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

This entry was posted in Life in the Saffron Forest and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.