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Buddhadharma : Summer 2017
summer 2 0 1 7 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 61 straight ahead of them and their alms bowl in their hands. They never directly ask anyone for food; ask- ing for food is actually an infraction of one of the hundreds of guidelines that Theravada monastics are required to follow in order to be defined as a monk or a nun. Instead, through the incredible and uncon- ditional generosity of the people in the community, food is placed in the bowl. Many times at the village temple, when the sky was just beginning to turn a rosy pink as dawn lifted the cover of night, I would slip off my sandals, as is the custom, to feel the dust, the grit, the roughness of the unpaved ground and street paths—to feel the foundation of the ancient earth while engaging in this ancient practice and interchange. The walk for alms and food for the day is done without shoes. When people give food, they also take off their shoes, even if they are in the mid- dle of the street. There is a sense of deep connection, free from hierarchy—just people in different roles touching the ground directly and together. The first time I stepped into the coolness of the morning air in my bare feet with my alms bowl, I felt incredibly vulnerable. I found myself wondering, “Will I do it correctly? Will I be able to live up to the tradition well enough?” As we walked, people came out of their homes already prepared to offer food. Generally, it was the older women of the household who had gotten up in the early morning hours to cook the elaborate meals that were delicately tied into plastic bags to be carefully placed into monastic bowls. We would hear the word nimorn, an equivalent of “Please, may I offer this food to you?” The vil- lagers would raise the food offering to their fore- heads as a sign of respectful giving and gently place it in the alms bowl, starting with the senior monas- tic first when there was more than one. The lay villagers knelt as they made the offering, their faces showing a warmth that matched the emerging glow of the rising sun. All of this was done in silence, as if this ancient act was unfolding on its own. Then, the monastics would chant four verses that bless the food and those who have offered it. After a pause, without another word, we would move on. Sometimes not even a minute would pass before we heard another voice speak, “Nimorn.” The villagers would sometimes make an addi- tional gesture of pouring water into a bowl as the monastics performed their chant. The gesture signi- fied that whatever “merit”—goodness and value— that came from that act of kindness and generosity is shared with all living beings as easily as water flows. In this way, the benefits of our spiritual prac- tice are not only for the giver but for all beings, unconditionally. We enacted this ritual every morning, and each time it touched a deep place in my heart. I returned to the temple with pounds and pounds of food, always more than the actual alms bowl could hold; I had to carry extra bags with me to accommodate the donations. Monastics are obligated to accept all the gifts because another equally important aspect of this ritual is providing the community with the opportunity to be generous. The practice of alms round and almsgiving offers practitioners an invita- tion to appreciate their faith and spirituality. THE WORD “COMMUNITY” is derived from the Latin terms cum, meaning “together” or “among each other,” and munus, which indicates giving or a gift or exchange. Integrated into one word, com- munity represents a form of exchanging or giving among and between each other. This resonates with the notion of sangha. Giving to each other— whether in the form of support in getting one’s robes right or in the form of offering food—is a vis- ible and visceral way of bringing community off the page as a concept and into real life. We are all interconnected and interrelated just by the fact that we are alive together in this world. We are relating not only to each other but also to life itself and to the earth. The teachings on cause and effect, sometimes called interdependent co-arising or dependent origination, speak to this innate aspect of how things are intertwined with each other, both on the scale of our everyday human life and also in the grand expansiveness of the universe.