Alms in Minnesota

New Moon Uposatha Day, October 15, 2o12

I have three chapters left in “Through the Looking Glass” to finish (first draft):

  1. Tales of Burma
  2. The Four Requisites
  3. The American Monk

The following is from the last chapter.


From distant Minnesota I remembered U Pañña’s insistent admonition in Yangon,

“When you go back to America you should continue doing alms rounds.”

I recalled how resourceful he had been in implementing this advice himself when he lived in Nashville. I recalled that the very same alms bowl I used in his company was sitting on my shelf in Maplewood. But somehow I had trouble picturing myself seeking alms on County Road C. I pictured myself walking along the edge of the road, dumbfounding the inhabitants of cars as they flashed past and gaining little notice from the neighbors, all of whose houses stood well back from the road. What I pictured seemed hardly promising of receiving alms nor even of tangible human contact.

That is, unless I just happened to pass the right house at the right moment: Once while I was on a long walk a swift bicycle approached me from behind then  passed me carrying a dark-haired woman, who screeched to a halt, jumped off the bike, tossed it the side, dropped to the ground and bowed at my feet. It turned out she was from Laos, married to an American, had been washing dishes and had happened to glance up to spot the very last thing she had ever expected in Maplewood: a monk walking right by just like in the old country! She had dashed out the door, jumped on her daughter’s bicycle and hastened after me. Had I instead been walking by with alms bowl in hand at that moment I would undoubtedly have attained to some left-over waffles, some bear mush or better!

No, I had a plan in mind that left little to chance. This was inspired second-hand from a  American nun I had heard about who had started collecting alms in Colorado at a farmers’ market. This plan was brilliant: At such a place are found a wide variety of amiable people in a relaxed and interactive frame of mind, and with food close at hand ready to support the spontaneous whim to cast nordic inhibition aside and to participate in an ancient rite twice as old as the Vikings. I phoned the director of the farmers’ market in Maplewood and solicited permission to walk barefooted, bowl in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, past the booths.

I also invited the four monks from the local Karen monastery in St. Paul to join me and a few members of our community to bring some food to offer, to prime the pump that would slurp up other potential participants. The Karen monks, never expecting to go for alms in America and a bit apprehensive about the reaction they would invoke, suggested we forgo the normal monastic custom of cuing up according to ordination date and, much like novices or ducklings, line up according to height … tallest first.

We had a number of glitches. The Burmese recruited to prime the pump were too generous to provide a proper example to those ready to be slurped up into the process; they handed us what appeared to be grocery bags of food which made the row of monks appear to function as a kind of human shopping cart, and hardly in need of others’ generosity. Luckily in subsequent weeks fewer members of the Burmese community showed up, but then few of the shoppers had any idea why grown bald men in dresses were playing choo-choo in the middle of their shopping experience. And then the occasional shopper or merchant figured it out. An oriental woman who had not seen an alms round in many years had her grandson drop offering in each of our bowls. A vendor gave us little bottles of honey. We were week after week making slow headway when suddenly the very short Minnesota farmers’ market season came to a chilly end.

3 Responses to “Alms in Minnesota”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Jumping into the unknown is always fearful for me (I suspect many others) yet when I read the teachings I understand that there is nothing to be afraid of. The only thing that could take a hit is my ego, which is fine with me.
    Thank you Venerable One. K


  2. Burleigh Custis Says:

    I think U Pañña was 100% right. Until western monks can go on alms round here in the US and receive alms from western people, we cannot consider the Dhammavinaya to be truly planted on this soil.

    I confess I did get a good chuckle out of your paragraph describing how the Burmese monks opted to dispense with the Vinaya practice of order by seniority and order the alms line instead by height, which I assume put you, Bhante, first in line.



    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Thank you for your sentiment on the importance of alms rounds, which is poorly understood out here in the Wild West of Buddhism. Probably next week I will post the segment from my narration on alms rounds in Burma that may amplify this a bit. Actually alms rounds virtually died out in China because of social norms there but Buddhism managed to thrive anyway. However, this required other mechanisms for supporting monastics that were far more institutional and lost much of the wonderful intimacy of the alms round, which benefits both layperson and monastic in a very immediate way.


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