Last year I was residing in Luang Prabang, Laos for a short time time – a very charming French colonial town at the confluence of two rivers – the mighty Mekong and Khan. In this small town there are more than 30 buddhist temples or wats and every morning at 5am the amicable monks would walk about town collecting alms. It is a local ritual performed with graceful serenity.
I participated in this time honoured ritual on a clear warm morning. As I walked down one of the backstreets in the tranquil first light, locals were gathering about sitting on tiny stools waiting to give their alms. A lady beckoned me over to sit on her stool. I obliged and she put a shawl around my neck and gave me some cooked warm sticky rice in a bamboo bowl. The monk procession arrived and they come clustered in groups. I supposed each group was from a different Wat. I followed other peoples lead and began to put a small 4 finger-full amount of sticky rice into the monks bowls as they passed. The generous lady ran out of rice and so I got some cash out.
Well the energy of the procession changed in an instant. The cash quickened the monks steps as their gait turned from what felt like early morning shuffling to a peak hour rush and I ran out of cash lickity split — like in about 15 seconds. The monks were still filing passed when the lady opened her palm and said money, money.
Of course — silly me. The rice ain’t free, even in the sacred art of giving alms; she is running an operation here. I explained that I gave it all to the monks (which was true) out of goodness, kindness and a connection to the magnanimousness of the all seeing all knowing Great Spirit (which I like to think was true). She grumbled and mumbled and quickly whipped the shawl from around my neck, nudging me and commanding me to get off the stool. With the monks still collecting alms she collected her mat continuing to grumble.
Once all the monks had passed I eventually returned to my hotel. Only to find that after coming out of my room for breakfast the woman had followed me and was waiting outside our door with a demanding hand thrust out. I collected some cash and presented it to her. She took the cash, grumbled some more and left.
Brian: “There’s no pleasing some people”
Ex-leper: “That’s just what Jesus said sir”
Despite the obvious frustration of my rice dispenser it was still a lovely morning as you can read in my other piece on the event.
But it did get me thinking about spirituality and money. People see their spirituality as a connection to nature, the God Force, a blue bird, the verging Mary, how many times you visit the synagogue or whatever floats their boat; but usually it is bound tightly to matters of finance.
After travelling about visiting all sorts of cultures these past 30 years I have come to the conclusion that a significant majority of people measure their spirituality through their material worth. They see the evolving progress of their inner life as a function of their success in the outside world by measuring possessions. And it doesn’t matter if you’re in the Buddhist Himalaya, Shanghai, Helsinki, Peru, Wall Street or the sausage seller up on the corner.
Despite the almost universal spiritual pretence of not caring about money (and we all know how difficult it is for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle), it’s the same hustle. It’s the quickening of the Buddhist step as the cash is dealt out. The hurry to get something.
I do not see it as a problem if most people you meet in your life are greeting you to earn money — it is entirely natural. We are not here to judge each other for our want of cash. The lady on the street needs money; it’s how she feeds her children. Some may see her little business as exploitative of a sacred morning, as I can be certain that none of the money I gave her was going to the monks, but it was my choice to participate and sit on her stool. But for me it kind of detracted from the whole spirit of giving alms. Next time I would take my own rice as my neighbour did.
I have always had a problem with seeing everything through the lens of finance. Okay, so if one is somewhat destitute and needs cash then such a need can really focus the mind, but wealthy people (probably anyone really) who are entirely wrapped up in money are somewhat odious. It’s easy to spot them. They have a certain smell.
Why is it that the most sincere and genuine spiritual people you will ever meet are those that have no grubbiness around money? I believe it’s because of the uncluttered nature of their thoughts.
My main point beckons: we all need something or some things in our lives that have no connection to any material gain or worth. Interests or areas we divulge in that have no strategy for making money. No politicking, no networking. That way our actions becomes pure; unclouded with future thoughts of how much, will she, what if? Give me this and I give you that. It is us giving our energy and our time in the present moment without expectation. Usually these things involve helping others but not necessarily.
That is pure spirituality. Like a star in a dark deep sky. It just is.
However this may not always hold true. Some fortunate people absolutely love what they do — they live it, they breathe it, are engrossed in it and earn money from that and don’t feel a need to do anything else. And to boot they are wonderful souls. But invariably their focus is not on the money; their focus is on their craft. And maybe you are one of those people. Bless you is all I can say to you then. Well done.