Vassa, the Rains Retreat for Buddhist Monks
Vassa (Pali) or pansa (Thai), also called Rains
Retreat, is the traditional retreat during the rainy season or monsoon lasting
for three lunar months from July to October. During this time Buddhist
monks remain in a single place, generally in their temples. In some
monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation practice.
During Vassa, many Buddhist lay people reinvigorate their spiritual
training and adopt more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol,
Vassa is sometimes known as "Buddhist Lent".
In countries such as Thailand, the laity will often take monastic vows for the Vassa period and then return to lay life. Commonly, the number of years a monk has spent in monastic life is expressed by counting up the number of Vassas he has observed.
The retreat has largely been given up by Mahayana Buddhists, as Mahayana Buddhism typically flourished in regions where a rainy season did not exist, or was not significant.
The origins of the vassa tradition are ascribed to early Buddhist times. Gautama Buddha ordered his disciples to observe a pre-existing practice whereby holy men avoided travelling for a three month period during the rainy season or monsoon, in order to avoid damaging crops.
The period begins on the first day of the waning moon in the eighth lunar month, the preceding day is Asalha Puja. The focus of celebration by the laity is the first day of vassa, Wan Kao Pansa, during which worshippers donate candles and other necessities to temples, a ceremony which has reached its most extravagant form in the Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival in Thailand.
Vassa is followed by two of the major festivals of the year among Theravada Buddhists, Wan Awk Pansa and Kathina.
The end of vassa is marked by joyous celebration. The following month, the Kathina ceremony is held, during which the laity gathers to make formal offerings of robe cloth and other requisites to the Sangha.
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