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Alms gathering

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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alms gathering (takuhatsu 托鉢)

Literally "holding up" or "requesting with" (taku ) the "alms bowl" (hatsu ). In the early stages of development of the Buddhist sangha in ancient India, wandering monks would obtain one meal a day (in the forenoon) by carrying their alms bowls past the homes of lay people and accepting whatever offerings of food were proffered. With the establishment of permanent monastic settlements, monasteries were allowed to accept food from lay patrons, store it, and provide regular communal meals for the monks in residence. In China and Japan, Buddhist monasteries received donations of arable land (worked by peasant farmers) and thus were sometimes able to produce their own food supplies or even put grains and oils on the market. Vegetable gardening by monks themselves in a practice known as communal labor (fushin samu 作務) was also a common feature of all Buddhist monasteries in medieval China, and that practice was continued in the Zen monasteries of Japan. Throughout all of these institutional developments, however, Buddhist monks never forgot the ancient practice of gathering alms food directly from lay people by approaching their dwellings holding an alms bowl.

In contemporary Japan, Zen monks engaged in alms gathering don the bamboo hat, white leggings, and straw sandals of a wandering monk (angya sō 行脚僧). They either carry a bowl or wear a bag around the neck that serves the same purpose, and the offerings they accept usually take the form of uncooked rice or cash. Monks engage in alms gathering either singly or in groups. They often form a line and walk through market places and residential neighborhoods, shouting "rain of dharma" (hō u 法雨) to announce their presence. When someone approaches with an offering they stop, receive it in the bowl or bag, then bow with gassho in thanks before resuming walking. In rural areas, alms gathering may involve a pre-arranged visit to local farmers at harvest time to receive their donations of rice, vegetables, or radishes for pickling. Alms-gathering is understood as a practice that has deep spiritual meaning, for it promotes humility and gratitude in monks and gives the laity an opportunity to make merit. The economic significance of alms-gathering is slight, however, so it is best understood as a ritual reenactment of the ancient Indian Buddhist practice.

Alms gathering (piṇḍapāta) is the means by which Buddhist monks and nuns get their food. This practice differs from begging. A beggar asks or pleads for alms whereas Buddhist monks and nuns only present themselves at the door of a potential donor, stand quietly for a few moments and after receiving something, move on. The Mahāvastu says: ‘The wise monk asks for nothing, the noble ones do not hint of their needs. They just stand and let their bowl be seen. This is how the noble ones gather alms.’ The bowl (patta) in which the food is received and later eaten out of, is one of the eight requisites of monks and nuns. The practice of gathering alms has almost died in Sri Lanka but is still common in Burma and Thailand.

See Turning Over The Bowl.