Summary: a Theravada Buddhist festival commemorating the Buddha’s first sermon
2018 Date: 16th July
Celebrated by: Theravada Buddhists, Thailand (as a National Holiday)
Linked Holidays: Vesak
Background and Theological Significance
Asalha Puja, also known as Asanha Bucha or Dharma Day, is an annual Buddhist festival that celebrates the first sermon that Siddhartha Gautama, the current Buddha, gave following his enlightenment. Many also consider the day to celebrate the start of Buddhism as a movement. Siddhartha Gautama was born into a noble family in Nepal in the sixth century CE, but as a young man renounced his wealth and family in order to seek a life of ascetic spirituality. After much prayer and meditation, Siddhartha achieved enlightenment whilst seated under the Bodhi tree at the age of 35 and was thereafter known as the ‘Buddha’ or ‘enlightened one’. Buddha perceived that it was possible for others to achieve the same spiritual awakening as himself, and he set off to find the five companions with whom he had formerly practiced asceticism. He found them in a deer park near Varanasi (Benares) on the full moon day of the eighth lunar month and presented his first sermon on the truths he had come to understand. Following the sermon, one of the companions named Kondanna recounted his understanding of these teachings and requested to become the Buddha’s disciple, thus establishing the first order of Buddhist monks.
The sermon preached by Buddha is referred to as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or ‘setting into motion the wheel of dharma’ and contains all the major points of his teaching that would come to form the basis of Buddhism. This includes the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering (dukkha); suffering is caused by desire (tanha); there is a state beyond suffering and desire (nirvana); and the way to nirvana is by the Noble Eightfold Path. Only by following the Eightfold Path (which includes concepts such as right view, right resolve and right conduct) can humans break from ‘samsara’ (the cycle of life, death and rebirth) and achieve liberation.
The festival of Asalha Puja celebrates Buddha expounding these teachings to his followers and thus starting Buddhism as a movement. It is typically only celebrated by Buddhists of the Theravada tradition, which is dominant in countries in southern Asia such as Thailand and Myanmar. It also marks the beginning of a three-month annual retreat for Theravada Buddhists called Vassa, often known as Buddhist Lent.
The name ‘Asalha Puja’ refers to the month of Asalha, the eighth lunar month, during which Buddha preached the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. Not only did this mark the start of Buddhism as a movement, it also marks the establishment of the Triple Gem or Three Refuges of Buddhism: the Buddha (the enlightened one); the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings); and the Sangha (the monastic community). It has come to be regarded as one of the most important celebrations in the Theravada Buddhist calendar.
During the time of Buddha, it was common for ascetics to make a three-month retreat during the rainy season, during which they refrained from travelling and stayed in one place. Buddha encouraged such a practice, and it quickly became common practice amongst Buddhist monks. This retreat is known as Vassa or ‘Rains Retreat’ and is often referred to in the West as Buddhist Lent due to the similarities to the Christian observance of Lent. Vassa commences the day after Asalha Puja, which has come to mark the start of the retreat in popular practice.
Asalha Puja is an important festival for Theravada Buddhists and is celebrated annually on the day of the full moon in the eighth month according to the lunar calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, this usually falls during July, but the exact date varies from year to year due to being based on the occurrence of the full moon.
On Asalha Puja, Buddhists typically visit temples and pagodas to make offerings and to spend time in prayer, and often listen to sermons in order to refresh their faith and commitment to the Dharma taught by Buddha. It is also traditional to make donations to monks and nuns of items of food or basic necessities. Temples often hold candlelit processions during which the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is chanted as a reminder of the central teachings of Buddhism. Asalha Puja is a public holiday in Thailand, and offices and businesses are usually closed during the day so that people have time to visit temples and celebrate this particularly important festival of their faith. It is acknowledged around the world as one of the most important annual observances of Buddhism, as it draws together all of the central principles of the faith into one holy day.