Waso, The Month of Ordination Festival
by Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt (Maha Saddhamma Jotika Dhaja, Sithu)
WASO, the fourth month of Myanma lunar calendar approximates to July. It is the first of the three heavily rainy months…Waso, Wagaung, and Tawthalin, i.e. July, August, and September respectively. The astrological name of Waso is Kataka (Cancer) and its symbol is crab. In this month Myat Lay flower (fragrant Jasminum Grandi florum) blooms, and so Myanmar people regard it as the flower of this month. In the year M.E. 1355, there were two Waso months – first Waso and second Waso, as a month was intercalated after Waso. So this type of year is called Wa-htat year i.e. two Waso year.
In the early lithic inscriptions of ancient Bagan, this month was called “Malweita” or “Nweita” or “Nweta”, all of which mean “the month for measuring land”. It is in this month that wet cultivation is done in full swing, and so the farmers have to measure the extent of the lands to till. Hence the land-measuring month is an appropriate name. As Theravada Buddhism flourished and its influence permeated the daily life of Myanma people, this month acquired a new name of religious importance “Waso”.
It is believed that in the time of King Anawrahta (A.D.1044-1077) when the Theravada Buddhist monks promoted Pariyatti Sasana, the name “Waso” for this month came into common use. The word “waso” is a compound of two words “wa” and “so”. “Wa” is derived from the Pali word “wasa” meaning “to recite” “to say” or “to tell”. “so” is a Myanma word which also means “to say” or “to tell”. On the first waning day of this month, Buddhist monks say to the Lord Buddha (take a vow in front of the Buddha statue) that they will stay in their residing monastery during the three months of the rainy season.
The history of observing Waso rite goes back to the lifetime of the Lord Buddha. At first, there was no religious restriction on the movement of monks. They freely went about throughout the year. They traveled in all seasons. Greengrass, plants, cultivation, and little insects were accidentally trodden upon by traveling monks, thereby damaging or destroying them. When the Lord Buddha heard of public complaints of such unintentional harm he forbade the monks to go out of their residing monasteries for overnight travel during the three months of cultivating season.
For the convenience of the monks, the Lord Buddha prescribed two alternative periods of Wa or Lent, namely Purima Wa and Pyitsima Wa. Purima Wa or first Wa is the period of Lent which begins on the first waning day of Waso month and ends on the day of the completion of three solid months which is the full moon day of Thadingyut (October). Pyitsima Wa or second Wa begins on the first waning day of Wagaung month (August) and ends on the day of the completion of three solid months which is the full moon day of Tazaungmon (November). Depending upon their conditions monks may choose either of these two was.
Either in the evening or at night of the first waning day of Waso all monks of the same monstery are gathered in the assembly hall facing the shrine room of Buddha images. The monastery and the shrine room are artistically decorated with flowers, candles, festoons, and various offertories, highlighting the Waso occasion.
Firstly they pay homage to the Lord Buddha. Then the head monk of the monastery explains to the monks the boundaries of the monastery and its compound within which they are obliged to stay during Lent. Starting with the most senior monk (seniority is counted not in terms of age but terms of wasa or ordained years), every monk by turn recites the following formula of Wa vow:
Imasmim vihare imam temasam vassam upemi (ဣမသ္မိံ ဝိဟာရ ဣမံ တေမာသံ ဝဿံ ဥပေမိ)
Which means “I shall stay in this monastery during the three months of rainy season” Every time each monk recites this vow either once or twice or thrice, the rest of the monks utter in chorus word of appreciation in Pali “Sadu” (well done) three times.
Owing to the unavoidable circumstances if a monk has to travel and thus has to stay away from the monastery during Lent, he can request a dispensation from the duties of Lent. This kind of request is called a “wa pan” request for leave of absence from the monastery during Lent. But leave of absence must not exceed more than seven days. If he fails to make this request and stays away overnight from the monastery he commits a breach of Wa vow and thereby he suffers “wa kyo”. Wa kyo means losing the priestly character in consequence of a breach of a monastic vow as he has not recited the formula of permission. But as the monks strictly observe priestly disciplines there is hardly any case of Wa kyo.
During Lent, monks devote themselves fulltime to the observance of religious practice. Especially in the Pariyatti monasteries teaching and learning of Tipitaka and all Buddhist scriptures and literature are intensively carried out by the teacher and student monks, preparing for the religious examinations held in the month of Nayon (June). At the meditation centers, the instructor monks teach their pupils the correct ways of meditation. The material needs of the teacher and student monks are supplied by lay devotees and the public.
The full moon day of Waso is one of the important days in the Buddhist history because it was on this day that four great events of the Lord Buddha’s life took place.
- Firstly it was on the full moon day of Waso Thursday, that Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha-to-be) was conceived in the womb of Queen Maha Maya, the Chief Queen of King Suddhodana of Kapilavatsu.
- Secondly, it was on the full moon day of Waso, Monday that Prince Siddhartha at the age of 29 after seeing four Omens, renounced his mundane life and left his palace for the forest to become a recluse.
- Thirdly, it was on the full moon day of Waso, Saturday that the Lord Buddha gave his first sermon “Dhammacakya” to the five recluses namely Kondana, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanam, and Assaji in the Deer Park Migadawunna.
- Fourthly, it was on the full moon day of Waso that the Lord Buddha under the Mango tree in Sawutti showed his miracles to the heretics to subdue them.
In Myanmar, the full moon day of Waso is marked “Dhammacakya Day” which is observed by holding group recitation of Dhammacakya at religious centers throughout the country.
The traditional festive event of Waso is ordination. The earliest mention of the ordination festival is found in the stone inscription at Bagan dated M.E. 595 (1213 A.D.). It described the ordination of the son. Another inscription that mentions the ordination event is that of the Innwa (Ava) period. It was dated M.E. 900 (1538A.D.). In Myanma literature of Innwa and other periods, we find references to the ordination festival held in the month of Waso. There is no specific time or month fixed for ordination. Ordination can take place in any month of the year. But there are two special reasons for holding ordination on the full moon day of Waso.
- Firstly, it was on the full moon day of Waso that one of the five recluses whom the Lord Buddha gave his first sermon named Shin Kondana became a monk.
- Secondly, those who have passed religious examinations in the previous month, Nayon are ready to be ordained in Waso so that they can pursue learning (Pariyatti) during Lent. Ordination festival in Waso is in sequence with a religious examination festival in Nayon.
The purpose of ordination is twofold – to recruit for Sangha the Priestly Order to promote and perpetuate Buddha Sasana from those who choose to remain a monk for life and to impart Buddhist education and culture to those who stay in monkhood for a certain period. It is a religious requirement for every Buddhist male to become a novice or ordained monk. According to Buddhism the highest religious merit one can attain is by becoming oneself novice or being ordained monk if one is a male or by making one’s son or other’s son novice or ordaining him a monk.
By performing this religious work the performer becomes an “inheritor of Buddha Sasana”. The performer receives from the community an honorific title of “Shin Taka” “Shin Ama” “Yahan Taka” “Yahan Ama” “Donor of Novitiation” “Donor of Ordination” which is prefixed to his or her name. At death, his or her body is carried with two ceremonial gold umbrellas shading it as a token of honor to the deceased “inheritor of Buddha Sasana”.
Two historical pieces of evidence that support novitiation and ordination as a religious requirement for the Buddhists are the novitiation of Prince Rahula, son of the Lord Buddha, and the ordination of Prince Mahinda and Princess Sanghamitta, son and daughter of King Asoka.
A year after the attainment of Buddhahood the Lord Buddha came to Kapilavatsu and resided at the Nigrodha Vihara monastery. One day while the Lord Buddha was at the Court of his father King Suddhodana, Rahula’s mother Queen Yasodhara told her son that the Lord Buddha was his father and urged Rahula to ask patrimony from his father. When the son did accordingly, the Lord Buddha kept silent. Rahula followed the Lord Buddha to the monastery, repeatedly asking patrimony on the way. When they reached the Nigrodha Vihara the Lord Buddha told his disciple Shin Sariputtara to novitiate Rahula in the Order. Making Rahula a novice (Samenera) was the grant of patrimony by the Lord Buddha to his son because by becoming a probationer for the priesthood, Rahula was inheriting Buddha Sasana from his father.
The other evidence is as follows:
Great King Asoka was very lavish in charity. He built 84000 stupas and dug 84000 wells and constructed 84000 tanks among other works of religious merit. He promoted Buddhism by sending out Buddhist missionaries to the four corners of the world. One day he asked his guru monk Shin Moggaliputta whether he deserved to be the inheritor of Buddha Sasana. The guru monk replied that although the King’s religious givings were incomparably plenty he was only the contributor to the support of Buddhism and that only when he ordained his offsprings would he become the inheritor of Buddha Sasana. On hearing that his son Prince Mahinda and daughter Princess Sanghamitta offered themselves up to their royal father for ordination.
In the time of Myanmar Kings, ordination in Waso was the great festive event of the month. The Hluttaw or the King’s Council arranged the ordination festival. It made a list of names of candidates to be ordained, names of donors who would bear the expense of ordination ceremony, names of persons who would support the ordained monks, and names of monasteries the ordained monks were to reside. At this ceremony, Byaw music was played. Byaw is a kind of drum. Byaw music is played on the occasion of religious charity. Byaw musicians were appointed by the King and were quartered in a separate village. The ordination festival of the Innwa Period was graphically described in the Lawka Byu Har In-Yone Sardan, a Treatise on Court Ceremonies and Festivals compiled by Minister Thiri Uzana of In-Yone as follows:
“First the list of candidates to be ordained was submitted to the Hluttaw. The Crown Prince, Senior Prince, Minister of Royal Granary, Ministers, Governor of town, Minister of Cavalry, Minister of Elephantry, Minister of Treasury, Minister of Gunnery, Minister of Artillery, Minister of the Palace Precincts, Minister of Royal Shield, Minister of Justice, Junior Ministers, wealthy men, etc. each took care of one candidate for ordination.”
“The Minister of Royal Treasury provided umbrellas and eight priestly utensils namely three pieces of the yellow robe, an alms bowl, a girdle, a short handle adz, a needle, and a water dipper. These were sent to the monasteries where the ordained monks would reside. An allotment of K 50/- for each candidate was issued from the Royal Treasury to bear the cost of celebrating the occasion at his house. On the 9th waning moon of Waso, candidates for novitiation and ordination were dressed in fine clothing, and in the early hours of that day, they were taken to the Innwa Shwezigon Pagoda. They wore a gold-colored headdress and gold chains provided by the Royal Treasury. They were carried on the palanquins in the ceremonial procession which included gunners, musicians, palanquins bearing Kamma Vaca or Plates of Scriptures to be recited at the ordination service, bearers of four ceremonial white umbrellas shading the Kamma Vaca, bearers of eight priestly utensils, bearers of betel boxes, tea containers, and water goblets and several other paraphernalia. After paying homage to the Pagoda the procession turned to the Palace. Except for the gunners, all entered the Palace City through the right Marabin Gate.”
“After making a round of the Palace podium they went up to the Northern Samok (Gatehouse in a palace) Building where the King was waiting with his Ministers and attendants. The royal drums were being struck to mark the occasion. The Officer-in-charge of ceremony submitted the list of Candidates to be ordained by reading it out to the King. His Majesty gave the candidates his exhortation as follows:
- To have been born human is a rare opportunity.
- To be literate and knowledgeable is a rare opportunity.
- To have been born human male during the period of Buddha Sasanais a rare opportunity.
- To be ordained monk is a rare opportunity.”
“These five rare opportunities were pointed out by the Lord Buddha himself. You should, therefore, be aware that you have now got all these five rare opportunities. You should therefore strictly abide by Vinaya, the Priestly Disciplines, and faithfully follow the teachings of the Lord Buddha.”
“After delivering his words of admonition the King performed the libation ceremony by pouring out lustral water from the golden ewer. Then the royal drum was struck and religious music Byaw was played. The procession returned to the Shwezigon Pagoda and at the big rest house, the King’s admonition was read out in public. The procession then went on to the Sima or Ordination Hall where the candidates were formally ordained by the Chapters according to the prescribed procedure”.
The following is the account given in the Myanma Chronicle called Konbaung Set Maha Yazawin Vol. 3 pages 219 of the Ordination Ceremony performed in the time of King Mindon.
“… 500 candidates for the priesthood (Upasampada = Being ordained to monkhood) and 500 candidates for novice (Samenera) altogether one thousand were dressed up in fine clothes and were carried on the caparisoned elephants followed by a retinue of attendants lined up in procession. They went round in the Palace City and eventually stopped at the entrance of the pavilions set up on either side of the Mye Nan Taw Palace Buildings. In the pavilions were gathered 100 senior monks and eight priestly utensils for each of the 1000 candidates about to be novitiate or ordained. Other offertories were artistically displayed in the pavilions. The candidates sat down respectfully in front of the monks. The Queen Mother entered the pavilions and performed the libation ceremony…Celebrations followed after it.”
“In the evening of that day, King Mindon, Chief Queen and the whole Court came out in state and made a ceremonial presentation of 1000 candidates in the service of Buddha Sassana. The following day the King and Chief Queen offered rice to the novices and newly ordained monks.”
The festive atmosphere of Waso is created by devotees who come to the monasteries to watch with reverence and piety the performance of the Waso rite by the monks. They wear colorful garments and jewelry carrying candles, flowers, robes, and other alms to be offered to the monks. These offertories came to be known as Waso candles, Waso flowers, and Waso robes. Strictly speaking, Waso robe is offered to the monk in the period between the first waxing day of Waso month and its full moon day both days inclusive. Waso robe is meant to be worn by monks during Lent.
Similar offertories may be presented to the Pagodas and Buddha statues. In the countryside, young people go out to the nearby woodlands to gather wildflowers and sprigs of Thabye, thus providing a merry social occasion for meeting between boys and girls. Folk music, song, and dance accompany them if they come out in organized groups. On the full moon day and the day after it, shrines, pagodas, and monasteries are crowded with devotees doing works of religious merit.
In the days of Myanmar Kings twice in a year, homage was paid to the parents, elders, superiors, and teachers, namely at the beginning of Lent called “Wa Win (July) and at the end of Lent called “Wa Kyut” (October). On the first waning day of Waso, the King offered to the seven Buddhas white umbrellas, prayer flags, prayer festoons, gold and silver flowers, and flower vases.
At the Hluttaw princes, ministers, high ranking officers, men of wealth, and position presented gold and silver bowls and silk clothes to the King and paid him homage. On the 5th waning day, their wives paid homage to the King. At the monasteries, junior monks paid homage to senior monks. In towns and villages, the public paid homage to the Governor of the town and the village headman. At home, children paid homage to their parents, elders, and teachers.
Waso traditions have long been maintained and observed by the Myanmar people. Mass media of today carry news and reports of Waso activities at the shrines, monasteries, schools, Colleges, and Universities.