Luang Prabang VI: Monks and Alms

Laos > Luang Prabang



LUANG PRABANG, 04 Oct 2009


It’s 5am on a cool fine morning, and we are already in the main street of Luang Prabang. A cart selling foodstuff is in business. We are told that today is ‘Ork Phansa’ – the end of the Buddhist Lent – also to officially mark the end of the rainy season so that farmers can start preparing their plots for the next season. We feel really lucky to hit a major Buddhist event on this trip, thanks to Lord Buddha!
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Sleepy-looking kids are lining the kerb with containers in hand. Attending a religious event, so with the blessings of parents I presume. What are the containers for?
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Half an hour later, the crowd builds up. It’s looking like a major event. Ork Phansa happens on the full moon of the 11th month in the Buddhist calendar. The monks have spent the previous 3 months meditating and fasting, so Ork Phansa is a celebration for them, the end of their Lent. I guess just like our Hari Raya!
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A lady sells traditional offerings to be made to the monks. Ork Phansa is also special because it commemorates Lord Buddha’s return to Earth after spending 3 months in heaven.
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For this auspicious occasion, whole families turn up with the ladies looking their best.
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At precisely 6am, there is a hush as the monks from the nearby monastery appear.
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Led by the abbot of the monastery, the monks walk in single file to receive alms from the devotees, and everybody is in solemn reverence. But wait, there’re also devotees waiting to get alms from the monks.
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The huge bowls carried by the monks can overflow with alms, and are emptied periodically into pails or baskets carried by assistants who shuffle along.
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Each monk carries a bowl and a sling-bag. Alms are placed inside the bowl, and if the monk fancies any item, he transfers it into the sling-bag, sort of a private stash. Alms left in the bowl may be given away to other begging devotees or moved to the assistant’s containers.
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Impressive sight, barefooted monks, with freshly-shaved heads, in single file silently receiving alms and giving them away to deserving folks.
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The whole process is so clinical and noiseless – it’s an important religious event and everybody must learn to respect it, visitors especially. It takes place at the same time and place every day, normally outside monasteries scattered across the old quarter. However today is special and has a festive atmosphere, thanks to Ork Phansa.
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Soon a group of monks (led by the chief) arrive from another monastery to start the whole thing all over again.
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To participate in alms-giving, everyone must wear a sash. I remember wearing an orange sash when visiting the Hindu temples in Bali. At Angkor, nobody cares about sashes.
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The main traditional alm is glutinous rice, followed by cakes and sweets. Alms-giving has been practised here every morning for hundreds of years, as the townfolks provide daily sustenance for the monks, in return for ‘merit’. At the moment it’s estimated there are 16,000 people living in old Luang Prabang including 1,200 monks.
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Some of the alms given to the monks end up with these kids. I guess it’s a fun event for these youngsters to bag the sweets and biscuits from the monks.
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Anxious faces full of anticipation. Kids will always be kids.
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A family takes a breather in between entertaining groups of monks from various monasteries. By giving alms, Buddhists expect to earn ‘merit’ which would help them have a better next life, and finally liberation. This is a core concept in Theravada Buddhism, which is practised in Indochina, and thought to be closest to the original Buddhism.
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Another group of monks arrive and pass the entrance to Wat Hoxiang, a major temple in Luang Prabang, famous for its 7-headed naga guardians.
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The many devotees – either giving alms, or receiving them from the monks – form a long line into the distance.
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[TO BE CONTINUED …]

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