Friday, October 11, 2013

Alms - Not A Simple Matter

A Woman Drops Sticky Rice Into Monk's Bowl

Many things in life are not as simple as they first appear and there are times when things are not exactly as we originally perceived them to be.

Our perceptions of reality are heavily influenced by our personal experiences and our cultural bias.  As long as we remain within our familiar boundaries and culture, there is usually not a big problem or an issue.  However when we are exposed to different cultures, misinterpretations and misconceptions can create problems or even conflict.  Seeing two men holding hands as they walked after perhaps kissing each other on the cheek in Groton, Connecticut would most be perceived as two homosexuals making a scene however in many other cultures such behavior would be merely interpreted as two friends walking and greeting each other like every one does without any sexual connotations.  It is simply a matter of personal experience and cultural bias heavily influencing one's processing of an observation.  The facts are the same but our sense of reality can vary greatly.

Hopefully as we gain more education, more experience, and are exposed to more cultures, we become more aware of how reality can not necessarily be what we first were tempted to believe. This will provide greater opportunities for understanding and reduce conflicts by allowing us to question and further investigate what we perceive.

Living here in Isaan, there are plenty of situations that easily lend themselves to misinterpretation.

One of the rituals that is often is misinterpreted by Westerners is the morning alms walk by Buddhist Monks and the giving of food to Monks.

People may believe that the Monks are begging for food.

People may think that the Monks are rude by not thanking people for the food.

People may thinking that the people have pity on the Monks.

Buddha said that there were four things necessary in life.  They were clothing, food, shelter, and medicine.

Buddha suggested that the Monks receive their food for their single meal of the day from the morning alms walk.  Depending upon daily alms reminds the Monks as well as the lay people of their dependence upon each other.  It also prevents the Monks from becoming too isolated  from the lay community.

During the alms walk or making themselves available for alms, as in the case of forest Monks, the Monks are not begging for food.  They are not seeking anything.  They are making themselves available to receive  whatever alms the lay people want to give.

Bhikkhus (ordained male Monks) have many rules that they must follow.  One set of the rules, 75 related to daily conduct are contained in the Sekhiya Training Guidelines.  Some of the Sekhiya rules regarding alms food are:

     "I will receive alms food appreciatively"  The alms bowl is to be held on the arm and in front with a  respectful and appreciative attitude.  Food can not be accepted with a look of disgust.

     "When receiving alms food, I will focus my attention on the bowl"  This is why the Monk does not look at the person offering the food when accepting the food.  He is concentrating on properly receiving the offering.

     "I will not receive more than one ration of curry for every three rations of rice" This rule helps to prevent bhikkhus from becoming too fond of fancy foods and reminds them of their simple life.

     "I will eat a ration of one part of curry to three parts of rice"  A Monk (bhikkhu) has to prepare  each mouthful by mixing curry and rice in the proper proportions.

    "I will accept food in proportion to the bowl, without exceeding its inner rim"  This rule prevents food from falling on the ground and being wasted.

     "Eat alms food attentively"  When eating the Monk is to keep his attention on the bowl or plate.  He  must not look around but keep his gaze attentively on the contents of his bowl or plate

     "Not eat by placing large morsels in the mouth"  A mouthful can not be larger than a peacock's egg.

     "Eat the food one after the other, without rejecting any."  A Monk must eat or serve himself just the way the food portions present themselves.  He can not start in the middle.  He starts from the side closest to him and continues taking food from that side without starting a new side.

There are a few other rules related to Monks eating which I have not included in this blog.  The rules that I have shared give a good indication that the matter of eating is no simple matter for Monks.

There are also rules for offering food to bhikkhus by lay people.

There are two main considerations when offering food to Monks.

The first major consideration is that a Monk can not eat anything that is not offered to them.  They are only allowed to take water and tooth cleaning sticks that are not given to them.

The rules for properly offering alms, food or medicine, to bhikkhus are:

     It must be given by means of the body (offered by the hand) or by something attached to the    body (examples - a spoon, a tray, a plate) or by throwing ( example - dropping a lump of sticky        rice into the Monk's bowl)

     It must be given so that the donor and the Monk are within arms reach (approximately 1.25 meters, 4 feet) of each other.

     It must be received by means of the body (received in the Monk's hand) or by something attached to the Monk's body (examples - Monk's alms bowl, Monk's receiving cloth).

     The offered food can not be so heavy that an average man can not lift it.  Here in Isaan it is acceptable to slid the food along the floor to the Monk's hands.

     The donor has to actually first move the food or food tray towards the Monk before the Monk can accept it.  It is very important that the fact that the food is being offered rather than asked for be clearly established.

Although it is not a rule, here in Isaan it is traditional that the donor make a gesture of respect when making the offering.

Another tradition here, is that the donor must be barefoot to properly make offerings to the Monks.  This is not a consideration when making the offerings inside of a building since you remove your shoes before entering.  However if you go outside along a road or sidewalk where Monks pass by on their morning alms walk, you need to remember to first remove your shoes or, more likely, your flip flops.

Man Makes Gesture of respect Before Offering Sticky Rice to Monk
The donors of the alms earn merit by offering without thinking of the benefits to themselves or by having pity on the Monks.  Merit is earned through the goodness of the act rather than the expected consequences or motivations of the act.

Woman Tosses Lump of Sticky Rice Into Monk's Bowl
The second major consideration for offering food to a Monk, actually a major consideration for anything involving a Monk, is that a Monk can not touch or be touched by a female.  Great care must be taken to eliminate the possibility of a monk touching a woman.  Often men will act as an intermediary in the transfer of objects between a woman and a Monk.  Another prevention is the use of a cloth.  The Monk will place a cloth on the floor.  The woman will place the object on the cloth and the Monk will pull the cloth to him to remove the object.  The process is reversed when the Monk gives something to a woman.  The last solution is to drop things into the hand or container held by the Monk or more likely into the hand of the woman.

Bhikkhus can only eat from dawn to noon. The conservative school of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, Dhammayuttika Nikaya requires Bhikkhus to have only one meal a day between dawn and noon whereas the more liberal school, Maha Nikaya, allows its bhikkhus to have two meals between dawn and noon.

Monks are not allowed to store foods for another day.  This rule reinforces the concept of the dependence of the bhikkhus and lay people upon each other, supports the mendicant ideal of monastic living, and prevents Monks from becoming attached to their favorite tastes.

Not being able to store food creates a situation.  Monks can not deny people the opportunity to make merit so quite often, actually every time that I have been in attendance, there is a surplus of food, food that Monks can not keep for another day be it rainy or sunny.  There are two solutions to this situation.

Monks Giving Young Boy Surplus Rice
The first solution is for the Monks to give away extra food that they are offered on their morning alms walk.  In Luang Prabang, Lao People's Democratic Republic, tourists participate in the Tak Bart ritual, each of them placing a hand full of cooked sticky rice in the bowl of each Monk as they walk along one of the main streets in the city.  Since the street is lined with tourists positioned shoulder to shoulder, the Monk's bowl is quickly filled.  To allow other tourists and residents, further along the route, to participate and make merit. periodically the Monks will remove some of the rice from their bowl and give it to poor children along the route or the poor children who follow along with them.

The second solution takes place in the Wats of villages and cities where people bring food offerings to the Monks. Plates of fruits, fish, curries, and other items along with the ubiquitous cooked sticky rice are offered to the Monks.  The Monks take portions and either place them in their bowl or on their plates.  What is not taken by the Monks is removed from the raised area, where they are seated on the floor, and placed on the floor where the lay people are sitting on the floor.

Lay People, Women, Having Community Morning Meal
Once the Monks have started to eat, the lay people have a community meal of the surplus food.  It is a very friendly event where everyone is invited and encouraged to participate whether they are Buddhists or not.  Typically the men and women sit in separate groups if not areas to eat - just as they do during merit making rituals.  If I am not walking or crawling around taking photos, I sit with Duang along with the other women.  Either because I am a foreigner or the Lao Loum people are so tolerant no one has ever made and issue of it.  I do it because Duang is able to explain things to me as well as to translate for me.  I have always been made to feel welcomed and comfortable at these gatherings.

Lay People, Men, Having Community Morning Meal

The lay people do more than eat at these morning gatherings.  They are also gossiping about all kinds of subjects and people.  There is a great deal of noise and considerable laughing as well as joking.  It is obvious that the community and family bonds are being strengthened during these Buddhist pot luck meals.  here in Isaan, family and community bonds are quite often one and the same.  The villages are often very small and comprised of a single extended family.  I estimate that 80% of Tahsang Village is comprised of Duang's relatives.

Besides the strengthening of community and family bonds, the sharing of surplus food with the Monks provides a vital service - it feeds the poor.  You do not have to offer food or make any offerings to the Monks to participate in the community meal.  When she was a young mother, Duangchan was very poor. She and her two young children depended upon these communal meals for nourishment.

After the lay people have completed eating, any food that is left over is placed in plastic bags for people to take home with them.

What I have written about in this blog is true.  It is the way that things are supposed to be.  It may not necessarily be the way that things always are.  There is a popular acronym here in Thailand "TIT" - This Is Thailand.  It is used to explain what often is not easily explained or what may be difficult to accept.  It is our version of "It is what it is".  Well there probably should be a similar acronym "TIB" - This Is Buddhism.

Due to the tolerance of Buddhism and the melding of Buddhism into previous existing religions in a particular area or culture, there are often variations and diversity in specific practices of what is referred to as "Buddhism".  I am certain that some readers will have different specific experiences with alms giving as well as alms food.  That is not to say that they are wrong or that I am wrong.  It is just a different experience in a very diverse world.

What I have written is what I have experienced, researched and found to agree with what I have observed, and have confirmed with my ethnic Lao wife. This is one perspective on a culture with many perspectives - which, to me, makes it all that more interesting, fascinating, and stimulating.

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