Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kathina: the end of Buddhist "Lent"

A.G.S. Kariyawasam, Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka edited by Dhr. Seven, Bhante, Amber Larson, Seth Auberon, Wisdom Quarterly
Buddhist novices in front of the Buddha, Phrabuddhachay, Saraburi, Thailand (Bugphai/flickr)
The Rains and the Robe (Vassa and Kathina)
What if there were a Buddhist Peace Corps?
Since Buddhism was introduced to ancient Sri Lanka from India by the enlightened brother and sister missionary team of Ven. Mahinda Thera and Ven. Sanghamitta Theri (Buddhist children of the Indian Emperor Asoka), the observance of a "Rains Retreat" period has been observed.

Vassa in Pali, or Vas in Sinhalese, has been a mainstay of monastic life on the Theravada Buddhist island tradition similar to 40-day Lent observed by Western Christianity.
Catholic Lent in Granada, Nicaragua (Chopanito)
The three-month "Rains Retreat" is a period of intensive practice, a kind of Buddhist "Lent." It was instituted by the Buddha (see below) for all monastics. Details of its practice are laid down in the Mahavagga of the Code of Discipline (Chp.3-4). 
During this Rains Retreat monastics stop their wandering, suspend all traveling, and dwell in one monastery or monastic complex (vihara, aranya). If unavoidable circumstances necessitate traveling, they are allowed to leave their rains residences on the promise that they will return within a week. 

On the first day of the retreat the monastics have to formally declare that they will dwell in that manner in the selected monastery or dwelling.

(Indiana Buddhist Temple) Kathina Chivera ceremony celebrated in Sri Lankan tradition
  • When is Rains Retreat? Vassa extends over a period corresponding to the north Indian rainy season. It runs from the day following the July full moon until the October full moon day. [Months shift based on the traditional lunar-solar Indian calendar.] Those who cannot enter at this time are permitted to observe it for three months beginning with the day following the August full moon.
Buddhist monastic in Songkla, Thailand (bird_beckman77 Homam Alojail/flickr.com)
The Rains Retreat (a kind of Buddhist "Lent") is also a time for the lay Buddhists to express their devotion to the cause of Buddhism by supporting the Sangha (monastic community of monks, nuns, novices, and ten precept holder) with special diligence, which task they regard as a potent source of merit.
It is customary for prominent persons to invite monastics to spend the Rains Retreat with them in dwellings specially prepared for the purpose. In this case the host would go and invite the monastic or monastics formally. If they accept the invitation, the hosts prepare a special temporary dwelling in a suitable place with a refectory and a shrine room.

Kathina, Los Angeles
(Los Angeles' Dharma Vijaya Temple) Kathina Ceremony 2011 filmed by Lakpathy Wijesekara

On the first day of the rains they go in a procession (perahera) with drummers and dancers to the monastery where the invitees reside and conduct them in procession. The hosts assume responsibility for providing all of their needs during this period. And they attend to this very willingly because they regard it as highly meritorious. If no special construction is put up, lay supporters invite monastics to observe the retreat in the temple itself.

At the close of the rainy season, monastics have to perform the pavarana ceremony. At this ceremony, held in place of the Monastics Rules (patimokkha, "path-to-moksha") Recitation, each monastic invites fellow monastics to point out any faults committed during the Rains Retreat period.
The Sturdy Robe Offering
Theravada Buddhist monks in Thailand (T.O.Johnson/T.O.OtisPhoto/flickr.com)
With practice we can be monks (AB).
On any day following the day of pavarana in the period terminating with the next full moon day, the great Sturdy Robe Offering (Kathina) ceremony is held.

Different monasteries hold the kathina on different days within this month, and any given monastery will hold only one kathina ceremony. The main event in this ceremony is the offering of the special durable robe known as the kathina-civara to the monastic community, which in turn presents it to one monastic who has diligently observed the retreat.
Lay Buddhists traditionally offer unsewn cloth to the monastics for the construction and dying of this special robe. Before the offering takes place, the newly sewn robe is taken with drumming and much fanfare around the village (or area around the temple) in the early morning.
Once the robe-cloth is given to the monastic community, certain monastics are selected to do the cutting, sewing, and dying of the robe -- all in a single day. Public contributions are often solicited to buy the cloth if it is not a personal offering.

The ceremony, which is performed with keen interest and devotion because of the special merit involved, has today become an important occasion of great social and religious significance for Buddhist laypeople. This seems to have been the case even in historical times when many Sri Lankan/Sinhalese kings made this offering with much interest and devotion (e.g., Mhv. xliv,48, xci, etc). More
Why the Buddha established Kathina

Southeast Asian novices under bell (flickr.com)
The legend goes that 30 wandering ascetics were journeying with the intention of spending the Rains Retreat with the historical Buddha (BBC).

However, an Indian observance of the rainy season by wanderers and Brahmin priest began before they reached their destination and they had to stop.

Before the 30 arrived, the rainy season began. According to the Buddha's guidelines for observing the Rains Retreat, mendicant Buddhist ascetics should not travel during the rainy season. This is because they may unintentionally harm crops and insects flourishing in the spring rain during their journey. See Lay Buddhist Practice by Ven. Khantipalo (Laurence Mills. As such, the 30 had to stop.
Afterwards, the Buddha rewarded them by demonstrating a way to practice sharing and generosity. A lay disciple had previously donated cloth to the Buddha, so the Buddha gave that cloth to the group of Buddhist monastics and told them to dye it with saffron and sew it into a patchwork robe and then offer it as a gift to one of them.
A sturdy frame, called a kathina, is used to spread the cloth while the durable robe is being made.

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