Since I came back from Uzbekistan, I had a rather hectic two weeks at work. So I was really looking forward to our short weekend getaway to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai isn’t a new place for us, but this time round, we wanted to catch the Lanna Yi Peng festival, which coincided with the more widely-known festival of Loi Krathong in Thailand. Yi Peng is popularly known for the spectacle of sky lanterns, which I learned later coincided with the religious ceremony Lanna Kathina – more of that in just a bit.
We had an extra day before the Lanna Kathina. So we decided to do something interesting – mountain biking in Doi Suthep national park. Up in the highlands, deep in the forest, biking (sometimes, skidding) down the rough terrain, seemed exhilarating and mightily scary at the same time. Inevitably I crashed, had a crushed wound on the right eyebrow, left a big pool of blood in Doi Suthep, was bandaged up and sent off to the hospital. This is probably the worst crash I have ever had and I am still a little shaken. The wound was complicated and I had to be stitched up in an operating theatre. As vanity took over and I fretted over the possibility of scarring and no more eyebrow, it dawned on me that the crash could have been much worse!
The next day, we took a song theow (a collective truck) to Mae Jo, where the Lanna Kathina was being held.
So, what is kathina? Here’s my understanding of it:
Under the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, bhikkhus (members of the Sangha/monks) observe a period of vassa – when the bhikkus do not travel during the rainy season. The rule originated for two reasons: 1) that it is hazardous to the health of monks (who were nomadic in ancient times) if they are unable to secure shelter, bearing in mind the difficulties of travelling in ancient India, 2) to prevent monks from travelling on foot through the sodden countryside, potentially harming the living beings (e.g. crops, wildlife) that surfaced with the rain. During this period, monks will remain in their residence and devote themselves to their studies or practices together, whatever they may be: meditation, study of dhamma or teaching. During vassa, some lay Buddhists also dedicate themselves to their spiritual training and take on extra precepts, e.g. by abstaining from meat, alcohol, undertaking extra dhamma studies or meditating daily.
There are certain rules regarding monks’ robes: for example they could not ask for cloth or ask to buy some. Rather, robes were to be made from cloths that nobody else wanted, e.g. those that have been discarded, or even used as shroud for cremation. Even then, permission was needed for bhikkus to scavenge for cloths. The cloths were then to be boiled with vegetable matter such as bark, leaves and flower, which usually gives rise to the orange colour of the robes. It was a practice in which monks learned to depend on themselves, live simply and not place burden on the lay community.
It was said that a group of thirty monks travelled with the intention of spending vassa with the Buddha. But the vassa began before they reached their destination so they stopped and found a place to stay and studied together. After the monsoon period, they hurried to their destination. But the roads were thick with mud and by the time they reached the Buddha, their robes were muddy and drenched. At the same time they could not ask for new robes. Feeling compassion for the monks, the Buddha gave them a cloth which he had received as a donation. In those days cloth was made into robes by spreading it on a hard frame called kathina. The Buddha also established a procedure for giving and receiving robes.
Today, kathina marks the end of vassa, and when lay Buddhists make offerings of robes or other necessities to the bhikkus as a community. Kathina is held within a month of the end of vassa.
Just some weeks back, some friends from Malaysia had asked me to join them in a kathina ceremony in Taiping, but I wasn’t able to go. So I was rather intrigued when I found out that the Yi Peng festival in Thailand coincides with the Lanna Kathina, the weekend of the full moon.
In Mae Jo, the Lanna Kathina was held by the organisation Lanna Dutanga. Although we didn’t attend the robe offering ceremony, like the masses we took part in the lantern-releasing ceremony, which was preceded by a meditation session led by the venerable head monk of the Lanna Dutanga, conducted in Thai.
I am still unsure how releasing lanterns (khom loi in Thai) is related to Buddhism, or kathina. Influences of Thai culture perhaps. In fact, some people say that sky lanterns originate from China. The popular symbolism is appealing: make your wishes as you set off the lantern and for good luck. The inner child also awakens with an act as simple as letting go of something that floats into the air. Undoubtedly, the festival is a spectacle to behold, almost magical even. But at the same time, I wonder about the impact of a great number of people gathering in one place (someone estimated 60,000 although my guess is about 20,000). Perhaps the festival has attracted more people than it had ever intended because clearly the field where the festival was held and the exits are unable to sustain the crowd, a number of which are tourists like us. Now that I know what was one of the reasons for vassa – to prevent the monks (then) from trampling on plants during the rainy season – I am beginning to have rather mixed feelings about the lantern-releasing festival.