The Kathina festival that we are celebrating today is the most important alms giving ceremony of the Buddhist year. For over 2,500 years, supporters of the Theravada monasteries have gathered during the months of October and November to celebrate this festival. Kathina is a way of completing and marking the end of the annual Rains Retreat, or Vassa. During this three month retreat, the Sangha of monks and nuns have been obliged by their rules not to travel unless absolutely necessary. As winter approaches, this gesture of offering is the traditional way that lay devotees of the London Buddhist Vihara express their gratitude to the Sangha and to assure that the basic requisites are provided.
So how did the Kathina festival originate?
According to the scriptures, the Buddha was staying at Savatthi in the Jeta Grove at Anathapindika’s monastery. A group of thirty forest-dwelling Bhikkhus were on their way to spend the Vassa with him. Unfortunately, they were unable to reach Savatthi in time for the start of the Rains, so they had to stay at Saketa for the three month retreat. Although the Bhikkhus had longed to be with the Buddha for the Vassa, they spent the retreat time together practising meditation and living in harmony. As soon as the Vassa ended, being allowed to travel again, they continued their journey to see the Buddha. Finally, they arrived at Savatthi, weary and with tattered robes, and paid their respects to the Buddha. On hearing what had happened, the Buddha decided to encourage them, allowing them to roam freely after the Rains Retreat to gather cloth for robes. The Buddha, knowing the inspiration that comes from sharing and from generosity, established a procedure whereby the Bhikkhus could agree among themselves to make a gift of a robe to one of their number. And, so, when they had procured enough cloth, the Bhikkhus set about sewing a robe. In those days, the method they would use involved spreading the pieces of cloth on a frame and stitching them together. The frame on which the robe was sewn was called a “Kathina”.
From that time, until the present day, lay supporters have observed the rule allowing the offering of Kathina cloth to be made at any time during the four weeks following the end of the Vassa. It should be mentioned that the Sangha is not allowed to initiate or request such an offering, it being stipulated that it should arrive unsolicited in the midst of the assembly as if “wafted in on a breeze.”
However to offer Kathina robe, three conditions need to be fulfilled.
1. It can be offered to the Sangha in monastery only once a year. The same monastery can not have two robe offering ceremonies in any one year.
2. The Kathina can be offered only during a specified period, which starts from the end of Vassa or full moon day of October to the next full moon day of November.
3. Kathina robe is offered to the whole Sangha Community and not to an individual monk. The Bhikkhus would then formally agree which of them should received it.
Of the annual Buddhist ceremonies, it is the only one centred round the Sangha, and it’s an opportunity for the lay supporters to join in harmony and work together, to take part in the largest alms-giving ceremony of the Buddhist year.
The Sangha is our refuge. They are a community of moral and virtuous beings, established by the Buddha, who while seeking their own liberation, guide the lay people by their example. As the Buddha said, offering to the Sangha is always more beneficial and more meritorious than to any other and bring about good fortune in the life to come.
By this act of generosity and our participation in it, may we all realise the supreme bliss of nibbana.