Monks on the Move ~ Morning Alms Rounds, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

Monks with Alms Bowls, Nyaung Shwe Myanmar

Monks on the Move
Early every morning, Theravada Buddhist monks and novices pour into the Nyaung Shwe streets – silently, barefoot, and single file – with their begging bowls.

You have to be early, and you have to be quick, to catch Theravada Buddhist monks on their morning alms rounds.

For over 2,500 years, since the Buddha decided that monks and nuns should not cook or store their own food, Buddhist monks have walked alms rounds. The practice was intended to free religious monastics from the worldly burden of cooking and to make them dependent on the generosity of the lay community, thus encouraging humility. It also enriches the spiritual lives of lay people, as the act of giving freely from a generous heart creates “merit” (puñña)that which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts and which carries over throughout the life or the subsequent incarnations.

Over the years, in many Buddhist communities, the practice of collecting alms has been adapted to the modern world. It may be that only some monks or novices from a community go out on alms rounds, sharing proceeds with the rest of the religious community. Or, alms rounds may only be conducted on particular days. In many monasteries, lay people bring food in and cook it on site (e.g.: Lining up for Lunch; Monks and Nuns).

But, the alms bowl is still an enduring symbol of the monastic order for all Buddhists, and it is not uncommon to see monks, with their begging bowls, singly or in groups, silently walking the streets of their communities (e.g.: Sangkhlaburi, Thailand; Luang Prabang, Laos).

But, you do have to be up early. Monks and novices take no food after twelve noon, and alms rounds typical start around 6am.

The last time I was able to participate in an alms round was in Nyuang Shwe, Myanmar, where I was on a tour with photographer Karl Grobl and local guide Mr MM. We got up in the low-light of a pre-dawn to be ready in time.

Novice monks at a monastery Well, Nyaung Shwe Myanmar

Novices at the Well
Nyaung Shwe may well be within the tropics, but it is still cool when the young novices get up to wash themselves before commencing their other morning duties.

Novice with a Bucket, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

Novice with a Bucket
The little novices rush around the temple grounds, going about their business – and giving me a chance to practice panning.

Monks with Alms Bowls, Nyaung Shwe Myanmar

The Silent Procession
Around 6am the novices file out of their monastery and into the streets. As per custom, their robes are formally arranged over both shoulders, …

Portrait of a novice monk, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

Novice Monk
… and their faces are solemn with downcast eyes.

Monks with Alms Bowls, Nyaung Shwe Myanmar

Alms Rounds
Traditionally, the barefoot monks file through the streets in order of their seniority by ordination date…

Monks with Alms Bowls, Nyaung Shwe Myanmar

Elder Monks
… but in Nyaung Shwe the elder monks seem to come out later.

Monks in the Green streets of Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

Monks in the Green Countryside
It always amazes me how fast the monks move; if we want to take photographs, we have to run to catch up.

Burmese woman dishing rice into a monk

Morning Alms
But, the local women know where to be. They stand barefoot in the streets, …

Burmese woman dishing rice into a monk

Burmese Woman
… dispensing still-steaming rice …

Burmese woman dishing rice into a monk

Giving Alms
… until their bowls are empty or the monk’s alms bowls are full.

Burmese woman dishing rice into a monk

Nyaung Shwe
This act of giving is a part of everyday life in Nyaung Shwe, as it is in so many other Southeast Asian towns and villages.

Burmese woman dishing rice into a monk

“Making Merit” : Puñña
The interaction between monk and lay-person can vary, but it is usually a wordless exchange.

Morning Back Light on a tuk-tuk taxi, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

Morning Back Light
After the monks have gone back to their temple, …

Back Light on a Street Dog, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

Street Dog
… the dusty streets go quiet …

Burmese women doing laundry in the river, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

Women Doing Laundry
… and people go back to their daily lives.

Text: Metta - wishing you loving kindness.For the Buddha, the alms round was an important feature of the monastic life.

Being part of the morning rounds is a reminder of simple human generosity.

It always makes me feel better for the rest of the day.


Pictures: 23September2012

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