19 May 2008

Letter 1.38

Now that the Vas - 'rainy season retreat' - has ended, we move on to the 'kathina season' - kathina being a special temporary relaxation of certain monastic rules concerning robes, which privilege is one of the benefits obtained by observing the Vas season. Traditionally it is, therefore, the time (for the laity of giving - and (for the monks) of receiving-robes, and a ceremony - the Kathina pinkama - is held.

The whole thing dates back to the days of the Buddha, when, of course, the ceremony served a definite purpose; at the end of the monsoon robes were frequently in bad condition, and a temporary relaxation of certain rules regarding them was something of practical importance. Gradually as the Sangha (the Order of monks) deteriorated - it reached its lowest point in India just before its virtual demise there in the 9th century A.D. - the ceremony became one of obtaining possessions, and the laity were encouraged to give for the sake of merit, thus taking a giant step towards the vulgarization of the Buddha's Teaching.

By now, except in a very few places which uphold the tradition, the whole thing has degenerated into a season of preaching and palaver, gobble and grab (they expect to be both fed and clothed in the best of style - although most of them don't even have an almsbowl, let alone use it) - and 95% of them don't observe the Vas anyway (though that is hardly the greatest of their faults).

I was able to get a glimpse of what goes on - shocking, indeed! tut! tut!, etc. - when five of us from the Island attended one of these affairs in the village of one of our (generous) supporters (he wanted to show the folks that there were many foreign monks, for there was not only myself and two of the German monks, but also - from other parts of Ceylon - Thai, Laotian, Burmese, and Vietnamese monks as well) who lives about 30 miles to the South and 20 more inland - the first time, incidentally, that I've been more than one mile from the ocean since arriving in Ceylon last January.

It was an affair meant, of course, for the local monks and laity and was geared to their level; and since the laity insist upon not only changing the Dhamma into a mystical - and therefore useless but emotional - doctrine but also in converting the monks into priests - and the difference is great - naturally this level was very low indeed - I expected as much but was nevertheless unprepared for what I saw, which could best be described as a cross between a camp-town meeting of Holy Rollers and a small-time carnival - yes, even with blinking lights! Amazing. The Ceremony - which lasts for three days in that part of the country (we didn't attend the whole thing) - was, of course, a farce, except for the preacher who sounded like Sinhalese hell-fire and damnation but, as I later learned, was actually whipping the emotional pitch of the laity into a frenzy - very successfully too – of generosity. But enough. One word alone is too many, but volumes are not sufficient, to describe it all.

The day of the ceremony at the Island a great many lay people came - it's a day reserved for our principal supporters only - along with their families of course - and the parents, uncles, friends, business associates, idle curiosity seekers passersby and those who got on the wrong boat - and I feared the Island might actually do something similar. But there was a brief quiet ceremony of 3 minutes in accepting the robes, a 5 minute (also subdued, sans hell-fire) talk, and, for bhikkhus only, a ritual in the chapter house, lasting a short time. Also there was a fantastically opulent meal, which, unfortunately, we had to eat so fast we couldn't enjoy it at all, since everything was late, what with the vast crowds, and we had to finish before midday, after which time no food is eaten by monks (on this Island, at any rate). We were each given an extremely good quality outer robe - these robes measure about 100 inches by 80 inches - to go on the pile of robes - which-we-have-no-use-for-but-which-it-would-be-impolite-to-refuse. Actually they will be mostly used during the next year, largely in helping other worthwhile hermitages - of which there are a few - not so well supported as we are.

Naturally with the giving of robes it becomes appropriate to dye then, and this is, traditionally, the annual dyeing season as well. Since the robes are already dyed, though - contrary to tradition - it is now traditional to Aye the robes that are older and in need of being dyed. So a few days ago, a huge cauldron of water and various tree-barks was boiled for l2 hours to make dye, and I have now spent some days dyeing old robes (2 upper and 2 inner along with a chest covering for chilly nights). The cloth takes very little color with each application and it must be dried thoroughly between applications, and so the process must be repeated many times before the proper russet color is obtained. Skin, however, takes this dye much more readily, and so you now have a russet son with only semi-russet robes. (Saffron, orange, and yellow, by the way, are not the prescribed colors and are worn only by city monks.) At one time I was struck by how much the bark dye smelled like shoe polish. Just now I was struck by how much it smelled like Jello. Do you think that Jello and shoe polish smell alike? (Depends on the flavor?)…

No comments: