Words From DJKR

Offering Alms in Today’s World

Offering Alms in Today’s World: An Ancient Tradition Revitalised

An Interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the Khyentse Foundation

Q: How did Khyentse Foundation come into being?

A: Living on alms is a tradition that has been there right from Buddha Shakyamuni’s time. It exists for many reasons. One is that even though, generally speaking, dharma practitioners are supposed to be renunciants, this world requires that you eat, drink, travel, and so forth. So, alms enable the renunciants to obtain these necessities. Even the Buddha himself walked barefoot in the streets of Maghada, Kapilavasu, Koshala with a begging bowl, receiving alms from kings, warlords, merchants, hunters, fisherman, and prostitutes.

Another important reason is that offering alms provides a great opportunity for ordinary people to create a karmic link, to practice generosity, to practice detachment, and to accumulate merit.

There is one story: When Buddha walked in one of these streets, he had a tear in his robes and the monks wanted to sew it. He refused. He wanted to keep it like that. Later they realized the great benefit in this refusal because as he walked, a very old and very, very poor lady saw this and offered to patch it. In fact this was the only thing she could offer: to patch his robe. And that alone created a lot of merit: it is believed that in her next life she was guaranteed to be reborn in the Tushita heaven. This became well known all over India and many people, including great kings, not only patched the torn robes of the Buddha and the monks, but also made other offerings. So this is a tradition that has existed for a long time.

The world is changing now, and offering alms is probably a tradition that is mainly appreciated in countries like Thailand and Cambodia, where the community still has a tradition of offering. But elsewhere, India included, that tradition is long gone. Within Tibetan society, there is still a little bit of almsgiving. In the west it is almost non-existent. In the west you have to earn everything. You can’t really say, “Hey I want to practice. I want to meditate. Can you look after feeding me?” It just doesn’t work in the western way of thinking.

So the Khyentse Foundation’s most important and timely aim is providing alms. Perhaps the method is not exactly as it was 2500 years ago, but it is basically offering alms. Here we are providing alms in the form of endowments and assets, according to the conventions of today’s world.

There is another thing I personally see that Khyentse Foundation can do. At the moment there is still this habit of supporting Tibetan practitioners. One reason is that until now there haven’t been many dharma practitioners in the west, but now this is changing. The number of dharma practitioners is growing internationally, and there are some pretty serious students. But in the modern world it is not easy to adopt the lifestyle of a renunciant. There are costs for living, traveling, accommodation, et cetera. So I want to introduce this concept of offering alms, which may help international dharma practitioners and students. It’s not unlike the Christian system. Christians give so much support to their church and church people. I would like to establish something like that. Right now, the Buddhist charities are not really recognized, purely because there are not so many Buddhists organized and engaged in such work.

Q: Can you explain the specific Khyentse Foundation projects?

A: Our immediate concern is the monasteries. It’s not necessarily the most important project, but because we already have this responsibility, it is an immediate need. You can’t really say “Monks, look, we don’t have money, you will have to go somewhere else.” These monasteries already exist whether we have a foundation or not. But our long-term aim is to support the international community of dharma practitioners and students, not only Tibetans.

And then publishing not only rare books, but material that will help students. There is a great tradition of printing such books in Tibetan culture. Every year at the prayer-festivals in Bodh Gaya, the monks are offered books for free. Have you heard of western dharma students receiving, let’s say the Dharmapada, free of charge?

And then we plan to provide scholarships. In the west, people often ask why do you charge for the teachings? At the moment, how are we going to teach if you don’t charge? We have to run things — pay for telephone calls and air tickets — in addition to continuous support of the monasteries and so on. These items can be paid for from our side if there is organization and support. I believe that if there is a really good economic basis, there are so many out there whom we can help.

Q: What about the Buddhist colleges, the shedras?

A: We hope to eventually have some kind of college built in the west where people can study Buddhist philosophy, but then we are talking about a really, really grand project. It’s not that easy.

Q: How can students look at the act of contributing? What should their motivation be?

A: Even if they give just one cent, people should have this motivation of putting a drop of water in the ocean where it will not dry up. A drop of water on its own will dry up easily, but if you put it in the ocean, it doesn’t dry up. Whatever their contribution is, however small their contribution, it will be part of the foundation that will help other people. This capital will provide education and spread the dharma. That is what their motivation should be.

Interview by Noa Jones.
Transcript edited by Jakob Leschly.
Kathmandu. January 2002