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Over the next week or two, villages throughout rural Thailand will be holding kathina ceremonies—events that reinforce commitments to such Buddhist values as generosity, selflessness, and charity. The highlight of the kathina ceremony, which lasts from one to three days, is the presentation of gifts and new robes to the Buddhist monks in local temples and monasteries.

The kathina is a ceremony in the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia that ends the three month period known as the vassa, “the rains retreat,” extending from mid July to mid October. The ceremony takes place at different times in different Buddhist communities since traditions and cultures vary, but always in the month following the full moon of October.

The kathina ceremony is an important opportunity for villagers to gain merit, according to Swearer (1); it typically includes nearly everyone in the village. While the villagers prepare foods and material gifts for the monks, a principal donor, a wealthy person from a larger community, may provide the bulk of the support. The reason wealthy donors sponsor kathinas in the villages is that they often believe that rural monasteries may follow monastic ideals more closely than urban ones do.

Ven. Chuen Phangcham (2), whose essay on the kathina ceremony was reprinted last week in Sri Lanka, writes that kathina ceremonies provide very popular occasions for merit-making today in Thailand. A typical kathina celebration might include a procession featuring musical groups with traditional instruments such as horns, drums, and cymbals. Alternatively, school bands might play Western music. In some cases, dancers are part of the procession and marchers may process in traditional costumes. Traditions vary.

The procession typically files through a village and enters the main hall of the monastery bearing such gifts as money and a “wishing tree,” as well as the new robes for the monks. The wishing tree, which often takes the shape of a palace, symbolizes the hope of the villagers that the merit they acquire from their gift-giving will enable them to live in a better station in a future life. Other gifts might include material goods for the monks such as cigarettes, canned foods, towels, and soap.

The ceremony begins with the lay people taking refuge in the Buddha, in the dhamma (the teaching), and in the sangha (the community of monks). The congregation may repeat, in the Pali language after the monks, the five principal precepts of Buddhist living: to not kill, steal, lie, engage in forbidden sexual acts, or drink alcoholic beverages.

During a kathina ceremony in rural Thailand, the lay leader of the people ritually presents the gifts to the monastic community, and they are received by the abbot on behalf of the monastery. The lay leader then offers the robes symbolically to a large image of the Buddha before presenting them to the monks. Everyone concludes the ceremony by chanting a blessing.

North American Theravada Buddhist monasteries and centers celebrate kathina much as the villages of Thailand do, as the schedules of activities at their websites suggest. The Tathgata Meditation Center in San Jose, which held its kathina ceremony on October 19, the Wat Pasantidhamma in Southeast Tidewater Virginia, with its kathina to be on October 26, and the Thai Society of Ontario’s Yanviriya Buddhist Temple, holding a kathina celebration on November 9, all have similar programs that differ only in details.

The point of the ceremony is for the monks and the laity to make reciprocal gifts. The lay people make their offerings, the monks, in return, give their blessings. Swearer (1) describes the gift giving in terms of a merit-making calculation, in which “the participants hope for a reward in a future life brought about by the power of this good act (p.24).”

He argues that the monasteries have a symbolic role as mediators of the power of the Buddha to confer supernatural attainments and supreme enlightenment. During the three-month period of the rains retreat the monks have followed a restrictive regime in their monasteries, so they are believed to have greater potency than normal. The kathina ceremony provides a way for the laity to gain access to that power so it can foster a special degree of merit for them as well.

Potential benefits from the kathina ceremony, in addition to gaining merit, according to Ven. Chuen Phangcham (2), would be: “Buddhist followers support and help the monks to maintain the Buddhist teachings and tradition for world peace;” “The donors cultivate generosity, perform charity, and exhibit selflessness;” “The donors follow the noble way of life and maintain a humane society on this planet. They are the source of peace and happiness for the world.”

Similarly, Aggacitta Bhikkhu (3) suggests that the kathina ceremony should not be viewed solely as an annual opportunity to gain personal merit. It is more than that. It should foster what he calls “wholesome practices (p.87).” The ceremony should provide an opportunity to remain truthful, to provide service, and to express wisdom in innovative ways.

How much, in fact, does the merit-making really inspire peacefulness among the Rural Thai? Sharp and Hanks (4) argue that the construction of a temple in the village of Bang Chan, which was the result of some merit seeking by a trader, had a positive effect on the villagers. The trader, a man named Sin, decided half a century ago to built a temple in Bang Chan so that the people would not have to travel a few hours by boat to visit a temple in another village.

Sharp and Hanks maintain that, in addition to the benefits of the merit the donor would accrue, “the presence of a temple would benefit the nearby residents, and more young men from Bang Chan could begin their adult lives instructed in the consequences of evil. Within each hamlet disputes and crime would consequently dwindle (p.94).”

(1) Swearer, Donald K. 1995. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press

(2) Ven. Chuen Phangcham. 2006. Kathina Ceremony and its Meaning

(3) Aggacitta Bhikkhu. 2001. Kathina Then and Now. Taiping, Perak, Malaysia: Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary

(4) Sharp, Lauriston and Lucien M. Hanks. 1978. Bang Chan: A Social History of a Rural Community in Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press