When I was asked to accompany one of my Thai relatives to give alms to the Buddhist monks on her birthday, I was more than happy to. I must admit though, when she told me we had to get up at 5.30am, I did have to check to make sure I heard her correctly.
Aren’t birthdays supposed to be all about oneself? A day to wake up at leisure and to be showered with gifts from friends and loved ones? The one day a year you can be selfish and do what pleases you? Surely not a day for getting up at silly o’clock and giving to others?! From a young age Buddhism has been a big influence in my life so I know that birthdays are actually an ideal time to reflect, to be thankful, and to give, rather than receive.
One of the most basic of Buddhist teachings is that if you do good things, good things will be returned to you.
In the early hours of the morning, usually between 5.30am and 8am, monks and novices will leave their Wat (temple) and walk barefoot along the street to receive alms from the community. Fresh food, packaged food, drinks, flowers, toiletries, candles and incense sticks are common items given to the monks, which they will take back to the Wat and share. They will eat the fresh food that morning – for some monks, this may be their only meal for the day in line with their Buddhist ritual. This sacred practice is a way for lay people to connect with the monks and show respect.
A little bleary-eyed, we left the house at 6am to head for Wat Sri Soda at the foot of the Doi Suthep mountain in Chiang Mai. On route we bought some items from a local convenience store and some fresh items from a local street vendor. To save the monks having to carry a heavy alms bowl too far we waited close to the temple so that we could catch monks on their way back up the hill.
Some of the monks walk on their own, others in pairs or some in groups, with the eldest always being at the front. To show that you wish to offer them alms we held out our items about waist height and let them stop. It is important for you to take off your shoes before you approach the monks. We placed our items in the bowl (women have to be careful not to touch the monks), and then knelt on the floor with our head down. We pressed the palms of our hands together in a prayer-like fashion, which is referred to as wai – in Thai culture the wai is used to greet people and show respect. The monks then chanted a short blessing before moving on.
Once we had offered all of our alms we sat in front of the Wat Sri Soda shrine. In typical Buddhist tradition, I lit a candle and incense sticks while I reflected. I then put my lotus flower in the water, and placed a flower garland and small piece of gold leaf on the statue of the monk that used to head the area. These items are always available to buy at the Wat you are visiting.
Whenever I ask Thai people how they feel when they take part in these rituals they always come back with the same answer – it makes them happy. They find happiness in giving and offering merit, knowing they have done a good deed. For a Buddhist, I can see why waking up early to give alms is the perfect start to a very ‘happy’ birthday.
Please note – I am not a Buddhist expert. I write about my own experiences and understanding of the rituals I take part in.