Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
When I got back to Balangoda after my first rains retreat (Vassa), spent at Island Hermitage, my teacher, Ven. Ananda Maitreya, had already returned from his rains retreat in England. By now I had steeled my resolve to discuss the diet with him and make him understand my needs. He kindly heard me out and told me he would see what he could do.
Shortly afterwards he gave me a piece of good news. He had spoken to a well-to-do ayurvedic physician, a supporter of the temple who lived across from the rice fields, and asked him to provide for my daily meals. The physician took this as an honor. He would give money to a villager who lived down the road from the temple. The villager would cook at his home and bring me my mid-day meal each day.
I was hopeful this new arrangement would prove a satisfactory solution. I still received my breakfast from the temple, but I expected the main meal of the day would be more substantial than it had been before the rains retreat. Also, the number of novices in the temple had been reduced. Now only three or four remained; the others, I believe, had been shipped out to the pirivena, the monastic school on the other side of Balangoda.
For the first few weeks, the meals were indeed a great improvement over the previous year, and I believed that the problem had at last been solved. Breakfast still consisted mainly of the watery rice porridge, a slice of bread (with margarine and sugar for sweetener) or some cream crackers, a small banana, and tea. But the mid-day meal contained a variety of curries, fruit, and a sweet, sometimes even buffalo curd and palm honey, a delectable Sri Lankan desert regarded as something of a luxury.
My renewed hope, however, was to be shortlived. Before long, the meals again began to diminish in quality and quantity until they were not much different from what the temple itself was serving. The lunch would consist of white rice—which, though considered superior, actually has less nutritional value than the red country rice—a dahl and and two light vegetable curries, with a banana or slice of papaya. I do not know why the amount of food was reduced. I suspected that the villager charged with preparing my meals was pocketing funds he received from the ayurvedic physician, but I did not want to make accusations. Occasionally I would inform my teacher about my situation, and he would assure me that he would do something about it.
Usually I would receive quick proof that he was true to his word. The next morning, someone from the village would knock on my door early and bring in a breakfast platter with three courses: milk rice, hoppers or string hoppers with coconut gravy and a spicy chutney, fruit and sweets. Lunch would be even more ample, with a good serving of rice and three or four solid curries. But over the next few days, the meals would dwindle in quantity until we were back to where we had started before I registered the complaint. Again, after several months of this, the sharp pangs of hunger returned, along with the feelings of weakness and listlessness. And again, I tried to summon up my courage, patience, and fortitude to endure the situation without complaining.
Meanwhile, a monk from India named Ven. Saddharakkhita had come to stay at our temple. He was a pupil of Acharya Buddharakkhita, who was the chief incumbent of the Mahabodhi temple in Bangalore, also known for his popular translation of the Dhammapada. Ven. Saddharakkhita lived in a cottage on the other side of the main temple building. Disposed to an ascetic life style, he insisted on going on daily alms round for his mid-day meal, and apparently my teacher gave his consent to this. We became friends and would meet every few days to chat or discuss the Dhamma.
Ven. Saddharakkhita had a good knowledge of Pali and we decided to meet a couple of times a week to read together stories from the Dhammapada Commentary. One day I went to his cottage for our reading. Just inside, near the door, I saw a banana leaf on the floor with a heap of discarded food on it. When I was seated, Ven. Saddharakkhita asked me: “Did you see the dogs today? I have a lot of leftover food, but the dogs haven’t come around.” At once the thought occurred to me: “By heaven, the dogs here are eating better than I am,” and I burst into tears. Ven. Saddharakkhita asked me, “What’s wrong?” I then told him about my problem with the diet and said that I was feeling almost famished. He understood my condition and said to me, “You come with me on alms round. I’m getting more food than I need.”
Sometime earlier, Ven. Ananda Maitreya had been offered a piece of land in Maharagama, a suburb of Colombo, and there he was having a new temple built. This would have been more convenient for him since, as the chief prelate of the Amarapura Nikaya, he often had to attend ecclesiastical functions in Colombo. By the time Ven. Saddharakkhita came to stay at Udumulla, my teacher was spending almost all his time in Maharagama. I thus felt at liberty to cancel the meal arrangement with the physician and subsist on alms food.
From then on, until I left the Udumulla temple, I went with Ven. Saddharakkhita on daily alms round. We went to many villages throughout the area, some quite distant from the monastery. Rain or shine, we walked together across rice fields, up hills, and along narrow paths, which took us to hamlets tucked into the terrain that were invisible from the temple. Since monks on alms round are considered a great “field of merit,” the people gladly welcomed us and provided us with ample offerings, always well prepared.
Although the round took time—between one and two hours each morning—my predicament was finally solved. Moreover, I learned first hand the spiritual benefits that come from going on alms round, an observance the Buddha himself highly praised and made a pillar of the renunciant life. Although the practice is still observed almost universally by monks in Thailand and Burma, in Sri Lanka it had almost fallen into oblivion, to the detriment of Buddhism itself.
The alms round became something that I came to relish and joyfully anticipated each day. The practice creates a strong bond of affection between the monks and the lay devotees. It gives the lay folk a chance to see monks; it strengthens their faith in the Buddha and their devotion to the Sangha; and it reminds them of a transcendent dimension tranquil and majestic behind the commotion of their daily lives. Although it seems, from an external perspective, that the lay people are giving something to the monks, whose role is that of merely passive recipients, from an internal perspective the exchange is mutual. In truth, it is the monastics who make the more precious contribution. With their ocher robes, alms bowls slung over their shoulders, and mindful gait, the monks represent the presence of the Buddha in the midst of this conditioned world. While engaged in their own quest for the final goal, the monks give the laity the opportunity to acquire the merit that will eventually culminate in their own attainment of nirvana. The alms round thus unites monks and lay people in a bond of shared commitment to the Buddhist goal, which each strives for in the way that best fits their own station in life.
Each day, after we concluded our round, we would return to the temple with more than sufficient food for ourselves. We happily supplied the young monks in the temple with our extra rice and curries, and we also had enough food to give to the children of a man who worked in the temple. In March 1975, Ven. Saddharakkhita was to return to his monastery in India and he invited me to join him. We traveled to India by train and ferry, and this marked the end of my stay at the Udumulla temple.
Never again have I ever had to endure the pangs and debilitation of hunger over such an extended period of time, but I had learned a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my life. I had experienced hunger, not merely as a growl in the stomach that can be easily appeased by a meal or snack, but as an incessant demand rising up from the cells of one’s body, a demand that one is unable to silence. I have known what it means to anticipate each meal with eager expectation, and then plunge into disappointment and gloom when the food is not sufficient to stay one’s hunger. Whenever I hear or read about those condemned to go hungry every day, I have an inkling of what they are going through and my heart’s strings resonate with them.
It was for this reason that, back in 2008 when we had to choose a specific mission for Buddhist Global Relief, I proposed the problem of global hunger. While the hunger that I experienced back in 1973-74 may have been only a fraction of the hunger that daily afflicts people living in endemic poverty, usually for years on end, I can easily imagine their suffering and a force swells up in me asking me to reduce their suffering. I don’t want anyone to have to endure the pains of hunger or to pass their days gripped by by the body’s demand for food. If I can help to rescue even a few people from such a cruel fate, I consider this a worthy effort.