This blog post looks at two connected religious holidays that have happened this last weekend. They mark the beginning of Vassavasa – a three-month annual retreat observed by Theravada Buddhists which in Thailand equates to over 93% of the population.
Our new home of Thailand certainly offers near-daily opportunities for experiencing and learning something new about life in the ‘Land of Smiles’. These new experiences could be related to history, culture, customs, language, food (Yum), and in this particular instance, the religious aspects of life.
Vassavasa – broadly translated means ‘rain-retreat’ and stipulated that during the rainy season monks and other ascetics remain in their monastery or temple grounds and refrain from travel for the 3 lunar month period of Vassavasa, usually from July to October.
Monks would spend this time meditating and developing their understanding of Buddha’s Dharma (doctrine or teachings). The retreat period is also popular time for Thai boys and men to become ordained as monks.
Asanha Bucha Day, falling on the full moon is the first of the two days and observes Buddha’s first sermon in the Deer Park in Benares, India. In the sermon, which is known as ‘Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion’, the Buddha first spelled out the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. This event, which took place about 2,500 years ago, also signifies the founding of the Buddhist sangha (monkhood).
To mark the day, ceremonies are held in Buddhist temples across Thailand. Many Thai people return to their ancestral homes to donate offerings to temples and listen to sermons. In the evening they will often perform a ceremony called ‘wian tian’, where they walk clockwise around the main shrine of the temple carrying a candle, incense sticks, and lotus flowers.
During the day, monks chant mantras and preach the first sermon of the Buddha. In some locations, local monks parade through the town with their alms bowls. Instead of the usual offerings of food, people will instead put flowers into their bowls. The monks then return to the temples and offer the flowers in honour of the Buddha.
In the area of Hua Hin where we live we have 3 Wats (Temples) within 1 km of our home. The chanting of the monks throughout this day and well into the evening was easily heard and created quite a spiritual and serene atmosphere. There were also parades up the street to the nearest Wat with school children taking a special Candle as offering to the monks. The main square of Hua Hin was also readied for Candle ceremonies.
Khao Phansa, the first day of Vassavasa (sometimes loosely called Buddhist Lent) takes place the day after the full moon of the eighth lunar month and symbolizes the start of the rainy season. This retreat to the temples is based on an edict of Lord Buddha. Restricting travel reduced potential issues like – monks damaging crops planted at the beginning of the rainy season; accidentally standing on insects or other small animals hidden in the flood waters; or coming to damage themselves due to the monsoon rains, flooding and displaced wildlife.
Many Thais observe Vassavasa with fasting, the avoidance of alcohol, meat, tobacco, and gambling. This self-denial is why there are comparisons with Christian Lent. But Khao Phansa is a more colourful festival, with elaborately carved candles being the centre of the celebrations.
Traditionally, candles were donated to monasteries enabling monks to continue their studies into the evenings. Nowadays, these offerings take the form of huge wax effigies which are shown off in local parades. These processions boast a uniquely Thai blend of artistry, fun and festival and are accompanied by folk dances, displays of local crafts. In some parts of Thailand sound and light performances relating local stories are also incorporated into these celebrations.
As we settle into our life here in Hua Hin and more broadly, Thailand, these experiences present themselves and we see it as an opportunity to learn about and develop our appreciation of this country and culture that we now call home!