In ancient India, as we observed today, three regular seasons prevailed. They were ‘Vassana’ (rainy), ‘Hemanta’ (winter) and ‘Gimhana’ (summer). The rainy season (Vassana Kalo), was from the middle of July to that of November. During rainy season due to heavy rain, rivers over flowed. Streams got flooded. Then roads also flooded. Therefore, communications disrupted and lowlands got inundated. Some areas became isolated. In the ancient there was an observation named “Vassa”, before the Buddha’s time in India. It considered as the holy retreat which observed by ancient ascetics in there. During this four months, both the clergy and the laity confined themselves to their places of abode and the ascetics found it difficult to engage in their missionary activities.
The Buddha’s purpose was to..
In view of the unfavorable weather condition, all ascetics including the disciples of the Buddha, suspended their itinerant activities and lived in retirement in solitary places until the cessation of the rainy season. Customarily, the Buddha and his disciples too observed the “Vassa” in their monasteries and some even retired to forests to keep themselves occupied in meditation, which was compulsory for Bhikkhus to achieve their spiritual goals.
During the ‘Vassa’ season, the laity flocked to listen to the discourses of the Buddha, having taken the opportunity to their own advantage. According to Buddhism, observing “Vassa” is not an isolationist practice of confining oneself to a solitary place devoid of human contact. In fact, the Bhikkhus are prohibited from observing ‘Vassa’ in places where no other person could reach them.
The Buddha, during his 45 years of ministration, did not fail to observe the holy retreat (Vassa), annually, with the onset of the rainy season, in keeping with the practice in vogue among the ascetics who had left their homes in quest of truth. The Jain teacher Mahavira alias Niganta Nataputta, one of the famous six sophists and a contemporary of the Buddha, criticized Buddha’s disciples for venturing out, during the rainy season, trampling on grass, insects and other living organisms, while going from place to place. The Buddha, accordingly, proclaimed that his disciples should never go out during the rainy season, but confine themselves to their places of abode, until the rain ceases.
The Buddha’s Vassa observations
The Buddha never failed to observed ‘Vassa’ which he had himself proclaimed to his disciples to continue, annually, without a breach. Out of 45 years of ministration, the Buddha spent 20 years in observing ‘vassa’ at the under mentioned places.
1st year at the Isipatanaramaya in Benares, after expounding the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, to the ‘Panca Vaggiya bhikkhus’, who became his first disciples. It was during this holy retreat that Yasa’s conversion to Buddhism took place.
During the 2nd, 3rd and 4th years, at Veluvana (Bamboo Grove) in Rajagaha, the capital of Mgadha Kingdom of King Bimbisara, where he spent the three rainy seasons. In the 5th year, at the Kutagara Hall at Mahavana in Visala. It was in this year that the Bhikkhuni order was founded at the request of Maha Prajapathi Gotami.
In the 6th year at the Macula Hill in Kosambi, the capital of Vansa Kingdom. Now in Allahabad.
In the 7th year at the Thavatimsa Celestial abode where the Buddha preached the Abhidhamma to the deities.
In the 8th year at the Bhesakala forest near Sumsumara Rock (now in Bhagga District). In the 9th year at the Ghoshitaramaya in Kosambi. Magandhiya harbored a grudge against the Buddha and sought an opportunity to dishonor him in this period.
In the 10th year in the Parileiyyaka Forest at the foot of two ‘Sal’ (Roshea Robusta) trees. It was on this occasion that an elephant and a monkey treated to the Buddha’s needs. They treated with fruits, leaves, honey etc. In the 11th year at the Ekanala Brahmin village in Dakkhinagiri in the outskirts of Magadha.
In the 12th year at Veranja in the Surasena Kingdom west of Mathura. In the 13th year at the Caliya Rock and in the 14th year at the Jetavana Monastery in Savatti, the Capital of Kosala District, also known as Sravasthi.
In the 15th year at the Nigrodharamay in Kapilavattu, where the Buddha was born. In the 16th year at the Alav City, identified as the spot around Mount Uren in Mungir District, towards the North of Bihar.
In the 17th year at Rajagaha, in the 18th and 19th years at the Caliya Rock and in the 20th year at Rajagaha. The Buddha spent the remaining 15 years of this life in Savatthi at the Jetavana monastery built by the Wealthy Anathapindika and partly at Pubbarama, built by Visakha, the chief benefactress.
Rules of Vassa
The age of an ordained Bhikkhu was counted from his first holy retreat, and he who has observed 20 ‘Vassa’ years was considered a Maha Thera. Only those who had received the ‘Upasamapada’ (the highest ordination) are eligible to observe the ‘vassa’. Another way of reckoning the age of an ordained Bhikkhu was the date of ordination, but this too coincided with ‘Vassa’.
The Buddha said,
“Anujanami bhikkhave vassane vassam upagantum, dveme bhikkhave vassupanayika purmika paccimika ca” – Mahavagga
This means that the Buddha has allowed Bhikkhus to observe ‘Vassa’ during the rainy season. It should be observed on the first day of the waning moon in the month Esala (July). In the event of any Bhikkhu falling to keep with the date, it should compulsorily be done on the first day of the waning moon in the following month, for instance; Nikini (August). The former is known as ‘Purimika’ and the latter as ‘Paccimika’.
Due to some unavoidable reasons, if a Bhikkhu observing ‘Vassa’ were to leave the premises, he can do so, but he should return within seven days. Exceptions to this rule are allowed, depending on the gravity of the circumstances.
At the present
Today, as most of the traditional customs have gone with trends, the rules pertaining to the observances of ‘Vassa’ are not strictly adhered to by Bhikkhus. Specially those who are employed otherwise engaged.
According to orthodox Buddhism, as is found in Sri Lanka, the offering of the ‘Katina’ robe is considered of great merit and one of the most important events connected with Buddhism. with this idea in view, a suitable cloth is brought to the temple in the in the hours of the morning, carried in procession to offer it to the Bhikkhu, to be made into a robe, which he has to wear and deliver a discourse in the very same night. Very often, today robe is not stitched in the temple, being a ready-made one of fine quality material.
This cloth which is annually supplied by the laity to the Bhikkhus, for the purpose of making robed, is called ‘Katina’. It is quite evident that the observance of ‘Vassa’ by the Bhikkhus, was originally intended for them to get together in one place, once a year, and spend their time in meditation, apart from meeting people to discuss communal activities. This is an opportunity for Buddhists to express their views and exchange thoughts for the benefit of the Triple Gem.
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“The sun shines in the day. The moon shines at the night. The worrier shines in armor. The pure man shines in meditation. But the Buddha shines dazzling all day and all night”