Long before Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love gave us a glimpse of a woman's journey inward, another American Woman embarked on an extraordinary journey of the soul at a Tibetan monastery in Thailand. Her name is Jane Hamilton-Merritt and she was a foreign correspondent, photographer and bush pilot in Vietnam and Laos during and after the Vietnam war and has become a strong defender of the Hmong people of Laos and activist during their persecution, torture flight, and for many forced repatriation. In the early 70's Hamilton-Merritt decided she wanted to learn and practice Theravada Buddhism and requested to enter as a student at the Wat Muang Mang Monastery in Chiang Mai Thailand. In a rare exception to their restrictions regarding women as students, Hamilton-Merritt was accepted.
In her diary of the experience "A Meditator's Diary: A Western Woman's Unique Experiences in Thailand Monasteries" she describes her first observation of the monk's alms bowl.
Another monk approached the gate, his alms collecting apparently completed for the day. A middle-aged Thai lady, neatly groomed in her ankle-length skirt so popular in the north, appeared from nowhere and called softly to him. He stopped at the call of her voice and turned around, keeping his eyes downcast. As he pulled back his robe to reveal his bowl, she hurried toward him carrying a reed tray filled with what appeared to be rice sweets packaged in green banana leaves and three white lotus buds. He took the lid from his bowl while she slipped out of her shoes before placing the food and flowers in his bowl. When she finished, she knelt on the ground and way-ed.
He never looked at her nor spoke to her. He slowly took the flowers from his bowl in order to put the lid back on and with the flowers and bowl tucked beneath his robes, he also, turned toward the gate.
The woman had made merit by giving food to the monk. The monk, in turn, was doing a good deed by being available so that the woman could make merit by giving him food. He was in no way begging.
And so it was - as it had been for centuries...
Her close up observation of this practice reminded me of another reference to the alms bowl that I read in Sue Bender's book Everyday Sacred that makes this practice a sort of parable for daily life. She describes getting an image of what she called a "begging bowl" as she was thinking about writing the book. She says:
All I knew about a begging bowl was that each day a monk goes out with his empty bowl in his hands. Whatever is placed in the bowl will be his nourishment for the day. I didn't know whether I was the monk or the bowl or the things that would fill the bowl or all three, but I trusted the words and the image completely...
Like the monk going out with his empty bowl, I set out to see what each day offered. I began noticing, the way an observer might, what I was doing - all my thoughts, feelings, and experiences that might be connected to everyday sacred...
...When I began looking, I found teachers everywhere. Some were officially designated "wise people." Others were not, but were equally wise...I learned from everything and everybody.
And her book is full of stories about that experience. And ever since I read that I get these occasional reminders to begin the day with my empty bowl, and offer it out to see what fills it. And then, so important, to accept whatever I receive as sacred.
At first I was going to say that the toughest part of that is accepting whatever I get that day. But really, the toughest part is receiving. Being open in the first place. To begin my day by letting go of maybe just a few of my preconceived ideas about life and people and the things that I encounter so that I can be open to receiving the sacred in all of those things. The act of humbly receiving can be at least as powerful as that of humbly giving. I'm not much good at it. But I have found a few wise teachers who have shared their experiences with me and made me more aware. A pretty good first step.
Today I am grateful to both Jane Hamilton-Meritt and to Sue Bender for what they shared through their writing and what I have been able to receive from them.