FRIDAY, AUGUST 3: An extravagant candle carving festival reaches culmination in Thailand today, meaning only one thing in many Theravada Buddhist countries: Vassa, the annual three-month rains retreat, has arrived.
In a tradition so old that it even predates Buddha, monks and nuns halt their travels for a period of three lunar months, in respect for the rainy season and the abundant new life that flourishes therein. So as not to harm emerging plants or scurrying insects, Buddhist monks remain indoors to focus on intensive meditation and sacred study. (Learn more at the Buddhist Channel.) For Buddhist laypeople, Vassa means something like the Christian Lent: a time to abstain from meats or vices, hoping to develop a better spiritual self. During Vassa, even laypeople attempt to mimic a more ascetic lifestyle.
Prior to Vassa, Buddhists swarm temples in droves, offering food and candles to the monks and nuns for the coming rains retreat. What used to be a simple tradition of candle donations has exploded into the Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival, an event that draws upward of 100,000 tourists and international candle carvers alike. From July 20 to Aug. 5, world-renowned artists from Japan, Ukraine, Argentina and other countries will sharpen their wax knives and compete in a candle carving competition; others exhibit their work at the National Museum in Ubon Ratchathani. (The Nation has an article.) Wax demonstrations, parades and photo exhibitions entice tourists to further examine this ancient Buddhist ritual, although the formal day of candle donations is today. Buddhist devotees will present candles, robes and other necessities to nearby temples today, although you may see a few modern-minded laypersons donating energy-saving light bulbs instead of candles!
As not all Buddhist ascetics inhabit regions with a rainy season, Vassa is not observed worldwide. In countries that do note Vassa, monks express their number of years in the monastic life by citing the number of Vassas they have observed.