Asalha Puja: Seek the Dhamma; take cover for a Theravada rains retreat

Line of Asian men in orange Theravada Buddhist robes

A procession of Buddhist monks in Laos. Tomorrow, monks and nuns will begin the 3-month rains retreat. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JULY 22: Monsoon season is looming and Theravada Buddhists are preparing to head indoors, but first, they celebrate Dhamma Day. Today is Asalha Puja, the anniversary of Buddha’s first public sermon. One of the most sacred festivals in Buddhism, Asalha Puja commemorates the day Buddha “set into motion the wheel of the dhamma” with his first public teaching. (Wikipedia has details.) The Great Discourse on the End of the Ultimate was delivered to five ascetics at Deer Park, in India, containing basic concepts that would be expanded upon in all future sermons. Following this first sermon, Buddha accepted his first disciple.

FROM THE BODHI TO DEER PARK

After having reached Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree, Buddha questioned whether anyone would understand what he had learned. Five ascetics came to mind that might benefit, and Buddha made his way to Deer Park to deliver a sermon to them. On that full moon day of the eighth lunar month, Buddha spoke to the ascetics of the Middle Path and the Four Noble Truths, explaining that neither extreme self-indulgence nor self-mortification was the way to Nirvana. The theory of Four Noble Truths explained that there is suffering; there are causes of suffering, including craving; suffering can be overcome when craving is mastered; and the path leading to the cessation of suffering—and Nirvana—is the Eightfold Path.

Monks and nuns will remain indoors for three months starting July 23 this year, spending the rainy season in the temple as did Buddha and his nomadic disciples. (Learn more from the Ministry of Culture, Thailand.) Yet the day before “Buddhist Lent” commences, adherents make offerings to temples and gather to hear readings from Buddhist scriptures. Sermons are delivered in temples, and devotees clean their homes. The Buddhist flag is hoisted high.

IN THE NEWS: BANGKOK’S WEEK OF FESTIVITIES
& THE WORLD’S LARGEST RESCUE DIG

Asalha Puja is a government holiday in Thailand, but that’s just the halt of a joyous festival that began a week ago, on July 16. In the days leading up to Asalha Puja, Bangkok residents have attended candle molding ceremonies and mass prayer sessions; outside of Bangkok, robe offering ceremonies and meditation sessions were commonplace. (Thai News has the story.) All festivities were conducted in hopes that Buddhists would focus on the Dhamma, or truths taught by Buddha, during these special days.

A woman standing near a large rock carved with pillars and other indentations

A woman stands in Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist settlement near Kabul. International archaeologists are in a race to uncover the city’s treasures before a Chinese mining company excavates the area. Photo courtesy of Flickr

The largest rescue dig in the world is commencing at Mes Anyak, an ancient Buddhist settlement near Kabul, in Afghanistan. The race is on to excavate the collection of monasteries, statues, frescoes and architectural treasures before a Chinese mining company destroys the area, several news sources have recently reported. China attests that the area may hold up to $100 million worth of copper; geologists report the city was a major Buddhist settlement and part of the ancient Silk Road. With time of the essence, archaeologists from around the globe are working at a frenzied pace to uncover what they can, using everything from ground penetrating radar and georectified photography to pickaxes to uncover the remains. It’s unclear whether any digging will be permitted after summer is over.