On the Alms Round

 

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My day begins at 5:30 AM; the monks have been awake for hours. I stand by the small monastery’s two pagodas, rubbing the fitful night’s sleep from my eyes. Around me, young monks scurry about, washing their faces in stone basins full of rainwater. 
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One by one, they join the line, their impatience shown in jittery legs and the urging looks they give their lagging comrades. The novices, or monks-in-training, number 50 in all, ranging between ages 11 to 16. They have come to the monastery, founded two years prior, from remote areas for the chance at a better education. Many of them are orphans, their parents victims of Cyclone Nargis or ethnic warfare. 
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Two novices are designated to hold a gong, which signals their arrival as they move through the village. The first ring breaks a reverent silence, and the line lurches forward, beginning the alms round. 
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The young monks complete this journey daily through a nearby rural community in Shan State. To ensure that the villagers, most of them poor farmers, are not overly burdened by donations, they change their route to include different homes every five days. 
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At the sound of the gong, people emerge from their homes. They offer cooked food such as rice, eggs, and meat, along with packages of sweets and other treats. For the monks, their daily meals consist entirely of the food they receive in this way.
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The donors believe that offering food gains them merit towards a better rebirth in the next life. As Burma modernizes, the daily routine has faded in large cities, with offerings taking the form of monetary donations to monasteries. However, here in the country side, traditional methods remain strong. 
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The novices make the journey barefoot, signifying humility and detachment from worldly goods. The tradition dates back to the Buddha himself, who lived as a beggar traveling from place to place, surviving only off what he received as donations. 
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Traditionally, monks received their alms in a black bowl. Now, some carry stainless steel containers while others carry large coolers for rice.
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Midway through, the novices empty their containers of rice to lighten their load. The large bowl is then driven back to the monastery by car, in a case of modernity meeting ancient tradition. 
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As the walk continues, the containers  grow heavy once again, and some begin to lag behind. The route stretches over an hour and a half, traversing hills, dried river beds, paved and dirt roads. 

 

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Once the alms round is completed, the food is collected and portioned out. Traditionally, each individual monk eats only what he receives in his bowl. At this monastery, the food is divided out amongst everyone to ensure that each receives an equal share.
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As the novices wait at the table, they try to maintain the semblance of calm, but their hungry eyes betray them. Still, they do not touch the food when it is placed before them. Once everyone has a bowl, they bow their heads and chant, wishing good merit on those who made offerings. As they reach for their bowls, the spell is broken; they laugh, smile, and tease one another. Their youth has returned. 
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2 thoughts on “On the Alms Round

  1. Great article Kaelyn! I enjoyed reading and seeing the photos of the gentle, peaceful customs of the monks. I think we all have a lot to learn from them.

    Like

  2. What a beautiful piece about a way of life so different than our own. It is very humbling. Also, your photos are truly amazing.

    Like

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