Boun Khao Phansa celebrates start of Buddhist Lent

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - The Buddhist Lent festival (Boun Khao Phansa) takes place today when people nationwide mark the occasion by going to their local temple in the early morning to give alms.

After almsgiving, people will continue to make merit by presenting offerings to monks throughout the day. In the evening everyone will again flock to temples for the candlelight procession, which is another important part of the festival.

The Venerable Sayadej Vongsopha, a lecturer at Sangha College in Vientiane and a member of the Educative Administrative Committee of the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organisation, explained the origins of Buddhist Lent.

Referred to as Boun Khao Phansa in Lao, the original Pali word “Vassa” translates literally as “Buddhist Lent” in English and marks a time of retreat in Buddhism. “Vassa” means “rain” and refers to the annual rainy season when Theravada Buddhist monks spend three months in a temple from July to October.

“Monks should stay in one particular temple during the rainy season,” said the Venerable Sayadej.

“Historically, in Buddha’s time, monks visited towns and villages in the rainy season to instruct people in the scriptures. This meant they walked through farmers’ rice fields which damaged the crops, while other religious practitioners stayed in monasteries,” he added.

The farmers complained about the monks and reported them to the Buddha who gathered them together. He then laid down the Vinaya or monastic principles concerning Buddhist Lent, which stated that monks should not travel during the rainy season. Instead, they were to stay in one place or temple to learn and practice the Dhamma together.

There are exceptions to this rule, however, when monks are allowed to stay in another temple or elsewhere for seven nights when an emergency requires them to visit a relative or another monk. It may be necessary to persuade a monk who wants to disrobe to change his mind, or a monk may be invited to a religious rite or required to attend a special ceremony organised by a layperson.

But today things are different and roads and modern forms of transport make it easier for monks to travel from one place to another. They don’t wander through rice fields any more and can travel by car or plane. They may also need to attend an international conference. However, the tradition of a monastic retreat is still commonly observed.

There are two kinds of vassa. Purima vassa is the first phase of entering the rains retreat and runs from the first waning of the moon in the eighth lunar month until the 11th full moon in the 11th month. Pacchim vassa, the second phase, continues from the first waning of the moon in the lunar calendar.

Monks who have duties to attend to and are unable to fully take part in the retreat should at least observe the second phase of vassa, which runs from the first day of the waning moon until the 15th full moon day in the 12th lunar month.

This tradition has been practised since it was proscribed by the Buddha. Lent is a time when Buddhists should reflect on their daily life and deepen their knowledge and practice of the Buddha’s teachings.

Some people abstain from drinking alcohol, eating meat and smoking during the three months of Lent. They spend most of their time with their family and visit temples more often to pray to the Buddha, offer alms to monks, and meditate.

Monks, novices and nuns dedicate this time to intensive meditation, to give them inner strength, mindfulness, and spiritual peace. In some temples, monks receive training on how to preach or give Dhamma talks, and memorise the chants they make each day. At the end of Lent, they prepare to teach the Dhamma to laypeople.

Buddhists give candles, clothes for bathing, and medicines to monks for their use in the rainy season. The candles are used by monks to light up their prayers to the Buddha. Nowadays, some temples accept lamps instead of candles.

Boun Khao Phansa is the time when monks begin their year of monkhood. They devote themselves to the intensive practice of the Buddha’s teachings, especially meditation.

Laypeople focus on giving alms, observing the Buddhist precepts, and learning and practicing the Dhamma. Monks too learn and practice the Dhamma so they can pass on the basic principles to the public, and devotees support the monks in return.

In conclusion, the Venerable Sayadej said that both monks and laypeople are followers of the Buddha and work together to preserve Buddhism. The activities they undertake during the rains retreat are an integral part of the religion and serve to sustain people’s faith.