Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Giving Alms in Luang Prabang (written by our volunteer Dawn)

Popular amongst any visitor to Luang Prabang, the practice of Giving Alms is certainly not a tourist attraction, although unfortunately for many people who visit they fail to remember that. In Buddhism, alms giving is the respect given by a lay Buddhist to a Buddhist monk, symbolising a connection to the spiritual realm and to show humbleness and respect. The act of alms giving assists in connecting the human to the monk to what he represents. During the day and night, GVI volunteers teach English to novice monks from many of the Wats in and around the Luang Prabang province. This experience of a lifetime provides us not only with the opportunity to teach them English, but for the volunteers to get to know on a personal basis a little more about the lives and culture of the boys and men who make up the large population of novice monks whose bright, orange robes, is synonymous to the landscape of this UNESCO protected town in Laos. However to further gain an appreciation and insight into the life of a novice monk, this week GVI volunteers undertook a challenge to participate in the Alms Giving ceremony for five mornings in a row. For most visitors, they will give Alms once. For GVI volunteers the challenge meant that we woke up every morning for a week at 5am. We dressed in the traditional Laos clothing and joined the local men and women for who the practice of giving alms is a daily ritual. Kneeling (women) or standing (men), we adopted the cultural requirements for giving Alms (not looking at the novices and not touching their baskets as we placed our food), and respectfully gave Alms to the four different groups of novice monks who passed. Of course you can't pick and choose if you are tired and just sleep in instead. And so over the course of the week, we all experienced a morning where the thought of getting out of bed made you just want to turn over and go back to sleep. However knowing our novice students wake every morning at 3am puts this in a bit of perspective. Instead we got up and got dressed, and along the way gained a little bit more respect for the commitment the novice monks have to their religious lifestyle. Of course you can't pick and choose the weather. And on Thursday morning mother nature woke us at 5am to a tropical thunderstorm, with rain absolutely pouring down. However knowing our novice students walk every morning rain, hail or shine, we got up, got dressed, grabbed a raincoat or umbrella, and took our place kneeling on the footpath. The rain soaked us from head to toe, the footpaths turned into rivers, and the act of giving alms became a little trickier as both students and novices alike worked silently together to ensure their baskets of food stayed as dry as could be. And after five days, our challenge is over. I'm sure the experience has meant something different for each individual volunteer. However I know that for all of us, the challenge has given us a first hand opportunity to pay our respect to the religion and practices of our students, and to share in a sacred part of their traditional daily lifestyle. And that the memories from our week of giving Alms will stay with each of us a long, long time after our volunteering in Luang Prabang has come to an end.