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Alms Bowl

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.

  The alms bowl is a symbol of the monastic, renunciant life - the life of the holy, truth seeker.

Well before the time of the Buddha wandering ascetics were quite common and the collection of alms food was usually part of their daily routine. This same lifestyle was followed by the Buddha for several years prior to his enlightenment. After enlightenment, as the order of monks and nuns (sangha) grew there was an increasing need to clarify the distinction between the sangha and 'wanderers of other sects' both externally as well as doctrinally. The standardisation of the robe [see: MONASTIC - REQUISITES] was part of this and the use of the bowl another. Much of this distinction was established through the vinaya [see: LIFESTYLE - MONASTIC] and there are several rules regarding the alms bowl. One of these being that food must be collected in a bowl - you can't use your bare hands, or a skull. In early times the bowl were made of either clay or forged iron. Clay bowls were easily broken. Iron bowls were fired several times to give them a carbon coating but this would have been quite thin and any scratches or chips would easily lead to their rusting. So, care was needed to protect the bowl and rules like: not putting the bowl too close to a doorway, or hanging it on a peg, or placing it on a hard surface or too close to the edge of a table or bench came to be part of monastic training. Bowls at the time of the Buddha were a lot smaller than they generally are today and the rule of 'not accepting more than three bowlfuls from one donor' [Pac. 34] (pointing mainly at the tendencies to greed and inconsideration) indicates this.

It is still the custom of the monks and nuns of the Theravadin, forest tradition to live as homeless wanderers. For several months of each year they might travel around the countryside living in forests or quiet areas on the edge of a town or village. Beginning at dawn each morning they would walk, with their alms bowl, through the surrounding inhabited areas. Those lay people who wished to offer support would put food into their bowls. The bowl, along with the shaven head and robes, is one of the main visual signs of a monk. Monastics traditionally have only a few basic possessions, the alms bowl being one of them. In fact, to ordain in the first place, it is necessary to have a sponsor to offer the bowl and robes.

Here are a few more pictures showing the relationship of monastics with the alms bowl.

Two monks set out in the English snow to the local village to collect alms.
Washing and drying the bowl - caring for personal requisites generally.
Collecting alms food during a large gathering at a time of celebration.