Buddhist Lent – An Introduction

Buddhist Lent at Jedi Sao Lung Temple. Photo: Mr.Peerapong Prasutr
Buddhist Lent at Jedi Sao Lung Temple. Photo: Mr.Peerapong Prasutr

Buddhist lent, or as it should correctly be called Vassa, is an annual 3-month Buddhist retreat initiated by Buddha himself. The main principle of this practice is the fact that monks have to remain stationary in their monasteries during this time. This tradition goes back to the times when Buddha and his disciples were roaming India, spreading the teachings that will eventually evolve to become the third most widespread religion in the world.

Vassa literally means “rains retreat”. It’s called this way because it’s observed during the monsoon season in India. It starts on the day of the waning moon of the 8th lunar month (usually July) and ends on the day of the full moon of the 11th lunar month (October).

Some Buddhist monks keep a full moon vigil during the night before the first day of Vassa. On this day, called Asalha Puja, laypeople bring various kinds of offerings to the temples. They may stay to listen for sermons and prepare for their own special way of observing Vassa.

Despite the fact that Vassa is often called Buddhist lent, these two traditions are vastly different. Unlike Christians, Buddhist monks aren’t obliged to practice any specific rituals and follow strict rules of asceticism during Vassa. This Buddhist tradition was born because monks used to be wanderers during the times of Buddha. As there were no monasteries 25 centuries ago, they went about spreading their teachings on foot, which was extremely dangerous in a country that had monsoons. It was not only the risk of traveling during the time of floods that made monks choose to be stationary, they were also afraid of harming innocent lives. Rainwater flowing down the roads brought tiny animals, such as leeches and worms, that could be squished underfoot. As it’s a great taboo in Buddhism to harm any living creature, including plants, monks ceased their travels to make sure they didn’t accidentally kill an innocent.

How Buddhist Monasteries Were Born

When Buddha just started the tradition of observing Vassa, monks had no special places where they could dwell during this retreat. They stayed in villages or nobles’ houses and taught people there. Older monks also used this time to teach train young disciples.

Eventually, one of the laypeople who embraced Buddha’s teachings built a complex that became the first Buddhist monastery. His name was Anathapindika, and today, those who study Buddhism learn that many of Buddha’s sermons were delivered “in the Jeta Grove, in Anathapindika’s monastery”.

What Do Monks Do during Buddhist Lent?

As I’ve mentioned before, there is no uniform tradition to observing Lent. Considering how many “shades” of Buddhism there are today, it’s not surprising that monks in different monasteries have their own special rituals. In the majority of cases, this time is dedicated to deep meditation practices and learning as well as teaching the younger monks.

Laypeople can observe Vassa as well. Many of them commit to this practice by giving up some indulgence (alcohol, cigarettes, etc.). Buddha himself accentuated the importance of living in harmony with each other during this period.

As far as religious practices go, Lent is extremely non-restrictive, which is another thing that differs it from Christian lent. Even though monks are supposed to stay stationary during this time, they are allowed to interact with laypeople and even leave the monastery for up to a week. At the end of the 3-month retreat, monks gather and share their experiences, telling the others of their achievements and failings during Lent. Congratulations, encouragements, and reprimands are delivered by other monks whenever they are necessary.

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