15 November 2010

Kathina @ Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary


On 7 November I went to Taiping to participate in Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary's (SBS) Kathina celebrations. If you've never heard of Kathina or SBS, you can read the provided links above.

October and November is peak Kathina season in many Theravada Buddhist temples. I haven't been to many Kathinas in my life but I can safely say that the one in SBS is extremely well-organized.

I woke up at the ungodly hour of 3.45am on Sunday morning. We left home at 4.30am and after picking up other carpoolers, we set off for Taiping.

As SBS is nestled on top of a hill, there is limited parking and driving up the steep slopes is something best left to experienced 4WD drivers. To avoid having the devotees hike up the hill, volunteer 4WDs have been roped in to transfer us up and down. It was very well planned out and there were traffic marshals at both ends making sure there's only one way of traffic at any one time.

Offering of Kathina cloth to the monks
I estimated more than 500 people there, and it could well be pushing a thousand. Another sign of the massive scale of this event were the roughly 10 stalls dishing out free food. And this isn't the usual diluted red bean soup and cold fried noodles either - we're talking about fresh bowls of laksa, curry mee, char koay kak, and even a Burmese dish that tasted unlike anything I've had.
Devotees helping themselves to breakfast
At nearly 10.30am the main event for the devotees began. In a line that snaked through the entire compound, devotees stood ready with a small cup of rice. The rice was managed by a group of well-trained youths. After offering a few grains of rice to each of the 18 monks, the plastic cups were collected and re-distributed to others down the line.

Devotees offering a small scoop of rice to each monk
Closely following the monks were 2 groups of kappiyas (helpers). The first group held a tray of requisites for the monks, while the second group held a tray of souvenirs. It was in this latter group that I was roped in to. After a thorough briefing on what was expected of us, we took our assigned spots. We walked directly behind the monks, and with each devotee we were supposed to let them "offer" the tray. This is done symbolically by either lightly lifting the tray or touching the offered items, and then saying "Sadhu" (a word of praise in Pali language).
Kappiyas bringing around trays of requisites and souvenirs for each monk
This turned out to be a very spiritual experience for me. The entire walk through the compound took 65 minutes, and as I continuously mumbled "Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu" to the devotees I had time to reflect. I also enjoyed the brief moment of kinship with each devotee as they sincerely offered the tray, negating my feelings of thirst and the soreness in my arms. Plus, the feeling of walking barefoot was quite enjoyable! (Except on gravel.)
Requisites prepared by Burmese devotees
This event has rekindled my faith somewhat. I've always thought of Buddhism as a beautiful and intelligent religion, but I'm turned off by the organized portion of "organized religion". I've seen first hand how the involvement of humans tend to mess things up. Politics are bound to creep in and I often witness people enforcing "their" interpretation of what's right on the masses. This might involve ousting people who disagree with you and even influencing temple abbots to be on their side. Yes, just like national politics!
Offering souvenirs to Kumei Sayadaw and 17 other monks
As I offered my tray of souvenirs to Kumei Sayadaw, the most senior of the 18 monks present this year, he looked into my eyes and his gaze pierced through me. You just know when it happens. It's that knowing feeling that someone has seen beyond your eyes. It was a brief moment, but it will stay with me for some time.

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