17th July 2008, is Asalha Puja.
Thai Buddhism found a nice way of arranging the big four Buddhist ceremonial days equi-spaced at every three months. Next in line is Asalha puja, which celebrates the beginning of the traditional Rains Retreat period, often called ‘Buddhist Lent’. During this period the monks and nuns undertake to stay in a particular monastery or designated area every night for the following three months. They can leave during the day, but will always spend the night at the temple. Naturally, as soon as this rule was set, a diversity of happenstance threw up impracticalities, so that a variety of clauses were added as exemtions: to visit a sick parent or family member, to go give morale support to a monk in danger of disrobing, to teach dhamma outside of the monastery etc.. Even so, the monk will have to get back to the monastery within 7 days.
The origin of this Rains period, known properly as Vassa, or Pansa in Thai, predates Buddhism. Various sects of the time were known to undertake a special period of restricted movement in this period when the lay people were busy planting and tending crops in the rainy season. When farmers complained that wondering monks were trampling crops the Buddha instigated the restrictions on travel, encouraging the monks to take the opportunity to practice and study under the good teachers and arahants. In particular they would concentrate on learning and reciting the Vinaya – the set of rules for monks and nuns that evolved through the 40 year ministry of the Buddha. This tradition continues today, with many temples holding special vinaya teaching programs throughout the period.
For the monks it is always a matter of interest – ‘where will you spend the vassa this year’ is the continual question. If you ask how long a Bhikkhu has been ordained you would ask ‘how many vassa do you have’. One tends to find a respected temple and good teacher to spend the vassa, since you will be there for a solid three months, and there is a sense of coming together with the fellow monks ‘oh I spent a vassa with him …’. Additionally many laymen will join the temple for all or part of the period as newly ordained monks. It is thought to be especially auspicious; a thought that has some practical truth to it. The experienced monks will be around for the three months to train and instruct the new ordainess. Most Thai men in the modern era, find hunger in the evening and lack of TV etc. too difficult to bear, and often limit their ordained period to just the first couple of weeks. Others though, will ordain and like it, and stay on for one or more years.
The main activity, other than the requisite circumambulation of the temple and dhamma talks, is a recitation of the Dhammacakka Sutta. This is the first sutta that the Buddha gave after his enlightenment to the five ascetics with whom he had previously traveled practicing austerities and self torture. They had split from him when he had realized that starvation was not going to gain him enlightenment, and he had resumed eating. The sutta outlines the Four Noble Truths that is the cornerstone of Buddhism to this day, for all of Buddhism throughout the Theravada, Mahayana and Tibetan lineages. The sutta was delivered in the Deer Park near to Benares (Varanasi) and is a majour pilgrimage site for Buddhists to this day. In addition to marking the beginning of the Indian monsoon period for that area in the Buddha’s time, it is also said to be the time of year when the Buddha’s son was born, and when he made his great renunciation, leaving his wife and new born son to go in search of enlightenment.
Note that the Rains period officially starts on the 18th – the day after Asalha Puja. You might see this on your calendar, also as a national holiday, as Wan Kao Pansa – Entering the Vassa day.
We will not be arranging any events for this time as the monks are not free, and there will be lots of traditional activites at all temples.