This dame as she sits down to word process her weekly article this morning is groggy and sleepy. No silly, not after a dance or sing-along. She kept up the entire previous night joining in the Pirith chanting to end the Vas season in her temple. Tired yes, but uplifted and light with merit collected. To all Theravada Buddhist countries the month of October is extra significant.During the three previous months, monks have observed Vassana or the rain retreat and obligatory stay in their temples or meditation centres with no sojourning away from their abodes.
I say ‘abodes’, because some monks go to other temples, say from a city temple to a village temple, often of their native village, to meditate and renew their Vinaya rules. The three months are a good opportunity for Buddhist lay people to act meritoriously – offering Pindapatha to monks who come collecting their mid-day meal, and seeing to the welfare of the monks in the temple they associate with. And then in October comes the end of the Vas period marked by a huge ceremony planned and carried out by the lay disciples of a temple.
What is the antecedent of this Vas season? Like all other Buddhist traditions it had its beginning in the time of the Buddha. In India as in most of South Asia, the South West monsoon with its heavy rain prevails during the months of May through August.
Thus the Buddha after he preached his first sermon to the five ascetics in Saranath in July, stayed indoors in the place of abode given him by a wealthy land owner. His monks went about on their alms round. The Jains, a powerful religious sect at the time, almost paranoid about not harming any living being, criticized the Buddha and his Sangha (monks) for travelling around, on foot though it was, harming plants just growing and animals who emerged to the surface of the sodden ground or from their hiding in forests. The Buddha took note of the accusation as justified and decreed that all monks observe a period of non-travel for three months, coinciding with the rainy season. The time was to be spent in reviving vows taken; concentrated meditation and fostering closer ties with the people who supplied them with all necessities. A further inducement was his seeing monks drenched, return to their abodes.
Times have changed drastically since the Buddha lived and preached in the sixth century BC, but the Vinaya rules have not, nor the traditions followed as set down by Him. Thus on the full moon day in July monks ceremonially take vows to observe Vassana– the rain retreat.At the end of the three months, the welfare committee of a temple decides, in consultation with the head monk, when the Katina pinkama would be held. This ceremony marks the official end of Vas,and is tradition-bound.
A robe is stitched by many women joining pieces of cloth, symbolic of how in ancient times homeless, moneyless monks collected cloths from bodies in cemeteries and stitched their robes. The robe is then dyed saffron yellow or dark brown. In the early dawn of the day of the ceremony the robe is carried in a procession of devotees and drummers and dancers to the temple. It is offered after morning dhana to the head monk of the temple or to someone designated by him.Participating is believed to be extra meritorious.
Every temple in every town, hamlet and village in Sri Lanka follows this tradition. Sinhala families resident in cities in foreign countries too have their Katina pinkamas.
It is an ancient custom imbued with piety, practicality and symbolism. The Vas pinkama is not merely a ritual, it has the major element of giving (dhana) and receiving by those who have gone forth to the homeless and depend on the temple supporters for the four necessities of life: shelter, food, medicines and apparel. They live simple, so our giving should be simple. But Katina pinkamas now are showily opulent. Totally unnecessary but shardha takes precedence over simplicity!