Vassa and Kathina: Retreat From the World

Quick Facts

  • Summary: Vassa is an annual three-month retreat undertaken by Buddhist monks, whilst Kathina is a festival of celebration that occurs immediately after it
  • 2019 Date: 17th July – 13th October (Vassa); 14th October – 12th November (Kathina)
  • Celebrated by: Theravada Buddhists
  • Linked Holidays: Asalha Puja (Buddhism), Lent (Christianity)

Background and Theological Significance

Vassa and Kathina are two successive festivals within Theravada Buddhism that mark the great importance of the ‘sangha’. The sangha refers to the monastic orders of monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis) who form the third of the Three Refuges within Buddhism (the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha). The practice of the monastic life is one of the central tenets of Buddhism, and its members are highly venerated within all Buddhist communities.

Vassa (from the Pali word for ‘rains’) is a three-month annual retreat undertaken by monastics during the rainy season. In India and Southeast Asia the rainy season occurs each year roughly between June and October and is typically intense. The Buddha encouraged his followers to observe a retreat during this season in order to avoid unnecessary harm to crops or animals. During Vassa, monastics commit themselves to stay in a single place and undertake a strict regime of meditation and study. Vassa commences on the day following Asalha Puja (the full moon day of the eighth lunar month) and is widely observed across the Theravada Buddhist world by both ordained and lay practitioners.

Kathina (from the Pali for ‘wooden frame’) occurs immediately after the end of the Vassa retreat, which concludes on the full moon day of the eleventh lunar month. According to tradition, the Buddha rewarded some of his followers after a harmonious Vassa retreat by weaving together new robes for them, which were hung on a frame called a kathina. This inspired the festival of Kathina, during which devout Buddhists offer new robes to monks as a sign of gratitude and thanksgiving. This may occur at any point in the lunar month following the end of Vassa. Together, Vassa and Kathina demonstrate the spiritual importance of the sangha and the great reverence with which its members are held by Buddhists.

History

The practice of an extended retreat for monks and ascetics during the monsoon season in the Indian subcontinent precedes the lifetime of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and his followers. It was common for these wandering holy men to stay in a single place for the duration of the rainy season, both because further travel was so difficult and also because the wet weather made unintentional harm to animals or newly planted rice paddies much more likely. Siddhartha Gautama himself undertook such a retreat immediately following his enlightenment in a forest near Varanasi. He encouraged his followers to adhere to the practice of meeting together in a single place during the rains so as to observe a time of deeper meditation and shared living. After his passing into nirvana, the sangha continued to maintain the rains retreat each year. However, in later centuries when monastics tended to reside in perpetual communities, Vassa became a time to focus on deepening spiritual practice and limiting contact with the outside world. Although it remains an important practice in Theravada Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Myanmar, Vassa has largely been forgotten in Mahayana Buddhist countries such as China and Japan. The rains retreat has occasionally been referred to as ‘Buddhist Lent’, given its similarity to the Christian observance of Lent, although Vassa precedes Lent by several centuries.

In contrast, Kathina is almost certainly a festival founded in response to Siddhartha’s teachings and derives from a traditional account of thirty monks who were unable to spend the Vassa retreat with their master. Although they were upset at this, Siddhartha was pleased with their communal devotion during the retreat. He gave the monks some cloth donated by a lay follower and asked them to sow it into a new robe and gift it to one of their number, thereby demonstrating the importance of generosity to the Buddhist life. It later became a tradition for lay Buddhists to making offerings of new robes to monks in the lunar month following the conclusion of Vassa. The festival of Kathina may fall at any point in this period, and often monasteries and communities will arrange an appropriate day for the offering.

The three months of Vassa immediately follow the great festival of Asalha Puja, the celebration of the Buddha’s first sermon following his enlightenment, which occurs on the full moon day of the eighth lunar month. Vassa commences on the morning after Asalha Puja and ends on Pavarana, the full moon day of the eleventh lunar month. Kathina may fall at any time from the day after Pavarana to the full moon day of the twelfth lunar month. The lunar calendars used in Buddhist countries can vary greatly, but typically this means that according to the Gregorian calendar, Vassa will fall between July and October whilst Kathina will fall between October and November.

What Happens?

In Theravada countries, Vassa is typically observed both by monastics as well as by lay Buddhists; the latter undertake a stricter regime of everyday life for the period of the retreat. Some devout Buddhists have been known to spend the three months of Vassa under temporary vows in a monastery, often to consider whether they have a calling to the full monastic life. Both monks and lay people perceive Vassa as a time to deepen their Dharma practice and to spend time in meditation and teaching. On the first day of the retreat (the day immediately after Asalha Puja), people will often donate special rain-bathing clothes to their local monks as well as candles, food and other necessities to the temples. Vassa is an important part of the Theravada Buddhist year, and indeed monks will measure their seniority by the number of Vassa retreats they have observed. The final day of Vassa is known as Pavarana, which is a day of invitation for all monks to come before the other members of the sangha and confess and atone for any sins they may have committed during the retreat. Pavarana is also a day of celebration for the teachings of Buddha and for the end of the Vassa retreat.

The day on which Kathina is observed will usually be arranged in advance so as to allow sufficient time for preparation. Lay Buddhists will make offerings of cloth (about three metres is required to weave a new robe) to the whole of their local sangha community, who will then decide amongst themselves who will receive the gift. The monks will then weave it into an appropriate robe and it will be presented to the chosen monk in a ceremony on the evening of Kathina. Like Vassa, Kathina is a time for Buddhists to honour the members of the sangha and to serve as a reminder of the great importance of the monastic life to Buddhist practice.

Image by Walkerssk from Pixabay

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