Re: Monastic Alms Round in the West
Posted: Tue Jul 10, 2018 3:05 am
I tried, with limited success, to institute an alms round in Minnesota, USA in 2010 after returning from Myanmar, where I had ordained the year before. This is an account:
This is excerpted from https://bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com/bo ... lass-book/Before I left Myanmar, Ashin Paññasīha had onced admonished me, “When you go back to America you should continue to do alms rounds!”
I remarked, “I don't think you can do alms rounds in the States. Nobody will know what I am doing.”
Indeed, Ashin Paññasīha had lived in America for one and a half years, where he had attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He explained he had been determined to walk for alms no matter where he lived, because of the Buddha's injunction. He described how he had printed up fliers, and distributed them through his neighborhood to head off people's bewilderedness, and how he ended up with many new students of Buddhism.
“In a lot of places in America, including Austin, I could be arrested for 'begging'!”
“I wouldn't have minded getting arrested. I could teach Buddhism in jail.”
Whew, Ashin Paññasīha argued an awfully strong case.
The very same alms bowl from yesterchapter was now sitting on my shelf in Maplewood. Nonetheless I had trouble picturing myself seeking alms on County Road C, walking along the edge of the road, dumbfounding the inhabitants of cars as they flashed past and gaining little notice from the neighbors, all of whose houses stood well back from the road. What I pictured seemed hardly promising of alms, nor even of tangible human contact. That is, unless I just happened to pass the right house at the right moment:
Once, while on a long walk, a swift bicycle approached me from behind, passed and 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. It turned out she was from Laos, married to an American, had been washing dishes in her kitchen, and had happened to glance up to see the very last thing she had ever expected in Maplewood walk by. She had 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 at that moment, I would undoubtedly have attained to left-over waffles, bear mush, or even better!
No, I had an alms plan in mind that left little to chance. This was inspired second-hand from an American nun I had heard of, who had started collecting alms in Colorado ... at a farmers' market. Her plan was brilliant: At precisely such a place are found the ideal set of circumstances to induce the spontaneous whim that would cast Nordic inhibition aside to participate in an ancient rite over twice as ancient as the Viking plunder. The circumstances were, first, a wide variety of amiable people in a relaxed and interactive frame of mind and, second, food close at hand available for purchase. I phoned the director of the farmers' market in Maplewood, and procured permission to walk barefooted, bowl in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, past the booths.
I also invited the four monks from the local Karen monastery in St. Paul to participate and a few members of our community to bring some food to offer, to prime the pump that would then suck in broader participation. The Karen monks, never having expected to go for alms in America, a bit apprehensive about the response they would invoke, and of less than Nordic stature, suggested we forgo the normal monastic custom of queuing up according to ordination date and, much like novices or ducklings, line up according to height ... tallest first.
We had a number of glitches. The Burmese recruited to prime the pump were, as I should have anticipated, too generous to provide a reasonable example for emulation; 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, and hardly in need of still further alms giving. Luckily in subsequent weeks fewer members of the Burmese community showed up, but then relatively few of the shoppers had any idea why grown bald men in dresses were playing choo-choo in the middle of their shopping experience. However an occasional shopper or merchant would figure it out. Once an oriental woman, who presumably had not seen an alms round in many years, was thrilled to have her lanky grandson drop an offering into each of our bowls. A vendor once gave us little bottles of honey. We were week after week making slow headway when suddenly the very short Minnesota farmers' market season came to a chilly end.