I washed my hands, wore a spotless white shirt and made sure my face was cleanly shaven. Hastily checking my cellphone clock, I grabbed my bananas, chose seven gnoh (for its religious and spiritual significance) and gingerly placed each item into a plastic bag. With my heart beat steadily increasing and sweat beads forming on my forehead, I proceeded out of my apartment and embarked on the first phase of alms giving—finding a monk.
Just a month before, I was taught the proper way to give alms in my Thai cultural teacher training course. This course is a requirement for teaching in Thailand. Although giving alms isn’t a requirement for every wide-eyed westerner, I wanted to burst through the cultural glass ceiling with a mystical memory that would last a lifetime. However, some time had passed since I took the course and I forgot most of the ritual logistics. Furthermore, I was nervous that I would offend a monk with my lack of formalities. Despite this hesitation, the time became inevitable. I realized that it is not necessary to worry about giving to someone who has dedicated their whole life towards giving up worrying.
I turned my head to the left and I then to the right. I saw a few orange dots in the distance, but I had my heart set on a younger monk who I would always see crossing the bridge early in the morning. My game plan was to meet him at the base of the steps. Standing at the foot of the other side of the bridge, I took off my Perry Ellis shoes that I had gotten at a secondhand store and rested my bag of alms on a table. I checked my cell phone clock once more. It was 6:30 AM and it was just about that time.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw an almond skinned monk in a saffron robe who couldn’t have been more than 13. He slowly ascended the steps like an expired sage navigating through the gates of heaven. As he graced the other side, I placed my hands in front of my chest in a “wie” or prayer position. With his attention caught, I nervously grabbed my bag of fruit and placed each item into his shimmering alms bowl with care. I proceeded to bow and place my hands in a much higher prayer position at my hair line. This is the highest form of greeting and it is only used for monks.
Knowing that I did not offend the monk I listened as he chanted a sacred mantra in Sanskrit. My hands were glued to my head. Before I could realize what had happened, the monk had finished his blessings and departed. It was only ten seconds long but it felt like I was turning the key to the door of some sort of mystical religious and cultural immersion.
I do not know if it was mere coincidence, but my day seemed to have gone much better than any other. Moreover, everyone including myself appeared to be more radiant. I have done this several times and each time I do it I feel like I am waxing and rinsing the inner depths of my soul. Thus, the saying: “It is better to give than to receive” is a forever true testament to this act.
Once the procedure is learned, I do it every morning because it not only is a wonderful thing to do, but it is a pleasant and heartwarming experience as well. In addition to the merit that you are accumulating, you are also cultivating a sense of selflessness which in turn will allow you to realize your very own Buddha nature.
Alms Giving Tips:
-Wear white, clean clothes or anything that is modest and respectful. Wear long pants that cover the ankles especially if you are a woman.
-Buy or prepare alms the night before or on the morning of. Do not offer food or objects that are several days or weeks old.
-Do not take offense if a monk refuses your offering. His bowl may be full. Patiently wait for the next one to approach you.
-Take off your shoes before you give alms.
-Give alms between 5-7 AM
-Offer prepared meals first followed by fruit, drinks, flowers, money and incense.
-Make a wish for good health, happiness and peace before you give.
Written by Ian Moore
Photos by: Wikimedia Commons (header) and Ian Moore