How To Make An Offering
Present day practice regarding this rule (Paac. 40 above) varies so much because of the intricacy of interpretation. However, usually, anything1 that goes into the mouth — food or medicines — should be properly given. That means it should be:
- given by means of the body, (e.g., given by hand), or by something attached to the body, (e.g., a spoon),2 or by throwing, (e.g., tossing a lump of sticky rice into the bowl).
- given so that the donor and the bhikkhu are (literally) within arms reach (1.25 metres) of each other.
- received by means of the body, (e.g., received in the hand) or by something attached to the body, (e.g., the monks bowl or, in Thailand, the monks receiving cloth).3
The Commentaries then further expand the details of the correct way that food should be given:
- the offered food should not be so heavy that an average size man cannot lift it.
In many communities this has led to the food having to be literally lifted into the monks hands or onto his receiving cloth. The Commentary allows it to be slid along the floor or table into the monks hands.
- _the donor must actually move the food (on a tray, for example) towards the bhikkhu, (i.e., the bhikkhu does not reach out for it first).
This has also been understood as meaning that the donor makes a gesture (of respect) when making the offering. (This has to be balanced with the Sekhiya Training rule where it is the monk who should "be appreciative and attentive when receiving food.") However, in the West, this gesture of respect may be taken according to local custom. (See BMC p.375)
In some monasteries food is not considered properly given if the lay person wears shoes or sandals when offering to a barefooted bhikkhu. Also, in some communities, when properly offered food is touched again or moved by lay people, even accidentally, it has to be re offered.
The major point to remember is that in offering food (or anything edible) to a monk there is a formal way of doing so — otherwise the bhikkhu may not be able to eat it. Once one gets used to this interaction with the monk, it becomes quite a meaningful gesture.
Water and tooth cleaning sticks are excepted in the rule. Some Communities also count toothpaste under this exception, some consider it more a medicine and therefore require it to be properly offered. While some Communities require ice, hot water, and bottled water to be also offered — some do not.2.
Please note, however, that the spoon should not be knocked on the side of the bowl to clear off any remaining rice. Because the bowl is traditionally clay or iron, it easily is damaged and there are several rules which remind the bhikkhu to look after his bowl. If his bowl does become cracked, he is not allowed to ask for another until it is unusable. (Nis. Paac.22)3.
Bhikkhus in Thailand never receive food from women directly into their hands. It is always offered into their bowl or onto a receiving cloth. This practice does not appear directly in the texts. However, it probably functions as extra assurance for the monks concerning the very serious rule about touching women (see Intimacy — Touching.) Many Thai eight precept nuns follow a reciprocal tradition when receiving anything from a man. In Sri Lanka and Burma monks generally will accept offerings from women directly into their hands.