Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 12

Child Offering Bananas to Ajahn Viradhammo

Let me say some more about almsround—piṇḍapāta (Thai: bindabaht). The Pali word piṇḍapāta is a compound of piṇḍa (lump of rice) and pāta (‘drop’). Literally, the word means ‘dropping rice.’ What the word really means is placing almsfood into the bowls of the monks. The reason why monks go out on almsround is to receive food into their bowls from the laypeople. If one examines this activity in relation to the Buddha’s activities (buddha-kicca), one sees that it is extremely important.

There are five daily activities that the Buddha observed over his entire life:

  1. Before dawn he considered who was within the ‘net’—who was suitable to receive assistance.
  2. At dawn he went out on almsround to offer assistance to that person.
  3. In the late afternoon he gave Dhamma teachings to the Buddhist assemblies.
  4. In the evening he gave teachings to the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.
  5. Late at night he answered questions posed to him by the devas.

The Buddha’s underlying objective of going out on almsround was not to obtain something, but rather to offer something. Before going out for alms, he would check from whom he should accept food. This was not favouritism, but rather an inspection of who should be helped first. He didn’t go out simply to ask for food. Instead, he went out to offer the gift of Dhamma or to offer guidance to the person offering the almsfood. Therefore, the chief reason for the Buddha and his awakened disciples to go out on almsround was to assist living beings.

Woman Offering Sticky Rice in Ubon Rajathani

Many members of the monastic sangha today, however, have forgotten this vital objective. They think almsround is simply a way to get food. They don’t reflect on the opportunity to share the Dhamma with the laity. When monks begin to think in these superficial terms, they either stop going on almsround because they already have food, or they plot where to go in order to get lots of food. Greed and covetousness thus overwhelm the hearts of these venerable ones. In some places (in the cities) the monks even scramble for the food and have punch-ups in front of the laypeople! This has actually happened—it is not just gossip that I’m recounting without proof.

Blaming only the monks for this scramble for food isn’t really fair. Some of the laypeople are also responsible for this behaviour. The story I’m about to tell occurred when the strict holding to ordination lineage was rampant. Monks from both the Dhammayuttika and the Mahānikāya orders were boasting that they kept a strict discipline (Vinaya). Each side was slandering the other. This competition didn’t just take place in the circle of the Saffron Forest. Even the laypeople took sides and split up into factions.

There was one layperson (it’s better you don’t know the name) who had great faith in the Dhammayuttika monks, waiting each morning to offer food. I forgot to mention that she was an attractive unmarried woman a bit over thirty. She would inspect each monk who approached to see if he was Dhammayuttika or Mahānikāya. If he was a Dhammayuttika monk she would immediately offer food, but if he was a Mahānikāya monk she would stand impassively and ignore him. In this way, she embarrassed many of the Mahānikāya monks, one after another. You may wonder how she was able to distinguish between the monks. She could tell by the way they wore their robes. The Dhammayuttika monks wear their robes with equal, overlapping layers and carry their bowls in their hands, while the Mahānikāya monks roll the edges of their robes into a ‘loofah roll’ and throw it over their left shoulder, and carry their bowls on a strap on the right shoulder. These days, however, it’s not sure—many Mahānikāya monks wear their robes in the Dhammayuttika style.

The monks from Wat Pah Nanachat on alms

This situation went on for many days. There was a Mahānikāya monk (it’s better not to know his name or which monastery he lived in, but rest assured he wasn’t from my monastery of Bahn Huay) who became very indignant and spent hours hatching a plan. In the end he went through with his plan and it was completely successful, fulfilling all his wishes.

From that day onwards this woman would only give alms to Mahānikāya monks; she would ignore the Dhammayuttika monks or even revile them. She was completely disaffected. This created bewilderment amongst the venerable monks. One evening one of the monks brought this subject up during tea time.

‘That woman is strange. Before she treated Mahānikāya monks like excrement. Now she only gives food to Mahānikāya monks!’

‘I was once tormented by her. I saw her standing there holding a bowl of rice and went to receive some. She just left me standing there holding the lid of my bowl open. I wanted to sink into the earth with embarrassment,’ one of the older monks said.

‘Luang Dtah—did you want to be a sharpshooter, rushing to get food without looking first to see if she was going to give you some?’ one of the little novices interrupted.

‘What the heck, how was I to know? Anyone else standing there with rice would be ready to offer some; they wouldn’t be playing games like this woman. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen such a thing,’ Luang Dtah swore.

‘Do you know why that woman changed her behaviour?’ one of the young monks asked.

All eyes turned to him with curiosity.

‘It is a result of my ingenuity,’ the young monk said after a long silence.

‘I was similarly tormented by her, just like Luang Dtah, so I thought of a way to teach her a lesson. I therefore disguised myself as a Dhammayuttika monk and went to collect alms from her.’

‘Did she give food?’ someone asked.

‘The first day she gave food; she couldn’t remember the faces of all the monks; she simply gave food to anyone wearing the Dhammayuttika style. But on the second day, as soon as I parted my robes to bring out my bowl, she screamed and ran into her house. After that she paid no attention to Dhammayuttika monks and until now only gives food to Mahānikāya monks.

‘Why? Did she remember your face?’ Luang Dtah asked.

‘No,’ the young monk grinned.

‘So what was it?’

‘That morning I didn’t wear an under-robe (sabong)!’

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