An essay on the meaning of the Buddhist Kathina celebration, published in Chicago Buddhist Vihara’s newsletter Oct 2009.
Religions around the world celebrate their many holy days, although few can with any accuracy be traced back to a particular date, and fewer still can be traced back to instructions from the religion’s founder. However, the Kathina celebration, one of the two most vital Buddhist holy days, differs on both counts.
Seasons of India are winter, summer, and rainy season. The Buddha required his bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (male and female monks) to spend three of the four months of rainy season staying put in a residence, not traveling around casually. The rains being a rich time of growth of plants and new life, lay people had complained that the Buddha’s monks traveling around in rainy season were harming too many tender crops and small creatures. The Buddha therefore instituted this three-month Vassa rainy-season residency, starting from the full moon of July, during which time monks generally cannot travel away overnight, except briefly for urgent matters (returning within 7 days).# Kathina takes place after the end of the Vassa residency.
Some skeptical people in the West say that it is absurd for monks to continue with the Vassa tradition in a land that has completely different seasons and usually lacks any special rainfall during India’s rainy season months. These critics do not understand that Vassa residency does not mean merely a parking place for monks to stay out of the rain for three months. Each year, the Vassa brings a rich treasure-trove of traditions supportive to the holy life (brahmacariya), culminating in the uplifting Kathina celebration. The Vassa provides a period of stable residency – important for stable community life among the Sangha, intensive learning, or for intensive meditation. Vassa shapes the rhythm of the lives of Sangha members. Monks must calculate any travels in advance to be sure to arrive at a chosen Vassa residency by the necessary date, and must refuse temptations to travel unnecessarily during Vassa. Laity depend upon Vassa as a time they can count upon the steady presence of monks, particularly any learned monks whom they have the good fortune to support.
Monks commonly dedicate the Vassa period for undertaking special good practices, such as doing intensive meditation, keeping extra discipline (eating only one meal a day, never lying down, and other strict dhutanga observances), or fulfilling special goals, such as memorizing the Patimokkha. The scriptures give many stories of monks becoming fully enlightened while dedicated to meditation during Vassa. The passing of another Vassa should add urgency to a monk’s efforts to attain the goal of the holy life. Monks often plan their Vassa residence far in advance, and never forget where they spent each Vassa. Seniority in the Sangha is even reckoned in terms of Vassa numbers; on meeting, monks ask each other, “How many Vassa?” meaning “How long have you been a monk?” to determine who is senior and who serves in the junior role.
Although monks may spend some Vassa periods in isolation pursuing intensive meditation, the majority stay in groups, and since no one can escape once Vassa has begun, those who would prefer to be solitary wanderers must eventually develop the social skills necessary to get along with each other.#
The end of Vassa brings a sense of happy relief for those itching to get out on the road again, and perhaps sorrow for those who will miss their teachers and friends. It can be a tender time.#
According to scripture,# on one occasion, thirty monks from another kingdom tried to arrive at the Buddha’s monastery in Savatthi in time to enjoy the blessing of spending the three-month Vassa in the Buddha’s company. To their sorrow, they didn’t get to him before the Vassa began, and had to take up residence six yojanas away (approximately 50 miles), where they spent the Vassa longing for him. As soon as the Vassa restriction ended, they made their way to the Buddha, not waiting for the season’s torrential rains to diminish. Crossing swollen rivers and making their way in the rain and mud, the group arrived in shabby condition, weary, with drenched robes. We can assume that their robes, already threadbare from wear during the rainy season, were ruined by arduous travel in pouring rain.
Looking with compassion at these devoted but bedraggled monks, the Buddha gave a discourse on the incalculable length of the arduous journey in Samsara.# Then he announced a new holiday to occur after Vassa: Kathina, an occasion of cloth-giving by laity. It is also a day of robe-making by the monks, for the Buddha added excitement to the occasion by requiring the Sangha to meet a challenge worthy of flip-this-house reality shows: they have less than 24 hours to make a robe from scratch. The name for the occasion, “Kathina,” comes from the word for the wooden frame, like a quilting frame, used to hold a robe being sewn.
If the monks succeed, qualified participants can receive certain privileges (of some rules being relaxed) for up to five months, including getting to travel without carrying their outer robe, and holding onto extra cloth without having to dispose of it within the usual ten days. The Kathina-challenge clock starts running at dawn, but efforts cannot begin after until new white cloth sufficient for a robe has been ceremoniously received from a donor. (The monks cannot ask in advance for the robe cloth, nor even hint about it; the cloth must come to them as though it has fallen down from the sky. The lay supporters do not let them down, however.) There must be at least five monks for the ceremony, hence monks from different locations may join to make a quorum. After receiving the cloth, the Sangha chooses a worthy recipient: a monk who kept unbroken residence for the Rains and who knows what to do, preferably an elder monk needing a new robe.
The cloth recipient must now quickly organize a team that will wash the white cloth, dry it, measure, mark and cut it into the complicated pattern of monks’ robes, sew the patches into a robe, dye it repeatedly, rinse and finally dry it, thus successfully making a ready-to-wear finished robe; then the recipient must relinquish his or her old robe, mark the new one, and announce, “the Kathina is spread,” then show it to another monk who must approve (“rejoice in”) the completed robe – all before dawn of the following morning!
The effort requires community cooperation, with some monks spending hours boiling jackfruit bark for dying the robes, while others work in shifts on the other robe-making tasks. Meanwhile, learned monks may give talks to the gathered lay devotees. Junior monks and novices may watch the work to learn and give minor support, or bring refreshments to the workers. According to their numbers and level of skill, monks may attempt making merely an under-robe, which is the smallest and easiest to complete; or the medium-challenge upper robe; or the large and highly complicated double-layered outer robe; or perhaps even all three robes. It can be an anxious day and night for the monks scrambling to complete their tasks on time.
Kathina was a hit. Even to this day, more than 2500 years later, devotees and monks enthusiastically celebrate Kathina holiday; some monasteries still follow all the particulars specified by the Buddha.
Sewing machines and Rit dye can reduce the sweat of the operation. However, nowadays the lay donors usually give a ready-made robe, allowing the Kathina celebration to proceed without the stress. This is acceptable, so long as the robe was correctly made (having at least four panels cut, not just sewn to appear cut). In some communities, the lay people get to take turns helping the monks to stitch the robes, and they line up for this privilege; or the laity may happily make a group effort to sew the Kathina robe in advance, themselves.
With or without the robe-sewing challenge, lay devotees still continue to turn out in large numbers very early in the morning on Kathina day, all dressed in white, making a procession into the monastery to parade around the Kathina cloth (whether a finished robe or white cloth) provided by some lucky family. Many believe that giving cloth on Kathina day brings special meritorious power to the donors, particularly donors of the Kathina cloth (or robe) used for the ceremonies. A tradition has evolved that just before the beginning of the Vassa, one of the prominent families “invites” the monks to stay in the local monastery and pledges to take charge of resident monks’ needs throughout the Vassa; that family then enjoys the honor of offering the Kathina cloth to the Sangha, makes sure there is sufficient thread and other necessary sewing materials, and may also coordinate the almsgiving on Kathina day.
Kathina has turned into a great generosity-fest, with laity bringing to the monasteries not only an abundance of robes (or cloth) for resident monks, but all kinds of needed supplies and thoughtful gifts. In return, donors receive joy in giving to those worthy-of-gifts, knowing they have supported the continuation of Sangha and helped to continue the Dhamma. They deepen their faith, and will reap the merits of generosity to Sangha. The festive day is also an occasion to hear teachings and enjoy the company of good spiritual friends. Some donations are handed directly to all the monks, but most of the goods end up in a large pile, perhaps near the altar; the monk who received the Kathina cloth has the duty and authority to manage these goods, storing them away or apportioning small items among monks as he or she sees fit. This monk gets to keep the Kathina robe indefinitely; if collectively sewn by one’s fellows in the holy life, it will always seem special.
Kathina holiday takes place on any day within one month of the end of Vassa (that is, a month within the full moon that falls around the end of October or beginning of November). The Buddha made the date flexible. This allows monasteries to time the holiday for later, if they wish, to encourage monks to stay in residence a little longer; or multiple monasteries within traveling distance of each other may coordinate their Kathina dates, so that monks can cooperatively go to support each others’ Kathina programs, for the happiness of each monastery’s lay supporters.
Even as Vassa may not coincide with a rainy season in the West, monks in the West celebrating Kathina probably don’t have threadbare robes needing replacement like the monks for whom the Buddha established this holiday. Yet Kathina, like Vassa, remains a vehicle for rich traditions initiated by the Buddha himself. With or without heavy rains preceding it, Kathina also continues to hold great strength of meaning because it symbolizes and reinforces the mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between the laity and the Sangha.
Ven. Sudhamma Bhikkhuni
Abbess, Carolina Buddhist Vihara