Is Collecting Alms (Piṇḍapāta) Legal?

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That is me going for alms on Aalona Street Kilauea.

Collecting alms, also known as piṇḍapāta by Theravāda Buddhists, is a legal activity in the USA. There are some restrictions though. I spoke with a lawyer who seemed to know civil liberties quite well, but there are no guarantees with what I say. However, this information should make sense and seem legal to you. It is legal to ring the doorbell of any house and preach to them or talk to them about politics under the freedom of speech rights. One can even ask them to support, give money to a cause. One can sell them vacuum cleaners too. However, if they have a sign that says, “No Solicitation” or “No Trespassing” or “Private Property”, or any other derivative, then one need to stay clear away from the property lines or at least up to the sign location.

There is only one problem. While the laws more or less give me full access, my Buddhist rules do not allow me to say anything unless I am asked first. It would be a little freaky to have a monk just standing on your front doorstep and not knocking on the door. In that case, my liberal and Buddhist lawyer friend told me,

“In that case, better to just stay on the road at the edge of the property.”

So that is what I do most of the time. I stand on the side of the road and wait for the residents of the houses to approach me. Then when they ask me what I am doing, I can tell them. In Thailand, or Myanmar (Burma), we just walk and the lay people know what we are doing and call us over, or they are waiting before we walk by their house. That is nice. In Sri Lanka, we go quite far inside the property and wait about 8 feet from the door. Just about every house in Sri Lanka will give something if they have it. I have even received from a Muslim person in Sri Lanka, and yes I ate his food with gratitude and without fear.

In Kauai, Hawai’i, most of the people in the neighborhood tolerate what I am doing. However, most of them think I am only blessing the houses. In fact, I often hear the words, “Thank you for the blessings.” While I am waiting for people to come out of their houses and ask me what I am doing, I practice loving-kindness in front of each house. This was the practice of the Mahathera Subhūti during the time of the Buddha. I was named after him, and that has been my inspiration for going for alms. So, they like what I am doing, and it takes patience for them to figure it out, and I think they appreciate the passivity. It pays off eventually. Recently, I had four different donors in one day’s route.

I normally do not get enough food through the house method, but one way to get food in the West was invented by a monk at Amaravatti. He stood outside of a supermarket and got food one day and then it became a practice for that monastery and others. While this is legal to do on public owned roads or sidewalks, most shopping centers are privately owned and so are the parking lot and surrounding areas where you might want to stand. In this case, one needs to get permission from the store managers or the shopping center property managers. I have permission to stand in front of the Big Save market in Hanalei by both the property managers and the manager of the Big Save.

I do quite well in front of supermarkets. It is the preferred method for getting food, but even so, there is nothing like going for alms on the streets, especially if you practice loving-kindness meditation while waiting in front of each house. The property managers like the idea that I am very passive and wait for people to approach me. They like the idea that I have not used money in 17 years and support it too.

However, not all shopping centers are equal.  Princeville shopping center does not allow any solicitation even though a supermarket manager gave me permission during his shifts.  The manager came out one day and sadly told us the property center’s policy,  “Not even the Boy Scouts can stand on our property.”   So Hanalei is the only shopping center that I go to (so far). I feel grateful for such an opportunity. I feel like it is my duty to go there and collect food in that way.

So it is legal to stay on the edge of the road and wait for a few minutes. However, you cannot block traffic and you cannot loiter. That is why those who are on strike walk in circles. As long as they are walking, they are not loitering, even in front of a company they are protesting. What more can be said about a silent monk who stands only for a minute or two? I have also done research on this issue recently, and it seems that actively begging for food or even money has been challenged and is now considered a first amendment right by some courts. 1

Romney, Lee (September 27, 2012). “Arcata panhandling law mostly struck down by judge: A Humboldt County judge says provisions of the ordinance banning non-aggressive panhandling within 20 feet of stores, intersections, parking lots and bus stops are unconstitutional”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
2 U. S. Courts have repeatedly ruled that begging is protected by the First Amendment’s free speech provisions. On August 14, 2013, the U. S. Court of Appeals struck down a Grand Rapids, Michigan anti-begging law on free speech grounds[30] An Arcata, California law banning panhandling within twenty feet of stores was struck down on similar grounds in 2012.[31] 3 “This is not about the right to give money,” Weinberg said, “it’s about the right to ask for money. You can stand on the street corner spouting Nazi-hatred, but all of the sudden you ask for a quarter and you can’t speak. You know, we think that is extreme.”

Every so often, I see a police cruiser driving down the neighborhood where I had just come from. Odds are that someone called the police on me, because you don’t normally see police cruisers on this island!  When I see a cruiser, I give a friendly smile to him and they all usually wave back with a smile. I’m not afraid of the police and I think they like the idea of a monk walking through the neighborhood, wishing loving-kindness. As I walk, I wish for the neighborhood to be protected and they pick up the slack where things go wrong. We are all on the same team!

4 thoughts on “Is Collecting Alms (Piṇḍapāta) Legal?”

  1. I would imagine a monk blessing houses would come across very strangely to most Americans.

    Hawaii is unique in its culture compared to the rest of the US; in a lot of places with a strong Christian presence you might even anger folks as they might see your blessing as a curse from a devil worshipper. People like that are fortunately rare but they do exist!

    If you come to my neighborhood in Fort Wayne, IN make sure to come to my place as often as the monk’s rules allow! I’m not much of a cook but I’d make sure you were fed.

    1. It is strange, and I did have one Christian come out and ask me what I was doing. I told him about loving kindness and also mentioned my bowl for my meal. He liked what I did but called me “a devil” as you said. I kindly asked him if it was okay if I still wish loving-kindness at his house because, as you said, I didn’t want to cause an unhappy feeling in the house. He answered and said that as long as I stay on the road, I could do what I wanted.

      I made it a point to give loving-kindness to his house even though I sometimes alternated the side of the street I went to. After 6 months, on Christmas Day, I was offered food from that house, but only that one time. I still continued untill I left the island. Despite what you think , I was offered food from about 15-20 houses on that very small route at least once. There were about 4 or 5 houses that would give food if they saw me coming. However, sometimes it is difficult to see. See alms map. And the story of the girl “koral inspires me”.

      1. Oh I totally believe it! Metta goes a long way. I think most people are just regular, decent folk and actively want to put kindness above any sort of fundamentalism. Most people seem to recognize the folly of that mentality. I guess my only point…or maybe curiosity more than anything…is if Pindapata would be well received in, say, Mississippi as opposed to Hawaii.

        I’ve often wondered if traditional Theravada monasticism is possible in America or if modifications would have to be made to accommodate the culture. This gives me some hope!

        1. I am sorry I didn’t respond to this earlier..
          Yes, it would be interesting to see. However, it takes a long time, even in Hawai’i to get people to come out of their homes and ask what I’m up to. Generally, you would want to go to a “liberal” area. That was the main thing. Asian people who live in Hawai’i are mostly Christians. The Japanese were forced to convert. The “Asians” are often mostly Filipino, but most people are 2nd or 3rd or 4th American generations. You don’t want to go where you are not wanted. I was passively told to leave a street by a “local” and I decided it was best to leave and that was when I found the house with Koral on my new road (see post). It depends also who tells you. Hawai’i can actually be violent and dangerous, so one must be careful.

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