First make your shrine

One bright and beautiful October morning I was one of many threading my way through the autumnal countryside towards an isolated cottage deep in the heart of the rural Midlands. Even at that early stage of the proceedings there was an indefinable sense of something special, even for me, a mere onlooker. The atmosphere of calm and stability generated by the shrine-room at the Buddhist Vihara has a lasting effect that had spanned the weeks between this and my first visit. Unlike many others, speeding along the highways from all points of the compass, I had little idea of what to expect on the day. My other, so far unknown, travellers knew exactly what they were to be part of and many had travelled some hundreds of miles to be part of the events of the day. The event that we were to share and witness? — the Kathina Ceremony.

At the beginning of the day I had a fairly good knowledge of Buddhism in general terms. A visit to Thailand thirteen years previously had kindled an interest that has slowly grown and developed over the years. It still has a long way to go before it achieves a full metamorphosis, but a long jump forward in terms of deeper understanding had been achieved by the end of the day.

Preliminary preparation for those of us attending the ceremony for the first time was scant. We knew that a gift was to be given, probably a monk’s robe and that visitors from far and wide would arrive for the occasion. On reflection, further preparation and information would have been difficult to give. The ceremony itself is remarkable in its simplicity and, like everything else in Buddhism, you take from it as much as you are prepared to give.

The day began with a period of meditation and the assembled monks and lay-Buddhists repeated their appropriate precepts. This was followed by the circumambulation of the shrine, three times barefooted around the building housing the shrine. We were all most grateful that October had seen fit to smile kindly on us that day. Next came lunch; an incredible spread of an unbelievable variety of vegetarian dishes provided by many of the visitors. Before we were let loose to indulge ourselves with the delicacies, the monks did a traditional alms-round and we all had the opportunity to experience at first hand at least part of the fundamental principle of giving. Eventually, replete with excellent food, fresh air and peaceful atmosphere but for the uninitiated not much wiser as to the full significance of the day, we were invited back into the shrine-room.

Now began one of the simplest and most moving ceremonies that I have been privileged to witness. The Kathina robe was presented on its own special stand in front of the Shrine and the resident Bikkhu was invited to receive it. The reverence of the ritual by which the recipient made that robe his own shed a whole new light on the significance and virtue of giving. The robe was unwrapped and examined as if each fold and thread was to be personally known. Next the robe was marked in one corner. The significance of this action has been lost over the years. It could be that the marks were originally a means of identifying the robe, serving the purpose of a name-tape. Or it is possibly a deliberate defacing of the newness of the robe, making it come with built-in wear and tear and therefore losing the sense of pride that new things invariably bring. Finally, the new robe was placed between the folds of the old robe and the two were stroked together. The symbolism of this action was as if the one were being made a natural continuation of the other. The new robe became endowed with the qualities of the old — the one was never actually cast aside and the other never actually replacing it. The two merged as a continuance of purpose.

The robe is a basic necessity of life and, as such, would not score highly on the gift-rating charts of modern society who generally consider gifts to take a more luxurious or frivolous form — have you tried giving your daughter a new school skirt for her Christmas or birthday present! Yet the sincerity of the actions of receiving the robe conveyed far more than mere thanks.

The ritual involved in the Kathina Ceremony emphasises the merit for the giver and so highlights one of the important principles of Buddhism that it is more blessed to give than to receive. The monk on his alms-round does not ask that he should be given anything. He does not say, ‘Please may I have’, nor ‘Please will you give’. Neither are thanks given to the donor when alms are given. The satisfaction and virtue of giving belongs wholly to the giver, and requests and thanks detract from this very personal act. So it is with the Kathina Gift. It is not asked for and the Kathina Ceremony is not a regular annual event that is prescribed by the calendar. If the laity do not suggest that they would like to present a gift to the monastery then the Kathina does not take place. It is the people who initiate the ceremony, not the monks. The emphasis on giving does not mean that gratitude is absent. The gratitude and thanks are evident in the reverence with which the gift is accepted, and in the case of the Kathina robe in particular, made part of the continuance of life.

The whole concept of giving as a virtue in itself is difficult for many adults to appreciate indoctrinated as we are with the importance of those, so often empty words, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Our ideas about giving are of a more reciprocal nature. How often does the phrase, ‘we won’t send anything this year because they didn’t send anything last year’ crop up! If adults find the concept difficult it is even more of a problem to the average child whose whole life, especially in these rather materialistic days, revolves around ‘I want’.

The inevitable question soon arises of how this ceremony can be used in schools as part of the R.E. programme. My pre-experience and post-experience answers are different. Previously it would have seemed to be a fairly simple topic to prepare, but now I feel the subject needs rather more careful and sensitive handling. In general a festival is an ideal introduction to the teaching of a faith. A festival and all its accompanying colour, story and tradition appeals to the children’s senses and the common belief that, if it’s fun it’s good. Christmas has long been marked by the performance of Nativity Plays, Carol Singing, the making of decorations and the joyful participation in the myth of Father Christmas. Nowadays, Diwali is equally familiar to the majority of children. With both Christmas and Diwali there are endless possibilities for creative expression and involvement.

The Kathina Ceremony is different. In the sense of sharing and giving it has a great deal to offer, but it is a ceremony and not a festival. The pleasure is more implicit in nature than explicit. There are none of the familiar trappings that surround a traditional festival. There are no traditional decorations that the children can make, no traditional games or activities to take part in. It would be doing a disservice to the ethos of the ceremony to try to re-enact it. The central part played by the monks themselves, the re-enforcing of the precepts and the manner of the acceptance of the gift would make the enacting of such a ceremony to some extent sacreligious.

While many other festivals and ceremonies are ideal for introductory purposes in Religious Education, Buddhism is more easily approached through the aspects of feelings, emotions and awareness of the world around us. These abstract notions are often difficult to put over as a starting point for other faiths. The use of the principles behind the Kathina Ceremony have much to offer — notions of joy of giving, graciousness in acceptance, recognition that a worthy life is worthy of support. From the stories told by the Buddha there is a wealth of material that explains the way people respond to the world and how we can better understand it. Infant School children can identify with the notion of constant change and impermanence that lies deep in the heart of Buddhist teaching. These are aspects of life with which they are familiar; the constant change of emotion from happiness to sadness, contentment to disappointment, fear to security. There are the changing seasons, the weather and new things and old. Older children find much to debate and ponder upon in the understanding of self, the respect of life and the need for self-reliance and the implications of The Eight-fold Path. Between these Junior children have a great affinity with things and find symbolism fascinating. The Shrine has a wealth of symbolism, all easily understood and applicable to life.

Shortly after my own introduction to the Vihara a new child arrived at school from Thailand — our first Buddhist child. To introduce her and her family to their own place of worship a group visit to the Vihara was planned. The object of the visit was to share Untika’s special place of worship as she had already shared a church service with the rest of the school. As a shared experience it was an unqualified success. One interesting, if rather ambiguous, comment came from a twelve-year-old boy who was entering that uncomfortable adolescent stage in life where cynicism takes a strong hold and he was not too sure about this thing called Religion. After a long and thoughtful silence he announced, ‘You can really believe in God in a place like that’. He had not quite got the message of the full philosophy of Buddhism clear in his mind, but he had gained an insight into religious belief and had made great progress in terms of empathy and understanding.

The children were anxious to make another visit, but this was not possible with other pressures at school at that time of the year. Instead they invited the Bhikku to visit the school as their guest for an afternoon. Another enjoyable and rewarding experience was shared by all. Great thought went into the where, how and who of providing him with his cup of tea. It was gratifying to see the children’s awareness and sensitivity as they guided their guest on a tour of the school. An added bonus was when the Rector of the local Parish Church arrived to join the party.

It was a salutary experience for the children to be witnesss, in this rather intolerant and prejudiced world, to the friendly and warm dialogue between these two men whose only common factor was a deep and sincere belief in the value of religious belief. Their respective beliefs and doctrines stood worlds apart, but in the essence of belief they were united. Buddhism has a great deal to offer to the multifaith curriculum despite, at first glance, the seeming difficulties of teaching a faith not based on a concept of God. Our aim is to learn from, not about religion. The teacher too needs to gain experience and under- standing . . . so build your shrine and find the enlightenment to pass on to the future generations.

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