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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