Morning Alms in Luang Prabang
The night began with coughing fits, lying under thin sheets and wearing many layers of clothes and a black fleece hat. Mostly I regretted the boldness that told me my lingering cough would vanish on this journey. Of course, with half the planes filled with travelers in paroxysms of hacking illness, first from San Francisco to Taipei and on to Hanoi, Vientane and now Luang Prabang, my own illness grew worse. And I didn’t bring any Benedryl. At least I have this warm reconstituted soup, and a small cup of strong Lao tea.The intersection here at the Amatta Guest house is filled with women sweeping, some teenagers watching the final battle of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises on a TV under an awning. A large extended family converged yesterday on the neighboring home to celebrate and remember the life of a great local man, now one year gone.
They placed all he’d need for the afterlife in a spirit house. We have heard the drums and chants of monks reciting sutras day and night since we arrived. A German man, freakishly tall among the others, holds onto his sticky rice offerings for the monks we soon expect on their morning rounds, begging alms.
Slight hints of dawn in the sky, a last battle of feral cats, someone beats a pot like a cymbal. The Lao people chatter in good humor everywhere. On solid steel furniture beneath a mango tree trained full of orchids, we wait for the long lines of saffron robed monks.
Each procession arrives lead by the abbot and trailing at the last the young boys and most novice acolytes. String after string passes barefoot and with one bare shoulder in the cold, down the street, moving quickly, heads and eyebrows freshly shaved, lifting a plate from their begging bowls as small dollops of food are dropped in by locals. Then the plate goes back on top. Each temple comes in its own turn. Each face shaped by discipline, humility and kindness, perhaps a small doubt or burden of this renunciation. A giant overhanging bougainvillea offers purple contrast to their orange robes, both colors lighting up brighter with the growing light.
This happens here every day. The most quotidian and deeply meaningful ritual. They beg for food. You offer it so they may sustain these teachings. Very simple. And yet my thoughts turn to all the places it no longer happens. Like China and Tibet to the north, where this ritual is cast in the light of parasitic religion.
These teachings, the Buddha Dharma, for all their anachronisms, have exercised a transformative effect on my small life, and for that, I’m grateful.