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What is Buddhist Lent?

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Photo by Pattayadays.com


This year, the eighth full moon of 2015 (in addition to being a Blue Moon) marks the beginning of a special time of year for Buddhists in Southeast Asia. Often referred to as “Buddhist Lent” or the “Rains Retreat” by westerners, this tradition corresponds to a three lunar month cycle when the region typically experiences heavy rains and farmers are planting their crops.

Monks and novices will stay in the same monastery or temple for the entire three-month period, venturing out only during the day (if at all) and always returning to the same temple to meditate and sleep. During this retreat, monks typically devote more time to meditation and deepening their understanding of the Dhamma – the truth taught by the Buddha.

Locals often practice a more ascetic lifestyle during this time period as well, often giving up meat, smoking or alcohol for a portion or all of the three months, spending more time giving alms on the streets, or visiting local temples to meditate.

To get a deeper understanding of this important Buddhist tradition, we asked our five country directors a few questions about how Buddhist Lent is observed in their countries. Below you will find answers from:

  • Houmphaeng “Phaeng” Phommaly, Country Director for Laos
  • Kanchana “Joy” Junglin, Country Director for Thailand
  • Michelle Nguyen, Country Director for Vietnam
  • Dar Le Khin, Country Director for Myanmar
  • Makara Put, Country Director for Cambodia

Journeys Within: What is this period of time called in your country?

Phaeng: In Laos we call it “Khao Phansa” which means all monks and novices must stay in the same place and focus on meditation.

Joy: In Thailand, we call it “Wan Khao Phansa.”

Michelle Nguyen: “Phat Dan” is the Vietnamese name for Buddhist Lent/Vassa/Rains Retreat. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism). It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics* in India not to travel during the rainy season as one may unintentionally harm crops, insects or even oneself whilst travelling. (*As they walked from place to place, followers begged and relied on charitable donations as part of a vow for poverty in order to spend ones time and energy solely on preaching and serving the poor.)

Makara: This period of time we call “Chorl Vorsa” (Chorl means enter, Vorsa means raining). It is one of the biggest religious celebrations besides New Year and P’Chom Ben.

Dar Le: In Myanmar, we called it “War-Twin” meaning duration of the Buddhist lent.

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Photo by Edna Kornberg

Journeys Within: For how long is it observed? Are there any particularly special days that are celebrated?

Joy: Wan Khao Phansa is observed for a period of three lunar months during the rainy season when monks are required to remain in one particular place or temple. This year it runs from July 31 to October 27, 2015.

Phaeng: It is observed for three months from July 31 – October 27 in 2015. For regular people, all activities remain the same, but on traditional Buddhist days of celebration like the full moon, even more people than usual would give alms on the streets and temples. And elders often go to the temples to listen to the Dhamma and join the monks in their chanting.

Makara: It is celebrated for a 3 months period, and there is a special celebration on the first two days. On the first day, most regular locals will bring many useful things like cloth, dry fishes, tea, milk, coffee, sugar and other offerings to the monks, especially the big candles that they will light every day. The second day the Head Monks will call all the monks to come together and give advice and take the role for this period.

Journeys Within: What do monks do differently during this time period?

Phaeng: All the monks and novices have to stay in the same places or temples and can’t travel this time of year. The (historical) reason for this rule is that it is the time period of hard rains and planting of new crops, so if monks were to travel they might step on farmers’ plants or on baby animals, or get stuck in the heavy rains (and mud). The head monks, and those in high positions, have to meditate for the entire period. These monks typically retreat to a center temple that is not open to the public during this time.

Michelle: For the duration of Vassa, monks remain in one place, typically in monasteries or pagodas. In the monasteries and the monks chant the scriptures, lead a period of meditation and give teachings on the themes of the festival in return for people’s offerings. At this period of time, the monks stay inside and they won’t go outside until the Vassa ends or unless there is anything urgent.

Joy: This tradition originates from old times when Buddha stayed in temples during the rainy season to avoid killing insects or harming the growing seeds. It is a period for study, meditation and teaching of new monks. The monks are allowed to go out during the day but they must sleep in the same temple every night during these three months.

Journeys Within: What do regular locals do differently during this time period?

Dar Le: People offer robes to monks which monks might need during the three-month time period. Since it is the rainy season, their robes can get wet easily while collecting alms and eventually need to be replaced. That’s why it is called a “vaso robe” which means “rain resistant robe.”

Michelle: Buddhist Festivals are always joyful occasions. Buddhists decorate their houses and streets with Buddhist flags and flowers. Buddhists often give up something for lent, e.g. meat, alcohol, smoking… It is a time to make special efforts to make people happy and review our personal progress for kindness and respect for everyone and everything around us.

A typical day during the festival people will:

  • Go to the local temple or monastery and offer food, candles and flowers to the monks and receive guidance, support and teaching from the monks.
  • Give food and support to the poor during the day.
  • Gather around statues of the Buddha when it is dark and walk around the statue with candles until all is covered in light.
  • End the day joining in with chanting of the Buddha’s teachings and meditation.

Joy: Mostly the activities o­n Wan Khao Phansa (Rains Retreat Entry Day) are the same as those o­n any other Buddhist holy days. Two main important things are presented to monks during Khao Phansa – candles and the garments worn by monks, specifically the bathing robes. In the old times there was only candle light to be used around the temples, and at the beginning of the rainy season, Thai people made large candles as offerings to be used during this season. Some believe that as a result of this custom, the givers become brighter and smarter – similar to the characteristics of the candlelight.

Makara: Regular locals will bring food on days they are free to offer to the monks because the monks cannot go out and receive morning alms like they normally do.

Phaeng: Devout Buddhists and most elderly locals would try to follow the five precepts below:

  • Abstain from killing
  • Abstain from lying
  • Abstain from alcohol and liquor
  • Abstain from stealing
  • Abstain from sensual misconduct

Besides following those rules, some people like go to the temple more often than usual.

Start of Buddhist lent - no drinking alcohol!
Photo by Nick Hubbard, Flickr

Journeys Within: Any tips for visitors who are in-country during this time period?

Phaeng: Most of temples are open as normal since they have a special place for monks to practice separate from the main temple sights, so there shouldn’t be any problem. However, visitors can talk to their guide or the staff at their hotel before going to any temples so as not to disturb any ceremonies that might be going on.

Joy: One important tradition for Wan Khao Phansa is the Khao Phansa Candle Making Ceremony where people bring white and yellow candles to make the Khao Phansa candles. There are also Candle Festivals celebrated in locations throughout Thailand on this day, the most famous of which is located in Ubon Ratchathanee province at Thung Sri Mueng Temple, which is the province’s most popular annual event. Local artists express their artistic talents and techniques through crafting and placing Thai patterns with the candle wax, and the magnificent candles also demonstrate the link of local custom and religious belief. After a procession, the candles are presented to local temples.

Michelle: Take the opportunity to visit pagodas with our guides (or even on your own if you wish) whenever the opportunity presents itself in holiday itineraries and meet with the monks. Everyone will be very happy to welcome you to join in the festival experience and explain more. Chat with your guide if you need him/her to be on hand to help with translations. It is best to keep clothes comfortable and tops covering shoulders with long trousers at a respectable length. Shoes are taken off and left outside homes and on the pagoda steps. Hats shouldn’t be worn inside pagodas or homes.

Dar Le: Perhaps, volunteer at night preparing food for next morning’s alms bowls for monks.

Journeys Within: What is your favorite aspect?

Dar Le: I think that the people of Myanmar are still strong Buddhist followers and it’s good to see the religious spirit of the people.

Michelle: The nurturing of the community spirit, the bringing hope to others and stopping to remind ourselves that we do not live in isolation and whatever we do on a daily basis has an impact on others and on our surroundings.

Joy: I am Buddhist and I am proud that this tradition has been passed on from generation to generation and it is still present today.

Phaeng: I think Buddhist lent is good for monks and novices who can stay in same place, and for regular people as well. I see that most people try not to drink and that they are trying to maintain the Lao traditions that have lasted over a thousand years. I hope they are still doing this in the future, even as the world changes.

Makara: My favourite aspect is to see Cambodian people maintaining this traditional religious celebration the same way they have been doing this for years.

2 comments on “What is Buddhist Lent?”

  1. Pingback: Buddhism in Southeast Asia | The Center for Southeast Asian Studies

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