Magha Puja, also known as Sangha Day, commemorates the occasion when one thousand of the Buddha’s followers gathered to hear a teaching together with 250 awakened followers of his principal disciples Mahakasyapa (Sanskrit; Pali, Mahakassapa), Sariputra (Sanskrit; Pali, Sariputta), and Maudgalyayana (Sanskrit; Pali, Mogallana). All 1,250 are considered to be in the Buddha’s direct lineage because they were considered awakened and had been ordained by the Buddha himself. The gathering, which took place in a grove near the city of Rajagaha, was unplanned and came together spontaneously on a full moon during the third lunar month, or Magha. “Puja” refers to practice, or ritual.
The teaching given by the Buddha that day is said to be the Ovada Patimokkha Gatha, a series of verses admonishing monks to follow a path of righteousness. The verses are recited in many ceremonies in Theravada Buddhism and include the following lines:
“Not doing anything evil,
Undertaking what is wholesome,
Purifying one’s mind,
This is the teaching of the buddhas.”
—Mahapadana Sutra, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism
In the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia, celebrants of Magha Puja gather at Buddhist monasteries and offer flowers, incense, and candles. At dusk they perform three circumambulations to honor the three jewels—once for the Buddha; once for the dharma, or teachings; and once for the sangha, the community.
Because Magha Puja marks the sangha’s auspicious beginning, it is known as Sangha Day. In centuries past, it was strictly a religious ceremony observed by monks, but in modern times it has developed into one of the most widely observed holidays across Southeast Asia. Laypeople are encouraged to meditate on the significance of the three jewels. As with every Buddhist holiday, Magha Puja is a time to earn merit, to clean one’s house (literally and figuratively), refrain from unprincipled behavior, and rededicate oneself to follow the precepts and practice earnestly. The festival is known for the lighting of lanterns, symbolizing hope and renewal, and is also known as the Lantern Festival.
Magha Puja is also known as the Fourfold Assembly because of the four wondrous things that it is remembered for: it took place on the full moon; the monks gathered without being summoned; all 1,250 monks were arhats, or fully enlightened beings; and each had been ordained by the Buddha.
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