On Friday 15th Jule we celebrate Asalaha Puja (Asalha Puja) – one of the biggest Buddhist holidays. It commemorates the day that the Buddha first “set forth the wheel of Dhamma”. Or in layman’s terms, when he first started teaching.
After attaining to what he first declared as The Deathless (the word ‘nibbana/nirvana’ came later), the Buddha, according to legend, was not inclined to teach. What he had found was ‘subtle, hard to see’and he did not think he would be able to communicate it to anyone. The story goes that Sahampati, a high god, came to him and begged him to teach “For there are those with but little dust in their eyes”.
For whatever reason, the Buddha determined to try and teach his discovery, and set out to find his former ascetic friends. He met a few people on the way, but it was not until meeting the five ascetics that he was able to properly ‘set forth the Wheel of Dhamma’. Kondannya, who had known the Buddha since birth, is said to have ‘opened the eye of Dhamma’ upon hearing this first teaching, by understanding ‘All that is of the nature to arise, will pass away’. An intriguing insight – why is it so supreme in Buddhism? The other ascetics gained the same insight later the same day, after further dhamma talk that is not recorded.
The words taught in that first interaction are recorded in the Dhammacakka Sutta. – the first real sermon of the Buddha. There are many websites and youtubes dedicated to this one teaching. it contains the Four Noble Truths, which is a cornerstone of Buddhism. Here is one straightforward rendering of the sutta, with notes.
In fact we know that this sutta has been modified and adapted since that first day, due to the large number of versions available. There is a Pali version, Sanskrit, and several Tibetan and Chinese versions. Scholars find a lot of interest in the sutta and the extent to which it has been modified or maintained the core teaching. In fact the essence of the sutta remains the same both in general and in detail throughout the different versions. Adaptations probably came in order to make it easier to recite, and to add clauses that the Buddha taught later in his ministry.
This sutta is learned by heart for many, if not most monks, and recited in temples all the world over on Asalaha Puja day. Especially in Thailand – all temples will be reciting the sutta, and gearing dhamma talks around the Four Noble Truths that it encapsulates.
Here is a 50 page analysis of some 17 different versions of the Dhammacakka sutta for the very very keen! Dhammacakka Study PDF
Naturally, Asalaha Puja is a national holiday in Thailand.
The ‘Lent’ or Pansa period (aka Rains)
The following day is called ‘kao pansa‘ in Thai. This means the monks enter the 3 month long ‘Buddhist Lent’ period where they undertake not to leave their monasteries overnight except for very special reasons. They will usually have an intensive course in the temple also, and many men ordain temporarily for this period. It is considered auspicious to be a monk for a full pansa. Few make it right through however! Because monks can’t leave overnight during this 3 month period, it is a matter of careful choice and discussion where one will ‘spend the pansa’.
In the first few days of the Pansa, monks will usually travel back to see their Preceptors – the monks who gave them ordination – to pay respects. To a lesser degree laypeople will also go and pay respects to their elders such as teachers or grandparents. One further tradition is to give something up for the ‘Pansa’ such as drinking or smoking – like a new year’s resolution, but only lasting 3 months.