Burmese Alms Rounds

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, October 23, 2012

Another excerpt from my bio narrative:

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Enlightenment, he continued his alms rounds in the streets of Kapilavastu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life. Even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. He once criticized one of his disciples, an arahat no less who could meditate for seven days at a stretch without food, for neglecting his daily alms rounds. For the Buddha the alms round was not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns: it had a social role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay.

The Pali word for alms round is piṇḍapāta, which means “drop a lump,” rhyming with “heffalump.” and describing the process whereby food accumulates in the alms bowl. The tradition is that monks or nuns leave the monastery, or wherever they are dwelling (most ideally, the root of a tree or a cemetery), either singly or in a group. As a group they typically walk single-file according to seniority, that is, according to ordination date. The robes are arranged formally, covering both shoulders as described above. The monks walk barefooted into a village and then from house to house, not favoring rich nor poor neighborhoods, accepting, but not requesting, what is freely donated, that is, dropped as a lump into one’s bowl.

Everything dropped into the bowl, according to the most ancient tradition, is simply mixed together, since monks are asked not to favor one food over another, and by extension should not favor one blend of foods over another; their stomachs will just blend them in any case. Carrying the ancient tradition into the modern context can result in some rather unique blends, for instance, curry and cake, beans and tofu, tomato sauce and noodles, radish and yogurt. It is fun to speculate how much of today’s haute cuisine may have first arisen as a chance combination in the primordial ooze at the bottom of some ancient monk’s alms bowl.

There are a lot of rules for monks around eating. Foods must be offered by hand from a layperson, though a monks who has received food can thereafter share or trade offerings with other monks. Most foods must be consumed by noon the day they are offered, so cannot be saved for a snack or for the next day’s meal. Filtered fruit juices may be offered and consumed after noon, until dawn the next day. “Tonics” (sugar/molasses, honey, butter, oil and a couple of other things that characteristically no one would mindlessly sit around snacking on in large quantity) may be consumed any time by the hungry monk desirous of not fainting for hunger and may be saved up to seven days after being offered. Monastics are instructed not to endear themselves to the lay with the intention of improving their intake during alms rounds, not to ask for anything directly, not to express thanks for donations received, and to receive without establishing eye contact. This ritualized behavior can be seen every day in virtually any village or city in Burma.

The point of alms round is not just to feed the monks and nuns nor to offer the joy of generosity. It is also to bring monastics into daily contact with lay folks so that the latter will have the opportunity to learn Dhamma from the former, not only from the example of their dignified quiet and mindful presence, but at laity request from actual words of inspiration or instruction. Accordingly some monks will simply pass silently from house to house to receive offerings, while others will speak with the lay folks and invite questions concerning Dhamma or will simply make a habit of offering a short discourse at each house.

Ashin Paññasīha, in his mid-thirties, resident of the Sitagu Center in Rangoon, personal assistant to Sitagu Sayadaw in his good works, scholar with a doctorate, had gained a reputation as a teaching monk, sometimes lecturing to large audiences. He left the Sitagu center in Rangoon each day around 9am to go on alms round, and offers what he had collected an hour and a half later to the Sitagu kitchen, where meals are prepared to obviate the necessity of such alms rounds for the other monks that they may have sufficient time for their studies. U Pañña did this because this is what the Buddha wanted monks and nuns to do and because it gives him the opportunity to teach at the houses he visits upon request.

I moved down to the Sitagu Center in Rangoon at Sitagu Sayadaw’s suggestion so that I could learn what Ashin Paññasīha knew; mostly we focused on Pali language. But shortly after my arrival he asked me if I would like to go with him for alms, so we began going together, in formal robes, single file, silently, mindfully, alms bowls slung over our shoulders held in front but concealed under our robes, eyes fixed on the road before our feet, never glancing around, over Bailey Bridge, which carries a mixture of vehicles in both directions with an emphasis on old grossly overloaded buses, down some stairs, past a small Burmese version of a strip mall (about five little shops right next to one another), across another busy road and into a small neighborhood with many closely packed dwellings squeezing in on muddy alleys trafficked by bicycles, feet and chickens and beslumbered by lazy mongrels.

U Pañña had been following the same route in this neighborhood, visiting the same families each day. In Sagaing a monk would receive offerings from every house he passed, in the big city he would learn which families were prepared to offer and which were not. U Pañña had developed an intimate relationship with some particularly devout families that liked to learn of bit of Dhamma each morning. At most houses we were welcomed to enter and sit down in chairs waiting for us rather than receiving offerings out on the street, would receive rice and curry either in our bowls directly or by yielding our bowls to see them disappear into the interior of the house then return still closed but magically alms-enhanced. We would receive from everyone present three prostrated bows and if a Dharma discussion or just a chat was in order they would sit on the floor at our feet, often with hands raised in anjali the whole time. A young woman who would be a nun except for her obligation to care for her mother always had a burning question and many follow-up questions and even took notes with paper and pencil. Women traditionally placed a shawl over their right shoulder while talking to monks, the end of which they would spread on the floor to receive their foreheads when doing prostrations. Men never used shawls.

In the early days everyone was very curious about me, asking me, through U Pañña’s able interpretation:

“Are you a temporary or a permanent monk?”

“Can you speak any Burmese?”

“Is your family Buddhist?”

“Are your children now Buddhist?”

“Why did you become a monk?”

And of course, “How old are you?”

I got used to hearing the phrase “ameyikan phongyi” when the conversation reverted to Burmese in reference to myself. “Phon phon” was usually the vocative form for either of us. Sometimes adults would parade little children before me to practice the English they were learning in school:

“Hello. How are you?”

“I am fine. How are you?”

“I am fine.”

“Bye bye.”

“Bye bye.”

One of the children sometimes referred to me as the “bye bye phon phon.”

I quickly came to appreciate the alms round. It makes a wonderfully formal mindfulness practice as the monk walks silently with lowered eyes from house to house. It gives the monk an intimate connection to the lives of the laity and the laity a similar connection to that of the monk, presumably just as the Buddha intended. This keeps the monk from disappearing into a monastic bubble, or rather lets the laity come in to share it. The laity exhibit an awe-like respect for the monks and yet at the same time an affectionate familiarity. I know of no counterpart for this blend in my own culture.

I appreciated the opportunity to see how people live, generally very poor by any American standard, houses for the most part leaky shacks almost on top of each other with plank walls and light visible between the planks, intermittent electric power passing through funky wires. At the same time there was no sense of deprivation; they lived with a sense of dignity and in intimacy with their neighbors. Every act of generosity toward monks reminded them that they have wealth to share. Most of the families had cats, sometimes several, living inside, dogs relegated to the no-man’s land of the streets. One family had two pet rabbits, a white one and a brown which they had named “Obama.”

U Pañña once admonished me, “When you go back to America you should continue doing alms rounds.”

“I don’t think you can do alms rounds in the States. Nobody will know what I am doing.”

“I did.”

Indeed, U Pañña had lived in America for one and a half years where he had attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He explained he had been determined to walk for alms no matter where he lived because of the Buddha’s injunction. He described how he had printed up fliers and distributed them through his neighborhood to head off people’s bewilderedness, and how he ended up with about seventy new students of Buddhism. He has a very captivating smile.

“In a lot of places in America, including Austin, I could be arrested for ‘begging’!”

“I wouldn’t have minded getting arrested. I could teach Buddhism in jail.”

Whew: U Pañña argued an awfully strong case.

The bowl itself is the symbol of the monk. The bowl in Theravada lands it is shockingly large, far larger than most appetites, but this allows it to serve as a kind of suitcase for mendicant forest monks, or to be used to collect alms for more than one monk, for instance, if another monk is too sick to go on alms rounds. The bowl has a strap, which is slung over the right shoulder to carry the weight of the bowl when walking, and a lid. The lid was added sometime after the Buddha; I can imagine two scenarios that might have motivated this originally, both involving birds.

There seem to be many variations in alms paraphernalia that have to do with the issue of mixing foods. For purists and traditionalists all of the offerings just go in the big bowl. However, the lid turned upside down allows foods and other offerings to be apportioned: The bhikkhu can collect noodles, sauces, beans, cooked vegetables into the big bowl, but turn the lid upside down to form a tray to receive whatever might be difficult to imagine as part of the stew accumulating in the big bowl: mango slices, cookies, soap, razor blades, candles (notice that some non-food items are also occasionally offered). One custom in Burma, which U Pañña had been observing and which I followed after a generous donation, is to carry little containers within the main bowl to separate the different kinds of sauces, beans, cooked vegetables and such.

The traditional alms round, whereby monks walk from house to house, does not work so well for a large monastery such as a monastic university because so many monks taking to the street would overwhelm the local community. In such cases the monastery must depend on a widely spread base of donors. Sometimes individual families travel from afar to make occasional offerings to the entire monastery. Sometimes the local lay staff of the monastery prepares food on behalf of lay donors who send financial contributions. Most generally a combination of these two strategies prevails, with the local staff at least cooking the daily rice. Outside donors generally wear their fanciest cloths, and bring cameras in order to pose over the feeding monks, generally bring particularly sumptuous delights and want to be involved in every step of the preparation and offering process. The resulting overstaffing of the kitchen for donor meals invariably leads to turmoil and confusion, such that meals take longer to serve.

Nevertheless even in large monasteries the traditional form of the alms round may be retained. Such is the case at Pa Auk Tawya in Burma, which feeds around 400 monks daily in a dedicated building called Piṇḍapāta (Drop-a-Lump) Hall constructed with this in mind. The monk walks with his bowl and with his robes formally as if entering a village, but instead encounters a gauntlet of people all offering food in one place. The first generally offers rice and the others various curries and vegetables which go into the same bowl and fruits and other items which can be accepted into the inverted lid of the bowl.

Many other monasteries, including the Sitagu monasteries, forgo the traditional form of the alms round in favor of offering food “family-style” at a table in dishes from which the monks can help themselves. Generally conventional plates and bowls are used for eating and silverware or chopsticks, though most Burmese monks eat with their fingers rather than with Western or East Asian eating implements, as in India.

A third alternative to village alms rounds and food offerings at the monastery is the food offering in a private home. As far as I know this always fits into the “family-style” model of monastic food acquisition. The greatest difference between monastery and home dining is the ratio of monks to laity. Generally if a family invites monks over, they also invite zillions of neighbors and friends, the more monks the more zillions. At this point the pet-like nature of monkhood becomes more like feeding time in the zoo.

In family-style service it is important to offer the food items clearly lest a confused monk take what is not freely given. Though each item must be touched by only one monk, the clever Burmese will typically make things easy by offering a whole table of food at once as if it were one giant dish. Because lay people are so eager to give, generally a flash mob forms around the table; if someone cannot reach the table through the human mass, they have only to touch someone who can table and that counts. Afterwards people hover around the table ready and waiting for a monk to need something; a mere movement of the hand toward a dish of curry or the touch of a teacup evokes immediate intervention. And those who see no obvious clues imagine future needs: “It is just possible that monk will be desirous of a paper napkin; I’ll move the napkins closer to him.” When multiple people are applying their imaginations in this way, items on the table begin shifting around like the pieces on a board game.

Burmese lay people will not sit at the same table with monks and will generally eat what the monks have left behind, supplementing it as necessary with other food that has been prepared. Monks need to finish eating before noon; lay folks can linger. Sometimes the monastic and lay meals will overlap, but in that case always at separate tables.

One interesting clever variant of the lifting the whole table as a formal offering that I have once say in Myanmar was the use of two tables, table A for the main course and table B for desserts, fruit and coffee or tea. When the monks sitting on the floor around table A had finished the main course, two men each reached between adjacent monks at opposite sites to lift table A up clear over the heads of the monks and then right into the midst of waiting hungry laypeople already configured around an imaginary table. The men then placed table B, which had stood to the side, into the midst of the monks right where table A had been. That way the laypeople began the main course just as the monks begin the second.

Food offers the laypeople a kind of loophole through which they are free to arouse sensual desire in the monks, a loophole that is often exploited by those rascals through offering sumptuous and costly dishes to test the resolve of even the most well-intentioned monks. So don’t be surprised when monastics, those renunciates of sensual pleasures, express dismaying enthusiasm for food or even start to get chubby. What’s more, lay people here, who take as great an interest in doing things for monks as you do in the welfare of your cat, recognize this one channel as a way to please monks while ingratiating themselves, so they like to excite monastic passions even more through the culinary arts. This is probably better for lay practice than for monastic practice, but it sure can be yummy.

4 Responses to “Burmese Alms Rounds”

  1. findouting Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    Love this! I guess mindfulness is also about appreciating the variety and humour of life. And I don’t know why people feel monasticism has to do with not enjoying life when there is so much fun involved… Makes me want to go to Burma and be a temp monastic just to experience this….. But what is a temporary monk?

    With a bow,



  2. dean Says:

    Ahahaha! What a NICE yummy story. Thank you for sharing Bhante! 🙂


  3. http://yahoo.com Says:

    I actually want to know why you titled this particular blog, “Burmese Alms
    Rounds Through the Looking Glass”. Either
    way I really admired the blog!Thanks a lot-Stan


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