By Avril Henry
In ancient India, there existed a very vibrant community of giving amongst the Theravada monastics and the lay people. The form of giving was called Pindapata, which was the practice of gathering food or “alms-gathering” by the monastics. As we will soon see, this generosity was believed to be “full circle” as those that provided food also felt they gained something from their gesture.
The Theravada monastics are from one of the oldest schools of Buddhism and while it began in India, today we are only seeing it practiced in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. They never asked for food and only took it when offered. Yet, this was the only food they had since they were not allowed to prepare their own food. “The intention was for monastics to be free from the worldly burden of cooking and to make them dependent on the generosity of lay followers.”¹ As a bhikku (a Buddhist monk), they gave up all worldly possessions and never accepted money.
The monastics would set out for Pindapata shortly after sunrise. This would give them time for meditation and allow the laywomen in the community time to prepare the food. A first-hand account from an observer out on Pindapata wrote: “He walks…holding his bowl in his sling…he walks until it is apparent to him that a lay-supporter wishes to offer some food. How does he know this? Outside that house may be a little table on which food is placed; or lay-supporters may have invited him to take food from their house every day…Any of these things we may observe. We shall also see that he stops to take food from everyone who wishes to give.”²
Because the monastics would always take whatever was offered, they also practiced giving within the Monastery and would share leftover food with fellow Buddhists, workers and even animals that would happen to seek refuge with them. They would also share with their Teacher which they believed would result in some merit.
As told by Wisdom Quarterly about Pindapata, “Practiced correctly, it is giving ordinary people the opportunity to gain merit and to develop the wholesome character trait of generosity.” The Buddha believed so strongly in this that he “continued this practice even on returning to his affluent kingdom, which angered his father who was rich and able to support him. The Buddha was determined to offer everyone the opportunity to give. If no one gave, he went hungry.”³
Lay-supporters closely mirror today’s donor; and more specifically, a church supporter. The lay-supporters had the free will to give as they wished and the amount they chose, or were able to give. Some affluent people in the community would feed up to 80 monks each day. Some would give one monk a bit of rice, as that’s all they had. Many gave for one of the same reasons that Christians, and people of other religious affiliations give – for religious merit and spiritual education. We can also see the connection between the Theravadas monks and today’s priest or other minister; living by faith and the support of his or her church community and providing teachings on the Word of God in return.
Retrieved September 23, 2010, from:
Retrieved September 23, 2010, from: www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel073.html
Retrieved September 23, 2010, from: http://wisdomquarterly.blogspot.com/2009/04/gathering-alms-pindapata.html