It is one of the most important days in the Theravada Buddhist calendar
2,500 years ago, a group of monks set off to visit the Buddha in Northern India, but were prevented from arriving at their destination by the onset of heavy rains. When the Buddha heard of their fate and disappointment, he sent them a gift of cloth he had acquired from a lay person, and told them to sew a robe and bestow it to a member of their group. Together the monks used a frame called a Kathina to sew the robe, and were uplifted by the experience of sharing and generosity. And so, ever since, Theravada monks, normally nomadic, observe the ‘rainy retreat’ by staying within a Vihara (monastery) for the three month duration of Northern India’s wet season, which occurs between July and October. At the end of this period a ceremony is held to mark the occasion and give thanks. The Buddhist community offers the Kathina robe to a democratically chosen monk, as well practising ‘dana’ or generosity, by giving alms. It is one of the most important days in the Theravada Buddhist calendar.
The Kathina ceremony was held in London on Sunday, November 2nd 2008 at the London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick. The hall was packed with devotees of all ages from many corners of the Buddhist world – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, and England itself (to name just a few) and the ceremony was largely conducted by Venerable Bogoda Seelawimala, who is the head of the vihara and Chief Sangha Nayake of Great Britain. Five resident monks had observed the rainy retreat in the vihara, including one who had travelled from Sri Lanka back in July. This monk, the Venerable Buddha Siri, is renowned in Sri Lanka for his chanting, which was truly remarkable (and can be heard if you watch the movie accompanying this article). Five other monks had also been invited to take part in the celebrations.
The Venerable Bogoda Seelawimala spoke of the significance of the Kathina ceremony, which marks the end of the three month rainy retreat – a period in which the monks practice the Buddhist concept of detachment. He explained the concept like this:
“Sometimes you are fed up, doing so many activities. We monks too! We all need a rest – this retreat is a spiritual rest.”
The Venerable Bogoda Seelawimala went on to outline the three forms of detachment – the first is detachment from “the crowds and day-to-day life”, the second is a higher form, “the detachment from passion” and the third and highest form, the ultimate goal of the samsara tradition, occurs when “the mind is free from fear and you see things as they are.”
Then, it was time for the monks to decide who would be given the special Kathina robe. By vote, their selection was made and announced – it would be given to the Venerable Buddha Siri from Sri Lanka, the monk famous for his beautiful chanting. The monks slowly wrapped the deep claret coloured robe around his shoulders and torso. In accordance with custom, the robe had been stitched by the monks that very morning. Chanting in Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhists, followed.
The Kathina Ceremony was Catarina Mak’s first visit to the London Buddhist Vihara. The 29 year old Chinese-Australian Buddhist has recently moved to London and said she will return to the vihara for meditation classes and talks. Of the ceremony she said, “It was very lovely, and it shows the great generosity of the community in providing for the monks. The three month rainy retreat period is crucial for the monks’ spiritual relaxation because they are usually busy teaching overseas or fulfilling their duties in the vihara. The rainy retreat allows them to concentrate solely on their practise and progress in their path.”
Here is a pictorial video compilation of the Kathina Ceremony that took place.
Classes and talks at the London Buddhist Vihara are free (donations are welcome). If you would like to learn more about the vihara, visit http://www.londonbuddhistvihara.org