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The Individual the Group and the Community

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by Sangharakshita

... in India, they were known as lay disciples.

Now these whole-timers, as I've called them, these whole-timers were wanderers. They wandered all the time from place to place. They didn't stay anywhere permanently. They went from village to village along the jungle paths, and from town to town, but they kept going, they didn't remain anywhere, didn't settle anywhere, didn't make friends and stay with them. And the Buddha is supposed, according to tradition, to have uttered in this connection this little verse in, of course, Pali: "The water is pure that flows; the monk is pure who goes. This was the little verse that he was supposed to have uttered in this connection. So the wanderers wandered, the full-timers wandered from place to place. They were peripatetic as we would say. They wandered up and down the length and breadth of India. And this is how they spent their time, externally.

But there's one thing to remember: they couldn't wander quite the whole time. They couldn't wander for all twelve months of the year, much as they would have liked to do. They came up against the weather, just as in this country we sometimes come up against the weather. In India too, as even today, they came up against the weather. They had to take into consideration the Indian climate. They couldn't wander during the rainy season. The rainy season in India lasts for four months from July to October, and it comes punctually, almost to the day even the hour practically sometimes, and it rains solidly for four whole months. Rain is just drumming down all the time, torrents and torrents of rain. You can't do anything, you can't go anywhere, you can't do any work, you can't do any work in the fields, except maybe just at the beginning plant your paddy, that's all. So it's a time of enforced inactivity. So wandering about from place to place, village to village during the rainy season is out of the question, even for wanderers. So the wanderers had perforce to remain stationed and settled for four months of the year. So in this way the wanderers, the full-timers, tended to divide their year into two parts, two unequal parts. The first part consisted of eight or nine months of wandering from place to place, and then there were three or four months of sheltering from the rains in one particular spot. So this was the pattern, eight or nine months of wandering, three or four months of taking shelter, with some friend, in a shed at the foot of someone's garden, under a tree, in a cave, either alone or together with other wanderers. This was the way things developed. And in this way there developed also what became gradually one of the best-known of all the institutions of Buddhism, one which is still very much with us, and this is called the institution of the Varsarvarsa, which we usually translate as the rainy-season retreat. Varsa is rain, especially monsoon rain, and arvarsa means to reside, to stay, or to have a retreat, if you like, so the institution of the rainy-season retreat. This is the way it began. And as I mentioned the full-timers, the wanderers very often took shelter together, two or three together, four or five together, ten or twelve together, in course of time scores, even hundreds together in one spot. And how did they pass their time? Well, of course they passed their time in study, in listening to instruction, teaching, discussion, meditation, and even the part-timers living in the locality would take advantage of this golden opportunity. Usually, the wanderers were on the wing. You just got some instruction as they were passing by. Maybe you had half-an-hour's discussion with them, but during the rainy-season retreat there were score of them maybe, all staying in one spot for three whole months, or four whole months. So the part-timers living in the locality, they used to come along. They didn't have much to do during the rainy season. So they used to associate with the full-timers during that period, asked them questions, gained instruction from them, and so on. And at the end of the rainy-season retreat there would be a great celebration, and this great celebration fell on the full-moon day of the month Kartika, October to November. And from very early times, it seems, that this great celebration with which the rainy-season retreat concluded, a celebration in which the full-timers and the part-timers joined, consisted of two principal parts. First of all there was what was called the pravarana. Pravarana was a sort of, not exactly ceremony, observance, in which everybody begged everybody else's pardon, because they'd been living together for three whole months, and in the course of three whole months with people staying together all sorts of tensions, and problems, and difficulties, and misunderstandings can arise. So the tradition was that before you parted, you got together and apologised for any mistake you might have committed, And the senior most full-time wanderer started, and he said, "Venerable sirs, if I have committed any mistake, or offended anybody, or said anything I should not have said in the course of the last three months, please accept my apologies." And then the next senior made the same statement, then the next, right down to the most junior, maybe seven or eight-year-old wanderer. And in that way they would resolve any problems or difficulties that had arisen, and they could go on their way happily. But before they went on their way happily, there was a second part of this great celebration, which was called katinacivaradana, and it consisted in the offering by the part-timers to the full-timers of robes. We call them robes now, but that has a very ecclesiastical sort of ring, just gave them new clothes, which they proceeded to colour. And obviously it was the appropriate time. Monks, or hill-timers had to be given clothes at some time or other. They didn't have the wherewithal to purchase them; they didn't spin or weave themselves. So the part-timers used to make themselves responsible for providing the full-timers with their clothes, or as we would say, their robes. So this was the day on which they gave them, once a year. You could give-at other times, but it was considered especially good, especially meritorious even, to give on this particular occasion.

Now, the word katina means difficult, civara means dress or robe, and dana means giving . So it's called the ceremony or the observance of the difficult giving of robes. Now, why was it difficult? The usual explanation of this is that it was difficult, because you only had the opportunity once a year, and in most Buddhist countries the people are very eager to give things to the full-timers, or monks as we say nowadays, and this particular opportunity of giving robes at the end of the rainy-season retreat, so that the monks could go forth looking rather spick and span, this came only once a year, so it was a rather difficult sort of thing to achieve. There is, however, another explanation, which is based on a very late Burmese tradition, which goes on even down to the present day. In fact in Burma on this very day they will be doing this very thing which I am going to describe. This is something in which the ladies, the female part-timers especially concern themselves. What they do is this-. they sit up all night (bless their souls), they sit up all night, they don't sleep for 24 hours, and what are they doing? They're busy, their fingers are busy. They spin thread. That thread is made into cloth. That cloth is cut and made into robes, and those robes are then dyed, all within the space of 24 hours. It sounds unbelievable, but they do it every year in Burma, the Burmese women, as a special sort of meritorious action, and this of course is difficult ... so it's called katina (or the difficult) civara (robe) dana (giving), and they do it just to show their devotion, how devoted they are to the full-timers, to the monks or to the bhikkhus as we say nowadays, and when they've actually done, you can imagine with what sort of satisfaction they present their robes to the monks, robes which 24 hours previously were just, well, not even threads. This is the extent to which they go. So this is said to be one of the reasons why it's called katinacivaradana. The Burmese believe that this tradition goes back right to the beginning, but that's a little bit daft.

Now of course change affects all things, affects even Buddhism, and we find that later on in the history of Buddhism, maybe after the death, after the Parinirvana of the Buddha, the wanderers, the full-timers, ceased to wander, or they wandered just occasionally, but they tended to settle down permanently in one place. It seems that at first, at the beginning of the rainy-season retreat, instead of going off on their wanderings they stayed on a bit longer, and in the end they stayed on so long, and the rainy-season retreat was coming round again, and they said, "well, it's not much use going off and wandering now, let's just stay put and observe the next rainy-season retreat." So in this way they started to stay permanently in one particular spot, and of course as they were staying permanently they could no longer stay in little temporary sheds, and at the foot of trees, and in caves. People started providing them with permanent accommodation, and this is how so-called monasteries arose. In the Buddha's day there was no such thing as a monastery. All that the full-timers had, including the Buddha, was little leaf shelters such as you find put up even in India even today for coolies, they used to stay in these, in someone's back garden.

Sometimes rather naïve translators refer to the Buddha sitting in the doorway of his monastery, and you imagine a great palatial building, something like St Paul's Cathedral with the Buddha sitting there on the step maybe in the early morning, but there was nothing like that at all in the time ...

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