Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Buddhist "Lent" (Rains Retreat) Begins

Buddhist monks on Asanha Puja Day, the eve of Buddhist Lent, in Nakhon Pathom province, outerBangkok, 7-26-10 (Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom). PHOTOS

Vassa (the annual Rains Retreat) is observed as it has been from the time of the Buddha. The rainy season in northern India led to the institution of a monastic rule to go into retreat for intensive practice. Buddhist recluses were originally "wandering ascetics" (samanas). But the rainy season meant a burst of new life -- crops, amphibians, insects, and sprouts all covered the land -- all of which would be harmed if wanderers were to tread on them.

So like other ascetic traditions of his day, the Buddha responded to requests to have his disciples take up temporary residence in one location rather than wandering about. This period is utilized for intensive meditation practice, study, and teaching. Lay Buddhists visit temples and abbeys to practice as well, sometimes adopting Eight Precepts for the day.

This tradition is observed throughout Los Angeles and other ethnically diverse cities with Theravada temples. The Los Angeles Buddhist Vihara (a Sri Lankan monastery) in Pasadena has weekly Dharma sermons, free meals (dana), and meditation instruction for visitors. These are all echoes of a much more vibrant living tradition in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and other Buddhist countries that keep the original Indian ideal going.

A wandering samanera (novice recluse) in Burma (Flickr/Dvlazar).

There it is a big deal that monks will be taking up residence. A special ceremony was held in each American Theravada temple this past weekend (in accordance with the lunar calendar) "inviting" monks to observe the Rains Retreat for the next three months. The Dhammakaya Thai Buddhist temple also temporarily ordained men wishing to observe Vassa as monastics.
  • The connections to be drawn with Lent are no coincidence. Customary acts of self-purification, for example almsgiving and fasting, in Christianity were directly borrowed from Eastern practices.

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