Ancient almsgiving practice is reenacted in symbolic procession
December 27, 2012
In Buddhism, almsgiving is the respectful support shown by laypeople to the ordained Buddhist sangha. The custom of alms rounds was not simply an expedient way to feed the Sangha but an expression of the interdependence between the Bhikshu or Bhikshuni and the laity. By offering sustenance to the Sangha with pure motivation, laypeople have an opportunity to be inspired by virtue, accumulate merit, and also to share in the merit generated by a monk or nun's spiritual practice. The offering is made to the monastic ideal rather than to the individual monks and nuns, and in response, they should strive to maintain that ideal of discipline and pure conduct .During the Buddha's time, monastics were not permitted to cook or store food, so they had to eat what was freely offered to them by the lay community. Over the centuries, the custom of alms rounds was maintained in some Buddhist countries, but was not adhered to in Tibet since the monasteries there were supported by laity and there was no longer a need for individual monastics to make alms rounds.
In 2004, the Gyalwang Karmapa incorporated the alms round into the Kagyu Monlam as a symbolic ceremony to remind participants of this ancient Buddhist tradition. In the same way he urged Monlam attendees to make a personal connection with Sakyamuni Buddha, and many of the early traditions the Karmapa revived, such as reciting prayers in Sanskrit and honoring the Gelong and Gelongma ideals, were supports for this.
Yesterday morning, in keeping with the custom of previous years, people wishing to offer alms to the Sangha gathered outside of the Stupa entrance at around 8:30 a.m. Dharmapalas and helpers had begun preparations at about 7:30 a.m., stringing a rope barrier from the shoe area outside the Stupa down to the entrance of the Jai Prahash Udyar Park . The day before, an announcement had been made about the correct procedure to follow. Participants should stand behind the rope on the right side of the procession and should not burn incense or offer hot food or money. Light packed foods or sweets in wrappers should be placed in the begging bowl gently with respect. The number of monks and nuns in the procession was expected to be 500.
At 9:30 a.m., the Gyalwang Karmapa came up the steps in front of the Stupa and entered the BTMC Reception office. A few minutes later, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche joined him there. This signaled that the time had come for the procession of monks to leave the temple towards the outer gate where lay disciples eagerly awaited with their offerings.
The procession was led by a senior monk from Ralang Monastery wearing a yellow hat and holding a bundle of burning incense. Kyabje Gyaltsab Rinpoche was next, holding a ringing staff and a large begging bowl. He was followed by three other Rinpoches holding the ringing staffs from the ancient tradition, as well as scores of Gelongs and Gelongmas carrying their alms bowls.
The procession was enhanced by Tenzin Dorje from Jamgon Kongtrul’s Labrang who scampered ahead adorning their path with flower petals strewn from a large wicker basket. The thronging crowd behind the rope was nearly bursting with excitement, trying their best to place offerings inside the begging bowls, with the usual street urchins underfoot trying to grab at the candies that missed their mark and fell on the pavement. By contrast the Sangha procession was hushed and dignified. As the procession slowly descended the steps from the outer Stupa entrance area onto the main road, the path began to narrow as it snaked past the street vendor’s stalls and led down into the entrance of the park. Once inside the park, the procession is supposed to be restricted to Sangha only, and except for the Karmapa who conducts the ceremony, no one is supposed to speak.
Inside the park were eight rows of mats, four on each side of a center aisle. At the head of the mats, the Gyalwang Karmapa stood next to a blue canopied tent with his golden chögu over his left shoulder. The blue tent was decorated with the Kagyu Monlam logo and draped with flower garlands. As Gyaltsab Rinpoche entered the dining area of the park, he took his place to the left of Karmapa. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche was already seated on the Karmapa’s right. They sat at small tables on either side of the Karmapa’s tent.
As the monks filed in behind the Rinpoches, they were holding their begging bowls in their left hands with the fingers of their right hands grasping the rim of the large bowl. They took their seats quietly and as their columns slowly filled up the Karmapa strolled along the rows of monks. The two groups of Sangha (four rows each) faced each other as they sat in meditation. They said the meal prayer with their hands folded, repeating it over and over, led by the Monlam’s discipline master, Khenpo Kelsang from Rumtek Monastery.
After the meal prayer, the helpers came out with their pails of food and ladled it into the Sangha's bowls. Karmapa walked around holding a microphone, while the Refuge prayer was recited. Finally the Sangha began to eat the food in their bowls with wooden spoons. In the meantime, Karmapa circled the group of diners acknowledging the lay helpers lined up in blue vests and red head scarves along the back. Servers continued to serve the Sangha seconds from the food pails. After a while, the Karmapa sat down and started to eat. The meal was eaten in silence with mindfulness in the spirit of Mahamudra meditation practice. After the meal was finished, the Karmapa spoke briefly, followed by the group chanting the Heart Sutra. Then there were dedication prayers, which signaled the end of the ceremony. The monks and nuns rose, adjusted their robes and chögus and filed out of the park. Afterwards, the Karmapa called the serving staff up for a group photograph. There had been about 90 helpers participating in this event. The vegetarian meal had been prepared in the morning at Tergar monastery and brought over to the park by the monlam helpers.