The giving of alms to monks is a part of daily life which is closely associated with Laos culture and it has a special significance not always understood by non-Buddhists.
Alms Giving Tradition in Buddhism
In Western cultures the giving of alms, in terms of food, money or other gifts, is perceived as an act of charity. In much of the world the giving of charity is a value laden activity differentiating the rich from the poor, and raising questions about the difference between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. In Asian Buddhist culture, particularly in the Theravada school of Buddhist practiced in much of South East Asia and Sri Lanka, the giving of alms is not perceived of as charity. The lay person who gives alms does so as an act of respect to the monk, and in turn the monk who receives the alms is showing humility in being dependent on the assistance of the lay community and following the teachings of the Lord Buddha in holding no wealth and having a minimal number of possessions.
There are few things to note about the giving of alms:
- In Theravada Buddhism it often, but not always, happens very early in the morning with the monks silently walking around the local area collecting offerings from people who line up waiting for the monks to come outside their home or in the street. The other type of alms giving ceremony happens at temples on important religious observations, such as the day of the full moon, when the faithful visit the monks at the temple and give them food.
- Only food, and sometimes basic sanitary good like soap, are given. Money or cigarettes or alcohol is never offered.
- For Buddhists the reason behind the giving of the alms is as important as the act of giving. The Buddhist scriptures identify 8 reasons for giving alms, and many of the reasons are selfish. The giving of alms for the right reasons is generally considered an important first step on the path to enlightenment.
Attending an Alms Giving Ceremony in Laos
The Sai Bat ceremony happens across Laos, and indeed in most town an villages in neighbouring Thailand, but the Laos incarnation of the ceremony is most closely associated with the city of Luang Prabang. This is because Luang Prabang has around 30 active temples housing thousands of monks. About 200 of these monks takes part in a daily alms giving ceremony that follows a designated route around the historic centre of Luang Prabang along major streets and past famous temples such as Wat Xieng Thong and past the former Royal Palace. This procession of monks in Luang Prabang, which takes place from 05:30 to 06:30 or 06:00 to 07:00 depending on the season, has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Hotels and tour companies offer guided trips to the ceremony and provide food for tourists to give to the monks, and for those tourists attending independently there are vendors selling packs of sticky rice for the purpose of giving to the monks.
Ethical questions are often raised about tourists participating this religious event. If you are unsure about whether to go to the Sai Bat the answer is very simple. Its fine to go to see it from a respectful distance, but not to participate in the ceremony unless you are a practicing Buddhist. The giving of alms to Buddhist monks is similar to the taking of Holy Communion from a priest by believers in Catholic faith in the sense of the ceremony being a sacred interaction between clergy and lay people. It is as inappropriate for a non-Buddhist to give alms to a monk as it would be for a non-Catholic to take the wine and bread from a priest in church.