Kathina and its Significance

Venue: SBS

I take this opportunity to welcome everyone to SBS for this Kathina celebration. Kathina Day is a special occasion for many reasons. At SBS, it gives the Sangha the opportunity to revive and participate in the traditional process of making the kathina robes from scratch. In ancient times, the monks had to make their own robes from discarded pieces of cloth collected from around them, sometimes from the rubbish dumps or even from cemeteries by reusing cloth that had been used to wrap the dead bodies. These were then washed, cut, sewn together and then coloured using natural dyes. Nowadays, as there are far more devotees than monks, the monks have become a pampered lot as ready-made kathina robes are abundantly provided.

Kathina is also an occasion for harmony and humility. Today, we are fortunate to have with us 12 monks, both local and international, from Penang and Johor as well as from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Taiwan. It would seem that SBS is going international! Not only are the monks from different nationalities but they also come from different traditions. Yet we can all come together and cooperate with each other in making the kathina robe. You will notice that this particular robe is not perfectly tailored but it is a product of our joint effort and I am honoured to be given the opportunity to wear it.

Kathina provides the monks with an opportunity to return to their roots and be humble. When a monk is newly ordained, he is told to rely on 4 fundamental supports for his livelihood.

They are:

    1. discarded cloth for his robes,
    2. alms food,
    3. the foot of a tree for his shelter and lodging, and
    4. this fermented urine as medication.

If no one offers him any of these 4 requisites, he has no cause for complaint and cannot request for them from anyone unless that person is a blood relation. If he is not offered robes, he has to recycle discarded rags. If there is no dana, he has to go from house to house for alms food. If nobody gives him a kuti, he has to stay at the foot of a tree. On rainy days, he can find shelter in a shrine or even a cave. When he is sick and no medication is available, he makes use of urine therapy (a practice widely prevalent in India). However, the Buddha is very reasonable and allows monks to accept the 4 requisites from devotees who want to make merits by offering them. Sometimes, though, monks nowadays are so pampered that they have forgotten their humble roots and can be sometimes quite demanding.

Thus, the making of the kathina robe helps to remind us of our humble origins, as the process is very tedious. First of all, we have to source for the cloth. Then, after making the correct measurements, the cloth is cut, sewn up and then dyed. Earlier this morning, we used a dye obtained by boiling discarded and dried mangosteen skins. The extraction of the dye takes a few days. Subsequently, the cloth is immersed in the extracted liquid and then air-dried to get an even colour distribution. The process of immersing the cloth in the dye and then air-drying it is repeated a few times before we can get the correct colour tone. Such a robe cannot be washed using detergents as the colour will run and fade.

Currently in the forest monasteries of Thailand, the monks actually make their own robes and dye them with natural dye. This is done every two weeks as the natural colouring fades very fast. To wash the robes, they use the liquid extracted after boiling the pith of the nangka tree. In SBS, we use the liquid obtained after boiling the leaves of the neem tree. Many monks nowadays use detergents to wash their robes and when the colour fades, they will simply discard them and get a new one, which the devotees usually offer in abundance.

For the monks, Kathina reminds us of 4 important things:

    1. The ancient practice of making our own robes.
    2. Our gratitude to the lay devotees for relieving us of the time consuming chores related to the making of these garments.
    3. Our duty to the lay devotees for providing us with the 4 requisites so that we can make use of the time available to study, practise and propagate the Dhamma.
    4. To renew our commitment to perpetuate the Vinaya tradition of making the kathina robe by getting it cut, sewn and then dyed by this evening in time for tonight’s kathina spreading ceremony.

For the lay devotees, Kathina is meaningful too. It gives them the opportunity to make a lot of merits. All those who have offered either their services or material dana have contributed towards making SBS a conducive environment for training Buddhist monks as well as providing the facilities for lay yogis to have their own personal retreats.

This Kathina celebration is also educational in both a formal and entertaining way. Witnessing the Sangha perform the whole Kathina ceremony from the break of dawn until nightfall is a formal way of educating everyone about a living tradition that has its roots in India more than 2,500 years ago. On the other hand and more informally, there is also a lesson to be learnt from the sketch provided by this year’s Kathina sponsors. Not only is it highly entertaining but the theme of today’s sketch centres around the prevalent violence in society today and the way to overcome it through learning and practising the Dhamma, especially mindfulness meditation. (In the SBS tradition, each Kathina sponsor is required to provide material contributions as well as a Dhamma-related sketch that educates the public in an entertaining manner on the Buddha’s teachings based on compassion, loving kindness, mindfulness and clear awareness.)

The SBS monastics give short half-hourly talks in Hokkien after every Sunday dana at the Taiping Insight Meditation Centre (TIMS) at Jalan Kota, Taiping. These talks are usually based on the Pali Suttas particularly from the early 4 Nikayas. They deal not only with dana, sila and bhavana but also on other issues such as ethics, behaviour, worldly and spiritual priorities, relationships, other beliefs as well as viewpoints. For the lucky people in and around Taiping, do come and join us. For the others who are further away, you can visit our website where we post an English translation of these weekly talks.

If you are ready for something more profound than just Dhamma talks, you are welcome to join us for our weekly Saturday night meditation sessions up here at SBS. Transportation will be provided. Just meet us at the Hor Yeah Temple at the foot of SBS at 8.00pm. This will give you the opportunity to enjoy the peace and seclusion of monastic life for 1-2 hours. The environment here is cool and has good ‘qi’ and is extremely conducive for meditation. Beginners will be given guidance on the meditation techniques.

However, the practice of mindfulness is not just confined to formal meditation. Sitting still and trying to focus on your object of meditation is akin to charging your mobile phone battery. Once charged, you can use your mobile phone wherever you are. After learning formal meditation, you can use your knowledge to apply it to your daily life such as observing your emotions, mind, intentions and thoughts. This is important, for the mind is the forerunner of all actions.

Recently, we had an English Dhamma camp for the Universiti Sains Malaysia Students’ Buddhist Society. We invited a number of Dhamma speakers who told us of their experiences in meditation, which were inspiring and motivating. Many of them recalled how they used to be unruly, emotional and hot-tempered. These changed after they started meditating. They are now more patient, less emotional and more in control of themselves. So, if you want to be a better person, come and learn how to meditate!

In conclusion, through today’s Kathina celebration, all of us have done 3 commendable meritorious acts:

    1. We have deepened our faith in the Triple Gem by putting the Dhamma into actual practice through the spirit of cooperation and the setting aside of our individual quirks and differences.
    2. We have renewed our commitment to support the Sangha.
    3. We have made a special effort to contribute financially and in kind towards the maintenance and improvement of communal facilities for the betterment of the many.

On behalf of the Sangha, I would like to rejoice in your merits by saying ‘SADHU’ and let the Sangha give its blessing before sharing the merits obtained with all beings. Let us dedicate our wholesome deeds to the perfection of our paramis so that we can attain Nibbana- the ultimate PEACE and HAPPINESS!

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