bowl, bag and lid
cloth strip bag
orange - yes
skull - no
The alms bowl - along with the robes - is a
necessary requisite to be eligible for ordination. Its
primary use is to collect food and as such it is a very powerful reminder,
for monastics and laity alike, of the renunciation taken up in pursuit
of the holy life. The vinaya training means that monastics don't keep
food beyond midday so every day begins anew and there is no certainty
that food will be offered.
be made of either clay or iron (this now includes stainless
steel). Both of these would be 'fired'. In the time of the Buddha
a clay bowl was fired twice to make sure it was properly hard. Iron
bowls were fired five times to build up a carbon coating to prevent
them from rusting. Although stainless steel bowls won't rust they
are still fired (usually only once to 'discolour' them) and for a
monk-to-be firing the bowl is part of the ordination rite-of-passage.
This is often the occasion for an informal celebration at the fire
with one's peers. Because of the delicacy (and replacement expense)
of the early bowls there are many vinaya rules to ensure that they
are well cared for [e.g. not scraping, banging or chipping them].
In some traditions junior monks will be given a clay bowl for their
first five years to practically establish the care required and engender
respect for the bowl as a symbol of the holy life.
The vinaya specifies that
bowls may not be made of: wood
(it splits and will hold food - and disease), gold, silver, pearl,
beryl, crystal, bronze (these are all expensive materials), glass
(expensive and splinters kill), lead or copper (toxic materials -
this now also includes aluminium).
There is a story of a monk
who lost his bowl but found a human skull so thought that he would
use that instead. It completely freaked the lay people out and they
complained to the Buddha who said: 'No skulls!'
The bowl is usually stored
and carried in a cloth or crocheted bag, both for protection
and ease of carrying.
As well as being used for
collecting food the bowl can act as a carryall.
This is quite common for wandering monastics who have to carry all
their possessions. Great care would be taken however to ensure that
any hard items were well wrapped so as not to scratch or damage the
bowl in any way.
Although the bowl is very
strongly connected with the collection and eating of alms food monastics
are not obliged to use it on all occasions. In the West the bowl is
still commonly used but in some situations it is more 'workable' or
practical at tables using plates [just like normal
There is a definite distinction
between begging and collecting alms.
In the case of the latter the monastic will not directly ask for anything
but will present themselves in such a way as to be able to receive
offerings. In Thailand the modesty of the monk is such that the bowl
is carried on its strap under the robe. Almost everyone recognises
the situation - the time of day, the monks walking quietly down the
road, the shape of the bowl visible under the robe - and because of
this familiarity the process of offering and receiving is usually
very graceful and can be carried out in silence. In a tropical climate
it is common that all food for the day is cooked in the cool of the
early morning so if monastics arrive unexpectedly extra food can easily
be cooked to replace that given. There are several pictures and further
explanation on alms giving under LIFESTYLE - RITUAL
alms food in the West can be a very interesting and rewarding
process with gains on many levels. There is obviously the food gained
(quite necessary) but for me the greatest gain is on the human, interactive
There I am, standing in the High Street (outside
the supermarket or bread shop or in the shopping mall - where all
the people are) in an unfamiliar town where nobody knows me, draped
in what looks to most people like a brown bed-sheet with what could
be a drum (or something) hanging round my neck. Unlike Thailand the
bowl needs to be prominently on display - often with the lid off so
it looks less like a drum and more like something for putting things
in. I know I look conspicuous - that's the whole idea - not
just so people will see me, and hopefully give me something, but so
they see me and perhaps connect with something 'spiritual' - awaken
to their own 'holiness'. When someone does approach me it is almost
always through the qualities one associates with goodness (holiness,
religion, truth, love, etc.) and joy is the
flavour of the moment - whether they end up giving me any
food or not becomes (almost) irrelevant.
The traditional reflection
on alms food:
more information on the bowl in SYMBOLS
| "Properly considering alms food I will
use it: not for sense pleasure or beautification of the body but
simply for the survival and maintenance of this body, for keeping
it healthy as a support for the holy life. I will eat with the
intention to remove hunger but not to overeat, so that I can live
blamelessly and at ease."
To keep the bowl off the
ground various types of stands can
be found. The range of designs is considerable and I have seen collapsible
plastic types for ease of travel, relatively intricate bamboo and cane,
rubber rings, spun aluminium, turned wooden, twisted cloth, etc.. Some
of these can be wonderfully crafted creations.