Venerable Luangphor, this period of the year is known as the Buddhist Lent season or rainy retreat. I would like to know the historical background of this religious event and the activities of monks during these months.
by Venerable Dhattajeevo Bhikku
There are numerous historical accounts on how the Buddhist Lent season came to be. In the beginning of the Buddha Era, Buddhist Lent season did not exist yet. So during the entire year whenever a monk felt that it was an opportune time to give a sermon or teach the lay people, he would contemplate where he should go. If he had enough time, then he would go, otherwise he wouldn’t. If he found a place that was peaceful and serene, he would go to that location to practice meditation. In most instances, he had to travel long distances to these far away places outside of the city or into rural areas, like the mountains and the desert.
Since traveling to these places were necesary, which can occur during the rainy season when rice farmers are working in their paddy fields, monks would easily step on the freshly sowed rice seedlings. These new seedlings may had been recently sprouted and looked a lot like ordinary grass. Believing it to be only grass, monks would step on these newly sprouted seedlings and cause much grief to the farmers. These farmers, in response, then brought the matter of the destruction of their crop by monks to the attention of Lord Buddha, saying "Even birds stay put in their nests during rainy season. Why don’t monks rest in one place too?"
To address this situation, Lord Buddha created the rule that all monks are to reside in one place during the entire Buddhist Lent season or rainy season. This period starts on the first full moon day of the eighth month, until the first full moon day of the eleventh month of the lunar calendar. This was to keep the monks in one place, so that they would not have to go seeking meditation sites or give sermons somewhere else. Whoever wanted to hear a sermon could come listen to these venerable monks at the temple, so there would be no need for monks to travel to go visit these patrons. This rule was created to resolve the chances of having others place blame on his disciples.
From another perspective, what Lord Buddha did, helped to turn an initial concern into a beneficial circumstance for all the monks. The newly ordained monks, who were now residing in one location, benefited by gaining full and complete mentoring and guidance from other more seasoned monks, from the subjects of monastic virtues to the code of conduct. This situation would prove to be valuable if they carried out this process consistently and every day. The study of Dhamma on a consistent basis furnishes wholesome results.
Therefore, Lord Buddha made it a rule that every monk stay at the temple during the Buddhist Lent season. The newly ordained monks would study Dhamma and receive Dhamma principles from seasoned monks. The seasoned monks would play the roles of teachers and mentors to these new monks. In addition, seasoned monks would make plans as to where they would travel to give sermons once the Buddhist Lent ended. They were expected to make adjustments to their sermons, and teaching methods, that were deemed appropriate. So the Buddhist Lent season became a beneficial event for the laypeople, the newly ordained monks and seasoned monks.
The things that monks observed during the Buddhist Lent season were similar to any other time of the year. The benefits of not having to leave the temple grounds offered several opportunities:
Each individual monk now had the opportunity to meditate, better himself, and broaden his study of the Tripitika. Presently, these are the activities that our current monks carry out during the Lent season.If we were to visit other temples at this time, we would find that monks may be ordaining temporarily or for the entire rainy season. Once the Buddhist Lent season starts, newly ordained monks or seasoned monks must stay together in one place. Seasoned monks have the responsibility of being the teachers to these new monks. They have the duties of educating the new monks on whatever subjects they may have expertise in, such as: monastic disciplines, Dhamma, or the life history of the Buddha.
To put it simply, Buddhist Lent season became a period of developing and advancing oneself. If we were to speak in current terms, Buddhist Lent season is like a moral training camp for monks. Other duties like attending to laypeople were temporarily put on hold. What’s left is the duty of researching and learning the Tripitika. If they were done with researching, then they could meditate. Meditation is the process of researching oneself from within, the Tripitika within oneself. The external Tripitika can be found in the collection of books, and the internal Tripitika is found inside of us through meditation.
Furthermore, when the new monks are residing at the temple, their parents, family, relatives and friends will come together to make merit at the temple. When they come to the temple they will get to see these new monks who were once a friend, a son, or a nephew. Once at the temple, they can meet the teacher or elder monks and listen to sermons since their newly ordained sons and nephews are not yet skilled enough to deliver a sermon. This then makes Lent a season to study the Dhamma, both for the monks and the laypeople. This is the story behind the tradition of Buddhist Lent season.