Adapted from my autobio for publication in our monastery newsletter.
When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Awakening, he continued his rounds in the streets of Kapilavatthu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life and, even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For the alms round was not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns but also to give layfolks the opportunity to make merit and learn Dhamma as the Sangha, dignified and mindful, passes silently from house to house to receive offerings, and also to promote the growth of the Sāsana. Ashin Dr. Paññasīha of the Sitagu center in Yangon takes this ancient obligation quite seriously and I used to join him in this remarkable practice, crossing over Bailey Bridge, down some stairs, past a small Burmese version of a strip mall (about five tiny abutting shops), across another busy road and into a small neighborhood of many closely packed dwellings and muddy alleys trafficked by bicycles, pedestrians and chickens and beslumbered by lazy mutts.
Once, as my departure from the Land of Pagodas neared, U Paññasīha admonished me, “When you go back to America you should continue alms rounds.”
“I don’t think you can do alms rounds in the States,” I replied, “Nobody will know what I am doing.”
“I did,” he responded.
Indeed, he had lived in America for one and a half years where he had attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He explained how he had been determined to walk for alms no matter where he lived, how he had printed up fliers and distributed them through his neighborhood in anticipation of people’s bewilderedness, and how he ended up with many American students eager to learn Buddhism.
“In a lot of places in America, including Austin,” I objected, “I could be arrested for ‘begging’!”
“I wouldn’t have minded getting arrested,” he retorted, “I would teach Buddhism in jail.”
Whew, this venerable argued an awfully strong case.
Within thirteen days of my arrival back in Austin, I found myself living for seven months at the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara near St. Paul, Minnesotta, a northern land peopled primarily by tall lumbering Vikings under baseball caps, fair of skin, hair and eyes, just like me (for I am also of tall lumbering nordic descent), but without the robes. Although my old alms bowl stood on my shelf to remind me of Ashin Paññasīha’s alms admonition, I had trouble picturing myself seeking alms on County Road C, walking along the edge of the road, dumbfounding the occupants of cars as they flashed past, gaining little notice from the neighbors (undoubtedly Lutheran Protestants), all of whose houses stood well back from the roadway. What I pictured seemed hardly promising of alms, nor even of significant human contact.
That is, unless I just happened to pass the right house at the right moment: Once, while on my long daily walk, a swift bicycle passed me from behind then screeched to a halt, ejecting a dark-haired woman who, with a sidewards toss of the bike, dropped to the ground and bowed at my feet. She was, as she explained, from Laos and was now married to an American. As she had been washing dishes in her kitchen, she happened to glance up to see the very last thing walk by that she had ever expected in rural Minnesota. She 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, I would certainly have attained to left-over waffles, bear mush or even better!
But no, I had by this time fastened on an alms plan that would leave little to chance. This was inspired by an American nun (named Ayya Thanasanti, and now a bhikkhuni), who, according to my sources, had started collecting alms in Colorado. Brilliantly, she performed her alms round at a farmer’s market! A farmer’s market provides the ideal set of circumstances under which even Nordic inhibition might be set aside in favor of an ancient rite that is over twice as old as Viking plunder: a wide variety of amiable people in a relaxed and interactive frame of mind, and food close at hand, available for purchase on a whim. I phoned the director of the nearest farmers’ market and easily obtained permission to walk barefoot, bowl in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, along the bustling row of 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 then suck up broader participation. The Karen monks, never having expected to go for alms in America, a bit apprehensive about the response they might invoke, and of less than Nordic stature, suggested we forgo the normal monastic custom of queuing up according to ordination date (for mine would be most recent) and, much like novices or ducklings, line up according to height … tallest first.
We had a number of glitches at first. The Burmese recruited to prime the pump were, as I should have anticipated, far too generous to provide a reasonable example for emulation, for they handed us what appeared to be entire grocery bags of food, which gave the row of monks the appearance of a kind of human shopping cart, already brimming and hardly in need of still further alms. Luckily, in subsequent weeks, with decreasing numbers of the Burmese community showing up, brim became less of an issue. Although many of the shoppers must still have wondered why grown bald men in dresses were playing choo-choo in the middle of their shopping experience, week after week more shoppers and vendors caught on. Once an apparent immigrant from Southwest Asia, who presumably had not seen an alms round in many years, was thrilled to be able to explain to her lanky grandson how to drop an offering into each of our bowls. Once a vendor gave each of us a little bottle of honey. Our alms practice finally ended with the end of the farmers’ market season as the chill of the northern winter approached.
Back in Austin, a small group of Burmese families has been considering purchasing and subdividing a lot adjacent to the monastery to build five houses. This would constitute a small village into which the Sitagu Sangha might venture, barefoot, bowls in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, along a short row of houses, to attain to rice, curry and more.