October 6, 2012

alms

This morning I woke up at dawn to go with my good Thai friends to offer alms to the monks out collecting their daily rounds. My neighborhood was buzzing with activity at this early hour with vendors selling grilled chicken, a Thai breakfast favorite, people zipping around on motor bikes and silent monks walking slowly along the side of the street stopping intermittently as a devoted Buddhists offered food and gifts.

The collecting of alms is a Buddhist tradition and every morning, if you walk the streets around 6 am,  all over Thailand you can see people offering food to the monks who live by Buddhist codes of humility and simplicity. The only way the monks can eat is by the goodwill of the Buddhist people in their community on alms rounds and the people offering food ask for blessings and good wishes from the monks in return. It's a give and take relationship.

This was a very interesting cultural experience that I was very excited to do with a Thai person, in fear of doing something wrong and offending the monks. Not many tourists that come to Thailand can participate in this ritual in such a natural way, I was so lucky to have my wonderful Thai friends, P. Dome and P. Thep to help show me the ropes!

First we prayed over the offerings and transferred our good energy onto the food, which included some rice, chips and other canned goods. We also had a traditional Buddhist incense packet and flower garland that are very common to see being sold everywhere, especially around temples.
photo credit 
The monks, draped in saffron robes carrying food from their walk in bags and a big wooden collection bowl across their body quietly walk along from their temples around the village. The most important part of the communion, besides maintaing the wellbeing of the monks feeding the monastery is for the Buddhist devotees to gain merit.  The hopes of many Buddhist people is to have good standing within the community and good luck and prosperity in their life. After giving their offering, the monk says a chant to the giver as they bow in a wai, beautiful Thai words of good luck and fortune in a song like form.



A few tips:

Take off your shoes when giving your donation. I asked why we did this and my friend explained to me that monks are held in the highest honor in Thai society, they are the only people that even the king has to wai. The monks live a simple existence and most do not wear shoes when walking on thier rounds. A couple did have old flip flops on but also took them off when receiving alms. (I think when the rules were made back in the day, they didn't have cars or glass all over the streets so I think the exception is acceptable.) You take off your shoes to show humility and that you are no better than the barefoot monk.
Women cannot touch the monk. The feminist in me hates this but I was still very cautious when giving the food to them, not to accidentally touch them or their alms bowls. Monks give up many worldly temptations including alcohol, driving and women. The women I saw giving to the monks all kneeled very low and did not look up at them. Even though I went with Thai men, I still stick out like a sour thumb with my blonde hair and white skin but none of the monks seemed to be phased or uncomfortable by my presence. Also make sure you dress modesly, covering your chest and ankles.
Bow down so your head is not higher than the monk. After you place the food into their collection bowls that they carry around their neck, bow down below the monks head and place your hands into a high wai (thumbs in front of your nose.) The head is a very important part of the body in Buddhism and touching a person's head or being higher than someone who is of importance, such as a boss or superior, the King or monks is disrespectful. Just bow a lot.
Give in odd numbers, as they are auspicious in Buddhism. I don't really know why but I gave 3 bags of food to three different monks and my two friends also gave 3, totaling 9 a very lucky number.

picture from interesting article about alms on thaiblogs.com
One thing I have learned about Buddhism while living in Thailand, is that it is just like any other organized religion, highly regarded and imperfect. Over time, ideals and customs are skewed and turn religion, which has good intentions, into something totally different. I won't go into a whole thing on religion here because it is too complex but I do not love all aspects of Buddhism like I thought I might. Just like other organized religions I have known in my life, the core principles are not always upheld in society. In theory, it is wonderful but people are not perfect and therefore nothing we create is either.

I'll explain the story of why I went to give alms soon, not quite ready to share it yet because it is an on-going situation, but it involves a soi dog and is very sad. 

Be well, Ellie
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8 comments:

  1. Interesting tips! I didn't know you had to remove your shoes, or that you had to give things in odd #s.

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  2. yeah i was also surprised. good to know though!

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  3. I never did this because I was scared I would mess it up. I loved watching others, though, on my early morning visa extension waits outside immigration.

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  4. yeah i always love seeing them on my way to work (i have to be there way too early) i was surprised how easy it was to do it, but i was a little nervous...

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  5. I wonder what the number significance is. I certainly did not know any of these customs for giving alms. It's good you had some locals to make sure you didn't accidentally touch a monk's hand or something!

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  6. Three - the Triple Gem: The Buddha, The Dhamma (teachings) and the Sangha (monks). Three sets of this is clearly very auspicious. Three is a recurring number through many major religions - the Christian Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Buddhist Triple Gem and the Hindu Trimurthi of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are a few better known examples. Three is a very strong number pschologically and spiritually.

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  7. thanks for explaining that! very interesting indeed...

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  8. mariposatree.wordpressOctober 25, 2012 at 12:34 AM

    Thanks for sharing. Making merit is a good thing. I gave alms for a potentially similar situation involving a cat. Sad indeed. As far as 9, it's the lucky number of Thailand. 9 pronounced gao, sounds like a step forward.

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