In remembrance of Brother Chan Tuck Sing who passed on on April 24th 2020, for his contribution to the sustenance of the Mangala Vihara Dhamma Fellowship as a Committee member for Library, Graphic and Layout and Class Co-Ordinator for Buddhism in Daily Life Course.
Pinḑapāta or alms gathering is the practice of collecting alms food as observed by Theravāda monks or nuns who have gone forth from ‘home life’ to ‘homelessness’ going from household to household.
Many Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar still maintain the tradition to go for alms round. On a lesser extent in Indonesia and West Malaysia monks still go on alms round within the vicinity of their temple or monastery.
Unfortunately, living in an urbanised city state of Singapore, going on alms round is misconstrued as vagrancy and deemed unlawful for “going about as a gatherer or collector of alms” under Section 27 (1) (e) of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. However Venerable S. Dhammika noted the difference between a beggar and an alms gatherer as “a beggar who asks or pleads for alms whereas a monk or nun only present themselves at the door of a potential donor, stands quietly for a few moments and after receiving something moves on. The Mahāvastu says: ‘The wise monk asks for nothing, the noble ones do not hint of their needs. They just stand and let their bowl be seen. This is how the noble ones gather alms. The bowl (patta) in which the food is received and later eaten out of, is one of the eight requisites of monks and nuns.” (A Guide to Buddhism A to Z).
Thus, Buddhists establishments in Singapore: temples, monasteries and centres provided for the needs of the Sangha.
The annual Mangala Vihara Dhamma Fellowship (MVDF) Pinḑapāta Day debuted on August 9th 2013 held its seventh successive anniversary event in 2019. Ideally, it would be a noble deed to maintain the tradition of an annual event. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic that does not seem to abate in August, it is wise to exercise caution and err on the safe side to give it a miss in 2020 for the welfare and safety of the devotees and participants.
While the event may be absent for this year, it provides a break to reflect clearly and understand fully the practice over the years. Although many devotees participated with a devout heart but many still do not realise the intrinsic significance and true nature of the occasions. So, let us take a pause to explore and reflect upon the experience of the events from the perspective on the benefits befitting the practice of the alms gathering sangha, alms giving devotees and the well-being for the society.
Why alms gathering?
Alms gathering or, pinḑapāta is the practice of collecting alms food, as observed by Theravāda Buddhist monks who have gone forth from ‘home life’ to ‘homelessness.’ They go from house to house to receive food adhering faithfully to the tradition and the lineage of the Buddhas, past, present and the future. When the Bodhisatta Prince became a recluse, Ghaṭikāra Brahmā who happened to be an old friend in the lifetime of Buddha Kassapa, heard of his going forth on a noble renunciation offered him the eight requisites, among them was a bowl with its bag for alms gathering. Lord Buddha proclaims: “My ancestors are the Buddhas, in successive order of the Buddhavaḿsa from Dipankāra, Kondaňňa, Maňgala down to Kassapa. Beginning with Dipankarā and ending with Kassapa, my preceding elder brethren Buddhas, twenty-four in number, and with all the thousands of Buddhas as many as sands of the Ganges, had always gone to each successive house to receive alms. This very practice of receiving alms from one door to the next had always been our means of livelihood.” (Mahabuddhavamsa).
What is alms-food?
Thus, alms-food is elucidated as “any sort of food or nutriment is called “alms food” or pinḑapāta – literally means “lump dropping,” because of its having been dropped (patitatta) into a bhikkhu’s bowl during his alms round (piņḑloya). Or alms food (piņḑapāta) is the dropping (pāta) of the lumps (pindā); it is the concurrence (sannipāta), the collection, of alms (bhikkhā) obtained here and there, is what is meant.” (Vism. I, 89).
It is further elaborated as “The dropping (patā) of the lumps (pindā) of material substance (āmisa) called alms (bhikkhā) is “alms-food” (pinḑapāta); the falling (nipatana) into the bowl of lumps (pinda) given by others, is what it is meant. He gleans that alms food (that of lumps he seeks it by approaching such and such a family, thus he is called an “alms-food [eat]er” (pinḑapātika). Or his vow is to gather (patitum) the lump (pinda), thus he a “lump- gather” (piņḑapatin). To “gather” is to wander for. A “lump-gather” (piņḑapātin) is the same as an “alms-food-eater” (piņḑapatika). Thus the practice of the alms-food-eater is the ”alms-food-eater’s practice.” (Vism. II, 5 iii).
Alms round and its benefit
The MVDF pinḑapāta sessions offered devotees an opportunity to participate in the event held within the temple ground of the Mangala Vihara (Buddhist Temple) (MVBT). They lined up in single file with a bowl of cooked rice and waited in noble silence and patiently for the monks to walk by and scooped a spoonful into the alms bowl as he passed by. The enacted gesture is symbolic and to liken it in real life one needs to understand the practice.
In real life the monks go for alms round either singly or in a group. In a group they walk in single-file according to seniority based on ordination date order or the number of vassa. They walk barefooted into a village and then from house to house, not favouring rich or poor neighbourhoods, accepting, but not requesting, what is freely dropped into one’s bowl. “Herein, sister, a monk takes food with reflection and judgment, not for sport, not for indulgence, not for personal charm, not for beautifying, but just enough for the support, for the upkeep of body, for its resting unharmed, for assisting the spiritual life.” (AN, IV, 159).
Monks mindfully observe noble silence not to engage in talking or chatting or to endear themselves to the lay followers with the intention of improving their intake during alms rounds, not to ask for anything directly except in an emergency, not to express thanks for donations received, and to receive without establishing eye contact. “Then again, a monk is content with any sort of alms-food and speaks in praise of such content. For the sake of getting alms-food he resorts not to what is unseemly and unbecoming. If he gets not alms-food he is not dismayed thereat: and if he does get it he is free from the bond of selfishness, of greed, of craving for it.” [AN, IV, III, 28(2)].
With pinḑapāta, Buddhist monks need not worry about food and this affords them the time to practise the Dhamma. “From householders the homeless receive these basic necessities of life. Robes to wear and a place to dwell, dispelling the hardships of the seasons.” (It. 8-13).
As a Buddhist monk is known in Pali language as ‘bhihkku’ – meaning ‘one who lives on alms’ just like the past, the present or the future alms gathers, living on alms should review himself whether worthy of alms food, like the Buddha teaches Sariputta: ” ….., whatever recluses and brahmans in the past have purified their alms food have all done so by repeatedly reviewing thus. Whatever recluses and brahmans in the future will purify their alms food will also do so by repeatedly reviewing thus. Whatever recluses and brahmans in the present are purifying their alms food are all doing so by repeatedly reviewing thus. Therefore, Sariputta, you should train thus: ‘We will purify our alms food by repeatedly reviewing thus.’ This is how you, Sariputta, must train yourself.” (MN.III,297).
“What are the benefits of a monk’s observance of his regular alms-round? One thinks of benefitting all beings equally and destroys the faults of enjoyment. One is not pleased when invited, is not pleased with many words, and does not call on householders. One does not walk hurriedly. Rare as the moon at full, one appears and is appreciated and honoured. One gets a following of good men. This observance is doubt-free.” (Vimuttimagga).
Buddhist monks and nuns maintain a simple livelihood and do not have any possession except for the eight requisites, namely, (1) a big robe, (2) an upper robe, (3) a lower robe, (4) a girdle, (the four requisites that are close to and go along with the body), (5) a needle and thread, (6) an adze , a kind of knife for making teeth-cleaning sticks, (7) a bowl and (8) a strainer, (the four external requisites). (Mahabuddhavamsa). They are “not allowed to store up food and drinks” (D.I, 5) and “refrained from causing injury to seeds or plants and eat one meal a day, not eating at night, refraining from food after hours (after midday)” (DN.I, 6; MN.I,180).
In keeping with the practice of monks going on alms round in the morning and consumed the food at the proper time, which is before noon, the event kick started in the morning with devotees, participants and well-wishers brought “cooked food and fruits with seeds removed” (D.I, 6) to the kitchen. Many devotees also contributed food items like cooked vegetarian dishes, fruits, desserts or beverages. Raw food items are not allowed as “Samana Gotama abstains from the acceptance of uncooked cereal, uncooked meat, livestock like goats and sheep, chickens and pigs, elephants, cattle horses and mares, cultivated or uncultivated land, storing up cooked rice, beverages, … and eatables,” (DN.1,5). (According to the Vinaya the proper time for bhikkhus to eat is between dawn and noon. From noon until the next dawn only liquids are allowed).
The late MM Mahaweera Maha Nayaka Thero, founding monk of MVBT, who subscribed to a vegetarian diet laid down the code only vegetarian food is permitted at the temple, although Lord Buddha did not prohibit the consumption of meat per se but allowed under the threefold rule: “I say, that meat can be partaken on three instances, when not seen, not heard and not when there is suspicion about it”. (MN.I,369). However, the 10 types of meat forbidden to be eaten are human, elephant, lion, tiger, leopard, bear, horse, dog, hyena and snake. (Vin.i,218.).
Also, in the Vinaya Pitaka, Section VII Cullavagga recounts the episode of “Devadatta who decided to create a schism in the order demanded that the Buddha accede to the following rules for the monks: they should dwell all their lives in the forest, live entirely on alms obtained by begging, wear only robes made of discarded rags, dwell at the foot of a tree and abstain completely from fish and meat. The Buddha allowed the monastics to follow all of these except the last if they so wished, but refused to make them compulsory.”
For safety of the monks Lord Buddha forbade the consumption of food and monks going for alms ground outside the proper time: “It has happened that bhikkhus wandering for alms in the thickness of darkness of the night have walked into a cesspool, fallen into a sewer, walked into thorn bush, and walked into sleeping cow; they met hoodlums who had already committed a crime and those planning one, and they have been sexually enticed by women. Once, venerable sir, I went wandering for alms in thick darkness of the night. A woman washing a pot saw me by the flash of lightning and screamed out in terror: ‘Mercy me, a devil has come for me!’ I told her: ‘Sister, I am no devil, I am a bhikkhu waiting for alms.’ – ‘Then it’s a bhikkhu whose ma’s died and whose pa’s died!’ ‘Better, bhikkhu that you get your belly cut open with a sharp butcher’s knife than this prowling for alms for your belly’s sake in the thick darkness of the night.” (MN.I, 448-449).
The benefit of abstinence of food after meal time as elaborated in the Vimuttimagga: “What are the benefits of the observance of ‘no food after time’? One abandons greed, and experience the joy of self-restraint. One protects the body, and avoids taking food in advance, does not hanker, does not ask others for things, does not follow his inclination. This is an observance of good men. The observance is doubt-free.”
During a pinḑapāta event at MVBT alms givers standing in single file along the route in noble silence and symbolically scooped a spoonful of cooked rice into the monk’s alms bowl as he walked by within the temple compound. However, in reality, monks leave the vihara in the morning for their alms round going from household to household. Many alms givers waited patiently in noble silence anticipating the arrival of the alms gathers kneeled in single file along the route of the monks, going from household to household for alms gathering. As the monks walked pass he or she would mindfully place the offerings into the alms bowl.
When one offers alms mindfully to the monks should reflect thus, “He gives what is pure and excellent, allowable drinks and food at the proper time: he gives gifts to fertile fields of merit, to those who lead the spiritual life. He does not feel regret, having given away many material things. Those with deep insight praise the gifts given in this way. Having thus practiced charity with a mind freely generous, one intelligent and wise, rich in faith, is reborn in a pleasant, unafflicted world.” (AN.8:37).
General Siha once asked the Lord: ”Is it possible to see the results of generosity?” And the Lord said: “Yes it is possible to see the result of generosity. The giver, the generous one, is liked and dear to many. … Good and wise people follow the generous person. … The generous person earns a good reputation. … This is the result of generosity. Once again, in whatever company he enters, be it nobles, brahims, householders or monks, the generous enters with confidence and without trouble. And finally, the giver, the generous person, is reborn in heaven after death. This is a result of generosity that can be seen hereafter.” (AN.III,39).
“For those people who bestow alms, for living beings in quest of merit, performing merit of the mundane types, a gift to the Sangha bears great fruits.” (SN.11,16).
“In giving food, one gives five things. What five? One gives life, beauty, happiness, strength and intelligence. And in giving these things, one partakes in the qualities of life, beauty, happiness, strength and intelligence, both here and thereafter.” (AN.III,42). “When they give out of faith with a heart of confidence, food accrues to (the giver) himself both in this world and the next.” (SN 1:43).
In almsgiving it is the thought that matters and according to one’s ability and the suitability of the gifts to the receivers not the quantity. “Does almsgiving become especially productive of great fruit only when it is liberality of such magnificent sort as this, or is it rather when it is a liberality in accordance with one’s means?” The Blessed One said, “Not merely by efficiency of the gift does giving become especially productive of great fruit, but rather through efficiency of the thought and efficiency of the field of those to whom the alms are given. Therefore even so little as a handful of rice-bean or a piece of rag or a spread of grass or leaves or a gall-nuts in decomposing (cattle-)urine bestowed with devout heart upon a person who is worthy of receiving a gift of devotion will be the great fruit, of great splendour and of great pervasiveness.” (Vv. I,1).
Benefit to the society
It is indeed a noble deed for monks to continue to propagate the Dhamma for the well-being and benefits of all beings as Lord Buddha did 2,500 years ago: “Go not in two to one place. Preach, O disciple, the law, the beginning which is noble, the middle of which is noble, and the end of which is noble, in spirit and letter: preach the whole and full, pure of holiness. There are beings who are pure from the dust of the earthly, but if they hear not the gospel of the law, they perish: they shall understand the law.” [(Hermann Oldenberg, “Buddha His Life, His Doctrine, His Order “ 2006, page 131), (DN II, 48)].
Since the time of the Buddha, lay people have been supporting monks with food, robes, shelter and medicine. In return, monks provide guidance to the laity on Buddhist teachings, thus forging a close, respectful and symbiotic relationship between the two communities. “Bhikkhus, brahmins and householders are very helpful in you. They provide you with the requisites of robes, alms food, lodgings and medicine in time of sickness. And you, bhikkhus are very helpful to the brahmins and householders, as you teach them the Dhamma that is good at the onset, good in the middle, and good at the end, with its correct meaning and wording, and you proclaim the holy life in its fulfilment and complete purity. Thus, bhikkhus, this holy is lived with mutual support for the purpose of crossing the flood and making a complete end of suffering.” (It.8-13).
Doing an act of generosity is beneficial in our practice. However, clearly comprehending the act is to harvest its full benefits. Hopefully, this article sheds some light on the pinḑapāta event to have a better understanding of the practice, if not fully so that when doing the next or future offering be more fulfilling both mentally and spiritually and cultivate magnanimity and compassion towards others.
“Bhikkhus, if beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would they allow the stain of meanness to obsess them and take root in their minds. Even if it were their last morsel, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared it, if there were someone to share it with. But, bhikkhus, as beings do not know, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they eat without having given, and the stain of meanness obsesses them and takes root in their minds.” (It 2-13).
Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!
Contributor: Chin Kee Thou
Date: July 18th 2020
Contents by contributor who takes responsibility for any inadvertence, factual or otherwise.