Sunday, December 7, 2008
Tak Bat is the Laos ritual of giving alms to the Buddhist Monks. Every morning at 4:00 AM the monks awaken to the sound of drums. If you are staying near a Wat, you too will awaken at 4:00 AM to the sound of drums. They then meditate and chant for the next two hours. At 6:00 AM, just as the sun is beginning to rise, the novice monks travel the streets collecting the food that they will eat for the day. Since monks do not grow or purchase food, they are dependent on the community for their nourishment. The community takes care of their monks and in exchange, the monks tend to the spiritual needs of the community. It is a symbiotic relationship that has existed for hundreds of years and the ritual of Tak Bat is quite a beautiful site to witness and to participate in.
At dawn, you head out to the streets having prepared your offering (or at least ordered it) the night before. The most common offering is sticky rice, however, you can offer fresh fruit, candy or really anything that you desire. You lay out your bamboo woven mat on the cold ground, remove your shoes, sit down, place your basket of warm sticky rice in front of you and wait. In just a short time, a sea of orange will round the corner and you rise to your knees. The monks approach you wearing nothing other than their robes,which aren't all that warm. Their feet are bare against the cold pavement. As they walk up to you, you reach out with your right hand holding that which you are offering them and place it in their alms bowl. You do this in silence and with a bowed head. There should be no eye contact at all. You make an offering to each monk as they pass until the line has ended. At that point there may be a break until the next line of monks reaches your street.
It is difficult to give alms during Tak Bat and take pictures at the same time. If you want to take pictures, the community asks that you do so at a distance so as not to detract from the ritual. They understand the tourists' desire to document this event but at the same time, they are trying to maintain their ritual with the dignity it deserves. Unfortunately, despite the fact that there are many signs posted of the Do's and Dont's of Tak Bat, many tourists are in the monks' faces with their cameras. It's quite sad and degrading.
We as a family participated in Tak Bat one very cold morning here in Luang Prabang. We ordered baskets of sticky rice from our guesthouse the night before which were waiting for us when we got up. We stationed ourself just in front of our guesthouse and waited. As the first monks rounded the corner there was a feeling of anticipation – we were about to take part in a ritual that has been done in this part of the world “forever.” It felt very peaceful and solemn and touched a deep part of my soul. There were fewer monks than we had expected but it was a rewarding experience none the less. This morning I went out again by myself. This time I went to a different location, closer to one of the town's many Wats, with my basket of sticky rice and a kilo of clementines. I watched as the locals held their rice basket in prayer and I too held my basket in prayer for my Mother who is sick at home. I then handed out all of my rice and clementines.
It must be a humbling practice to rely on others for the source of your food. It certainly felt like a humbling practice to ask others for spiritual help for my Mother.