Every morning in Theravada Buddhist societies, the monks gather their alms bowls around 6AM. Drums wake the people to notify them that the monks are coming. Once they hear the drums, the people come out and sit on the ground.
The monks then walk throughout their neighborhood collecting food they will eat for the day. The monks receive no other food as they’re not allowed to cook for themselves or do physical labor. The community members sit with their rice and fruit and give one portion to the monks that pass.
The tradition dates back to the time of the Buddha. When the Buddha created the first monastic order after his enlightenment, his followers would also have alms bowls and walk throughout the towns. As an act of selflessness and communalism, people make offerings to the monks and get merit in return for giving the monks food. The more that you give to the monastic order, it will benefit you in the next life.
There is a high density of temples and many monks in Luang Prabang, and it is a beautiful sight to witness the sunrise tradition of giving alms. As observers, we need to show respect by sitting on the ground, bowing lower than the monks, and not getting too close with cameras. What appears exotic to us is everyday life for others. The appreciation of such a tradition lies in knowing that it exists for a greater spiritual purpose.
Special thanks to Tiffany Hacker, M.A. for sharing her Theravada Buddhism expertise.
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