Asalha Puja, also known as Dharma (Pali, Dhamma) Day in English, commemorates the Buddha’s first teaching. After the Buddha attained enlightenment and was ready to give his first teaching, he sought out five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced. He found them in Sarnath, not far from the city of Varanasi in present day north India. The teaching he gave them at Sarnath’s Deer Park covered the four noble truths and the eightfold path—the very heart of the dharma.
After hearing the teaching, one of the five monks, a seeker named Ven. Kondanna, vowed to follow the Buddha, becoming his first disciple. So this event also marks the birth of the Buddhist sangha and of Buddhism as a religion.
Asalha Puja is a special kind of day called uposatha in the lunar calendar when laypeople and monastics (primarily in Theravada traditions) take part in the performance of Buddhist rituals and renew their dedication to Buddhist practice. Other important uposatha days include Vesak (also known as Buddha Day) and Magha Puja (Sangha Day).
Asalha Puja falls on the full moon in the eighth month of the lunar calendar and typically takes place in July. On this day monks chant the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which is said to be a record of the Buddha’s first teaching. Its name means “setting the wheel of dharma in motion” and many Buddhists also see it as a protective chant (paritta). Meanwhile, laypeople recommit to their faith, make offerings at monasteries, and listen to the recitation of the nuns or monks. There are candlelit processions and circumambulations of sermon halls and cetiyas, buildings containing reliquaries, and stupas.
More broadly, the holiday is a celebration of beginnings. This day is an auspicious one to begin a new venture or renew lapsed resolutions, and people are encouraged to follow the Middle Way.
Asalha Puja is followed by Vassa, the annual three-month rains retreat, historically a period of intense practice for monastics who had to take shelter from monsoons.
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