Before the first rays of sunlight lits up any part of a temple, the dawn chorus of the monotony of strikes on a gong drifts in as some of the first morning sounds through the urban landscape. Monks awake, then they go out and collect their morning alms. Laypeople will Sai Baht – put something inside a bowl. In this case it will be the meal or meals of the day. Depending on which Buddhist sect you are part of, you can eat one meal or in some Buddhist movements twice.
With their bare feet connected to the ground, it’s the Buddhist way of keeping close to nature. Buddhist Monks are not “beggar monks”. The Sai Baht is not an act of charity.
Sai Baht, giving and taking
Outside markets, temples, certain roads or even someone’s shophouse, people are getting ready to “sai baht”. To do good for monks that, in their turn, contribute by returning gratitude and gratefulness. Monks receive the food, more or less whatever they are offered, listen to peoples good thoughts, and return blessings in Pali.
The fact that Pali is used makes the ritual indestructible since the days of The Buddha himself. It gives an extra aura to the ritual, and it is an important call that Pali is being used, even though not many people understand what is being said. Using the Thai language would break the habit.
The merit-making is for a future existence for the next life. It is not supposed to be an act of egoism for this life.
The importance of ritual
When I ask my wife, she always says that she tries to think positively, not requesting or praying for anything in particular and then simply listening to the monks blessing. It is the act of giving that count. Generosity is the key, also stated as “dana” for laypeople in the Buddhist path.
After providing alms to monks, it’s common to pour a small amount of water into a cup then sprinkle the water into the soil. It’s like rationing virtue with the Earth
A concern in some Theravada Buddhist countries is now that the food offered to the monks is not all that healthy. In Sri Lanka, there was even a program to encourage people to provide healthy food.
Very rarely someone will do the Sai Baht ritual every day; it is in general related to some life event, birthday, crisis, some change. But there are some, especially older women, that do it more frequently.
Sai Baht is a manifestation of the symbiotic connection between the local people and the monks of the temples. The most famous one is taking part in Luang Prabang. Besides its natural function, it developed into a tourist spectacle in certain places.
In Luang Prabang(Laos), it is sometimes a narrow call; it started with laypeople giving sticky rice and ended up with Thai tourists donating more or less a 7/11.
Monks are very aware of bystanders present, so do your utmost not to be an obstacle and stay out of the way if you are not doing the ritual yourself.