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

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.


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.

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

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.


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.


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.

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.