Friday, December 19, 2008


Hospitality (atitheyya or sakkara) is the act of being welcoming and helpful to guests (atithi) and travelers (addhika). Throughout the ancient world hospitality, at least towards members of one’s own tribe, religion or class, was held in high regard. In India it was, like so much else, restricted by the strictures of the caste system. For example, the Manusastra, the most important Hindu law book, says that a brahman should only offer hospitality to other brahmans and that he should neither greet nor return the greeting of monks or ascetics of unorthodox sects.
The Tipitaka often says that the Buddha was ‘welcoming, friendly, polite and genial’ towards everyone who came to see him (D.I,116). One of the traditional duties of a lay person was to make the fivefold offering, one of which was providing food, accommodation and help to guests (atithibali), a practice the Buddha approved of and encouraged (A.II,68). When a monk turned up at a monastery he asked the resident monks to go out and meet him, prepare a seat for him, bring him water to wash his feet, prepare accommodation for him and do other things to make him feel welcome. The Buddha considered failure to reciprocate hospitality to be very bad form. He said, ‘Whoever goes to another’s house and is fed but does not feed them when they come to his house, consider him an outcaste’ (Sn.128).
Today, with hotels and rapid transportation hospitality to travelers as practiced in the past is less relevant and less necessary. However, there are still plenty of opportunities to welcome and help strangers. It is always a bit daunting being a newcomer to the Buddhist group, the office or the neighborhood. Befriending such people, showing them the ropes and introducing them to others is an expression of kindness.
A type of indirect hospitality common in the Buddhist world until recently was making provisions for travelers and pilgrims. People would build rest houses (avasatha) on the edge of villages or towns or along roads where there was a long distance between villages. Other devote folk would undertake to supply these rest houses with firewood for cooking and water for drinking and to keep them clean. The Buddha said that planting tree (probably along roads), building bridges, digging wells, building rest houses and providing water for wayfarers were meritorious deeds (S.I,33). This last custom is still very popular in Burma. Groups of friends form what are called water-donating societies (wainay ya thukha) and undertake to place water pots along roads for the convenience of passersby.
I have come to know that this lovely old custom continues to linger on even in modern urbane Singapore where you can buy a Coke or a Pepsi on every corner. The Thong Teck Temple just down Balestier Rd from me has a water stall in front of it (left picture). Burmese workers and students in Singapore congregate at Peninsular Plaza on the weekends. I notice that one of the Burmese shopkeepers there has put a water stall out in front of his shop (right).
When I was in Taiwan I arrived at a railway station and was met by the people I was to stay with. Just as we were about to leave the station it began to rain. My friends went to a stand near the station entrance, got three umbrellas from it and we went out to the car park. ‘Where did you get the umbrellas from?’ I asked. My friend replied, ‘Here in Taiwan some Buddhist organizations arrange to have umbrellas put at train and bus stations for the convenience of travelers.’ I was very impressed by this practical and thoughtful act of kindness. But when I thought a bit more about it I could see that there could be a problem with it. I said, ‘But if people keep taking umbrellas the Buddhist organizations must continually have to keep providing umbrellas.’ ‘Oh no’ said my friend, ‘people who use the umbrellas always return them.’ I was even more impressed.

No comments: