Thursday August 25, 2016, 10pm
Entry n°4 – Alms round
Since the time of the Buddha, monks have lived in symbiosis with lay people. The laity offers material support to the monks, who in turn offer spiritual support to the laity. And this tradition continues to this day, at least in Thailand and Burma where I have been, and possibly in the three other Theravadan countries (Sri Lanka, Lao and Cambodia). By the way, Theravada refers to original Buddhism. In countries like Vietnam, China, Tibet, Japan and Korea, Buddhism evolved in new directions, a topic I’ll come back to in further posts, and traditions differ in those countries.
One of the ways this exchange manifests is the alms round. Every morning, monks line up and walk out barefoot from the monastery into the neighbouring village. Contrary to our Christian monasteries, Buddhist monasteries tend to be located within walking distance of towns and cities, and many are in the heart of these towns. This is the case with Shwe Oo Min monastery, located in Kon Tala Paung Village. This allows the monks to not have to go far to get fed, and allows the villagers to not have to go far if they want to meditate or talk to a monk. Of course there are remote forest monasteries, but they are a minority.
Here at Shwe Oo Min (SOM), monks head out on the alms round at 6:30 am, right after breakfast. This might seem strange, to go out after eating, but it is an adaptation to modern realities… Since breakfast is at 5:30, the monks would have to leave at 4 am in the dark, and no one would be up in the village. Going out at 6:30 gives villagers time to cook, and the monks can see where they put their feet. This tradition does not include nuns. Only monks and novices (all male) go out. Here at SOM, we’re looking at roughly 60 samaneras (novices) and 40 bikkhus (monks), ie about 100 bowls.
Kon Tala Paung is a simple village, very basic living conditions, and the only thing villagers give is white rice. The monks collect it in their personal eating bowls, and it is then served at lunch at the monastery. Us lay people are allowed to follow the procession, and of course we don’t collect anything. Only a handful of us do so, and only foreigners. It’s quite amazing to see the devotion of the people. They wait for the monks at the appointed time. They stand by the side of the road with their pots and pans full of rice, and they scoop it out in different bowls. The procession meanders slowly through the same streets every day and back to the monastery about an hour later. With a cauldronful of rice for lunch.
There is a lot of dignity in this ritual. It is quite a sight to see 100 men lined up silently in bright red robes, being served food by local villagers who cooked for them and obviously consider it an honour to make dana (donation). More than an honour, it is merit. People have their hands together in prayer position and bow slightly, looking down, as the monks go by. The silent procession is an important part of village life. Those women who serve rice gain special merit.