Tak-Bat: Giving Alms in Vientiane Laos
By James Michael Dorsey
In the black velvet hours before dawn, Vientiane, Laos awakens slowly and softly.
The crush of cars and motorbikes has not yet started; the stifling heat of midday is still hours away, and the brightly lit monasteries shimmer like Christmas ornaments. It is a city coated with religious fervor.
It is also the time when the deep indigo of the sky clashes with candle light and the brilliant saffron robes of an ancient ritual that is a photographers dream. It is time for Tak-Bat.
Laos is a deeply Buddhist country whose temples and monasteries dot the map like holes in a dart board. It is a land of politeness and smiles and the people you meet just before dawn are carrying offerings for Tak Bat, the ritual of alms giving to monks.
The life of a Buddhist monk is austere. For many it is the only path out of a life of poverty and the only means for obtaining an education. A majority of the male population becomes a monk, at least for a limited time.
For many families it is a matter of face, a tradition passed down through generations, for others it is a temporary curiosity, while for most it is a sacred calling. One is not required to remain in the religious life but may return to the secular world at will before any final vows are recited. In countries like Laos, monks are revered.
In Sanskrit as many of the old texts are written, monks are called Bhikkus and they vow to follow a set of 227 rules that prohibit harming all living things, stealing, sexual misconduct, gossip or malicious language and the use of alcohol or drugs. They are also not allowed to eat or handle money after midday.
In the early days of Buddhism, before there were monasteries, monks were wandering mendicants who literally relied on the kindness of strangers for their daily bread, or rice in this instance. Tak-Bat descends from that time. It is the perpetuation of an ancient tradition and ceremony of the people feeding their religious leaders.
The Buddhism of Laos follows the path of Theravada which means, “Teaching of the Elders.” It is one of three main branches of Buddhism that originated in northern India and Nepal in the sixth century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Southeast Asia until it was introduced to Cambodia and Laos in the 13th century via monks from Sri Lanka.
It is a personal religion that worships no deity but rather teaches self -control in order to release all attachment to the material world and achieve personal enlightenment. More than any other countries in Asia the people of Laos seem to embody the spirit of Theravada with their guileless personalities, self -effacing manner, and unending friendliness. Being in the presence of their monks is like being covered with butterflies.
Alms Are a Daily Routine
An important aspect of all schools of Buddhism is alms giving, and this is a daily routine across Laos, but it is taken to a new level each day on the streets of Vientiane. Across the city, lights come on shortly after midnight as people begin to prepare the local favorite of sweet sticky rice, sometimes laced with raisins, wrapping it in grape leaves to be eaten later with bare fingers. Children are sent outside to collect fresh flowers.
As the first pink rays of dawn streak the sky the people are already in place, lining the curbs outside of the cities’ 80 monasteries. Many kneel in the gutter, most sit on the curb as it is disrespectful to have ones’ head higher than a monk. Thousands of candles illuminate the morning streets giving the effect of an outdoor church.
Resplendent in Saffron
For a Christian it would amount to a priest saying a prayer of faith after being given a gift.