Where does the tradition of Vassa or rainy season retreat come from? What does it consist of?
Vassa means rain. It was the Buddha who decided that the rainy season - the monsoon - being a difficult period from the point of view of weather conditions, it was preferable that the monks stay in the monasteries to receive teachings from a master and to preserve nature and cultures. Thus, by consigning them from July to October, they no longer trampled the rice fields, avoided dangerous animals and could deepen their knowledge of Buddhism in order to transmit it, later, in turn. The Buddha also recommended that lay people who so wished take advantage of this moment to take temporary monk vows in order to devote themselves fully to the practice and promote their spiritual development.
How does this retreat unfold for monks and lay people?
In addition to lessons on Buddhist doctrine and meditation, the monks learn the basic techniques of yoga, massages, medicine in order to become autonomous. Apart from the times when they attend the teachings at the monastery, lay people can follow this retreat at home. They are then asked to observe the following rules: refrain from consuming alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and having idle distractions such as gambling; not having sex; do not go out at nightfall; practice meditation; be careful of what they say: don't swear, don't raise your voice and don't get angry. Failure to comply with these instructions generates additional retreat days to do.
The exit from this retreat gives rise to a great festival of Kathina, or Kathen, celebrated by Buddhists. What is its meaning, and what are its traditions?
The name Kathina comes from a Sanskrit word which means "frame for stretching the fabric". It is the “festival of the dress” because the dresses are offered to the monks in memory of the offering that the adoptive mother had made in her time to the Buddha, at the end of the rainy season. During this period, she had raised silkworms, then woven, sewn and dyed a robe for the Buddha. Dress which he refused, saying that it had to go to the most deserving member of the community. It was the last ordained disciple who received it. The Buddha then explained that this monk was the one who would ensure the transmission of the dhamma and that he would be the incarnation of the next Buddha, Maitreya.
The robes are offered to the monks in memory of the offering that the adoptive mother had made to the Buddha in her time, at the end of the rainy season.
This tradition has been perpetuated ever since in any monastery made up of more than five monks. The latter decide to whom the dress offered by a family or by the community should return at the end of the monsoon. Accepting to receive this dress also means committing for one more year. Thus, at the time of the Kathina festival which marks the end of Vassa, the monks are offered four things: a robe, food, materials to repair the dwelling (or money) as well as medicinal plants.
This festival is very important for all Buddhists in the Theravada regions. It is the occasion for ceremonies, processions, and brings together many people in the monasteries. In Vientiane, in the Laotian capital, at the time of the November full moon, for example, 500 to 700 people from all over the country meet at That Luang (supreme stupa), the most sacred monument in the country. . Thousands of monks from all the monasteries come to receive offerings from the faithful.