Feeding the Monks

The Traditional Alms Round. The alms round was, for the Buddha, a key feature of the monastic life and the alms bowl is, for all Buddhists, a symbol of the monastic order. The Pali word for alms round is pindapata, which colorfully means “dropping a lump,” 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 walk single-file according to seniority, that is, ordination date. The robes are arranged formally, covering both shoulders. The monks walk barefooted into a village and then from house to house, not favoring rich or poor neighborhoods, accepting, but not requesting, what is freely donated, that is, dropped into one’s bowl. Everything dropped into the bowl, according to 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, just as their stomach’s will not a few seconds later. Carrying the ancient tradition into the modern context can result in some rather unique blends, for instance, curry and cake,  shrimp and mangoes. 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 except in an emergency,  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.

There are a lot of rules for monks around eating. Foods must be offered by hand from a layperson, though monks who have received food can 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, except to return them to a layperson. Filtered fruit juices may be offered and consumed after noon, until dawn the next day.  “Tonics” (sugar/molasses, honey, butter and a couple of other things) may be consumed any time and saved up to seven days after being offered. Medicines can be kept forever.

Some Variations. Almost universally the bowl in Theravada lands is larger than most appetites, since it also serves as a kind of suitcase for mendicant forest monks, and is often used to collect alms for more than one monk, for instance, if another monk is too sick to go on alms rounds. The bowl will also have 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 all of the offerings just go in the big bowl. The lid turned upside down allow a two-way separation: 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 (some non-food items are also occasionally offered). One custom in Burma is to carry little containers within the main bowl to separate the different kinds of sauces, beans, cooked vegetables and such.

The kind of interaction the monk has with lay folks can also vary. Some monks will simply pass silently from house to house, receive offerings silently and move on silently. 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.  Most lay people will make prostrations and often offer tea for immediate consumption to monks who linger a while.

Accepting Alms in Large Monastery. The traditional alms round, whereby monks walk from house to house, does not work so well for a large monastery, for instance, monastic universities, with many monks and no substantial village in the immediate vicinity. In such cases individual lay people will often come to the monastery to make large but occasional offerings, and also local staff will prepare food on behalf of lay donors, at least cook the rice. But often the form of the alms round is retained. At Pa Auk Tawya in Burma there is a special building called Pindapata (Drop-a-Lump) Hall constructed with this in mind. The monk walks with his bowl and with his robes formally arranged through a gauntlet of people offering food. The first generally offers rice and the others various curries and vegetables which go into the same bowl, or fruits and other items that can be accepted into the inverted lid of the bowl.

Family-Style Eating. Many monasteries and homes at which food is made available at the place of consumption 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 and silverware or chopsticks are used for eating. This is a common practice at academic monasteries, including those in the Sitagu system, and  seems to be the norm in Myanmar when monks are invited into homes for meals. In Myanmar many monks still eat with their fingers rather than with Western eating implements.

Generally lay people will not sit at the table with monks but will begin their meal afterwards, eating what the hungry monks have left and supplementing it as necessary with other food that has been prepared. Sometimes the monastic and lay meals will overlap, but almost always at separate tables.

In family-style service it is important to offer the food items clearly lest a confused monk take what is not freely given. Since the food items may be shared by the monks, each item can be accepted by a single  monk. That monk is implicitly assumed to be willing to share with all other monks. The clever Burmese will typically make things easy by offering a whole table of food at once as if it were a giant dish. To do this generally requires at least two lay people to physically lift the whole table and at least one monk to receive the whole table by grabbing onto the edge. Because lay people are so eager to give, generally all of the lay people present will help lift the table. Only one monk has to touch the table for it to be considered offered, but generally all of them will accept the table because it is so much fun.

One interesting even more clever variant of the whole table offering that I have seen in Myanmar is use 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 are finished, some lay people will lift table A up over the heads of the monks and into the midst of waiting laypeople already configured around an imaginary table, then place table B where table A had been. Then the laypeople can begin the main course as the monks begin the second.

Receiving and Accepting Alms as Practice. The Buddha has a lot to say about alms rounds in the Vinaya, the Guide to monastic discipline,. It is not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns; it had a much greater role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay.

The alms round is an monastic obligation. Even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For instance, when the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Enlightenment, he continued his alms rounds in the streets of Kapilavattu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. Of course he could have been enjoying sumptuous meals with no expenditure of time and effort, but chose not to. Furthermore, the Buddha is known to have criticized one of his disciples, an arahat who could meditate for seven days at a stretch without food, for neglecting his daily alms rounds in favor of meditation. Moreover, the Buddha did not permit monastics to grow, cook or even store food, but to eat only what was duly offered from a lay hand on a daily basis, locking them into strict dependence. Burmese monks, both in Myanmar and in America often make themselves available to receive offerings at great inconvenience, for instance being driven from Austin to Waco (an hour and a half each way) or Dallas (over three hours) to accept a lunch invitation.

Benefits for monks. The tradition of feeding monks puts monks in an absolute and vulnerable state of dependence on the laity. Why is this desirable? The development of humility is certainly a part of it; the lay folks have the key to the car and the nuns and monks don’t go anywhere without them. Accepting the generosity of the lay graciously, having no resources at all of one’s own, even one’s robes, that are not donated, puts the monastic in an uncommon frame of reference, but also does the same for the lay donor. The receipt of offerings also sets the bar very high for monastic practice. The monk quickly realizes that the offerings and the respect bestowed upon monks does not result from an individual assessment of the particular monk’s qualities; they are given in a non-judgmental fashion. This means that it is the Sangha that is the real recipient, the offerings are made out of respect for the present and historical monastic community. This leaves the assessment of the individual monastic up to the individual monastic, who must ask, “Am I upholding the reputation of the Sangha,” or “Am I myself worthy of this offering.” The respect is a container and the monk is obligated to fill it.

Naturally the alms round gives the monk a connection to the lives of the laity, so that their practice is not in a monastic bubble. In Myanmar I appreciated the opportunity to see how people live. People are generally poor by any American standard. Houses are for the most part leaky shacks with plank walls, almost on top of each other, small alleys in between, electricity but no other amenities. But I don’t get the sense that most people think of themselves as poor or deprived; they live with a sense of dignity. And every act of generosity toward monks reminds them that they have wealth to share.

Benefits for the laity. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts the lay donor receives a gift. This is paradoxical, but believe me, you see the sugar plums dancing in their eyes. The relationship is unlike what one finds in conventional human intercourse. This is the economy of gifts that provides the context of the most fundamental Buddhist value and practice, those of dana. The benefits are greatest when donations are personalized, when they come through one’s own hands rather than through a delegate. For instance, a wealthy donor may choose to donate a meal to an entire monastary. If possible he or she will be present for the meal, will make all the formal gestures of respect to the monastics and will help to serve, maybe additionally overseeing the process of serving. Special occasions are often marked by making a donation to a monastery or by inviting a group of monks to one’s home for a meal. These include both happy occasions, such as birthdays, reversing the direction of gift-giving more commonly recognized in the West, or such as times of grief, in which gift-giving seems to have a particularly therapeutic value.

What the layperson can offer monks is limited by what they can accept. Monks cannot accumulate many goods, they generally should not accept abundant robes or any money, nor any luxury items. Monks are also supposed to practice nondiscrimination of quality or fineness, of not being caught up in sensual pleasure. But 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. Laypeople then love to gather around and watch the monk or monks eat. To the monk it is a bit like feeding time at the zoo, on the other side of the bars.

20 Responses to “Feeding the Monks”

  1. Marcy Brundage Says:

    Thanks this made for interesting reading. I want your wordpress theme!

  2. Weekly Alms Rounds « Sitagu Buddhadhamma Vihara Says:

    […] In spite of its simplicity the purpose of the alms round is easier to experience than to describe. It is a practice in humility and generosity. It is not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns; it has a much greater role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay. Contrary to common belief, it does not involve begging, since monks are not generally allowed to actually ask for anything. Rather it is a ritual in which monks offer the opportunity to donate to anyone who chooses to participate. As you also might know Buddhist monks receive everything as a gift and cannot accumulate wealth; they also do not eat after noon. they live entirely in an economy of generosity. In this context the opportunity for lay people to offer food is experienced a gift to themselves, one that produces remarkable joy and brings out the purest values of the human mind in a public ritual. More information, with pictures, is available by following this link: https://bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com/home/monastic-life/feeding-the-monks/ […]

  3. Mahendra Says:

    Thank you Bhante for a detailed article. I have a question: Do Monks have to accept everything (including meat, fish, non-vegetarian) and eat it? Or can they inform donors that they are vegetarians? Many thanks and with Metta, Mahendra

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I just noticed I never replied to your comment over a year ago. Some monks are vegetarians and some are not. This is generally not a matter of personal preference but in differing interpretations of the regulations around eating meat. But it gets complicated for the laity. Since you have been to our monastery since writing this comment so many months ago you know that within that context most people know I am a vegetarian through word-of-mouth. (I am answering your comment for the rest of the world, who has also certainly been eagerly awaiting my reply.)

  4. Gerry Says:

    I wonder why fit and healthy men have to beg for food instead of being self sufficient? Yes I know the story is that it allows others to obtain “merit” through the act of feeding them. However, the world is full of starving people, and there are a million other ways to obtain “merit”
    Six Million children die of starvation each year because of poverty!! Where is the “merit” in letting these Children die, while the healthy and capable beg for food every day?

    Write a comment…

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      It is the idea of self-sufficiency that encourages poverty, it is miserliness. The alms system breaks these up by creating an economic relationship that depends not on greed, as the exchange economy does, but on generosity, on a different kind of mindset. I was struck in Myanmar how much the visible signs of poverty were absent. You barely see homelessness. People take care of each other. It is a quality of mind that once let loose tends to flow into all of their relations. The only people who don’t like this system are the accountants.

  5. uktiger Says:

    Dear bhikkhucintita (please excuse me if my mode of addressing you is incorrect),

    I find it really hard to accept your reasoning that self sufficiency encourages poverty. After all, those who donate food to monks
    need to be self sufficient in order to provide funds for that food. Is that not true?
    Additionally, earning money that can be donated to help the less fortunate can surely not be described as a “miserly” ?
    Of course I am not saying that this is everyones’ intention, far from it, but simply that I don’t think you can label everyone that is self sufficient as “miserly” or set on creating poverty.
    Good intent, compassion and love come from the heart, and are not negated by self sufficiency, but in fact can be aided by it to do good!

    In my experience the unfortunate thing about alms giving, as applied to monks, is that there is no control on quantity. I was saddened during my stay in Luang Prabang, Laos, to
    see that after mid day, in numerous Monasterys’, there were many plates piled high with unwanted rice etc. left out for the birds and animals to consume.
    This I found particularly upsetting given the world starvation statistics shown in web reference http://www.statisticbrain.com/world-hunger-statistics/
    (15 million children die of starvation every year).

    I live in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, and have several Burmese friends most of whom are refugees, of which there are thousands here, and thousands more in the surrounding Countries!
    I have also visited Myanmar on two occasions so have a reasonable feel for the situation in that Country.
    I’m not sure where you travelled, but I can only tell you that there is extreme poverty there, which is in no way helped by the military government. Additionally there are at least 3 civil wars raging at the moment, one sadly between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims on the Western border with Bangladesh
    You may care to investigate on the web, ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_conflict_in_Burma and also http://aldersledge.blogspot.com/2013/01/till-our-eyes-bleed-and-our-throats-dry.html?spref=fb).

    I was somewhat disappointed that you did not directly answer my question which was/is…… “15 million children die of starvation each year because of poverty!!
    Where is the “merit” in letting these Children die, while the healthy and capable beg for food every day?”
    I just wonder if is it your belief that these children must have committed some evil acts in a previous life and therefore it is their Karma to die this way?

    Finally I wish to stress that it is by no means my intention to denigrate the Buddhist beliefs and culture.
    By expressing my thoughts and questions I simply hope to gain a better understanding of a religion for which, I have great respect.

    Gerry Long

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I find it really hard to accept your reasoning that self sufficiency encourages poverty. After all, those who donate food to monks
      need to be self sufficient in order to provide funds for that food. Is that not true?
      Additionally, earning money that can be donated to help the less fortunate can surely not be described as a “miserly” ?

      The point is that no one is really self-sufficient. It is a delusion people have. It is the delusion of self-suffiency that leads to miserliness, to the attitude that this is “mine,” I earned it.

      In my experience the unfortunate thing about alms giving, as applied to monks, is that there is no control on quantity. I was saddened during my stay in Luang Prabang, Laos, to
      see that after mid day, in numerous Monasterys’, there were many plates piled high with unwanted rice etc. left out for the birds and animals to consume.
      This I found particularly upsetting given the world starvation statistics shown in web reference http://www.statisticbrain.com/world-hunger-statistics/
      (15 million children die of starvation every year).

      This saddens me too. You should see how much food people waste in my country. It saddens me that giving to the Sangha ends up being a condition for waste. I think people’s priorities are all wrong; there should be more merit in feeling someone who actually needs it. (The Sangha needs it, just not so much.) This problem is similar to that of Catholic Church, say in Central America, where poverty is high and yet people are contributing to building marvellous gilded Cathedrals. At the same time this kind of giving is a source of great joy to the devout. Monastics have an implicit obligation to accept what is offered graciously. You learn this quickly when you see the disappointment in people’s eyes when you turn something down. There is a rule in the monastic code that monks are not supposed to give their offerings away to other beggars. I think the idea was that the food comes from the lay community and the monks do not have the right to reallocate it. Perhaps this made sense in the Buddha’s day, but I personally think the rule should be revisited; it would make sense to pass on leftovers to the poor.

      I never said there is no merit in not feeding the poor. There is great merit in it. There is indeed great poverty in Burma, and yet there is much more generosity directed toward taking care of the poor in Burma than in most other countries. I was amazed to see that there are many more outward signs of poverty in the USA, such as homelessness and begging, than there is in Burma. I think it comes from being a culture of generosity. I think this is primed by feeding the monks but also people develop a sense of the merit in helping the less fortunate.

      And no, I do not believe people are born into poverty through previous karma. We live in a global economy that distributes wealth unequally, unfairly, with disregard of one’s personal merit. It is sustained by the delusion that “what I get I have earned because I am self-sufficient.”

  6. jemma Says:

    Well I have to agree with everything you guys are saying.

  7. Rosie Pigot Says:

    Thanks so much for this article. A nun and her friend are coming to stay with me for a week-end in November and I found this very helpful in terms of offering food. I was, and still am a little anxious about how to serve their meals.

  8. suresh yadav Says:

    If my memory serves me correctly, the Buddha stipulated alms mendicant in order for the lay community to have contact with the Sangha?

    The Sangha can very easily build their own community and grow their own crops, their needs are very few so it wouldnt take much to leave us lay people out of contact of them.

    This is certainly not what i want, and certainly not what the world needs. I am very glad to have unhindered access to the Sangha, the third jewel as often as possible (paying mind to their training schedule/retreat time) in order to receive the true transmission of the dhamma and the buddha’s life/practice. The sangha are the ultimate display of excellence for the world.

    Yes i agree there is poverty in the world which needs our attention, The needy require help from those better off than them, if you can afford to help alleviate these problems financially or voluntarily please do so that in itself is also merit.

    It doesnt mean you can’t also provide for the Sangha and help yourself/them/the world/the next generations too by keeping the Sangha and our relationship with them alive.

    With all due respect and with no wish to offend anyone in any way, may all beings abide in well being forever, be free from suffering and may we all attain nibbana in short time.

    With Metta for all.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Suresh, I think your understanding is correct. It is clear that the Buddha wanted daily contact between the monastics and lay folks and that the alms round was the chosen vehicle for this. He also wanted there to be a strict dependence of the monastics on lay generosity, by prohibiting the monastics from taking care of themselves, even prohibiting them from saving offered food until the next day.

  9. Lindsay Says:

    I am very new to studying the Buddhist religion and plan to visit a small, local temple (North Carolina USA) soon. I was hoping since you frequent the US you could give me some advice on what and how to
    make an offering on my visit? I am female so I am nervous about how to go about it properly and with respect to all Thank you so much for this article and any advice.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Probably on first encounter you will make mistakes. But that doesn’t matter; the monks know they are dealing with a foreign culture. Watch the lay people at the temple and see how they behave. Talk to some of them and ask questions; they are likely to speak better English than the monks. You can also read our rules of etiquette here, which is typical for Burmese behavior. I guess the main pitfall to avoid is not to hug monks (men should also not hug nuns).
      I hope this helps.

      • Lindsay Says:

        This helps very much. Much gratitude to you for taking the time to read and reply. I will read the rules of etiquette as well. 🙏

  10. iamchefkid Says:

    I am studying Monks at school and was wondering what the lay people receive from the Monks in exchange for the sumptuous meal

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Good question. Primarily monks teach the wisdom of the Buddha and inspire others in living according to Buddhist principles. Monks are also often involved in various social services, from founding and running schools and orphanages to organizing disaster relief efforts, or promoting inter-religious understanding. They provide comfort to the lay community from pastoral care to various ritual services. Think of all of the things a Christian minister might do for other people. Monks do roughly the same kinds of things. But whereas the Christian minister receives a substantial salary, perhaps enough to put his kids through college, the monk receives no salary, just the sumptuous meal and similar material requisites. Buddhist lay people get the world’s cheapest clergy.

  11. iamchefkid Says:

    Thank you for your response. This information will help me very much on my studying.

  12. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Good luck!

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