It is understandable in a culture where there is a compelling standard of self-reliance and independence to mistrust the aims behind alms mendicancy — living on the generosity of others. As this is central, I thought to explain some of the premises upon which it was established.
In the Theravada Buddhist Forest tradition, a contemplative’s sole aim is to awaken. This means to understand how suffering is created and to create the conditions whereby suffering and stress ends. In dedicating one’s life to this goal, one is then in a position to share that understanding with others who are interested. Alms mendicancy supports that aim.
It is universally true that there is suffering and stress in our lives and our world and that everyone wants to be happy. When one examines the myriad ways individuals suffer and experience stress, in many instances it becomes clear that the cause of suffering isn’t how things are but how one is relating to how things are. Secondly, when one looks further, it is the desire for things to be a certain way or to get rid of certain things that perpetuates stress. When one realizes the role that desire plays with suffering, understanding one’s relationship with it is central if one’s goal is awakening. Through alms mendicancy, a monastic is repeatedly placed in a position to consider the nature of desire and one’s relationship to it. In other words, it forces one to practice and, paradoxically, brings a degree of freedom that is rare.
Secondly, in establishing alms mendicancy as the sole means by which this particular order of contemplatives may obtain their livelihood, one does away with the need for a central organizing committee to oversee the integrity, commitment and way of valuing what is being offered. If the local community doesn’t feel the monastics are living with integrity, if they feel that the way that they live and the effect of drawing near to them has no value, people simply do not support them.
Lastly, when there are people who live with a high level of honesty, harmlessness, and restraint and experience compassion, joy and peace independent of outside circumstances, many are in a position to benefit from drawing near. Alms mendicancy highlights the completely interdependent relationship between the monastics and the people supporting them, ensuring that the benefits spread throughout the community.
Following the Buddha’s own teaching, and in the spirit of free inquiry, it isn’t what others say that is important, but what you know yourself to be true. With that I would like to warmly welcome and invite all to come and see for yourselves what the effect is of being around monastics living as alms mendicants. It is important to know that in monasteries where I have lived only a percentage of the people visiting are Buddhists. People are welcome as they are and there is no encouragement for them to adopt a different faith. What we offer, we offer freely. From the perspective of understanding what it means to stop suffering and live with peace, joy and contentment, there is no price that can reflect what is priceless. When people feel the benefit, their natural inclination is to support.