Alms Offering: A Buddhist Ritual

Alms Offering in Beautiful Burma. Feb. 2008

I am writing this post at 3:30 am in my guesthouse in Luang Prabang, Lao (a world heritage town).  As a Buddhist and a mother, I’m feeling anxious to participate in the alms giving ceremony and ritual with M in less than three-hours.

This is a ritual I grew up witnessing and participated as a child in Burma. This is a ritual practiced all over Burma. How lucky a Buddhist am I to behold this experience and share it with M and J in Luang Prabang.

Alms Offering to Burmese Monks. Burma. Feb. 2008

UPDATE: Today, 16 Feb 2011, we participated in the alms offering ceremony (along with few tourists offering alms, many acting like paparazzi flashing away as if they were on the red carpet).  Many tourists showed up to take pictures,but NOT from a distant.. more like “in your face approach!”    Several showed up completely inappropriately dressed as if they are out at the park and not at an age-old religious ceremony.  There were many locals, but many selling items to tourists to use for alms giving.  Only a handful in our areas were Laos people.  It felt a bit awkward.

I had a lot of time to observe and witness prior to the arrival of the Monks.  However, during the ceremony, I did my best focused on being present for the ceremony.  It felt surreal.  As the senior and junior saffron-robbed-monks approached from both sides of the direction, I reminded M of the important rules for us to follow while offering alms.

– we need to use our right hand or both hands to offer (never the left hand)

– we keep our head lower than the monks

– we make little eye contact

– we bow our heads and pay respect when possible

– we dress appropriately which means covered shoulders, midriff, and legs, and drape a scarf along the left shoulder

An Important note to photographers: I realize this is a fascinating photo opportunity. We took pictures too.  But PLEASE, try to remember NOT being in the way or disruptive when taking pictures.  Be kind, be polite and respectful to the procession, the monks, those participating in the alms offering ritual.  Use zoom lens, that’s what they’re made for.  Don’t use flash if at all possible.  Don’t be an obvious ignorant and arrogant tourist.  Do the right thing!

If  you see this inappropriateness, make time to educate otheres.

It is posted everywhere in hotels, restaurant reminding tourists to be respectful of the daily event.

Read our post on Do’s and Dont’s when visiting a Buddhist temple anywhere in the world.

Lonely Planet dedicated a section on how to behave and dress appropriately during this important ritual.  Please read it!

Overall, I am grateful I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the ceremony.

I do look forward to the day when we are in Burma again to participate in the alms offering without the imposing tourists and the flashes.   Hopefully this will happen in a couple of months.

For now, we will do the offering again on Friday which is  full-moon, a Buddhist holiday, and hopefully this time in a different location.  For now, we are relishing our time and spiritual moments in Luang Prabang.

Alms offering at dawn in Luang Prabang, Lao. Feb. 2011.
Our participation in the ritual.

Message to M:  “It is in ‘Giving’ that We Receive the Greatest Gift of All!”  Unknown

We Say NO to the Status Quo.

Live Green.  Live Small.  Give Large. Take Little.

Take Notice.  Take Action


15 thoughts on “Alms Offering: A Buddhist Ritual

  1. Beautiful photo essay and tips.

    I gave alms recently. It was my first time and what a calming experience it was! There is so much to learn in every culture.

    I would appreciate if you read mine and see how it feels to witness this for the first time.

  2. I agree about being a guest when we travel, and it should be a privilege to be able to practice as the locals do, to show respect to the culture. One very simple example is learning about the significance of touch in various places in Asia. In Thailand for instance, if a monk brushes against a woman or any clothing of a woman, he has to go through a purification ceremony and he’s basically in a lot of trouble, so in crowded places like the market, it’s always better as a female traveler to avoid walking close to monks. Another one is touching someone’s head–even children’s heads. I’ve seen some folks just think nothing of touching kids’ hair or tops of their heads. I realize it may be because they want to be friendly and this is how you praise a kid back home, but here it is rude. I cringe when I see tourists who do not understand…when the guidebook sales are skyrocketing and there are so many travel blogs that give you advice about places, people, and customs, it seems the traveler’s responsibility to find out how they can be gracious guests to the host country, and be ambassadors of culture for their own.

  3. When I lived in Europe, Buddhism was a religion I had only heard of, since I’ve been living in China I’ve visited so many Buddhist temples, witnessed to many rituals both in Shanghai and little towns around. Both temples and rituals are very colorful, it’s still pretty unknown to me, but I’m trying to understand it little by little. Understanding the spirituality of a place reveals so much of that society, I find this very fascinating.

  4. Giving alms is the ready joyful things in life. In singapore, we have many buddhist temples but we have no chance to offer alms but we can give donations to the temples.
    Here, we also have monks to give lectures on buddhism,
    I find we all human beings need to learn buddha’s teaching because this is the education for all races, all religion.
    In buddhism, we know all must do all good things
    1. No killing of any animals-compassion.
    2. Treat all animals and things with respect.
    The teachings always enlighten me.
    Thanks for your information.

  5. So beautiful, and I am so grateful for you to have these experiences w/ M. She will look back and be so appreciative when she’s older!

    AND I can’t wait until you 3 get here so you can help me unravel more of the mysteries of Buddhism here – it’s quite a bit different than Thailand. Miss you!!

  6. This brings back a lot of memories of Burma for me as well. Although I didn’t grow up there, every time I return to visit family, we always head to Sagaing to offer alms to the monks at the family monastery. My time there are some of my most memorable and favorite experiences of Burma. I’m so happy that you shared this with your daughter!

  7. Beautiful Photo essay. When we were there I was torn between taking photos and being respectful to the Monks. I went an observed the first morning and participated in the the morning offerings. Later that day I went to one of the monasteries to talk with the monks and hang out for a couple of hours. I was amazing to chat with one monk that shared so much knowledge not only about his religion but also his knowledge of the world. He later informed me that they don’t mind tourists taking photographs from a distance, as long as they are being respectful during the morning offerings. The next morning I woke up and went out to take a few snaps after seeking approval and saw the same monk in the morning – who shot me a wink as he walked by. I love Luang Prabang and the atmosphere surrounding it. Nice shots.

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