Vassa, also called Rains Retreat, is the three-month annual retreat observed by monastic practitioners. Taking place during the rainy season, for the duration of Vassa, Bhikkhus remain inside monasteries and temple grounds. In some monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation. Some Buddhist lay people choose to observe Vassa by adopting some practices such as going vegetarian.
Held in October or November of the Western calendar, Kathina is organized by lay people in order to present monks with new robes. One robe is first ceremonially presented as the Kathina robe to the head of the monastery, to be given to the a monk, traditionally chosen by the abbot, and lay people then offer robes and requisites to the rest of the Sangha.
Origins of Kathina Practice
The scriptures relate that 30 monks were traveling together with the intention of spending the retreat season with the Buddha. However, when the full moon of July (the start of the retreat) arrived, they had not reached their destination, and according to custom they were required to stay where they were. So, it is told, the monks were disappointed and spent the 3-month retreat away from their teacher.
At the end of the retreat, the monks finished their journey to see the Buddha. Coming to hear of their disappointment, he was moved to give them a teaching that would uplift and inspire them. He suggested that they should make a new robe together and the monks set about sewing a robe. In those days, the method used involved spreading the pieces of cloth on a frame and stitching them together. This frame was called a Kathina.
The robe is made, according to ceremonial prescription, by sewing patches together in such a way as is said to imitate the patchwork of the paddy fields familiar to the early monks on their travels. The community first presents the cloth for the robe, which is marked, cut and sewn on the same day, before being presented to the Maha Sangha. Another meaning given to the word “Kathina” is “difficult”, which suggests the arduousness of the vocation of a disciple of the Buddha, and the tenacity required to follow the Dhamma.
The robe-giving ceremony is also a reminder of the interdependence of the monastic order and the laity; the monks offer a spiritual example and teaching to the lay followers and, in return, the lay people satisfy the monks’ basic needs. This interdependence was stressed by the Buddha, and has certainly been a vital factor in the survival and continuation of Buddhism as a living tradition. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that this ceremony is the only one involving the laity that gains its authority from the earliest Buddhist scriptures.