Asalha Puja, 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, India, not far from the city of Varanasi. The teaching he gave at Sarnath’s Deer Park covered the four noble truths and the eightfold path—the 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, 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.” Meanwhile, laypeople recommit to their faith, make offerings at the temple, and listen to the recitation of the monks. There are candlelit processions and circumambulation of temples and pagodas.
More broadly, the holiday is a celebration of beginnings, commemorating not just the Buddha’s first sermon but also his conception and the day he renounced his royal life to become an ascetic.This day is an auspicious one to begin a new venture or renew lapsed resolutions.
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 India’s monsoons.
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