Short description about the robes' offerings to the monks during the kathina.
I will impart you, in a few lines, the significance of robes' offering to the monks.
One should distinguish between two things; the first is the necessity, to a monk, a bhikkhu, to wear robes, and the second is linked to all the traditional, ceremonial, even sometimes mildly "folk" aspect, which such ceremonies may assume.
The French word "moine" (English "monk") seems to be perfectly appropriate here. It originates from the Greek root "monos", which means single, one, the unique, the solitary. The monk is the one who chooses to live alone, to lead a solitary life, in a certain kind of solitude of the body, a solitude in spirit. He is the one who prefers to renounce family (householder's life) life, a working life, a lay life, so as to enable himself to be fully committed to study, to practice, to the putting into practice of that which he thinks to be beneficial for himself.
What is meant here is not at all a priesthood, and not to observe vows as long as life will endure either. Simply, the one who, for a determined or undetermined specific reason, wishes to do this experience of solitude, of celibacy, can do it. When he thinks that he has had a sufficient experience, nothing does prevent him, admittedly, to disrobe and to start up again a lay life, even to get married and to make a family.
Most often, only after lived the ordinary life of a lay person, a family life, some people who reached a certain age, a kind a reflection, once their children have grown tall, once they exercised their professional function to the full, once they endured enough sufferings, do choose at this very moment, to embrace a monastic life. The life of a monk is an extraordinarily liberal, and paradoxically very kind of life. The monk truly enjoys a great autonomy and a very large capacity to choose for himself the orientation he wished to give to his own life.
It is done in an environment, obviously, but an environment that is certainly not rigid, and whose only usefulness lies in structuring the least his steps so that the later do not become totally anarchical. This environment, that is a set of rules whose establishment had become necessary, owing to the particularly blameworthy behaviour of a few monks. Buddha has therefore been compelled, as time elapsed, in the course of his forty-five years of teaching, to lay down more and more rules. He sometimes established truly minor rules, almost insignificant, because a few monks had behaviours that were not very well considered, by other monks and some laity.
These rules are not a kind of straitjacket, neither a yoke, nor a prison. Those are merely moments of attention that the monk tries to cultivate in his daily life. Those are land marks. Those are beacons that help him to make his conduct upright, to pay heed and develop a full presence of mind towards that he does. They do also contribute in, unmistakably, giving an outlook to the community of laity who support the monks, who feed them, who offer them robes, who give them medicines, who provide for all their needs of sustenance, giving to these laity the image of a united, coherent and structured community, worthy of receiving these offerings.
Robes are among the four things that every human being needs to live:
Therefore, a monk, being no longer involved in some social or professional activity, to provide for his needs, needs for that, the assistance of the laity who support him. Nevertheless, the laity are not servants and the monks are not Lords. The monk is the one who lives in a state of solitude, simplicity, renunciation. However, it does not make him a kind of unsocial queer fish (Br Odd duck), recluse, lost somewhere in the mountain, egoistic, withdrawn within himself, for all that. Still, everybody is free to experience this life according to his own perception or understanding.
The idea lies in that, by abstaining from getting involved into ordinary activities — and here the word ordinary is no pejorative parlance — the monk paradoxically makes himself more dependable, by devoting most of his time to understand this teaching, to ultimately understand that which I often call the "schmilblik" (a French inaccurate parlance for "confusing puzzle") of the world. That is to say that he will try to understand this world, its oppressive character about whose existence he is deeply convinced.
It is also here about trying, through advice that were given by Buddha, to follow advice more related to physical and mental hygiene than to spiritual or mystical practices. Those are healthy, effective, very practical advice, meant for learning to handle oppressive and pressuring situations of daily life, even perhaps to ultimately and finally succeeding in being totally emancipated from them.
Nowadays, we can often attend ceremonies endowed with a somehow formal outlook, a bit ceremonial indeed, with recitations. This kind of ceremony could be much more informal: Quite simply when we see a monk wearing worn out or damaged robes, a person can, from his/her own initiative, proceed to buy him a set of robes and bring it to him without all this necessarily calling for recitation or anything whatsoever. However, the world being the way it is, people being the way they are, there is quite a natural need — besides understood and anticipated by Buddha — on the behalf of communities, of the behalf of people, to indulge into things assuming more formal, more ceremonial aspects. Buddha has, admittedly, given no counter-indication against such a thing. The monk is the one who can, by himself, discriminate between things. He is the one who should understand by himself what is going on.
Thus, we do offer robes, along with a short recitation accompanying the offering. Then, as it was already a very common practice during Buddha's time, as he himself encouraged it to be done and as it is quite auspiciously done in many areas of Asia, the ones who took part into that, who think to have done something useful, to have done something beneficial, do think within themselves that they do not want to keep or preserve for their own well being the benefit of that which has already elapsed.
Hence, the idea lies in telling oneself: " May everybody (even the ones who are not present) benefit from the beneficial action that was just performed. " From this moment onward, we do finally recite a kind of dedication, we do try to transfer the merit, the auspicious benefit of this gift, the benefit received from having supported the community of monks. We get all beings populating the universe sharing this merit, even the one whose existence we don't have any clue so far (whatever). It is in fact that which we do when we pour water into a small cup while recitations are uttered. These recitations, in short, mean: "May all beings benefit from the good that was just performed by this offering. "
Then, the monks recite Buddha's word. They do not recite magical spells, neither prayers and one should not expect to receive some blessings from these recitations. To help these laity, to help those who are here to understand, to help them to progress, to help them to gradually emancipate himself from pressures, the pain of the world, he gives them good advice. And what is better than repeating Buddha's word? Thus, they do recite, word after word, in his maternal dialect, Buddha's word.
Generally, on one hand, we do list ways of naming Buddha, which is a way to pay homage, a way to thank him to have had the goodness to impart us this teaching and the intelligence to discover what he had discovered. On the hand, we do traditionally recite another word of Buddha, in which he encourages beings to practise goodness, benevolence, in all circumstances and on all spots, he encourages beings to develop thoughts of goodness towards all others. In fact, he invites us not to only do it towards all others, but all towards oneself too; that is to say finally, towards all beings.
" May all beings, whether they are far or near, whether they are big or small, whether they are visible or invisible, whether they already took birth or are to take birth, may they all be healthy, may they all be happy, may they all be emancipated from suffering. "
Origin: Teaching in French language, given at Pagan (Burma)
Author: Monk Sāsana
Date: 1999, November
Translator: Thierry Lambrou
Date of translation: 2003, November
Update: 2005, June the 18th