Thursday 11 November 2010

A Handful of Almonds

In the world of Theravada monasteries this is the ‘Kathina’ season. Kathina is a big event, in many monasteries the biggest event of the year. At any place where a Kathina is being held, you can hear the explanatory story: in the time of the Buddha a group of bhikkhus were making their way to where the Buddha was staying in order to spend the three-months Rains Retreat with him. However the monsoon rains had swelled the rivers and made the land impassable, so, deeply disappointed, the group had to spend the three months during which a bhikkhu is barred from wandering in a place nearby. Still, they settled into the situation as it was, and spent the Rains together in harmony. However as soon as the Retreat had concluded, they hastened to meet the Buddha before he started to move on. Hearing of their difficulties, the Buddha recommended that they make up a frame on which cloth could be stretched out to assist in sewing robes. This frame was called a ‘Kathina.’ He also stipulated that they should choose one of their number to receive a robe from this cloth, a robe that the others would all help in making. As the cloth would only accrue through the free-will generosity of lay people, this Kathina-event would set a happy seal, one of giving and working together, on the Rains retreat.

The tradition has carried on as a yearly event. The Sangha aren’t allowed to initiate it; so the Kathina is organized by the lay community. Therefore it has become a festival that celebrates both the harmony of the Sangha and the bond between the lay and monastic communities. I’m attending four Kathinas this month, but wherever you go in Theravada-land the scenario is much the same every year. The organizers themselves have generally been planning and inviting and gathering funds for the best part of a year, so that along with the robe-cloth there will be offerings of the range of requisites, including money, that the monastery may need to keep going. There will be free food and drinks for all, and in less strictly focused monasteries some light entertainment on the side. For bhikkhus and nuns it’s also a warm and lively occasion to which they often travel from afar just to visit their Dhamma-companions, ordained or not. So the social aspect of the event is a major factor - rather like Christmas or New Year, the aim is to bring together family and friends, as well as parties who have become estranged. In years gone by, a Kathina at Cittaviveka was held as an occasion for the various groups in the Cambodian community – supporters of the Khmer Rouge, Prince Sihanouk and Hun Sen – to find common ground. After a civil war in which a third of the population had died, the one thing they could get together around was offering alms to the Sangha.

In the West it’s also an occasion for Westerners to participate in a culture (as distinct from meditate, or study Dhamma). At first, the more serious types feel out of place: Kathina is anything but quiet - it’s crowded, and the overall mood is one of good-natured chaos. But as newcomers start to merge into the general flow of it all, a sense of belonging, of gratitude and of participation in a living tradition start to rise up. And this sense offers a precious heart-perspective on monasteries, Buddhism, and human beings in general. None of these, as one finds out, are ideal or perfect. And we can itch to understand them or set them straight. But when we meet the human experience through the focus of non-harming, generosity and participation, our minds turn around. Rather than fixing and judging, we can meet the good within this human condition and celebrate it. That brings up something precious and joyful in ourselves, and there’s a chance for a new start.

A friend of mine sent me series of reports from his travels in India; of which one small event in Ladakh stays in my mind. He was walking down a hillside-track and came across a woman standing doing nothing much (which is something you come across in places where there’s nothing much that can be done). As he passed by her, she reached out her hand and opened it. In it was a handful of almonds. My friend wondered what she wanted…money presumably - but he didn’t have any on him and made signs to that effect. But the woman just laughed a little and proffered the almonds. My friend took a few, cautiously at first; she gestured for him to take more. Eventually he got it: she just wanted to give him a handful of almonds!

Events like this, and the attitudes that they bring up are wonderful teachers. We can see on one hand, our own notions of payment and our nervous response to ‘free offers’ (‘Where’s the catch?’). We can calculate who deserves what and how much; we can feel embarrassed by generosity, or under an obligation to pay it all back somehow. And when those attitudes are seen and found to be unpleasant, as well as unnecessary, something realises how much we gain from meeting another person in a straightforward benevolent way. You feel stopped in your tracks, opened out of your calculating mind-set, and blessed with a new perspective: being here as a human is a co-operative project - join in or get stuck in yourself. The choice is to open up or be wretched.

Alms and the giving of them is not exclusively Buddhist. It’s one of the five duties of a practising Muslim, was the axis of the life of Christian friars, and as hospitality to the traveler (‘the guest is God in your home’ is the Indian maxim) is/was the norm in pre-industrialised cultures. In the wages- culture of course, giving alms doesn’t make sense. Claude Thomas, the Vietnam Veteran-turned Zen monk commented that on his cross-continental peace walks, he received greater welcome in Cambodia than in Ohio. It’s not that people are that different, but in societies where there’s an emphasis on being paid for work, on earning, deserving, and being independent, a stranger evokes unease. (‘What do they want from me?). In cultures where what counts is relationship to other people, where that rather than the company or the bank, is what sees you through, giving and sharing is common sense. It’s also a source of self-respect, and joy.

On this point, the Buddha was very clear:
Bhikkhus, if beings knew, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given nor would they allow the stain of meanness to obsess them and take root in their minds. ( Itivuttaka, ‘Ones’, 6).

However, people have to come to that conclusion by themselves; the spirit of Buddhist alms mendicancy is to make no demands. To the samanas the Buddha’s exhortation was to share whatever is freely offered - ‘even the contents of your alms-bowls’- with one’s companions. So an alms-culture is a special one. And once you appreciate the play of it, monasteries start to shine. For example, in the Kathina ceremony, all of the requisites ( sometimes truckloads) are offered to the one chosen individual. There is a great affirmative ‘Sadhu!’ - then an acknowledgement is chanted…and then the chosen individual announces that all the requisites he has received are to be shared out, or kept for the use of the entire community and for anyone who comes to practise in the monastery. So in the alms-culture, material stuff is steered away from gains and jealousy. Instead it gets passed around and brings people together. In the larger world, monasteries in Asia will channel their resources towards supporting hospitals, schools, orphanages or improvements in the local village. In the West, support goes towards producing free-distribution books and CDs, whilst surplus food, clothes and toiletries go to shelters for the homeless, hospices and the like. And the vast majority of all donations goes towards supporting these amazing places where you can stay and receive teachings free of charge.

This year’s Kathinas in our group of monasteries will also be the last occasions when Ven. Ajahn Sumedho will preside as Abbot of Amaravati. His immediate future at least is going to unfold in Thailand. So there is a prolonged leave-taking, and obviously a very poignant mood: sad, grateful and wishing him well. People are gathering to express their gratitude; and for the more elderly there is the sense of farewell. Having been with him in England since 1978, I’ve seen huge developments that have resulted from his teachings, and the places that have sprung up to support their being put into practice. He has offered a massive handful of Dhamma. But as he himself acknowledges, he and his Sangha have just tapped into and given full occasion for a flow of goodness that is triggered by examples of morality, renunciation and benevolence. And even more useful, when that flow starts generating good feeling and freedom from isolation, it doesn’t have to stop with supporting monasteries. It may be that as the global financial system totters around the edge of collapse, and as societies fragment into factions, giving and sharing will make fully clear the value of a handful of almonds.