Today, it was raining in Burlington, and so I have been walking around with a brownish orange umbrella. This is not a particularly remarkable umbrella, except for perhaps the fact that it was given to me by a novice in Thailand. A year and a half ago, I was in Chiang Mai, studying Thai at a program run by the University of Washington and Chiang Mai University (language work, alas, is never done). I was spending the two months with my then five year old daughter. We had rented a bike for the two months, and she rode on a bench on the back of the one speed bicycle, and we went all over town. Fortunately for us, the first part of the rainy season (which usually starts in mid-July) was pretty dry, and so we really were able to get away with not having much in the way of rain gear. However, one day, when I picked her up from the Thai pre-school she was attending (learning Thai much more quickly than I), this run of luck ran out. As often happened when I picked her up, we picked up a few bottles of yakult (a Japanese yogurt drink that can be found at any of the ubiquitous 7-11s in Thailand), or an ice cream cone and walked over to the wat next door to the preschool. This was your standard old wat in Chiang Mai: perhaps 500 years old, it couldn’t quite decide if it was a community temple, or a tourism oriented temple, so it ended up being both. Regardless, soon as we were sitting there snacking, the heavens opened up and we, raincoat-less and umbrella-less, were stuck. And we were stuck for a long time. There was a small sala with a couple of wheel of fortune fortune telling devices, and for some odd reason an old mercedes that was under a canvas wrap. We were not the only one’s stuck at the temple. There was an old woman and her daughter. They were from out of town, but the old woman had grown up nearby and so they had come to visit her old community temple. So we all sat in the sala and waited. After about 45 minutes, although the rains had not really stopped, I was ready to go home, and so I put my daughter on our bike and started to mentally prepare myself to go out into the torrent. And a novice came up with an umbrella. I said, no, really. And he said to me that I should take it, that they had a lot of umbrellas and it was fine. This went on for a few minutes, but eventually I took it and biked to our apartment one-handed in the rain (which my daughter really liked).
This was actually one of several umbrellas that I have received from monks in similar circumstances (one in 2001 in China and another in Bangkok in 2014). So what? While it has made my world easier (keeping a five year old dry is not a terrible idea), does it really matter that a monk gave me an umbrella?
Scholars often talk about monks as fields of merit. This means that they provide lay people with the opportunity to make merit by being worthy of receiving gifts. Gifts (Dana) which make merit, as Reiko Ohnuma and Maria Heim have talked about, are gifts that go to figures that are presumably morally superior, such as anyone in robes. In other words, we normally think of gifts passing in one direction from lay people to monks (and indeed that is normally the way that they pass).
However, monks receive far more than they can use. While there are occasional examples of monks who engage in conspicuous consumption (in the movie, the Funeral, there is a great scene where a Buddhist priest gets out of a big old limousine in slow motion), many of these monks get in trouble (like the Thai Phra Nen Kham, whose indiscretions with the wealth donated to him was revealed inadvertently when he was captured wearing ray bans on his private jet in June 2013). Every year, monks, particularly senior monks right around now receive many different sets of robes (the celebration of kathina). Far more than they can use. Isn’t this wasteful, one might ask? I’ve heard monks respond to this question by saying that it’s a misunderstanding of generosity. The gifts don’t belong to them, and they spread it out. The dana moves on to others.
So on one level, my brownish orange umbrella was an example of a monk being a nice guy to a foreigner with a little girl. But on another, it was also an example of dana and generosity moving down the road to the next person.