Cambodia’s Kathin: Ancient, ‘uncertain’ tradition

The Buddhist festival that comes at the end of the rainy season and is usually held in October.

Orm Bunthoeurn

Orm Bunthoeurn

The Phnom Penh Post


Buddhist followers celebrate Kathin on October 12 at a pagoda. FACEBOOK

October 25, 2022

PHNOM PENH – Kathin is a Buddhist festival that comes at the end of the rainy season and is usually held in October. Traditionally, Theravada Buddhist monks spend the rainy season in retreat at their pagodas and this festival marks the end of that period.

Kathin, or Kathina, is a Pali word referring to the wooden sewing frame used to measure the length and width of the fabric that the robes of Buddhist monks are cut from and held in place if assembled from scraps. Lay Buddhists bring donations to the monks for Kathin, most importantly robes, another garment called a chivor and multi-layered cloth – or fabric to sew any or all of the three.

Although the Kathin festival has been held every year in Cambodia for hundreds of years, many young Cambodian Buddhists may still do not fully understand the meaning or purpose of the festival.

Preah Nhean Rainsy Chhin Horn is a member of the national Theravada committee and also serves as the Preah Kiri Mondul Methea or chief of the Mondulkiri provincial Theravada committee.

Speaking to The Post, he explained that in Cambodia, Kathin is observed over the 29 days to the date associated with the November full moon – falling from October 11-November 8 this year – and requires monks who have been sequestered for three months during the rainy season.

He added that Buddhists can help by bringing fabric and robes to pagodas, but other offerings, while often welcome, are not really necessary for Kathin.

“Buddhists who buy other extra things such as banquets, such as beds and other things to join observance of Kathin are only called Kathin cousins or Kathin attendants,” he said.

Venerable Chhin Horn stated that the three types of monk’s clothing – robes, chivor and multi-layered cloth – are all required for Kathin. If there is only one of them, it is not possible to perform the Kathin ceremony, because this is the discipline that the Buddha imparted to his followers.

“It is not what we defined by ourselves, these three things are the rules of the Buddha and to encourage the monks who had been waiting in the raining season for three months he said they must have a robe, a chivor and a multi-layered cloth as material of the Kathin as a gift to them,” he said.

Venerable Chhin Horn continued that in Cambodia, there were actually two types of Kathin, the first is called Kathin Tussang and the second is called Kathin Chivavang. Kathin Tussang is an offering of folded white cloth to be sewn into robe, chivor and multi-layered cloth for the monks, while the Kathin Chivavang means that there is no need to sew because all these materials are already sewn together.

He added that Kathin was very important and beneficial for Buddhist monks and an encouragement to them. The most important benefit was that the monks had more time to study the Dharma of the Buddha and contribute to the development of Buddhism rather than worry about finding clothing for themselves each year.

Venerable Chhin Horn said that the benefits that those who make an offering for Kathin may enjoy are good intelligence, looks, skin colouring and physique. Moreover, it will help them close their path to evil and build a path to heaven.

Venerable Yon Yi of Mony Ratanaram Pagoda in Roleab commune of Pursat town and province said that Kathin was the name of the ritual performed by monks and lay people’s role was to donate the clothes or fabric while the monk’s role was to perform the ceremony.

He continued that in the Buddha’s time, there wasn’t much to the Kathin as just one kind of robe could be made.

“Today the main principle for doing Kathin is to have all three things. But it doesn’t require having all of the three. One of the three is ok because when the monk is not able to get all three [garments] it is better that they get one of them than none,” he said.

Venerable Mann Sopheap, deputy chief monk of Mony Ratanaram Pagoda in Roleab commune of Pursat town and province, said that the Kathin was different from other alms giving because the most important benefit was the monks receiving chivor. When he gets the chivor it gives merit to both the monk and the person who donated it.

“The Kathin is special as the lay people get merit as well as the monks,” he said.

Nao Sambo, 60, abbot of Ang Stok pagoda in Kampot province’s Angkor Chey district, said that for Kathin the abbot could help in arranging the ceremony in order but as far as leading the giving of the clothes to the monks it was something the monks themselves could lead as well.

“Please be informed that the offering of the three large robes of the Kathin is not the same as offering other things to the monks. Meaning that, after the offering, the monks can arrange or manage the gifts according to the Buddha’s rule,” he said.

Van Savon, a Buddhist lay person who worships at Preah Puth Mean Bon Pagoda in Phnom Penh, said that he did not fully understand the Kathin festival and he wasn’t sure if anyone did.

He said that in order to understand exactly how to perform the Kathin festival correctly one should ask the abbot who had a lot of experience in leading the Kathin.

He also said that he personally performs the Kathin festival according to tradition by contributing some money to any pagoda where the Kathin is organised.

“I have never led the Kathin at any pagoda, but I have joined and contributed materials to the Kathin, because they need a lot of money for the Kathin,” he said.

Sun Cheko, a Buddhist at Kork Khsach pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Kamboul district, said that as far as he knew regarding Kathin, the initiating person needed to give an invitation letter to other people with the function’s agenda on it and only lay people could begin the festival by offering the robes.

He said that the people who were invited then come to join the festival and later they take the Kathin robes and fabric to the pagoda.

“All I really know is that we do the Kathin annually and bring the three things to the monks in the pagoda, which the monks can use for the whole year,” he said.

Sovann Srey Leap, a vendor selling religious festival items in Phnom Penh, said that sales were good this time of year, especially when the Kathin season arrived and many Buddhists started buying things as offerings.

Srey Leap said that the shop owner she worked for used to be a monk for many years and understood the entire process for measuring and making monk’s robes for Kathin.

“Sales of materials for Kathin are good and remained steady even during the pandemic. People always buy monks’ robes and fabric for Kathin every year, no matter what is going on, because the monks will always need something to wear,” she said.

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