29 March, 2018
I’ve been on-the-go for a month now, and after traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia, today I completed my journey through Laos too. It’s the end of an enriching experience. I like traveling alone, for it’s then that the learnings it brings along have a deeper impact. It is the unhindered introspection and careless chats with short-span acquaintances that dot the journey with milestones for your mind. It gives one time and privacy to dive into every fleeting thought, understand people, scenarios, behaviours, and what, why, and hows of things better. There are moments that leave you in awe and completely shocked. I had a moment of those sorts today. It was the Alms Giving ceremony this morning. A very simple act, but also amongst the strongest I’ve encountered. It has put me in the introspective chair and left me with a warm heart and a set of teary eyes. This centuries-old tradition of offering the city monks their daily meals by the commoners in return of good karma and blessings for the future has stood the test of time, while retaining the truest of its essence.
At the break of dawn each morning, while the sun is yet to show its first sight but the clouds are in a myriad of blue, the orange-wrapped spirits from 35 pristine, thickly carved, golden, red, and white-hued wats sleepwalks the streets, in a formation of utmost discipline, displaying no emotion in self or on its faces, no pause but no pace in its walk, collecting its daily meal from the offerings of the lay people, merely moving its hands to collect and return, lost in the pursuit of its holiness and its own definition of Nirvana. As they walk the footpaths, the offerers sit on their knees, with heads hanging in utmost regard to not match the eye, hands rising with offerings in their bowls, for the monks to graciously receive, drawing quite the scene of how disciples would for their gurus in the mythological eras. As they proceed in peace, through the streets of Luang Prabang’s Old Quarters, their collection bowls fill to the brim. They return the excess to other for it to be offered to offered to the monks walking behind them. Else, it is delivered in to the baskets (not dustbins) placed besides sporadically, as denying the offerings is just not in their demeanour.
That made me think about these people making the offering to these monks. They are free willing locals who wake up daily in the dark of the night and cook simple fresh food. They gather street sides then, before the procession embarks from their temples, in their holistic wholesomeness, simply to indulge in the act of giving. Their dedication, the exchange, and unspoken communication, it’s divine to watch. These are locals who have very little on them, chances are they are biting into lesser than what they deserve, yet sharing in a good belief, compassion, religious commitment, or may be just in good feels. Whatever it be, it’s unreal.
It is not staged, nor it is just another spectacle for those unintroduced to the Laotian cultural. Such is the purity and sacristy of this tradition that only those who truly believe in providing, and mean to do it wholeheartedly and selflessly, with all due dedication and a neat heart, with no expectations of any returns of sorts whatsoever are allowed to offer alms. It ain’t for those wishing to indulge in it as a traveller to tick it off the list. The city holds display boards and instructions all around as a gentle reminder to those flocking its streets about the careful maintenance of ceremony rules, ensuring it don’t turn into just a touristic display over time. Extreme space is given to the monks, allowing no touching, no flashes or sounds from the cameras or observers, respectful distance is maintained, a dress code is followed, no chasing them after, no posing with them, nothing that could disturb them as they are also meditating during the entire ceremony.
Waking up as early as 3AM to prepare a meal for those monks is in itself no less of a Facebook-worthy act of champions for our lazy and Instagram-ready generation, which, if posted about, must earn us at least a few hundred likes and emojis, else it ain’t worth the effort, right!! We, we would rather sleep over our own hunger, for the sake of our short-term comfort, let alone doing that for someone else, someone unknown, especially knowing there’ll be others to feed anyway, just to ease your morality. Yet, all of this is done with all due heartfelt regard, and its genuinity by the locals. The religious beliefs binds the whole system, and there’s no corruption in it, no polluting the environment, no loudness, no dirt, no competition, just calm peace and relaxed way of how things should be. No crows of gloating, no self praises, no me over you, just selfless dedication to collect some good karma. If I did it just for one day, I can only imagine the goodfeels and the internal happiness it’d bring. I can understand why it could be addictive.
The ceremony made me think, as I sit looking at the pictures from this morning with a plate of fresh scrambled eggs breaky, crumbling under my skin, and in certain shame. And the more I think, the smaller, more insignificant, and morally-crushing I feel. Why do we do what we do? For praises, earning more comfort, and being seen as socially relevant? And then this, someone else leaving their daily comfort, for feeding others’ dedication and a way of living, with no praises to be gathered, and begone in the mist once done, by an unknown for the unknown. Whose rice is eaten, by whom, why did this act even take place, and why has it survived on a daily basis for centuries now? What happens when it rains? Do the monks sleep hungry? And then it’s me, running around in a circle of being socially relevant through my social media posts, wanting more money to spend on luxuries and experiences for self happiness and satisfaction, earning to spend, and spending not to always earn something back, indulging just for a short term pleasure, not a long term learning. We run, we burn ourselves, we earn praises, in likes and emojis, and then we die, all lost to the void of the black hole somewhere. And since we live more inwards, there’s very little space to feed the others, the thread of a human relationship seems flawed, its fibres tainted, and our souls fractured, don’t it?
Alms giving, though religiously bound, was such a thought provoking ceremony. It puts the onus on the provider, the subtle pressure to keep the heart warm before you put the alarm for a 3am morning, before you train your body mind and soul to wake up without an alarm before the end of the week, a lifestyle choice of sorts, all that willingly and happily. In the least developed Southeast Asian country, where earning a daily bread is a challenge, the challenged consciously delivers away a heartfelt, well cooked meal to the monks in return of inner peace, happiness, and content. And then the monks themselves. There’s all the reason to wake up early and collect their meals from the providers. But have you thought what if you were given food to eat than you could pick it as per choice, mood, and taste? And then what if it was the same meal on offer every freaking day of your life, the same meal? And what if it was just and always just, plain sticky rice and nothing else? And then what if it was given to you at 6AM while your dinner was to be at 8PM. Everyone knows sticky rice can’t be reheated!! Yet something inside you tells you to be happy at it, be gracious, and bless the provider. Would you be able to do that? I’m not really that kind, and am miles away from being that man.
And by the end of this run, when all were in awe and tad stuck to their grounds from what they just witnessed, I chased the tail of the monks’ procession to see where they went and what they did, maintaining a respectful distance though. What I saw crushed me to the crumbs. The monks carried on on an empty street before turning to their monasteries at the Wats they were at. But before they did, tiny hungry kids sat to receive food from them, and the monks, old and young alike, fed the hungry souls from their share of alms, filling their tummies with hope and promise of the future. An instant return of karma it seemed. It broke my heart of how the poor helps the poor to become rich, and the rich are actually the poorest from the heart. I was left numb and in shame at self. Mumm I returned to the hostel and slept, but waking up with self became a Herculean task. With such a concoction of emotional jiffies flying in my head, heart, and tummy it was hard to see myself in the mirror that day.
Sri Lanka and Bhutan left me humbled, so did Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and the mountain states of India. But this, this was a world that existed and I never knew of it, and now all of me wants to be it. May be not duplicating the act, but it’d be nice to pick from the principle and create a habitual act in our daily lives, an act of giving to the unknown, with no expectations in return, just feeding your soul and that kid within us who’s been crushed under the material chase in our concrete jungles. Let’s be a little more human than we are.