BuddhaSasana Home Page
English Section

Kathina Robe-Offering Ceremony: Historical and Spiritual Significance

Bhikkhu Dhammasami

Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, London

Today we have been engaged in a series of programme that are part of Kathina robe-offering ceremony. It is important that we understand about what we are doing -- in this particular case, about Kathina ceremony; to be aware of some thing we are undertaking is Buddhist way of doing things which is technically called Right Understanding. There is more chance for Right Understanding when Right Mindfulness is present.

So today it is nothing but appropriate for us to reflect on the practice of Kathina -- the Theravada traditional robe-offering ceremony.

The word 'Kathina' is Pali in origin. It means a frame used in sewing robes those days in India. However, before we talk about this Kathina let us look at some other monastic practices related to it so that we can understand Kathina ceremony in a broader perspective.


Kathina ceremony is necessarily a monastic one, supported by the generous devotees. It is essentially connected to the three months retreat that ends on 16th this month (October, 1997).

We need to discuss about Buddhist Monastic Retreat as a background before we actually take on Kathina issue. Buddhist retreat came into existence as a result of complaint made by the people. Jaina monastic order was already practising this Vassana Retreat practice before the Buddha made His follower Bhikkhus do the same. The people expected monks, both Buddhist and non Buddhist, to stay in one place at least for a certain period. They complained that the monks were moving from place to place all the time without a permanent dwelling. During rainy season, the monks did damage the plants and crops. The Jaina monks and other mendicants observed a treat during rainy season staying in one place for a period. People were wondering why the disciples of the Gautama Buddha did not do so.

This prompted the Buddha to lay down a rule that Buddhist monks should observe Retreat and stay in one place for three months. People wanted them to do that during rainy season and it became known as Rainy Retreat (Vassana). But strictly speaking the three months retreat can now take place at any season -- maybe in winter or summer, although almost all have been observed during rainy season according to meteoric calendar in India.

The period is the same -- three months. This practice has been mostly observed during rainy season because the people wanted the monks to do so in ancient India -- that is mainly, as I said earlier, for agricultural reason.[1] There were no high ways during the Buddha's time. One had to across farm lands to travel. Therefore, this practice has its relevance in that 6th century BC Indian society.

Nevertheless, even in India at that time the approval of the three months retreat practice was by no means limited to the agriculturists. It was seen as a means to spiritual progress as well. That was why during the time of the Buddha itself, Bimbisara, the King of Magadha sent an envoy to the monks asking them to come and observe a retreat in his kingdom. But it happened to be in summer and the monks first didn't accept it. Instead they referred it to the Buddha, who then relaxed the rule by adding that a monk could make a retreat during summer provided it is the wish of the ruler of the land. Therefore, the monks can also observe this practice of retreat in any other seasons other than rainy one if there are circumstances we have just described.

Before this rule was there, the monks including the Buddha Himself travelled around the year and they still did so for nine months after the rule was laid down. Travelling and meeting people at different places is a kind of missionary life that the Buddha envisaged. It helps the monks not to be attached to dwelling places and people. It enables them to render their service to as many as possible. It frees them from a huge burden of constructing, maintaining and developing a big temple or monastery. It helps the teachings to spread everywhere as they travel. Travelling made them encounter with different cultures. It gave them an understanding of real nature of life. Roaming around empowers them to endure hard life. When you have to move from one place to another almost all the time, you do not gather things. You start gathering things only when you have the idea to settle. Since they wander most of the time their way of thinking, their attitude towards life and their spiritual practices are very pragmatic, realistic and are based on facts.

You can see now some development was taking place in monastic life. With this Rainy Retreat (Vassana) practice coming along, the monks got a bit comfortable shelter. The devotees who approach them can enjoy the opportunity of learning the Dhamma from the monks: they have regular and appropriate receivers in performing their act of generosity. Therefore, the benefit of the three months retreat is mutual. (Samyutta Nikaya)

I think that with the introduction of this Vassana practice, Buddhist monastic life came to balance its way of life. Brahmanism has secular lay life as its core while Jaina monastic life encouraged no shelter whatsoever such as a place for three months retreat. Buddhist Vassana practice could be viewed as middle way in this context.

A monk can choose his own time to start Rainy Retreat. There are two commencing dates different from one another exactly a month. But he is entitled to receive Kathina-civara (Kathina-robe) only if he starts his retreat with an earlier date -- not the later one. This is quite important condition required of a monk to be entitled to Kathina-robe. Within three months retreat he must not break the rule of retreat by spending nights somewhere else without a valid reason consented in the Vinaya (Buddhist Monastic Disciplinary Rules). If there is emergency reason to travel, he can do so even during the retreat.

To make the offering of robe especially valid as Kathina-civara these rules are much essential. Failing to comply with either of the two conditions will affect the validity of Kathina-robe. Invalid Kathina-robe, of course has more to do with the monks than the devotees. Though the devotees got the same merits whether the Kathina-robe is considered valid or not, the monks will lose the advantages associated with Kathina.

It means they will get the robe but he can not enjoy five relaxations on Vinaya that come necessarily with the validity of Kathina procedure. Once being offered a valid Kathina-robe in this way during this particular one month's time the monks can remain without following five of the 220 disciplines -- known as 'Vinaya Sikkhapada' for four months starting exactly a month after the end of the retreat. This is something about Retreat which is a precondition to Kathina-robe offering.


The second important procedure that must be done before Kathina ceremony is Invitation Ceremony (Pavarana). This is again purely monastic practice.

Invitation means at the end of retreat the monks must get together and invite one another to point out at one's fault if they have seen it themselves or have heard from some one or are just in doubt. This would help them in purifying themselves. A Bhikkhu has to be open to any criticism from his colleagues regarding his behaviour. He can not say, "Is it your business?" or "This is my life".

Being open was a way of life the Lord Buddha led. The monks have to be sensitive to a complaint made by the people in order to win their respect and in order to encourage them to learn the Dhamma. They have to be sensitive towards the remarks made by their fellow monks. This, according to the Buddha, could maintain both unity and purity in the Buddhist Monastic Order. It could also help keep the Monastic Rules and Regulations (Vinaya) alive. It is a kind of check-and-balance system between individual Bhikkhus as well as between the seniors and the juniors. This is exactly the core of Monastic Discipline as much as of the Teachings.

Every fortnight there has to be a meeting between the higher ordained ones, known as Bhikkhu (monks) or Bhikkhuni (nuns) in the case of ordained female. In that kind of assembly, a learned monk recites the 220 rules to the monks. Before he recites there has to be a procedure of confession, which means every individual has to inform the Sangha of the offense he has committed. This kind of confession can clear him from 203 kinds of offenses out of 220. Confession can psychologically relieve someone who has committed a grave evil like patricide. The story of King Ajatasattu who killed his father is an example. He could not sleep until he confessed his sin to the Buddha. Confession did not put his sin away but practically relieved him from psychological burden.

In being open to others the Buddha Himself was the best example. At every fortnight meeting the Lord Buddha would start inviting anyone present there to point out His fault if any. He encouraged people to be open making Himself the subject of openness. That must be the reason why people felt so close to Him. They did respect Him for a reason. They spoke so openly their opinion to the Buddha. They knew well that the Buddha did not take their offense.

Venerable Sariputta, the most important figure apart from the Buddha would ask the monks to point out his fault too. In this way, the invitation was to be offered by any monk present. Actually, what we call Arahat means the one who has no longer secret. He is perfectly open to anyone especially regarding his behaviour.

The Buddha wanted His disciples, at least those who have been ordained, to be as close as possible in their spiritual quest helping one another along the way. The only way of doing it and maintaining it is to practice to become increasingly open to each other that we no longer have anything to hide. Public morality can be maintained in this way. Therefore, we can say that monastic life is where one has least privacy.

This Invitation Ceremony is so important ceremonially as well as spiritually. Without this there can not be a proper Kathina robe-offering -- it may become only ordinary robe-offering with whatsoever no advantage on the part of the monks themselves.

The two ceremonies -- the Ceremony of Invitation and that of Offering Robe -- mark the termination of the Retreat.


Now let us pick up our main topic 'Kathina'. We may well imagine a situation during 6th BC where any advanced textile technology hardly known to the people. The monks had no choice but to do the sewing the robe and giving it a dye themselves. The Buddha asked them to help one another using the best technique then available. Some made a frame while some went out in search of needle and thread. Some sew pieces of clothe to make it a robe while others prepared for another process of making fire and getting a suitable colour ready. Dying a robe was extremely difficult because they had to boil the bark of the tree to get the colour they wanted. Just imagine how the monks were busy to get a robe done. It was a hard life collecting pieces of cloth from different places such as rubbish-heap, cemetery, and streets to get it sufficient for a robe. Ordinary life was at that time reasonably hard especially regarding clothes; the monks were no exception; they had to struggle for a robe.

But this became a kind of practice that trained monks to depend on themselves, to live in simple way creating no burden to the lay community and to be content with basic needs.

Though we could say that this practice would reflect the economic reality in India those days, when the Lord Buddha declared this practice it was automatically adopted as a social norm among the followers. Those monks with well-to-do family and royal family background were no exception. They all adopted the practice. As we all know the majority of the immediate disciples of the Buddha came from either royal families or families of noble background They were in comfort to ignore this practice of making a robe in such a difficult process. Instead, they took it as a way of life with a great honour. This humbleness and contentment clearly indicate high spiritual achievement.

The Buddha recommended this practice to be observed at the end of the Retreat because monks can still be found in a large number in one place at this time and they could help one another.

Once entitled to Kathina-robe, a Bhikkhu is permitted to ignore some five minor rules. The relaxation is mainly felt on travel and invitation for alms-giving. Normally a Bhikkhu, senior or junior has to inform his fellow Bhikkhu living in the same temple before he goes out. He can choose not to do it when he has received Kathina-robe. Usually he has to carry all the three pieces of robe wherever he goes. He can now leave one behind if he wishes after he has been offered Kathina-robe. He certainly has less restriction on travel. He can also accept as many robes if offered during the period of four months. Monks on the usual occasions are not supposed to accept food offered by someone using the terms of layman culture, the words normally employed by people in their social interaction. But once offered Kathina-robe(s) a Bhikkhu can receive such food given to him in that way.

This Kathina ceremony is, as far as I can see, recommended by the Lord Buddha mainly for the welfare of the Sangha (the Community of monks). The Lord Buddha did take into consideration how the Order He founded could survive. After the Mahaparinibbana (the Great Passing Away) of the Buddha Himself, the whole responsibility of both perpetuation and propagation of His Teachings would certainly fall on the Sangha. Therefore, the continuity of the Sangha means the continuity of the Dhamma itself. Moreover, after His Mahaparinibbana, we could see the Buddha Himself only once we see, understand and realise the Dhamma. This was the case even when the Buddha was still alive for He declared that one really sees Him only once one sees the Dhamma. Now we can see the logic behind the recommendation of this Kathina ceremony -- how it is important for the cause of Buddhism itself.

The Buddha did not start preaching to every one before He had had the Monastic Order well established. After His Enlightenment, He made a long journey to Benares -- a journey that took Him more than a week -- just to convert a group of five ascetics and made them a monk. He knew very well that all the five had a very high possibility of becoming a monk and forming the Order.

He continued focusing on establishing the Order until He became confident that the Order has been well established and was capable of helping Him to propagate the Dhamma. His teachings spread far and wide after He passed away. Despite the fact that the Buddha was no longer with us, the geographical expansion still took place in a greater scale. The Buddha Himself would have definitely foreseen this great service of His disciples that He put a lot of effort to establish the Monastic Order (Sangha).

The Monastic Order was firmly established when the Buddha had ordained sixty men -- all of whom came from either royal family or that of nobility. Missionary work in its true sense started only then with sixty deputies, despatching them to different directions asking two not to go in the same way.

The implication here is that the existence of the well-established monastic order is extremely essential if we are about to get the teachings of the Buddha across the people. The Arahat Mahinda simply had this in mind when he told King Devanam Piyatissa of Sri Lanka (3rd BC) that the Sasana (Buddha's Dispensation) will get rooted on Sri Lankan soil only when a Sri Lankan native monk has become well versed in Monastic Rules (Vinaya).[2]

There was a time in the West when European Buddhists used to consider that monkhood is nothing more than to set an exemplary life and to spread the words of the Buddha does not depend on the existence of Monastic Order.

Let us look at this attitude carefully from Buddhist History. Let us not forget to use our common sense. History always shows that the Buddhist Monastic Order was at the core of the matter -- whether Buddhism was on the decline or progress. The monks have to share more responsibility -- sometime for the degeneration and sometime for the growth. It is in the best interest of the whole Buddha's Sasana that Buddhist Monastic Order is properly maintained, purified and well supported. The Bhikkhus dedicate their whole life to the cause of Sasana -- studying, training, meditating, preaching, and writing about the Buddha's Dhamma.

In this respect, we should be encouraged to see the Amaravati Monastery (Theravada Forest Tradition) and its branches doing very well with the sons and daughters of the United Kingdoms at the helm. In other European countries, the natives have not been very successful in furthering the Dhamma despite having produced several distinguished Buddhist scholars.

In contrast, if I understand the situation correctly, the United Kingdom has been well ahead of other European countries in both academic field and monastic life. We owe a lot to the most venerable monks of true missionary spirit from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and other countries that we have made our way far in this new land. I am speaking about this just to remind ourselves that the Sangha of 19th and 20th century also deserve to be called a devout and true follower of the Lord Buddha. They -- like the late Venerable Narada of Vajirarama, Colombo and Venerable Dr. H. Saddhatissa -- should be credited for what we are here now. Venerable U Setthila (Thittila) of Burma who arrived here in England during World War II and Venerable Ajahn Chah, Thailand's best know meditation master of our time must not be forgotten for their great service rendered to the cause of Buddha Sasana in this United Kingdom.

Together with ceaseless support on the part of the devotees, the successive Kathina ceremonies held every year in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and other countries have enabled the monks to carry on their missionary work far and wide. The Kathina ceremony we are celebrating today will have the effect just as well like that./.

Bhikkhu Dhammasami
October 1997

[1] Mahavaga Pali, Vinaya Pitaka

[2] Mahavamsa / Samantapasadika commentary


Source: Nibbana.com, https://web.ukonline.co.uk/buddhism/

[Back to English Index]