Thursday, March 10, 2011

Monks on Parade

Ever since I was confirmed a Lutheran at the Our Saviors Church in Phoenix when I was in the 7th grade, I've always highly respected others religious ceremonies and services. Our Pastor generously taught us many other religions and even mentioned that maybe being a Lutheran is not for everyone but it is important to have faith, something that provides you guidance and strength throughout your life.  With that bit of wisdom I never returned to the Lutheran church once I passed my confirmation studies. It wasn't the faith that dissuaded me but the fact the parish was guilting it's congregation into tithing to build a flashy new church which I didn't think was necessary to deliver the word of God.  

Our "Feed the Monks" guide
I have a bit of paranoia and guilt of straying from my base faith being out of respect for my Mother who introduced me into the Lutheran faith, though my father never participated in any of the Sunday activities because he was a Catholic and since he married a Lutheran he was no longer welcomed among his own flock so he didn't partake into anything at that point. I don't think he was too disappointed by the church's decision.

I remember working as a counselor at Camp Geronimo Boy Scout camp and deciding to attend the catch all Protestant Sunday service but it was too far of a hike at such an early time of the morning on my only day off so my cabin mate being Catholic invited me to his service which was within 50 yards of our front door. I went and much of the mombo jombo was close to what I was taught so I was feeling pretty good through most of the service, in fact I even nervously  took communion and at the end the service the Lords Prayer was recited and I was totally unaware the Catholics shortened the prayer by a long phrase which I loudly and confidently finished to the hush of everyone else including the piercing eye of the priest zeroing in on the heathen in the rear pew which was me. I spun around and dashed out the door never to return....until I married.    

The Monk morning treat
Sharon & I doing our spiritual duty....not.
It's impossible not to be introduced to many other faiths and beliefs while traveling the world. Religions come in many forms and some are obvious with passionate displays of places of worship, statues, and rituals so when we heard about the Buddhist monks morning collection of alms I was genuinely curious and agreed we should witness this ritual. This ritual wasn't new to me because I've been up at sunrise in Chiang Mai, Thailand to occasionally see a monk wonder down the small alley ways collecting the food gifts people leave out for them. It's very private and quiet in the cool morning dawn. This giving of alms in Luang Prabang begins at 6:30AM with a loud banging of a drum and 200 monks line up single file and walk on the south side of the main road through town collecting the prepared food items and some money into covered metal bowels with shoulder straps supporting them.

Waiting for goodies
But I'm getting ahead of myself, we left our guesthouse which was a single block from the main street at about 6AM and walked up to the corner before turning left and venturing another two blocks but before we reached the main boulevard a woman came up to us with a yoke type carrier carrying prepared alms made special for the monks. She convinced each of us to purchase about 10 small banana leaf wrapped items, a basket of sticky rice, and about a dozen small bananas to give to the monks. We accepted the offer which cost us about three dollars each. With the purchase from her she would pick a premium spot, place a ground cover down on the sidewalk, and provide a bowl to place all the gifts ready to distribute. We waited for the procession to reach us and as we waited bus loads of tourists arrived and suddenly this seemingly somber acceptance of alms has become a circus. Loads of Japanese tourists with cameras and lenses longer than my arm jostled for position and worked the young Lao children like a fashion model shoot, waiting to give their alms. Within minutes I caught a glimpse of the first monks that seemed to be the older ones and as the line lengthened the age seemed to diminish. At first I was very hesitant but then I was able to grab a wad of sticky rice, place it on a banana leaf bundle and drop it into one of the passing metal bowls. The bananas were easier, just break one off and drop it into the bowl. I worked quickly to try to rid myself of all the booty I had purchased when suddenly our native guide was shoveling more stuff into our bowls. Hey, wait...(we were tricked into doing all the work of handing out her food!) we did most of it and the 199th monk passed and I was done. We got up to go when our spiritual helper wanted much more money which I realized was a scam. I handed her a small additional amount and walked away much to her disappointment and our dismay.
A sincere devote

The sad part is most of the food items given to these monks was discarded to street kids or thrown out. The true intent was lost but we walked fast and got ahead of a good size section of the parade  and I did see sincere locals provide alms and a prayer so my deepest thoughts of this ritual was restored. Later I found there is a great push to prevent this tradition from being exploited by having tourists not participate and on lookers to stay clear of this daily event. In fact the people like the women who scammed us are looked down on because she is profiting from this ceremony.  I can certainly appreciate that because what I saw and experienced was nothing more than how Sharon described it as "Monk's Trick or Treating".

1 comment:

  1. Sad but true - at least you realized the problem - wonder why the monks participate at all there??