Spots of Time

November 11, 2003

The Monks Are Coming

It was 5:30 a.m. and dark outside my window. Despite these obstacles, I got up, got dressed and with my roommate Edith, a French-Canadian traveler, left the guesthouse and walked toward the main street.

We were not alone. As 6 a.m. approached, a handful of bleary-eyed tourists with cameras in their hands began to line the street outside our guesthouse. Girls carrying baskets of flowers, fruit and rice wrapped in banana leaves rushed forward. "Give monk," they said eagerly, trying to sell their wares.

Across the street, neighborhood women were preparing themselves. Kneeling barefoot on woven mats and wearing white blouses, phaa nung (traditional sarong skirts), and phaa biang (traditional sashes) they waited, a container of sticky rice before them. In the distance the flash of cameras illuminated the dark morning light and we knew the monks were coming.

The town of Luang Prabang, nestled on the banks of the Mekong River is home to hundreds of Buddhist monks. Every morning the monks rise before dawn to receive alms from the local residents, a core component of the Buddhist tradition of the country.

Buddhism is the predominant religion in Laos, as in most of South East Asia. "Discovered" by Siddhartha Gautama, a 6th century Indian prince, it spread from his native India eastward in two main schools - the Theravada school and the Mahayana school. Theravada Buddhism found its way to Laos in the 13th and 14th century. Thought to be more traditional and a less corrupted form of original Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism is also practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The ultimate goal of Theravada Buddhism is "nibbana" (nirvana) which is effectively a release from the constant cycle of rebirth that is one of the core beliefs of Buddhism. Buddhists believe that activities undertaken in this life will affect them in their next life – for example, those practicing good deeds in this life will look forward to a better existence in their next life – while the opposite be true for those that practice evil deeds.

In reality, most Buddhists don’t actively reach for nibbana - but through acts of merit (feeding monks, giving donations to temples, and regular worship) hope for increasingly "better" rebirths and a reduction in the number of future lives. As attainment of nibbana requires the giving up of all earthly attachments, monks are thought to be closer to nibbana than lay people.

From around the corner they came - a seemingly endless line of clean shaven monks dressed in identical saffron and orange robes, walking barefoot toward the women and carrying plain black-lacquered bowls hanging in orange crocheted shoulder slings. Passing the women, each monk lifted the copper-colored lid to his alms bowl so that she could deposit a small ball of rice, careful not to touch the bowl or the monk in the process. The monks proceeded down the line quickly and efficiently - yet without the appearance of haste - a smooth continuous motion associated with habitual practice and routine action.

It is socially expected that every Lao Buddhist male become a monk for a period of time in his life – usually between finishing school and the start of his career or marriage. The usual time is 3 months, but many wear the robes for a shorter or longer period of time. Boys may enter the monk hood as novices, or samanera, from the age of 12 years old. A family gains much merit when a son takes the robes, and since schooling in Laos is only free for children to the age of 12, many boys from poor families become novices as a way of continuing their education. The samanera adhere to 10 main precepts or vows – prohibitions regarding stealing, lying, killing, intoxication, sexual involvement, eating after noon, listening to music or dancing, wearing perfumes or adornments of any kind, sleeping on high beds and accepting money for personal use. Once a novice becomes a monk (beginning at 20 years old), he must follow 227 precepts.

In 1975 the Lao Patriotic Front (LPF) took over the country, creating the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos official name). The party platform included rhetoric regarding the preservation and respect of the Buddhist religion, and as a result, many monks threw their support behind the communist government. However, once the LPF took power, they banned the teaching of Buddhism in primary school and forbid the people to make merit by giving food to monks. As a result, monks were forced to raise food and tend to animals in direct violation of their vows.

A year later, after must protest from the people, the government raised the ban – but only to allow donations of rice. This was not satisfactory to the lay people (who felt that little merit could be earned by simply providing rice) or to monks (who had to continue to raise their own food). By the end of the year the ban was lifted completely, with the government even supplying its own donation of rice. Today most Lao people give only rice during the morning alms, while temple volunteers cook other dishes for the monks when they return.

After the last wave of monks had received rice, the women packed up their bowls and mats and returned toward their homes. Edith and I, now fully awake, wandered around the rest of the town, catching glimpses of similar alms giving near other temples. By 6:30 a.m., however, the colorfully clad men and boys had disappeared back to their respective wats for morning meditation and the streets were temporarily deserted. Soon the streets would be overtaken with bicycles and motorbikes, street vendors and shopkeepers, tourists and locals - all milling and mixing together, going about their business. But not quite yet. Even without their physical presence, the quiet early morning still belonged to the monks.