Richard Jones from London Buddhist Vihara writes about the significance of Kathina day and explains why it is such an important celebration for supporters of Theravada monasteries.
The Kathina day is also known as Sangha Day. The monks’ spiritual service to the community is appreciated in this festival.
For over 2,500 years, supporters of Theravada monasteries have celebrated this festival. Kathina is a way of completing and marking the end of the annual Rains Retreat, or Vassa.
During the time of the rains the monks were not permitted to travel as they might unintentionally harm plants and insects which start to flourish when the rains arrive.
So the monks had to stay in one place, thereby making use of the opportunity to intensify their own practice and to teach the doctrine to the lay community. A special robe, stitched together by lay supporters, is offered to the monastic community (Sangha).
The origins of this festival go back to a time when the Buddha was staying in the town of Savatthi in north-east India. A group of 30 monks were on their way to spend the Vassa with him.
However, they were unable to reach Savatthi in time for the start of the Rains, so they had to stay in Saketa for the three-month retreat. As soon as the Vassa ended, and they were permitted to travel again, they continued their journey to see the Buddha.
Finally, they arrived in 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 new robes.
An alternative explanation from some sources is that the Buddha gave the monks some cloth, which he had acquired as a gift from one of the lay community, and told them to sew a robe and then bestow it upon one of their company.
Knowing the inspiration that comes from sharing and from generosity, the Buddha established a procedure whereby the monks could agree among themselves to make a gift of a robe to one of their number.
So, when they had procured enough cloth, the monks set about sewing a robe.
In those days, the method they used involved spreading the pieces of cloth on a frame and stitching them together. The traditional frame on which the robe was sewn was called a “Kathina”.
There are three conditions to be fulfilled.
1. The Kathina robe can be offered to Sangha only once a year. The same monastery cannot have two robe offering ceremonies in any one year.
2. The Kathina can be offered only during the period starting from the end of the Vassa retreat, on the full moon day of October, until the next full moon day in November.
3. The Kathina robe is offered to the whole monastic community and not to an individual monk.
The monks then formally agree which of them should receive it. Of the annual Buddhist ceremonies, it is the only one centred around the Sangha, and it is an opportunity for lay supporters to join in harmony and work together, and to take part in the largest alms-giving ceremony of the Buddhist year.
The Sangha is our refuge. It is a community of moral and virtuous beings, established by the Buddha, who while seeking their own liberation, guide lay people by their example and teaching.
The Buddha said that offering to the Sangha is always more beneficial and more meritorious than to any other beings, and brings about good fortune in the life to come.
A typical programme at the London Buddhist Vihara is:
Kathina DDay15.00: Ceremonial procession with the Kathina Robe
15.15-15.30: Taking Refuges and the Five Precepts
15.30-16:00: Talk on the significance of Kathina
16.00-16.30: The ceremony of offering the Kathina Robe and other requisites to the Sangha
16.30-17.00: Sermon in Sinhala
17.00-17.30: Paritta chanting by the Venerable Monks and Punyanumodana