Kason: the month of the festival of pouring water on the Bodhi tree

Kyaw NS

Kason (May) is the second month in the Myanmar calendar. It is the hottest month of Myanmar summer. As the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, its rays fall directly on Myanmar, drying up water in lakes, ponds, streams and rivers, and reducing Myanmar soil to an almost parched land. Evaporation generates more heat causing perspiration and loss of Saline water in the human body. Hence there are two Myanmar rhymes to describe this weather. တန်ခူးရေကုန် ကဆုန်ရေခန်း “In Tagu water is diminished, but in Kason water is dried” ကဆုန်၊ နယုန်၊ ဆွေ့ဆွေ့ခုန် “In Kason and Nayon, the heat is unbearable”. But rain is not totally absent in this month. Occasionally rainclouds would gather to let down some showers, or sometimes unexpected storms should arise, bringing pre-Monsoon downpours relieving all beings of intense heat. The natural environment has turned fully green, and among the flowers that bloom in this month Saga (Champak Michelia), fragrant yellow flower is traditionally marked as the flower of the month. It is the flower of a kind of timber tree that grows wild in the Mt Popa area, which is its habitat. In the astrological cycle of seasons, Kason id Vrishabha (Taurus) with the figure of Bull as its zodiacal sign. At night in the firmament, appear astride the moon Witha Kha, the asterism of 14 stars in Libra resembling a drum circle.
The word ‘Kason’, according to philologists, is a combination of two words, ‘Ka’ and ‘Son’, ‘Ka’ means water and ‘Son’ means to pour, and so Kason means ‘to pour water’. But Pali scholars say that this word is derived from the Pali word ‘Kachina’, meaning ‘water shortage’. It is the month of water shortage due to extremely hot weather. Both interpretations are plausible as the former implies the supply of water and the latter the demand for it.
Kason is an auspicious month for the Buddhists because of its full-moon day, which is religiously important. Four major events in the life of Lard Gautama Buddha took place on the full-moon day of Kason that Lord Dipankaya Buddha gave divine prophesy to the hermit Thumeda that the hermit would become Lord Gautama Buddha. Secondly, it was on the full-moon day of Kason in the Maha Sakarit year of 68 that babe Prince Siddhartha was born of Queen Maha Maya. Thirdly, it was on the full-moon day of Kason in the Maha Sakarit year of 103 that Prince Siddhartha (Bodhisatta), after six arduous years of practising austerity as a recluse became enlightened and thus became Lord Gautama Buddha. Fourthly, it was on the full-moon day of Kason in the Maha Sakarit year of 148 that Lord Gautama Buddha entered Parinibbana (Demise). Because of these four great landmarks in the Buddha’s life, the full-moon day of Kason is regarded by all Buddhists as the most auspicious and fourfold blessed. In Myanmar, the full-moon day of Kason is a public holiday as it is marked as Buddha Day. Religious functions are held on this day, such as recitation of Parittas, administering of moral precepts by monks and visiting pagodas and shrines by devotees to pay homage and do charity work. In other Buddhist countries, this day is called Vesak Day, which is celebrated by Buddhists by doing religious work such as the monks chanting Suttas (discourses) and devotees visiting shrines to pray.
In Myanmar, the traditional festival of pouring water on the Bodhi tree is held in Kason. Tree worship was one of the prehistoric beliefs, and it was quite prevalent in Stone Ages. Later, it was passed down to early civilizations. Myanmar indigenous races have the custom of worshipping tree-god (The guardian spirit of tree) called ‘Yokka-soe’, who is believed to be benevolent to humans. When Hindu Brahmanism arrived here, it brought many Hindu deities, including tree god. Hindu Brahmans revere the Bodhi tree because they believe that it is one of the abodes of Vishnu, the Maha Deva. Yokka-soe appears quite often in Myanmar fables and folk tales. Even in the Jatakas, we find that tree god plays no small role. In the last life of the Lord Buddha, there was one incident that proved the dominance of tree worship at that time. While the Bodhisatta (the Buddha-to-be) was seated in meditation under a banyan tree, Sujata, the daughter of a rich man of Senani village, came to offer to the Bodhisatta some rice boiled in concentrated milk she had specially prepared. She brought it there to offer to the Guardian god of that tree as a special thanks-giving as her request to have a son which she had made at the foot of that tree, had been fulfilled. Even today in Myanmar, we see little shrines at some big shady trees in which little idols of Yokka-soe are housed and worshipped, and believers are scared of chopping trees with such shrines.
In spite of the tradition of tree worship, the rite of pouring water on the Bodhi tree is entirely Buddhistic in origin and not connected with animism.
There are references in Buddhist literature pertaining to the worship of the Bodhi tree in the lifetime of the Lord Buddha. In the Kalinga Jataka of the 13th Nipata, which forms a portion of Tipidaka, there is mention of planting of a Bodhi tree by Shin Ananda, the disciple of the Buddha. How Shin Ananda induced King K–ala and his people to pay homage to the Bodhi tree was described in it. There was the story of Bhikkhuni Sangha Sumitta, daughter of King Asoka being sent out to Sri Lanka as a missionary with a southern branch of the Maha Bodhi Tree at Buddhagaya. The sacred branch was ceremonially planted at Anuradha City by the Lankan king himself. The Bodhi tree that grew out of it came to be known as Dakhina Sakha (Southern Branch) Bodhi Tree. As all Buddhas attained enlightenment under big shady trees and major events in the last life of Gautama Buddha took place in the forests, devotees regard such trees and forests as sacred, and they respect them. Weithabu Buddha became enlightened under the Sal tree (Pentacme Siamensis). Kakusanda Buddha became enlightened under the Kokko tree (Albizzia lebbek), Konagamana Buddha under the Yethahpan tree (Ficus glomerata), Kassapa Buddha under the Banyan tree (Ficus indica) and Gautama Buddha under the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa). In fact, the trees under which Buddhas attained ‘Omniscience’ are called Maha Bodhi Tree. Bodhi is a Pali word meaning ‘Knowing’ or ‘perceiving’. Maha Bodhi tree is classified as a kind of Paribawga Ceti in which Paribawga or priestly utensils used by the Buddhas were enshrined. So this tree is regarded as sacred. The act of pouring water on the Maha Bodhi Tree is the expression of piety and respect shown to the Buddhas.
Maha Bodhi trees found in the precincts of pagodas and monasteries all over Myanmar are those grown out of seeds or saplings brought from Buddhagaya in India or Sri Lanka by Myanmar envoys, monks, or personages in different periods of Myanmar history. Seeds or saplings of Maha Bodhi Tree were religious objects sent with Buddha’s relics to Myanmar kings by rajas of Sri Lanka. Some Myanmar kings despatched religious missions to Buddhagaya and Kandy to do religious work there, and they brought back seeds and saplings. The earliest historical evidence of planting Bodhi tree in Myanmar was found in the reign of King Narapati Sithu (A.D 1173-1210) of the Bagan dynasty. It was in his time that one Myanmar monk named Ashin Kassapa Maha Thera went to Sri Lanka, and on his return, he brought back seeds of Maha Bodhi Tree, drawings of Maha Zedi, Lawha Pathada Pyatthat, and many sacred relics which he gave to the king. Other planters of the Maha Bodhi tree were King Uzana of Pinya dynasty, who planted it in A.D 1340; King Narapati and King Maha Thiha Thura of Inwa dynasty, both of whom sent their envoys to Sri Lanka in A.D 1442 and A.D 1468, respectively and the envoys brought home saplings of Bodhi Tree; King Dhamma Zedi of Mon dynasty who planted in A.D 1471 the seed of Maha Bodhi Tree from Sri Lanka on a hillock now called Bodhi hill in the northwest of Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon; King Bodawpaya of Konbaung dynasty who sent to India a party of scholars in A.D 1800 to study Maha Bodhi Tree at Buddhagaya. On their return, they brought back description and drawings of the Sacred Tree, and two saplings of it presented by its caretaker. The saplings were ceremonially planted by the King himself in the precinct of Mingun Pagoda; King Bagyidaw his successor who planted in the south-west of his place the saplings which his envoys brought from Buddhagaya in A.D 1834: and King Mindon, second last Myanmar king who received two saplings sent by Sri Lankan monks in A.D 1860, and he planted them at Bodhi-kon, south of his palace, Mandalay.
There are also four Bodhi trees at four corners of the precinct of Kyauktaw Gyi Image, Mandalay. They were brought from Buddhagaya and planted there by King Mindon.Kyaw 1 NS

The planting of the Bodhi tree in Myanmar continues in modern times. There is a place near Monywa in Upper Myanmar where one thousand Bodhi saplings had been planted, and this place came to be known as “One thousand Bodhi trees” (Bodhi Ta Htaung). In the precinct of Shwedagon are the Bodhi trees the one at the northwest corner was planted on the day of the attainment of Myanmar independence, 4th January 1948. Next to it on the right is the Bodhi tree planted in 1905. Both were brought from Buddhagaya. There is another Bodhi tree at the southeast corner (Tuesday Direction) with a brick platform around it. It was planted by Head monk Meidet Sayadaw. It is at this tree that the ceremony of pouring water on Kason full-moon day takes place annually.
The rite of pouring water on the Bodhi tree began on the date of the arrival of its seeds and saplings in Myanmar. The earliest mention of this rite was found in the Bagan inscription of A.D 1201, known as “Thingyi Nyaung Ok” stone inscription. Later, Saw Hla Win Paya stone inscription of A.D 1291, and one Ka-chin song of the Pinya Period had mention of the pouring of water at the Banyan tree. Myanmar chronicles and literature have accounts of the royal performance of this rite on the full moon day of Kason. Lawka Byu Har or Inyone Sardan a famous Treatise on Court Ceremonies and Festivals complied by Minister Thiri Uzana of Inwa Period, described how the King and his court participated in the rite of water-pouring at the Bodhi Tree and the festivities that followed it.
But Kason festival is not confined to the Court. It is a public event in which peoples from all walks of life take part. In every Buddhist house, there is the family altar with a Buddha image, and on it are placed three pots called Nyaung Ye Oh (pots in which water and flowers are placed as a religious offering) dedicated to the Buddha, Dhamma (Teachings) and Sangha (Pure disciple). There is an old Myanmar greeting, “I pray for your health and happiness by offering Thabye (Eugenia) sprigs to the Buddha and pouring water on the Banyan tree!” Many Myanmar folk rhymes and songs describe Kason festival. These are the pieces of evidence to prove that it is a public festival. One noted court poet and Minister of Konbaung Period named Letwethondara composed a ratu verse while he was in exile at the Meza Hill near Katha. In the second stanza, he described the Kason Nyaung Ye festival as he saw it in the local village. The first few lines run as follow.
ပွဲခါညောင်ရေ၊ သွန်မြဲပေတည်း၊
ရိုသေသဒ္ဓါ၊ ထုံးစဉ်လာဖြင့်
မဲဇာရပ်သူ၊ တောင်းဆုယူသည်။
At the Nyaung-Ye Festival
Meza people all devout
Duly fall in prayer and pour
Water to the banyan tree.
Today the best places to watch The ceremony of watering on Bo tree at the month of Kason and participate in it are Shwedagon Pagoda precinct, Yangon, Bawdikone Pagoda and Shwe Kyet Yet Pagoda in and near Mandalay and other famous pagodas with Bodhi trees. The ceremony takes place early in the morning or in the evening. The ceremony held at the southeast corner of the Shwedagon pagoda precinct is traditional and grand. Brilliant pageantry proceeds the procession of colourfully dressed participants carrying pots of water and Eugena sprigs and flowers. Chanting of Paritta and administering of moral precepts by monks, a brief explanation of the rite, recitation of Pali poems praising the Lord Buddha follow one after another. Then begins the pouring of water at the foot of the Bodhi Tree. Organized groups composing mostly of damsels come in by turn and pour water, singing hymns. The highlights of the occasion that create a festive atmosphere are the feast and entertainment. Light refreshments are served gratis to all, and music, song and dance performed by amateurs and merry-makers keep up the festive mood.
In the countryside Kason festival is held at the village pagoda or monastery where there is a Bodhi Tree. Mirthful processions of village maidens in their best are seen skillfully balancing on their heads water pots as they wend their way with measured steps to the sacred Bodhi tree to perform the water pouring rite. Behind them follow a party of joyful village youths playing wind and percussion instruments to produce sonorous music. It provides a social occasion for young people to meet each other.
On this occasion of the Kason festival, it is the customary practice of Myanmar Buddhists to remove the fishes and turtles from nearby dry ponds and lakes to places where there is abundant water. This merit is regarded as a life-saving act of charity.
In ecological parlance Kason festival of watering trees and saving fishes may be taken as a sort of public activity in the preservation of the natural environment.

Demise: The ultimate passing away of Buddhas and Person of Supreme Saintliness (arahant ā)

By Dr Khin Maung Nyunt (Maha Saddhamma Jotika Dhaja, Sithu)

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