Every morning, Eid’s mother goes out onto the road in front of her house to offer alms to a monk from a nearby temple. This is a common custom in Thailand, called “tamboon,” or merit-making. I like the way she has rigged up an old pram as a “tamboonmobile,” but I was surprised when the monk turned up in a local “taxi,” though I’ve seen one or two monks from Wat Umong in Chiang Mai do this, too. It turns out that the monk has to cover a lot of ground on his daily alms round, because the other monk who used to come this way has diabetes and is too ill to walk long distances. (Incidentally, the monks don’t do this to get more food, as they receive more than enough for their one daily meal, and give what they don’t eat to dogs and cats abandoned at the temple. The important thing is that they should be available to give local people a chance to make merit.)

I wasn’t surprised to hear that the other monk has diabetes. A lot of people like to donate food that they like themselves, in the belief that this will ensure they will be able to enjoy them in their next life as well. That means that the monks receive more rich, sweet food than they should eat (and have no choice in the matter, as they are required to accept whatever is offered to them). This is what happens when people make donations for basically selfish reasons: They ruin the health of monks, and in the process accrue bad merit to themselves.

This is not the only way that people sometimes abuse the role of the temple as a sort of repository of collective good will. The sign written in Thai tells people to stop dumping their unwanted pets at the temple, because it is difficult to care for them all. Eid’s sister Nid, who takes care of four cats and four dogs at home, and also feeds a lot of strays in the neighborhood, usually donates large bags of pet food to the temple instead of giving food to the monks (who I once read cost about the same amount to support as most people spend on their dogs).

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