Monday, November 5, 2012

Meal Time at Abhayagiri

This is the second update of my 2-week trip to the Abhayagiri monastery.

One of thing that really struck me about being at monastery was an atmosphere of generosity and mutual support. It's hard to describe why I felt this way so I'll try to describe some of the basics.

Buddhist monks in this tradition cannot grow nor prepare their own food. Any food they eat must be given to them by a lay person (or Anagarika). In addition, they must receive their food between dawn and noon. In a very real sense, the monks are dependent on the lay people, otherwise they would have to leave (less they starve)! Similarly, the lay people come to the monastery, in part, to be around the monks. For me, a lot of it was for inspiration, curiosity, guidance, or just a sense of brotherly connection of those walking the same journey. Without the monks the monastery would be little different than a stretch of forest (perhaps a great place spend time and hike, but one without the community of like-minded friends).

So the monks and the lay people form a dependent relationship around generosity and trust. Without the monks sincere effort in living an upright life in pursuit of their goal, the lay people would lose their confidence and interest. Without the lay people's generosity and interest in the teachings, the monks could not sustain themselves.

The noon meal time was a pronounced time that this relationship came into full effect. I spent a number of days in the kitchen helping to prepare the meal. More experienced lay people or Anagarikas would lead the charge with the others chiming away to do what we could to make enough food. Every day there was a big pot of rice (and sometimes Thai-style sticky rice) and some sort of basic protein (like some sort of egg scramble). But there was always much more than that. We would make new dishes based on what was going old in the pantry so as to minimum food waste. If there were left-overs from the previous day, we would always use that too (unless it went bad). Many days lay people would bring in additional dishes like stir fries or other dishes. By the time the meal was served, we usually had on the order of 15+ dishes, arranged neatly on a bed of attractive serving dishes.

In addition, we had a number of other plates of food like salads, fresh fruits, soups, and desserts (lots and lots of desserts) also available to eat. On bigger days, we needed two or even three tables to lay out all the food. It was challenging balancing making enough food for everybody (monks and lay people) yet not making *too* much where things would have to go to waste. Drinks were a mish-mash of freshly-made apple juices to teas to donated cans of soda or even energy drinks.

More often than not, as the time approached 11am (when the meal was supposed to be finished), the pace would quicken and the tempo would step up as people would race to try to finish things as quickly as possible. Long ago, a very wise and kind person had taped the word "calm" over the kitchen clock, which helped me personally on a number of occasions. One day when there wasn't enough food, and the lead Anagarika ordered "PB&J!" which was code for a basket of bread and peanut butter and jelly jars. From my understanding, the monks really liked PB&J so it actually wasn't a bad thing at all.

Once the food was done, prepared, laid-out and the kitchen was reasonably clean, two of the kitchen workers would ring the two different bells signaling that lunch was ready. As explained in the previous post, two to three monks would come in and lay people would offer them each plate to be completely explicit that all the food and drink was offered to them.

After the monks received the food, the other monks (who were in the hall at the time) would come in single file, ordered by seniority, and place the food of their choosing in their alms-bowl. The Anagarikas, who are usually training to be monks to themselves, would file right after the monks. (The alms-bowl were actually pretty nice, donated stainless-steal which were kept rigorously clean by their owners. The alms-bowl were one of their few personal possessions.) While the monks and Anagarikas were getting their food, the lay people would grab a seat in the main hall. Monks would come in, one-by-one, into the hall with the food that they had taken and close the lid and wait patiently for the rest to arrive. All this was done in silence.

After all the monks returned to the main hall with their food, the lead monk would start a blessing chant. This was a really positive time for me especially after working hard in the kitchen because I got a chance to reflect on what I had just done, and I could genuinely feel that the blessing chant was, in part, for me. Afterwords, the monks would take off the lids off their alms-bowls, inspect the food and then recite the following together:
Wisely reflecting...I use alms-food. not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, but only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the holy life. Thinking thus, I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.
After this, the monks would then start eating in silence. The lay people would leave the hall and begin helping themselves to the food that was remaining (which was always way more than what we could possibly eat). Often their was a feeling of camaraderie and high spirits amongst the lay people having worked so hard to prepare this meal, we could take the food into our own plates or bowls, relax, and settle down for our meal of the day. Some lay people went off to eat quietly by themselves, but most people enjoyed the company of the others to chat and eat, perhaps on the porch or courtyard if was warm and sunny, or in the indoor annex by the kitchen if it was cold and rainy.

In the next update, I'll describe some of my experiences with the forest itself.