When Buddhism was first established in ancient India, there were few monks and nuns. The monks did not stay in temples but moved from one place to another. It was their mission to spread the teaching of the Buddha for the happiness and welfare of all living beings. In those days there were no paved roads, so the Buddha allowed his disciples to stop wandering and take up temporary abodes during the rainy season.
This season is called Vassā in Pali, meaning “Rains Retreat”. It begins in early July and continues through late October. This is a time of deep meditation and austerity, ending in a celebration where the congregation gifts new robes to the monks.
Nowadays, lay followers prepare robes for the monks, who benefit them by accepting offerings of robes and other necessities. The Kathina ceremony takes place during the month immediately following the full moon day of October. Today a number of customs and practices of a collective life, including the recitation of rules and the distribution of robes, became incorporated into the annual cycle of monastic life.
This historic ceremony, continuing through the ages, has evolved from culture to culture. Today in Sri Lanka, the Kathina ceremony provides one of the most popular occasions for merit-making. Buddhist people celebrate the robe-offering ceremony with profound respect and devotion to the monks, who have just spent three months in the monastery observing the Vassā. In rural Sri Lanka, everybody in a village participates in the Kathina ceremony at nearby temples as a community activity lasting from one to three days.
Among the Buddhist of Southeast Asia, there is a very grand festival at the end of the observance of the Rains Retreat. People offer food to the monks in monasteries and prepare the special robes that are offered to the Sangha. This special offering is called the Kathina Offering Ceremony. It is done only during the period of time starting from the end of Rains Retreat to the first day of the waning moon of the 12th Lunar Month.
Yesterday we celebrated Kathinā at our forest monastery in Sri Lanka. It was very beautiful, and a profound experience for me personally. Most importantly, I finally got to meet some of my superiors in the Order, and found the senior monks to be truly venerable and admirable beings.
I have been deeply involved in religious and spiritual organizations since childhood. I was raised in a Christian household, but left that because of its hypocrisy. That started a search for truth that has taken me all over the world, researching the roots of all the major faiths in their countries of origin.
Sadly, spiritual life and community are in sorry shape on our planet at this time. Error, deviation and corruption are much easier to find than authentic versions of any tradition. For many years I followed the Vedic spiritual path, and while my personal spiritual master was an admirable personality, his organization was rife with phony renunciants into power politics and the worst kinds of hypocrisy. I could never feel at home in that organization; and even when I left and started my own, it never felt right.
I first encountered supposedly Buddhist teachings in America in the late 1960s. As a young man in search of truth, I naturally visited important places like Esalen, Tassajara Zen center and others. But something about the American ‘Buddhist’ teachings put me off. I wound up becoming a yogi, studying the Vedas in India and eventually becoming a guru myself.
That feeling has only increased with time. Now that I actually know something about the Buddha’s teaching, whenever I hear what is being taught as ‘Buddhism’ in the West, I have to cringe. It is unrecognizable as Buddha’s teaching, mixed up with all kinds of mundane knowledge, or so twisted in its social manifestation that it resembles a business or a fundamentalist church more than the Sangha as the Buddha conceived it.
One of my most severe doubts about accepting ordination as a Buddhist monk was that I would find the same nonsense here as well. I was fully prepared to spend the rest of my life as a recluse, rather than join another organization where the so-called ‘leaders’ are really wicked men posing as monks.
My first experience of Buddhist society was in Thailand, where I went to study meditation. However, I found the best teacher in the books of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, who unfortunately departed this world some time ago. The same corruption I experienced in India was quite prevalent in Thailand—jet-set monks showing up at the temple in chauffeured Mercedes, wearing Rolex watches and surrounded by pretty young boys. I’m sure there are some monasteries like that in Sri Lanka, but fortunately they are in the minority.
The Buddha predicted that the Dhamma would be preserved in Sri Lanka better than anywhere else. My experience confirms the truth of this. The upland forest tradition monks are genuine and very strict. However, they are reclusive and difficult for a Westerner to approach. There are some monasteries that offer meditation retreats to Westerners, but they are more like vacation hotels—not my cup of tea. I wanted authentic discipleship, a lifetime relationship with a traditional Buddhist community.
Luckily I got an introduction through a relative of a friend, and was able to visit a deep forest monastery high in the mountains. I stayed there for almost two months, forming a nice relationship with the Chief Monk. He introduced me to his primary student, who has an even smaller and more obscure monastery in a tiny mountainside village. I went there to visit at his invitation, and liked it so much that I have never left except for short journeys.
Since I moved here we have had two major festivals: Vesak at the end of April and now Kathinā. Vesak was beautiful and I have done a short video about it. But especially now that I am a monk, Kathinā seemed much more powerful and significant. There was so much wonderful devotion from the congregation, I was overwhelmed. You can see it for yourself in the video.