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
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
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
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