We awaken at dawn to the sound of a distant gong. The air is crisp and misty with fog. From the balcony, we watch as processions of Buddhist monks leave their monasteries and walk through the streets collecting alms from the local people. It is ethereal and surreal to the foreign traveler. To the townspeople of Luang Prabang, Laos, the act of alms giving is a daily ritual that connects the average individual to a spiritually developed person, a Buddhist monk. It is a symbolic connection. Each is showing respect and humbleness for the other. It is not charity, as one would think.
As the Buddha has stated:
“Householders, the homeless and monastics
in mutual dependence
both reach the true Dharma….”
There are Buddhists who are animists. They believe in offering alms on behalf of their deceased ancestors, that they are showing respect to them and the monk is the intermediary in which to do so. We are told that by giving food to the monk, they are feeding their dead loved ones.
Across the street from us are women in their outdoor kitchens who have prepared sticky rice. They sell it by the basket to others who want to participate in this tradition. This is what is put into the alms bowls as the monks walk by silently. Except for the occasional dog barking or rooster crowing all is quiet and reverent. Men may stand to face a monk, but women must be seated or kneeling to offer their alms. All have their shoes off.
The monks walk barefooted and are wearing the traditional robe that dates 25 centuries ago. The first monks wore robes made from rags as did holy men from India. Later Buddha taught the monks to wear “pure” cloth, which was cloth that was ruined or discarded, cloth soiled from childbirth or scavenged from cremation grounds. This cloth was washed and boiled with vegetable matter- tubers, bark, leaves and spices such as turmeric or saffron giving the cloth a yellow-orange color. Robes today are in these colors as well as shades of curry, cumin and paprika.
Boys as young as ten can enter a monastery for religious training and general education. They too participate in the alms walk. They can remain and become monks or end their studies at any time. Many leave to work and to marry.
Luang Prabang is most known for its religious centeredness, surrounded by its many active Buddhist monasteries (Wats) and temples. The Luang Prabang derives from a sacred Buddha image called the Pha Bang which was a gift from the mighty Khmer Empire in Cambodia, hence the name Luang Prabang. It is an ancient city located in north central Laos. Surrounded by mountains, it is on a peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is considered by many to represent the heart of Laotian culture. Luang Prabang was made a WHS because it is a well preserved and outstanding example of the blend of traditional Laotian and French European architecture. It is what drew us to this country, specifically this city.
Ron awakens particularly early one morning and follows a group of monks to a monastery at the end of our street. They are gathering together with numerous monks waiting for a special alms giving procession to begin. Dignitaries from the capital, Vientienne, as well as monks from that city have arrived to walk in this procession. All of Luang Prabang is out to participate or watch this huge and prestigious gathering. Tourists with cameras ready stand by to capture the moment.
Quite an experience for us to watch. We walk back to our small hotel, order breakfast, and sit at one of the three tables outside on the sidewalk. Life returns to normal as bicycle and moped traffic pick up. Off in the distance we hear gongs and in the building behind us, we notice monks gathering for a special house blessing. They are chanting. We are eating and we too feel blessed.