The word Pindapatha is a combination of two words “Pinda” and “Patha”. “Pinda” means “food” and “Patha” means “bowl”. Therefore, “Pindapatha” means literally “placing of food in a bowl”. There are evidence that this custom had been followed by Shramanas even in pre-Buddhist times. Therefore, it can be presumed that this was an introduction of Shramana movement and definitely not by the Buddha.
The Shramana movement arose against Brahmins, the oldest religious conflict in recorded Indian history. Brahmin was a carnal layman. He had his own livelihood but he accepted what was offered by pious people. Shramana was a totally different breed from Brahmins. He was a person who rejected the lay life totally.
Also the Buddha belonged to the Shramana movement and not only followed the Pindapatha custom but also went to develop the custom as a more disciplinary and a well organised one which he peached to be practised diligently by his disciples who were referred to as “Bhikkhus”.
The word “Bhikkhu” literally means “one who lives by Pindapatha” thus implying the specific significance for Pindapatha in Buddhism. This possibly could be the reason why the Buddha identified his disciples as “Bhikkhus”.
It has been taught as a “Vatha” which means “must”. There is no harm of accepting the alms that people bring to the temple or they provide in their houses. But what is considered as supreme is living by Pindapatha. The custom helps to develop Bhikkhu qualities like contentedness, humility whilst it also provides opportunities for the rich and the poor to gather merits.
The Pindapatha is not just begging. It’s a totally different and more a special meaningful custom. We can understand it properly only when we refer to the teaching of the Buddha on Pindapatha. They come in both Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas.
The Bhikkhu who goes on Pindapatha wears both single lined and double lined robes together. The Patta (the bowl shaped special equipment Bhikkhus use for having food) is taken by the left hand and is kept on his belly above the navel and closes with robe. He is supposed to use his right hand to keep the robe properly when walking. Then he leaves for village with gentle walk looking forward about a yoke-pole length distance.
He doesn’t differentiate between the rich and poor, between the high and the low castes and goes to all the households when going on Pindapatha. He should not consider the taste of the food or who offers which food but ought to accept whatever food offered by pious people. Being choosy on food or those who give food has been rejected by the Buddha as they are not suitable for Bhikkhus.
Bhikkhu should always go to the front door. He should stand a respectable distance from the house. He should neither enter quickly nor leave quickly.
He observes to fathom whether or not the inmates are willing to offer food and if feels that they are willing to offer he remains there and if he feels that they are reluctant to offer him alms he leaves the premises.
When receiving alms the Bhikkhu extends his Patta by both his hands towards the person offering alms. He is not supposed to look at the face of devotee, not supposed to smile or talk with the devotee and he is also not supposed to ask any particular food form the devotee. If the devotee seems to be going to offer curries also when he has offered rice the Bhikkhu remains there further and if he doesn’t seem to be like that the Bhikkhu leaves.
The Bhikkhu is permitted to accept Pindapatha only up to half of the Patta and is expected to stop the Pindapatha journey once the half way mark is reached. Greed or having too much food is not suitable for Bhikkhu.
The Bhikkhu once he receives enough food starts his journey back to the temple or his dwelling place. If he feels hungry and not enough time to get back he is permitted to have his food in a suitable place either under a tree or in a rock cave where water is available.
He avoids partaking in crowded places or on the streets. Water is filtered with a filtering cloth before drinking as a practice. If a filtering cloth is not available water should be filtered with a corner of robe.
If there are more than one Bhikkhu in a certain temple they all go on Pindapatha together. They go in a line one behind the other keeping a distance of 06 to 07 feet according to seniority. They need to go on the same road.
He who receives enough food goes back to the temple. Then he makes arrangements necessary to have alms. He who partakes of alms after all others cleans the alms hall. If there is food remaining it can be given to animals or beggars or any other needy if there is. Wasting or throwing of food should not be done. If some Bhikkhu has to throw away it is kept on the ground where there is no grass or if not it is kept into the water that there is no creature.
For breakfast they go on Pindapatha sometime after the sunrise. For lunch they go on Pindapatha and finish having food before mid-day. In the afternoon there is no Pindapatha or having meals in Bhikkhu life. Having food in the afternoon is considered as Vikalabhojana (untimely meal). There is reliable documentation in Buddhist texts that during the Buddha’s time Pindapatha was done once a day.
According to the rules of the Buddha Bhikkhus don’t go on Pindapatha to places where there are prostitutes and liquor bars etc. If any Bhikkhu entered such a place unknowingly he should leave the place as soon as he knows where he is.
If some people seem reluctant to offer alms and if some people are non-pious Bhikkhus should not go to such places for Pindapatha.
These are the specific guidelines set by the Buddha for his disciples on Pindapatha.
The great renunciation of Prince Siddartha took place on an Esala Full Moon day. That was the day he went on Pindapatha for the first time in his life. When he was ready to have the Pindapatha alms, he was nauseated by the sight of the food which was unpleasant mixture far from appetising. This has to be accepted as he was used to dine royal food in the comfort of palaces that were luxurious. He was able to suppress his repulsion for the food and that was how the Buddha had first taste of Pindapatha alms.
Later once when a leper was serving Pindapatha to the Buddha one of his rotten fingers fell into the Patta. The Buddha kept aside the rotten and had the alms.
The Buddhist history reveals an incident when the Buddha who initially was a Sakya (clan that the Buddha belonged to) opted to go on Pindapatha, when no one invited him for his morning meal, during his visit to his relations after achieving Enlightenment. King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father queried as to why he decided to insult Sakya clan.
The Buddha’s response to his father was very clear. He like the previous Buddha was no more a Sakya but a Buddha in clan following the same custom followed by his predecessors.
There was a poor old woman in Sawatti city and she used to serve a spoonful of rice to Ven. Kumara Kassapa Thera every day. He was very similar to the Buddha in looks. Once The Buddha arrived at this house and the woman thought that he should be Ven. Kumara Kassapa Thera and served the spoonful of rice to the Buddha. After a moment Ven. Kumara Kassapa Thera arrived. Then the woman realised that what had happened and followed the Buddha asking the spoonful of rice back. The Buddha allowed her and she took it back and served to Ven. Kumara Kassapa Thera. He was shocked by the incident and after that he never lived until his passing away in a place where there was the Buddha close by.
The Englishman called Robert Knox who was under the custody of the Sinhalese King in the Kandyan kingdom has made a description on this custom in his book A historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. ”There is a marvellous kind of beggars in Ceylon. They are bald headed and wear the same kind of dress. They go on begging food from house to house with a round bowl in their hands. The most marvellous thing is that the people give them the most precious food they have and lastly worship also.”
How interesting it could be to a person who knows nothing about this custom.
Even today in Theravada Buddhist countries including Sri Lanka, this custom is considered as a great merit by both laymen and Bhikkhus. But it is rare now as Bhikkhus get enough alms at the temple. Anyway, today there are so many differences in this custom country wise, region wise, sect wise and congregation wise etc. Usually, today Pindapatha journeys are organised to commemorate ceremonial occasion.
Especially we will be able to see so many Pindapatha journeys for the coming Buddhist Era 2600. During the Buddha’s time the custom was not a ceremonial act but now we see it like that. It is not the same in every Buddhist institution. They have their own customs and rules. Some wear the robe closing both shoulders but some close only one shoulder. Some wear only single lined robe and some wear both single and double lined robes. Some follow it in the identical way whilst some have their own ways. Anyway we can be happy that there is this great, meaningful custom still among Buddhist countries, particularly in Sri Lanka.