RANGOON -- “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu (good, good, good),” the maroon-robed monk with shaven head chants softly as he receives the offerings with a bow, not looking at the alms giver. It is early morning in the former Burmese capital and Ain Daw Bar Tha is in the middle of the daily alms ritual for Buddhist monks.
He puts the 50 kyats someone has given him in the black thabaik (alms bowl), which holds offerings from other houses. By 9:00 a.m., Ain Daw Bar Tha has visited 12 families and collected 600 kyats (about half a dollar) in alms. This will buy him a bowl of rice, curry, and a mango for lunch, which he must have by 11:00 a.m., the last meal of the day for Buddhist monks. The remaining money will be used to buy food for the next morning or donated to his monastery.
Ain Daw Bar Tha later takes a bus to his monastery or kyaung in Mya Thein Tan on the outskirts of Rangoon, where he lives and has been studying Buddhism for six years. He does not pay for the trip. Public transport is free for monks (hpongyi) as their presence is considered auspicious for the journey, says Aung San Myint, who drives an express bus between Rangon and the northern city of Mandalay.
Life may be harsh in Burma, one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, but Buddhism remains alive and well in the country that has 90 percent of its people identifying themselves as Theravada Buddhists. Islam and Christianity, meanwhile, each claim four percent of Burmese as among their believers, while Hindus and animists each make up one percent of the country’s population.
Yet while the sight of monks receiving alms signals the continued presence of Buddhism in a country that is better known for its authoritarian rulers, how it is being done these days also shows that the faith – or at least how it is practised – has undergone some changes to adjust to the times.
Money instead of food
The alms ritual is one of the most important practices in Theravada Buddhism. Ashin Mahinda, senior monk of Mandalay’s Mahagandhayone monastery, explains that giving and receiving alms spiritually links the layperson and the monk. It is one of 227 rituals prescribed for monks in the Vinaya, the third part of the Buddhist Tipitaka scripture. Buddhist nuns (thilashin) have to observe 311 Vinaya rituals...more...