A R T   A N D   C U L T U R E   ии  M O N A S T I C  R E Q U I S I T E S

R  E  S  O  U   R  C  E  S

Alms bowl

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.


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.
Bowls can 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 people :)-].
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 [§]
Collecting 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 level.
    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:
"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."
There is more information on the bowl in SYMBOLS [§]
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.