The Art of Giving Alms
Bleary eyed early risers out for a morning stroll and extreme night owls with glassy eyes staggering homeward as the sun rises swear they’ve seen shadowy figures treading silently along Pattaya’s sleepy sois and sais (alleys and streets). Others of a more pious nature anxiously await the arrival of the specter like beings as they noiselessly emerge from the shadows of the pre-dawn darkness. The rest of us have also wittingly or unwittingly witnessed these entities whilst engrossed in other business during our tenure in the Land of Smiles.
From whence they came and to where they go is not known by most non-natives who’ve only spied them from afar. Those in the know however, are well aware of the place of their origin and of the ultimate destination of their daybreak pilgrimage. Those who’ve had more than a glimpse of these first light apparitions, without fail, all state that they are shoeless, saffron clad life forms that walk erect with heads that have been shorn of hair and sometimes eyebrows. Intrepid souls who‘ve lingered longer in their presence, further report that some amongst them carry an object similar in size to that of a severed human head within the folds of their voluminous robes. Eyewitness accounts clearly state that they silently glide up to a kneeling supplicant who waits patiently by the roadside. Some sort of offering is then placed into an object intended for such, which is tucked under the arm of one of the younger beings. The supplicant then calmly places his or her palms together and bows as if begging for mercy. This pose is rigidly maintained until the individual who accepted the endowment nods a shaven pate showing either respect or approval of the bounty received. Within seconds of the head bob, the robed figure’s collective attention is then focused elsewhere and the group, moving in single file, silently slips back into the early morning shadows in search of the next offering.
The above is not some arcane ritual that only takes place in a Hollywood thriller. It is in fact a spiritual and much cherished tradition that occurs during the hours of approximately 5:30 and 8:00 am on a daily basis here in Pattaya and in every other city within the Kingdom of Thailand. The Thais refer to this custom as Gaan Hâi Taan, which roughly translates into “giving alms in charity”. The entities, to which the alms are bestowed, are neither zombies nor alien creatures from another world. They are in fact, Buddhist monks wrapped in saffron colored cloth, whose journey both begins and terminates at the nearest Wat, which is the Thai word for a
Lord Buddha teaches that every monk must show humility and have a disinterest in worldly goods. In addition to obvious possessions such as a luxury automobile or an iPhone, the meaning of worldly goods as it applies to a Buddhist monk also extends to more mundane objects such as cooking utensils and surprisingly, edible matter! In fact, the Bàat Prá or monk’s alms bowl is the only kitchen appliance that a Buddhist monk is allowed to possess. Due to their dearth of physical assets, Thai monks traditionally go on a daily alms round near the temple in which they inhabit or in the proximity of the tree or cave in which they may reside in the case of a forest monk. Having neither the ability to cook or otherwise prepare food, nor the means with which to shop for groceries, Buddhist monks rely on the local community for all of their edible and drinkable needs except for that of drinking water. Therefore, early in the morning, usually when it is still dark, either singly or in a group, the monks slow walk the sois on which the Buddhist faithful wait in front of both home and shop.
In single file, with their robes draped in a manner that conservatively covers both shoulders’ and carefully arrayed from front to back, according to the seniority of their ordination, the monks walk barefoot through the village or city. As the pious pilgrims move from shop to house, they must do so in silence. It doesn’t matter if they are a part time priest or long term temple man, decorum demands that they not make eye contact or request anything. They are not permitted to either favor nor neglect any neighborhood, be it ever so rich or pitiably poor. They may only accept what is freely donated.
Each commodity collected must be formally offered, and it must never come into contact with a monk’s hands. Everything must be placed inside the alms bowl after the monk first lifts the lid. It is expressly forbidden for a woman to touch or even brush up against a monk or his robes. A female accidentally coming into contact with a monk, regardless of the circumstances will require him to endure a lengthy cleansing process. To circumvent this during morning alms, a female merit maker should place the offering on a special cloth carried by the monk, whose purpose is to receive the alms offered by a woman. If no cloth is available, the alms should be handed to a man, who will in turn, transfer it to the monk, or her donation should be forwarded to a layman assistant, if one accompanies the monks. The edible alms and offerings primarily consist of steamed rice, fresh fruit, sweets, cooked meat or fish, and a variety of Thai curries, soups or stir-fries, as well as bottled water. Each item must be individually wrapped so that it can be safely placed into the alms bowl.
Monks are only permitted to collect and consume food between dawn and midday. They are however, permitted to drink plain water,not received as alms, at any hour of the day or night. Once collected, all alms are taken back to the wat to be shared with the other monks, the nuns, and the rest of the temple’s staff. The food collected must be consumed no later than noon on the day it was offered. Nothing can be saved for the next day or leftovers returned to a lay person or used to feed the stray soi dogs that congregate near the Thai wats precisely for that purpose.
The Art of Giving Alms
The art of giving alms is easily accomplished, even by a non-Thai. As the bowl bearing monks approach hold the articles you desire to donate somewhere between waist and chest height where they are easily visible. The procession of monks will stop. One will produce an alms bowl usually slung from the right shoulder to help carry the weight of the bowl and its bounty. After its top is removed, being careful not to jostle or touch the monk, cautiously place your packets of provisions within. After which you may wai the monk by bowing your head, pressing your palms together and placing them so that your finger tips come into contact with the bottom of your chin. In return the monk will either nod his head in appreciation or enlighten you with a sentence or two of Buddha’s teachings. If you really want to do it properly, remove your shoes, and then kneel down until the monk ceases to utter the wisdom of Lord Buddha. Keep in mind that giving alms is not a social visit. As such, the entire procedure will be brief. It should not be accompanied by any small talk, and no matter what, don’t even think about taking a selfie!
The Advantage of Alms
The giving of alms is not considered to be a form of charity in the Western sense of providing aid to an impoverished person. In Buddhism, alms giving is a method in which a lay Buddhist can make merit by showing humility and respect to the monks and nuns who embody the teachings of Buddha. In other words, the Thai people believe that the more a person gives without seeking something in return, the richer, in terms of health, happiness, wisdom, and perhaps even in wealth, they will become.