Collecting alms: Food in Myanmar monastery

As monks are not allowed to cook or prepare their own food, they stand in line to gather alms donated to the Pa-Auk Monastery in Myanmar. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

DOWN the raised wooden walkway, open on both sides, I follow the monks to the Pa-Auk Forest Monastery dinning hall. Eventually, I find the small room on the lower floor that the visiting monks and laymen eat in. It's a dimly lit room with several unglamorous wooden tables, plastic chairs and a sink to wash dishes. In front of the chairs that are occupied are metal trays with lidded tin cups, large metal bowls, and matching plates, as well as dirty rags draped over it all.

With a little help from a tall English fellow who sounds like he's got Kermit the Frog stuck in his throat, I prepare my own tray with the necessary implements, including a fork a soup spoon.

On the nearly empty back wall is sign: NOBLE SILENCE.

A middle-aged Korean man with a thick head of hair sits down next to me. Our eyes meet, silently greet each other. Other Vipassana centers forbid eye contact. However, here in the forest monastery, it's allowed.

There is something horrible about constantly voiding other people's eyes. Inadvertently, it's often done at Pa-Auk, as it's the best way to prevent someone from starting up a conversation. Mostly though, I speak with my eyes and a giant smile. Often flashing a big smile to monks when our eyes meet before reverently looking away for a moment in deference.

On a couple of occasions the Korean quietly says good morning. In the evening, we could hear him practicing his English in the room next to ours. With walls as thin as paper, the conversations of those on either side of us rang loud and clear. On one side we had two Japanese men who were in a constantly bantering.

However, the dining hall was nearly silent.

We take our shoes off before entering the dining hall, then wait our turn to collect alms in our tin cups and bowls. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

After the resident monks filed through the alms receiving room, foreign monks would go. Two jolly Chinese monks in light gray robes who always ate at the table next to mine are straight out of a Kung Fu movie. There's a certain aura around them as they sit on the far ends of their table, facing each other, scooping food out of their large round monk bowels. As if by ritual, one always scoops some spices out of a small tin cup and toss it into his bowl then walk over and offers it to his friend.

The smile at each other as if they are both on the verge of laughing out loud over some inside joke.

An elderly monk helps a young-faced monk new to the monastery with his robes. It's a complicated process. The way the burgundy robe is worn during the collections of alms is very specific. A piece of cloth hoods the young man as the older one helps tightly wrap the cloth around his left arm, stretching it out and then precisely folding it before placing it in his left hand. Several more twists and spins and the hood comes down, folding up around the shoulders. Now, the monk is ready to carry his bowl to collect alms. For the first few days, the older monk in the lower dining room helps the younger man. Then, the young monk is on his own, patiently struggling to wrap his left arm and getting the folds perfect before going back upstairs.

Once the monks have collected their breakfast or second breakfast, we silently file upstairs. A severe looking young westerner sits near the window where he can see when the monks are nearly done collecting alms. We wait for him to move toward the stairs, then follow him up.

Standing on the raised walkway, a man calls out. We press our hands together and start a prayer. Silently, I listen. Nearly halfway through a man to my left always finds his voice, chiming in loudly. I murmur the last three words, before turning to the right with my try with the others, heading toward the alms collection area.

A thin red carpet, worn into the cracks of the floorboards below, wraps around a central prayer room. A few shave-headed nuns file in ahead of the foreign laymen, who are backed by the Burmese laymen.

Standing with our trays in hand, the line splits. A man in a hair net scoops rice with a giant wooden scooper out of a stainless steel vat. Smiling and nodding, we accept the rice, making our way down the cafeteria line. Volunteers dish up piles of freshly-made Burmese food into our bowls. Their are curries, chickpea sauces, fried veggies and milk tea.

We file in behind the monks to accept our breakfast in the morning and lunch, also in the morning. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Turning the corner, we're greeted by locals who've shown up to make unscheduled donations. They put packaged cakes, chili peppers, home-made curries and many other treats in our bowls or on our trays. A round faced, plump woman with a great smile serves up chunks of chicken in a delicious curry for us. Some days, at the end of the line, we're handed flowers or candles, one day a white roses is put on my tray. Another day I receive a steel cup; another day, Linghzhi Analgesic balm.

A sign at the beginning of the food procession asks that venerable Sangha only receive as much as they are able to eat. Determined, I sigh through troughs of rice and noodles the first few days, before learning the art of silently telling the donors to give me a lot less – a LOT less – and even skipping some items entirely.

Starring down at my white belly during a particularly hot day of afternoon meditation, I make up my mind to pull back on the sugar consumption, leading to only one milk tea a day and having to turn down nearly all of the packed snacks being offered to us.

Did I mention that all of this is free? It is the nature of a country so deeply devoted to Buddhism.

Here I am, a stranger to this country and stranger to this religion, yet they house me and they feed me. They provide the silence and teachings necessary for me to calm my mind and better myself.

Some monks eat in the dining hall. Others take their meal back to their home. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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