Asalha Puja: Buddhists recall ‘setting in motion the wheel of the dhamma’

Young, medium-skinned children in school uniforms carrying items in a line

Children in an Asalha Puja ceremony in Thailand. Photo by Nikodemus Karlsson, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JULY 1 and THURSDAY, JULY 2: Theravada Buddhists revere the teachings of the Buddha at his first discourse as part of Asalha Puja Day or Dhamma Day (dates vary by location). Following his enlightenment, Buddha was urged by his friends to begin preaching. When a journey ended in India, Buddha delivered his speech before five men. One of the men proclaimed an understanding of the Buddha’s concepts and asked to be made a disciple. The Buddha accepted, and the first order of monks was born.

THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS & THE EIGHTFOLD PATH

In essence, Buddha’s first discourse contained the roots of all future teachings. Also referred to as “setting into motion the wheel of the dhamma,” the monumental first discourse set into place the four noble truths and the eightfold path. Today, all Buddhists—Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana alike—follow these basic assumptions.

In Buddhism, the four noble truths are as follows:

  • Life means suffering
  • The origin of suffering is attachment / craving
  • Cessation of suffering is attainable
  • The way of cessation is via the eightfold path

The eightfold path consists of: right understanding; right view; right speech; right actions; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; and right concentration.

Across Thailand and other communities of Theravada Buddhists, Asalha Puja is an occasion for donations, making offerings to temples and witnessing sermons. The day following Asalha Puja begins, in many Theravada communities, the three-month “rains retreat.” While the rainy season renews life in the natural world, monasteries host monks and nuns indoors—so that the new life may not be disturbed. In centuries past, wandering monks halted their travels during the rainy season.

Parinirvana Day: Mahayana Buddhists recall Buddha’s entry to complete Nirvana

Golden hued statue of seated Buddha on black background

Photo by Paul Kenjerski, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 15: Mahayana Buddhists mark the day Buddha reached complete Nirvana—Parinirvana—on Parinirvana Day, recalling the physical death of Gautama Buddha at the age of 80. Though some Mahayana adherents observe this event on February 8, most reserve the meditation retreats and special times of contemplation for February 15. On this day, temples are opened to laypersons, laypersons bring gifts to monks and nuns—all focused on the teachings of Buddha.

As recorded in the Parinirvana Sutra (spellings of the ancient record’s title vary), Buddha knew his life was nearing its end, and at this time, he confided to his disciples that he had told them all he knew. Buddha encouraged his monks to continue preaching his teachings, so that people would understand life and Nirvana for years to come.

Buddha taught that upon achieving enlightenment, Nirvana means the extinguishing of hatred, ignorance and suffering. The soul is released from samsara, the karmic cycle of life and death, and one enters a state beyond human understanding or imagination.

Buddha’s last words were relayed to his monks: “All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive for your liberation with diligence.”