Rains Retreat in Buddhist Japan

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The very early Buddhist community that grew around Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder, had a practice called the Rains Retreat or Vassa (pronounced “Wassa”) where monks would retreat during the monsoon season and focus on aesthetic practices while greatly reducing contact with the lay community. This was done for practices reasons such as not trampling on villagers’ young seedlings planted before the monsoon, as well as not trampling on bugs and worms who might emerge from the ground during the rain and get trampled. However, it was also as a time to renew one’s practice, and Vassa still persists in many Buddhist cultures, particularly Theravada Buddhist (Thai, Myanmar, Cambodian, etc) cultures. Lay people often use this time to abstain from unwholesome habits such as alcohol or drinking, too. At a surface level, this can be compared to the Western concept of Lent.

But the practice is not exclusive to these cultures, either.

For example, in Japanese there exists the term gedachi (夏断ち) which means something like “summer abstinence” and involves abstaining from meat and/or alcohol during the summer months. While it is mentioned in antiquity, I don’t know how widely it is practiced today, but I have seen allusions to it even in modern Japanese publications, so perhaps it’s culturally known, but practiced on an individual basis.

Zen Buddhism (and likely others) still observes this in the form of ge’ango (夏安居) which in Japanese just means something like “summer retreat”. In the Japanese-language dictionaries I checked, I also see related terms like 夏行 (gegyō “summer training”) or 夏籠 (gegomori “summer seclusion”). One who undertakes the summer retreat, or abstaining from meat, fish and alcohol as a lay follower, is a 夏精進 (geshōjin). In the old calendar, this would begin on the 15th day of the 4th month, for 90 days (15th day of the 7th month, which happen to be the start of the Obon season), however with the early-modern Meiji Period, the Western calendar was adopted, this and ge’ango was affixed to May 15th until August 15th. There is also a winter retreat called tō’ango (冬安居) as well, which traditionally starts on the 16th day of the 10th month of the lunar calendar for 90 days, but has similarly been moved to November 15th until February 15th in the modern calendar. By default the term “ango” usually implies the summer one, however.

Anyhow, linguistics aside, it’s super fascinating to see how the ancient Vassa Rains Retreat practice has gradually evolved and adapted to other countries over time. The notion of lay people practice some kind of abstinence for 90 days alongside the monastic community, getting a taste of monastic life and showing appreciation to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is really intriguing to me. I thought about maybe trying this myself, even. Cutting alcohol is easy, since I never drink it anyway (I have undertaken the Five Precepts) but cutting meat would be harder due to hardship on my wife who does most of the cooking.

As a compromise, maybe I’ll try doing a mini-gedachi. We’ll see. 😉

1 Ages ago, I studied abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam for a summer, and I saw the monsoon there. It was intense. Certain neighborhoods in Hanoi would suddenly flood as the rain came down, then be gone in an hour. The monsoonal season in Japan, tsuyu (梅雨), is not quite as intense, but it really does rain a lot.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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