic. There are 330 people to feed, and every meal is donated. Everything is cooked, and there are no fruits, sometimes bananas because they are cheap and don’t require cutting. A typical breakfast donation is US$250, whereas lunch is US$450. The name of the donor is displayed on a large flashy board outside the dining room entrance (see pic). In Buddhist culture, dana (donation) is very meritorious, ie it’s good karma.
Some might ask how can Buddhists eat meat? Doesn’t meat-eating promote suffering and killing of animals? And what about the destruction of the environment caused by the meat industry, isn’t that seen as bad in Buddhist ethics? I don’t have good answers, and I’m not satisfied with the answers I’ve heard over the years, but I know one “justification”. Traditionally, and this goes back to the time of the Buddha (2,500 years ago), monks are fed by the laity, and the laity is fed spiritually by the monks. It is a symbiosis that goes on to this day.
Concretely, this meant (and still means, in many cases) that the monks go on an alms round in the neighbouring village to collect food early in the morning. I will talk about this in another post, but essentially, the monks eat what they are given. They gratefully accept whatever is dropped in their bowls. In our modern-day monasteries, the alms-round still exists, but the laity is also whoever is staying at the monastery, and these people decide the menu and donate the money for it. Since not killing is the number one precept, I don’t really understand why the lay guest (who take these precepts during their stay) would order meat for meals. Anyway.
Another topic is the fact that the last meal of the day is eaten at 11 in the morning! This is Buddhist law, and it means I am hungry by three, very hungry by six and starving by nine. It also means I’m dropping weight fast. I could cheat, of course, but we take precepts when we come here. It’s an issue. Perhaps the body gets used to this, I don’t know, but so far, I’m just getting used to feeling hungry a lot of the time, even in the morning.
My lunch a few days ago