I live on faith – day by day, not knowing if I will eat. Far from the abundance of established community, the alms I do receive can range from feast to fasting. Whatever comes, I accept. Whatever the circumstances, I persevere.
In monastic community, the almsgiving ritual is one of the focal points of the day. Everyone gathers to accept and share the meal offered by the laity. Our training governs each aspect of the ceremony from deference to seniority regarding where we sit and how we collect the alms food to the way we eat out of our bowls in silence.
One day a senior nun reminded us of the observance not to eat fruit unless it is cut into bite-size pieces. Moments later, during the meal, our kindly abbot sat – just as always – composed and radiant in front of the whole assembly. Having finished the rice and curries in his bowl, he picked up an apple and munched happily on it.
Trusting his dozens of years of experience, his wisdom and mindful ways, this became a special teaching, a fresh perspective on what we had just heard. It would serve as an enduring symbol – neither to reject nor obsess over the formulae that dictate our daily etiquette – but always to honour the true intent behind what we do.
I find this both humane and comforting especially when collecting alms alone in a Western city. On the sidewalks of the non-Buddhist world, mendicancy has vastly different overtones. There are no formalities or scripts to follow.
One morning a week, cradling my bowl, I walk to the town centre, leaving ample time to stand for alms and eat before midday. Beggars are generally treated with contempt. With my shaven head and dark brown robes, softly chanting as I meditate on my bowl, I present a strange enough sight to be cast into their ranks.
I brace myself, staying close to the shop windows that line the street – well in view but not obstructing local vendors or shoppers. While holding out my alms bowl, I feel the strain of my years, and tense at the sharp winds and hurried – sometimes disapproving – glances of passers-by. It’s hard to know which leaves me more dispirited.
As someone approaches to drop a few coins into the bowl, I explain, “Only food, please, not money.” Being choiceless, even the smallest offering of fruit or bread urges me to free myself from preferences and accept every act of generosity with a thankful heart.
But there are days when I am left with an empty bowl. Taking that emptiness away with me is enough of a meal to reflect on. I have to feel – and make peace – with the hunger that millions suffer routinely, instead of complaining or demanding that I be fed. This teaches me the way of true mendicancy.
One blustery morning, an hour had passed and my bowl was still empty. But in keeping with tradition, I could ask for nothing. I was too cold to repel the rush of worried thoughts in my mind. “Will anyone feed me?” Unable to meditate, I despaired.
Then, seeing the shiny empty interior of my steel bowl, I asked myself, “Can my mind be as empty and as luminous?” There was little time left and I would probably receive nothing that day. But I decided to wait a little longer in case one person came forward – that would bring one more act of kindness into this world.
Encouraging myself in this way, I looked down. A man was silently bowing at my feet – and he put a large hot pie into my bowl. Tears rolled down my cheeks.
A vegetarian even before I became a nun, when I saw that it was a meat pie, I winced. Today there would be nothing else. I had to catch myself to realise, “This man who doesn’t even know me just offered me a meal for the day!”
I sat on a bench at a nearby church and chanted a blessing for him with a sense of gratitude and benevolence. After eating only the crust, I took a few moments to scatter the leftovers to a kerfuffle of scavenging pigeons and sparrows.
Contemplating my love of this simple life, I felt awash with happiness. I no longer hankered for my favourite noodles. I was grateful for meat pie.
© Ayyā Medhānandī
This a post from Ayyā Medhānandī’s blog written while based in Penang. She draws on her experiences in a monastic community in England as a solitary nun in a coastal hamlet of New Zealand and as an urban nun perched in a ‘sky temple’ overlooking the Malacca Straits. Other posts from this blog can be found under “Penang’s Blog” topic category.