Some of you may know that before we built ourselves our amazing new kitchen over in Cowley, Taste Tibet operated (for rather too long) out of our home. The house still bears the scars – the leather sofa cushion stained on one side by a large tub of Fairy Liquid, the cream walls still dotted black in places by our menu boards, and a build up of stuff.
This week we have been spring cleaning the house, and a lot of things have gone to charity. Charity shops don’t exist in Tibet, but there is a long-standing tradition of alms-giving there. Since people in Tibet do not accumulate stuff in the way that we do here in the west, charity takes very different forms.
Food is a biggie. When I first met Yeshi in India we attended teachings at the temple in Dharamsala. I remember being awed by tradition of monks handing out hot tea and sweet bread to all in attendance: there must have been thousands of us in there.
Another intriguing feature of temple life are the donations of food left at the altar. These include fruit and barley, and sometimes cooked food. In India you also find biscuits at the altar, and even sweets. These offerings are shared among the monks, or donated by the monastery to local lay people or to pilgrims who sometimes travel for months to worship at a sacred temple.
Historically, begging has always been conspicuous in Tibet, and it is not necessarily the domain of the poor. Some beggars are wealthy pilgrims, others may be high lamas. Many beggars in Tibet are not begging for themselves but to preserve sacred temples, holy mountains and lakes. It can be a life choice.
Beggars need money, of course, but mostly importantly they need to be fed. Providing tea and a basic meal has always been an important part of Tibetan daily life: the beggars themselves provide an opportunity for those who seek to do good.
But as Tibet opens up and “cleans up”, so these opportunities become fewer and further between. It isn’t always easy to find someone to give to, even – and sometimes especially – outside the holiest of temples, where the tradition of alms-giving has been in place for hundreds if not thousands of years. As they are swept away from public view, it also becomes harder for beggars to maintain their own way of life.
Many of you will have read that Taste Tibet does its best to give when we can: to donate our leftover food to the local homeless shelters, to serve people who can’t afford a meal at our stall, and so on.
Tibetan traditions are alive and well in Oxford!
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