For hundreds of millions of Theravadan Buddhists across Southeast Asia (primarily Thailand, Burma, and Indochina) and South Asia (primarily Sri Lanka), Asaraha Bucha day (วันอาสาฬหบูชา) and the beginning of the Buddhist Lent (วันเข้าพรรณษา) are among the most significant religious events in the annual calendar.
The Asaraha Bucha day (วันอาสาฬหบูชา) is a Buddhist holy day (วันพระ) which immediately precedes first day of the Buddhist Lent (วันเข้าพรรณษา), and falls on the 15th day of the waxing moon of the eighth lunar month (เดือน 8 ทางจันทรคติ). The term ‘Asaraha Bucha’ (อาสาฬหบูชา) translates to ‘the eighth lunar month’ and the term ‘bucha’ translates to ‘worship’ and ‘remembrance’. Put together, the term ‘Asaraha Bucha’ translates to: ‘the worship in remembrance of events that happened in the 8th lunar month.’ Because it has been approximately 2,600 years since the time of the latest Buddha (Siddharta Gautama), many people would naturally wonder what exactly happened on the 15th day of the waxing moon of the 8th lunar month, and why is it still being observed till this day?
This significant Buddhist event which happened on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in which we are talking about actually occurred 45 years before the beginning of the Buddhist era, or B.E. 2,554 + 45 = approximately 2,599 years ago. (To be exact, B.E. 543 is approximately the same time as A.D. 1, which means that the Buddhist Era precedes the Christrian Era by approximately 543 years. So this year is now the 2,554th year of the Buddhist Era; that is, B.E. 2554 = A.D. 2011. In essence, the Buddhist Era began with the Buddha’s passing away, or ‘Parinibbhana’).
Now coming back to our discussion about Asahara Bucha Day (วันอาสาฬหบูชา): this was the day in which the Buddha announced his dharma and teachings for the very first time, approximately 2 months after his enlightenment (การตรัสรู้). On this significant day, the Buddha for the first time delivered to his first 5 disciples his first sermon. the ‘Dhamma Jakra Pawattana Sutra’ (ธรรมจักกัปปวัตนสูตร), the sutra which marked the beginning of the ‘Wheel of Dharma’. In essence, the Dhamma Jakra Pawattana Sutra contained 2 important messages, the first being ‘Machima Patipata’ (มัชฌิมาปฏิปทา), which outlines the way towards the cessation of suffering via the ‘middle path’ (แนวทางสายกลาง). The second important message was the ‘Ariyasaj 4’ (อริยสัจ 4), better known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’ which revealed the cause and the way towards the cessation of suffering.
The Dhamma Jakra Pawattana Sutra (ธรรมจักกัปปวัตนสูตร) was delivered by the Lord Buddha at the Issi Patana Marukataiwan Forest (ป่าอิสิปตนมฤคทายวัน) near the ancient Indian city of Paranisi (เมืองพาราณสี), which back then was part of the ancient Indian state of Makot (แคว้นมคธ). It has to be noted that nowadays, the city of Paranisi still flourishes and exists, but is better known as Varanasi (or Banares), in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. This initial sermon was delivered by the Buddha to his first 5 disciples (พระปัญจวัคคีย์ทั้ง 5), which included ‘Phra Kontanya’ (พระโกณฑัญญะ), ‘Phra Wappa’ (พระวัปปะ), ‘Phra Bhatiya’ (พระภัทิยะ), ‘Phra Mahanama’ (พระมหานาม), and ‘Phra Atsashi’ (พระอัสสชิ).
It was told that on that very day, Phra Kontanya (พระโกณฑัญญะ) was the first disciple to be enlightened by the Buddha’s dharma, and became the very first Buddhist monk within this new religion (Buddhism). Therefore, on this very day the ‘Triple Gems of Buddhism’ (พระรัตนตรัย) became complete for the first time: that is , there now exists the Buddha (พระพุทธ), the Dharma (พระธรรม), and the Sangha (พระสงฆ์, or community of monks). With the ‘Triple Gems’, Buddhism as a religion founded by the latest Buddha (Gautama) became whole and complete for the first time in its history. This is the significance of Asahara Bucha Day, which marks Buddhist worship in remembrance of all that has happened on the 15th day of the waxing moon (day of full moon) on the 8th lunar month, approximately 2,599 years ago!
Up to this day, Therevadan Buddhists still observe Asaraha Bucha Day in remembrance of the significance of the event that elapsed almost 2,600 years ago. In Thailand, Buddhists typically visit temples on this day to make donations, offer alms to monks and novices, meditate, pray, and listen to sermons. During the evening to early nighttime hours processions are held around the temples throughout the country in remembrance of the Buddha and his teachings, which has become an integral tradition for Thai Buddhists over the centuries. The Asaraha Bucha Day therefore provides an excellent opportunity for Buddhists to observe the peaceful, mindful and compassionate teachings of the Buddha, to purify their minds, and to begin anew.
The day right after Asaraha Bucha Day marks the first day of the Buddhist Lent, known in Thai as ‘Wan Khao Pansa’ (วันเข้าพรรณษา), another very important occasion in itself. The term ‘Khao Pansa’ (เข้าพรรณษา) translates in Thai to ‘taking a break from the rain’. In the Theravadan Buddhist context, the term ‘Khao Pansa’ refers to the time when Buddhist monks will have to reside in a particular temple throughout the 3 rainy months, which in essence form the peak of the rainy monsoon season.
This Buddhist tradition dates back to the time of the latest Buddha (Siddharta Gautama), when Buddhist monks traveled far and wide on a daily basis to bless people and all living beings, and to propagate the Buddha’s dharma in cities, towns, and villages in all directions even during the rainy season. For this reason, it was said that Buddhist monks during the time of the Buddha, in their quest to travel far and wide to spread the dharma, had unintentionally caused damage as they stepped upon villagers’ agricultural fields (like rice paddies, vegetable plots, saplings, etc.) To address this concern, the Buddha (Gautama) therefore deliberated that Buddhist monks shall reside in a particular temple throughout the duration of the 3-month long rainy season, which according to the Buddhist calendar begins on the 1st day of the waning moon of the 8th lunar month, and ends on the 15th day of the waxing moon (day of full moon) of the 11th lunar month. Over time, this tradition became known as the ‘Buddhist Lent.’ As an additional note: the beginning and end dates of the Buddhist lent are in accordance with the monsoon season which prevails during the aforementioned period in the Indian subcontinent and mainland Southeast Asia.
The 3-month retreat during the Buddhist Lent whereby monks have to reside in a particular temple confers several key benefits to the Buddhist monastic community.
Firstly, as already mentioned, the period coinciding with the Buddhist Lent is the rainy monsoon season in much of South, Southeast, and East Asia, which is the primary planting season for the regions’ agriculture. Back in the days of the Buddha, Buddhist monks had to travel far and wide to disseminate the dharma. Such travels during the rainy season may inflict damage upon the agricultural fields, saplings, and small animals which usually flourish during the period. By residing in a particular temple during the rainy season, the Buddhist monastic community can rest assured that they won’t be inflicting any suffering or damage upon the surrounding agricultural communities, as well as upon animals large and small that thrive during the wet season.
Secondly, the 3-month annual retreat during the Buddhist Lent provides an excellent opportunity for the Buddhist monastic community to take a well-deserved break, after traveling to propagate the Buddha’s dharma for 8-9 months. During this retreat, Buddhist monks will be able to learn, observe, and improve their understandings of the Buddha’s teachings. Monks will also have time to meditate and acquire new knowledge in regards to the Buddhist dharma, which they can then help disseminate to the wider lay community once the annual Buddhist Lent retreat period ends.
Although the Buddhist Lent is commonly viewed as a crucial period for the monastic community, there are many things that the lay community can do to make this period highly meaningful. First and foremost, it presents an opportunity for every Buddhist layperson to purify his/her mind and be at peace. Like all the plants and animals that spring to life during the height of the rainy season, the period during the Buddhist Lent symbolizes the process of rebirth and rejuvination, the chance to begin anew after all of our experiences (good and bad) during the year. The Buddhist Lent also provides a good opportunity for the lay community to make merit by offering food and various necessities to the monks and novices. In Thailand, the beginning of the Buddhist Lent is marked by colorful festivals and processions featuring huge, ornate, and elaborately carved candles which are donated to temples around the country. These candles will be lit during temple prayers throughout the duration of the 3-month Buddhist Lent.
In essence, for a lay person, the Buddhist Lent in the Theravadan tradition is a period for self reflection, a period for new insights/knowledge, a period to begin anew (rebirth and rejuvenation), a period to study the Buddha’s dharma, a period to support the monastic community, and a period for purification by restraining oneself from various vices and ‘defilements’.
Happy Asaraha Bucha Day, and may the Buddha’s dharma (teachings) of enlightenment, wisdom, peace, and compassion be with you throughout this Buddhist Lent and beyond, wherever you are around the world!
Lat (Ratasit C.)