My Alms Bowl —Soul of My Mendicancy

อัยยา เมธานันทิ

My Alms Bowl —Soul of My Mendicancy

My alms bowl is central to my life. A symbol of the Theravāda Buddhist monastic tradition in which I trained, it is the soul of my mendicancy – coming empty-handed before the laity to receive material nourishment and responding to their generosity.

Sometimes that means reciprocating with a teaching from the Buddha, sometimes with a blessing chant or simply an expression of gratitude and kindness.

I am a beggar, and I must also be true. It is not easy to be a true beggar. I have to be worthy to be fed by the kindness of others and have all my needs provided. This way is rare and precious, as are acts of generosity in a world so driven by greed and selfishness.

Cultivating the spiritual path with integrity demands much of a beggar, primarily a faithful allegiance to the Vinaya, the code by which I live, as well as a sincere appreciation and respect for my supporters, their devotion and hard work to obtain, prepare, and bring offerings even at considerable sacrifice. It also calls for contentment with little – a simplicity of being and a commitment to renounce on many levels.

These qualities develop through a vigilance of heart that is difficult to practise in a large, well-funded institution. In those days when my monastic requisites, especially meals, were complete, assured, and generally abundant, I used self-abstinence to remind myself of the value of all that was given to us. On occasion, we also went on tudong or walked for alms in the nearby villages, accepting whatever we received as our meal for the day. But these were temporary privations – not a sustained way of life. They bore the flavour of heroic adventure but could hardly reflect the daily grind of spiritual endeavour.

It was only after I left the mother monastery to live on my own in New Zealand, a non-Buddhist country, that I came to know true choicelessness, at times facing physical hunger or a powerless isolation. This propelled me into a level of faith not demanded of me before, especially on days when I received very little, if anything, that would serve as a meal.

And so I learnt to meditate on the emptiness of my bowl – consciously relinquishing desire for food and accepting hunger. Bearing hunger with faith led me beyond despair to a gratitude and joy for what I did receive – a feeling of fullness that was not borne of food.

These hardships ripened me. I have gone hungry. But I have been able to keep going because every part of my body is made up of the loving-kindness from generous people who have cared for me for years and years, and my life is composed of pure kindness and thanksgiving.

This reflection by Ayyā Medhānandī is from the book, Gone Forth, Going Beyond, (pdf) pp. 12-14.