The daily alms round practised by Palelai Buddhist Temple's monks in Singapore was started by our resident monk, Venerable Ajaan Keng, with the intention of educating the public regarding the Theravada Buddhist tradition's monastic way of living and of the mutual support between monastics and lay supporters. During the alms rounds, our volunteers (when available) who accompany the monks on their alms rounds will explain to the public that the alms bowl is meant for collecting donations of food and not monetary offerings. We also inform the public that monks of the Theravada Buddhist tradition only consume food between the break of dawn (around 6.45am) and 12 noon and therefore, they do not collect alms after 12.00 noon.
Moreover, they are forbidden to keep or store food after 12.00 noon. Buddhist monks depend on the support of well wishers for their four requisites of robes, food, shelter and medicine and Buddhist monks in turn provide spiritual guidance and advice to lay supporters. Also, these acts of benevolence gives lay supporters the opportunity to acquire merit that results from their kind intentions.
Alms food collection and consumption is a duty of the Theravada Buddhist monk and this is enshrined in the ordination procedure of the monk. As part of the ordination procedure, every newly ordained Theravada Buddhist monk will be given the following admonishment by his preceptor: "Going-Forth has alms-food as its support. For the rest of your life you are to endeavor at that."
Moreover, the alms food collection observance is dated back to the Buddha's time as can be seen from the Pindapataparisuddhi Sutta (Sutta 151 of the Majjhima Nikaya - translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi). In this sutta, the Buddha was having a conversation with Venerable Sariputta and he said
"So, Sariputta, if a bhikkhu should wish: 'May I now often abide in voidness,' he should consider thus: 'On the path by which I went to the village for alms, or in the place where I wandered for alms, or on the path by which I returned from the almsround, was there any desire, lust, hate, delusion, or aversion in my mind regarding forms cognizable by the eye? If, by so reviewing, he knows thus: 'On the path by which I went to the village for alms, or in the place where I wandered for alms, or on the path by which I returned from the almsround, there was desire, lust, hate, delusion, or aversion in my mind regarding forms cognizable by the eye,' then he should make an effort to abandon those evil unwholesome states. But if, by reviewing, he knows thus: 'On the path by which I went to the village for alms, and in the place where I wandered for alms, and on the path by which I returned from the almsround, there was no desire, lust, hate, delusion, or aversion in my mind regarding forms cognizable by the eye,' then he can abide happy and glad, training day and night in wholesome states."
From this, we can clearly see that the alms food collection observance is indeed part and parcel of the Buddha's practice as the Buddha was pointing to what a monk should be mindful of while on his alms round.
The Vinaya rules (commonly known as the Monastic code of conduct) also stipulate how monks should conduct themselves while collecting alms. In the Sekhiya or rules of training, rules number 27 to 30 emphasizes a monk’s behavior when he is receiving alms food. These four rules are as follows:
27. I will receive almsfood appreciatively: a training to be observed.
28. I will receive almsfood with attention focused on the bowl: a training to be observed.
29. I will receive almsfood with bean curry in proper proportion: a training to be observed.
30. I will receive almsfood level with the edge (of the bowl): a training to be observed.
"Pinda-carika bhikkhunam vattam", a verse from the Vinaya rules, means going on (his) rounds for alms, is part of a monk's daily duty.
From the four Sekhiya rules and the verse quoted above, a monk should observe the practice of receiving food with the alms bowl thus further emphasizing the importance of monks carrying out the observance of receiving food with the alms bowl.
The mode of alms collection between alms food collecting monks from Palelai Buddhist Temple and monetary alms collectors (bogus monks) differ in their behaviour during their alms round. Alms food collecting monks from Palelai Buddhist Temple do not walk around in hawker centres during their alms collection. Instead, they stand still outside the hawker centres with the alms bowl covered with a lid until confirmation is given by a food donor through visual indication of intention to offer food. Upon completion of the food offering into the alms bowl (Pindapata – falling of alms food into the alms bowl), alms food collecting monks will then again cover the alms bowl with the lid till the next well wisher shows an indication to offer. This is in contrast to a bogus monk who walks inside hawker centres in Singapore with their alms bowl opened as they walk from table to table. They also approach the hawker centre patrons at the tables and lower their alms bowl as an indication to seek monetary donations from the patrons. Another distinct difference is that food collecting monks do not carry any Buddhist pendants, amulets, or any other items to be given as a form of repayment to the donors. By their conduct, monks from Palelai Buddhist Temple aim to educate Singaporeans on the right type of alms to be offered and how it is to be received by monks. This they do by providing real life examples through going for their daily alms rounds in the right manners as expected of an alms food collecting monk.
During the initial stage of starting this observance in Singapore by our monks, the alms round were carried out daily at hawker centres around the Bedok and Tampines area at one location a day at around 8.30am. Not long after we started this practice, the hawkers and residents of the areas we covered became aware of the alms round practice by Theravada Buddhist monks and they happily offered food and rations to our monks during their alms round.
Presently, Venerable Jinadatta, one of our resident monks, goes for alms round daily at the hawker centre at Block 59, Bedok South Road from around 7.00am to 7.45am.
Venerable Jinadatta mentioned that he will be persistent in carrying out his daily food alms rounds as this is a duty and observance of Theravada Buddhist monks. Being persistent in this practice also allows a platform for monks to interact with the devotees during the alms round and thus strengthen the relationship between the Buddhist community of monks and lay devotees.
As for the other areas in Bedok and Tampines, our other resident monks will carry out the practice at the Bedok area on an adhoc basis as they travel around to Thailand and Malaysia frequently for the purpose of their practice.
Other than the alms round in public areas as mentioned above, alms rounds observances are also carried out in Palelai Buddhist Temple's compound during some of our Buddhist festival celebrations. These are usually carried out at around 9.00am with our monks going around the temple compound and devotees offering food and rations to the monks.
To ensure a correct understanding of the purpose of the Buddhist monk's alms bowl, our resident monks consume their meals from their alms bowl every Sunday, 11.00am at Palelai Buddhist Temple's dining hall. Devotees are encouraged to come to witness and understand the purpose of eating from the alms bowl.
In summary, the four levels of alms rounds practiced by Palelai Buddhist Temple's monks are as follows:
1. Daily alms round at Block 59, Bedok South Road from around 7.00am to 7.45am by Venerable Jinadatta.
2. Adhoc alms round at other areas in Bedok by the rest of our resident monks whenever they are in Singapore, to widen the coverage and to educate the public who has yet to hear of the practice at these areas.
3. Alms round during some of our Buddhist festival celebrations in Palelai Buddhist Temple's compound by our resident monks, usually at 9.00am.
4. Weekly alms food offering - every Sunday at 11 am, our members and devotees will gather in the dining hall and place food into our resident monks' alms bowls. The resident monks will then consume their food out of their alms bowls.
Through these practices, we hope to educate our members and the public at large that genuine Theravada Buddhist monks only accept food offerings in the alms bowl in contrast to bogus monks who have been soliciting monetary donations in public with alms bowls as reported by various news agencies over the past few years. The practice of alms food collection is a very dignified way to support the Buddhist monks' physical needs and it is conducted with sense restraint and mindfulness in the manner mentioned above.
Palelai Buddhist Temple and our resident monks will continue to support and practice alms food collection with the aim of adhering to the Theravada Buddhist monastic code and to educate Buddhists and the public at large on the reason and correct mode of carrying out this practice.