My thanks to Jean, over at Tasting Rhubarb for bringing my attention to this wonderful blog entry by the British Thervadan monk Ajahn Sucitto, abbot of the Chithurst Theravada monastery in the south of England. The ajahn writes about the experience of doing the alms-round ( pindapada), in a small English town. He translates the term as "scrap-gathering" and describes as "the heart of the livelihood of a Buddhist monastic (or samana)." "We are alms-people," he writes, "not 'monks' or 'nuns', and certainly not priests. To rely for sustenance on what arises through bringing one's presence as a Gone Forth person into the market place takes trust in humanity. In fact just being in the market place and yet not a part of it entails the faith that the disturbance of one's presence will generate some positive ripples. So alms-rounds set a lot of nerve endings twitching - for both the samana and the townsfolk. Maybe out of what turns up, one's needs will be met."
Now I have always been curious about this practice, and I have asked Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) about how it feels, as a Westerner trained in the need for self-sufficiency and the impropriety of asking for something, to walk the streets with an alms bowl and to be dependent on the generosity of others for ones very sustenance. Ajahn Sucitto's writing gives me the answer. Very much aware of the response he elicits in the context of a culture defined by very different expectations and mores, he manages to hold his center in the deeper meaning of his action. His gentle response to the citizens who do manifest compassion and concern (most, it seems, avoid contact of any kind) elicits a return in kind, a deeper understanding and respect.
A part of the point of the alms-round, as Ajahn Succito sees it, is precisely to create a ripple on the surface of the social pond. "Just being in the market place and yet not a part of it," he writes, "entails the faith that the disturbance of one's presence will generate some positive ripples. So alms-rounds set a lot of nerve endings twitching - for both the samana and the townsfolk. Maybe out of what turns up, one's needs will be met. And if not, then through being open and upright, one's mind will at least be clear, undistracted and free from craving. Because when you practise this, any craving for food, or even to get away from the public gaze, stands out so starkly as the creator of suffering and stress that you have to let it go. Instead you just maintain presence."
I found this to be a powerful and somehow heartening piece, which tells me a great deal about the courage that it takes to step out of the social norm and question basic cultural assumptions; and a great deal about the inner strength and conviction, the quiet assurance from which that courage springs. I'll be adding the Ajahn's site to my blogroll, and will look forward to following his occasional entries.