WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 12: As the rainy season begins to dry up in some parts of the world, Buddhists mark the traditional Pavarana Day/Kathina Ceremony—otherwise known as the robe-giving ceremony.
Tradition holds that during Vassa—the three-month rainy-season retreat in Theravada Buddhism—Buddha’s followers were prohibited from traveling, due to seasonal difficulties and the risk of hurting the new life emerging during the rainy season. Unfortunately, an underestimated journey prevented monks from spending the season with Buddha one year, as they didn’t reach him on time before the rains started. When the season was over, the monks traveled the remainder of the way to Buddha. Seeing their sadness at having spent the season alone, Buddha cheered up his followers by encouraging them to collect cloth from laypeople for new robes. Legends vary by country and tradition—some state that a female follower of Buddha asked to make new robes for the monks, while others have recorded the Buddha received cloth that he shared with his followers—but all involve sharing and happiness within a community. (Wikipedia has details.) To this day, cloth, robes and other items are still donated by laypeople during the days following Vassa.
The end of the rainy season is officially marked on one day—Paravana Day—in most Buddhist countries, and the weeks following Paravana Day are set aside for the Kathina Ceremony (this timeframe varies by country). In Northeast Thailand and Laos, parades complement trips to temples and prayer ceremonies. Most Buddhists, wherever they live, use this time to show deep respect for monks. By being provided with new robes at the end of Vassa, monks can keep their loads light during the rain retreat and keep their minds on study and meditation.
An author from the Buddhist Channel has suggested holding a North American Vassa from December through March, since it’s during this time that difficult weather provides the same challenges to American Buddhists as rain provides for Asian Buddhists. (Read the article here.)