Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 9

Bhikkhus on almsround in Washington State

Before the full moon of July Luang Por announced a large meeting for all the monks and novices in the monastery, of which there were about fifty, in order to give the preliminary instruction for entering the Vassa. The older monks and novices didn’t seem to be very excited, unlike we newly ordained novices, who were asking what needs to be done as preparation. The older monks answered impassively, ‘There’s not much to it. All you have to do is memorize the Imasmiṃ chant.’ The Imasmiṃ chant is the determination to enter the Vassa which all the monks must recite together on that day.

Tahn Mahā Sing, or ‘Luang Pee’ (venerable brother) Mahā to us, was one of those monks who didn’t seem excited about entering the Vassa. Tahn Mahā Sing was from Roi Et province; he had lived at Wat Bahn Huay since he was a novice and had studied until he had passed the highest level of nak tam and the fourth level of Pali studies. He had a great sense of humour and had many funny stories to tell, some of them dirty jokes. We stuck to him like addicts.

‘I don’t want that day to come around,’ Luang Pee Mahā said to us one day.

‘Which day: the day of the meeting or the day of entering the Vassa?’ someone asked.

‘The day of entering the Vassa.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘For each year of entering the Vassa I get older by one year,’ he laughed while rubbing his bald head. ‘Here, I’ve only been ordained for five years and half of my head is completely bald.’

‘Why do we have to enter and exit the Vassa?’ I asked.

At that moment novice Mahā Sompawn was passing close by carrying some books. He made as if to walk off in another direction but Tahn Mahā Sing shouted out for him to join in our discussion. Novice Mahā sat down on a log and smiled while saying:

‘What are you bullshitting about?’

‘Hey, Mahā, you want to accuse me of an offence, do you?’ Tahn Mahā Sing objected loudly. ‘We are talking about scholarly matters! Tadpole here was just asking why we have to enter and exit the Vassa. Why don’t you explain it to him.’

‘You better do it. I’ve only entered—I’ve never exited,’ novice Mahā stated.

‘Ha!’ Boonkay shouted loudly. ‘Entering and not exiting is messy.’

‘Don’t be nasty,’ I scolded, knowing that he was having obscene thoughts. ‘They are talking seriously.’

Brother Mahā explained that entering the Vassa is a custom that exists ever since the Buddha’s time. Originally, the monks didn’t enter the Vassa as they do now, but rather wandered among the towns and villages in India throughout the year. The villagers spoke among themselves, saying that in the rainy season even the crows know how to stay in one place, but these monks, the sons of the Sakyan, wander all over the place. This criticism reached the Buddha, who convened the sangha and said: ‘Monks, from now on you must all stay in one place for a period of three months during the rainy season.’ This was the origin of entering the Vassa.

‘The term “vassa” means rain or rainy season; “entering the Vassa” means determining a residence for the Rains, isn’t that so, Luang Pee?’ novice Sompawn stated.

‘That’s right. There are many ways for giving names to things. Sometimes we name things according to the sounds they make, like gah (‘crow’) and maaow (‘cat’). Sometimes we give names to things according to how they truly manifest, like in this case of saying “entering the Vassa” for choosing a residence for the Rains. And sometimes we name things according to their appearance, for example….’

‘For example someone with the eyes of a crocodile (kay) is called Kay, right?’ said Nane Liam, who was quiet until that moment and who quickly withdrew from Nane Boon-Kay. But he wasn’t fast enough—a knuckle whacked him hard on his head, the sound of which caused laughter throughout the entire group.

‘Is it true that once one has entered the Vassa it is forbidden from going anywhere?’ asked Tahn Dtu—I don’t know when he joined the discussion.

‘To stay in one place doesn’t mean that one can’t go anywhere—it just means that one can’t spend the night in another place.* If one travels far then one must return before the sun rises—one must be back before dawn. If not then one breaks the Vassa. Breaking the Vassa is unlike committing minor offences of the discipline—one can’t restore it by making a confession—and also one loses one’s Kathina privileges.’

(*In fact, monks are permitted to leave their monastery or residence for six nights if there is a good reason to leave.)

Meditating monks gather no moss

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