Asalha Puja Day, also known as Dhamma Day, is the day that marks the beginning of Buddhism. While Vesak Day, or the Buddha’s birthday, is the most famous holiday in Buddhism, also marking the Buddha’s enlightenment on his 35th birthday, Buddhism itself did not exist until a few months afterwards.
Following his enlightenment, the Buddha spent several weeks marveling at how profound his realizations were, wondering if others would even be able to understand if he were to teach them. After scanning the world with his enlightened eyes, he found that some people could indeed understand the Dhamma and eventually reach the same level as him. So the newly enlightened Buddha set off to find the people most capable, the five ascetics he practiced with earlier while searching for enlightenment.
The Buddha found his old companions at a deer park near Benares on the full moon day of the eighth lunar month (around July), or Asalha Puja Day, and gave them his first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.
The Significance of Asalha Puja
While the Buddha’s first sermon is certainly an important event in Buddhism, there are deeper reasons as to why Asalha Puja is significant.
The occasion marked the beginning of Buddhism, not just because it was the day of the first teaching of Buddhism, but also because it was the day the first Buddhist monk came into existence. On top of that, one of the five ascetics, Kondañña, became a stream-enterer (a stage of enlightenment) after listening to the sermon, becoming the second person in the world to have enlightened.
After Kondañña became enlightened, he requested ordination and became the first Buddhist monk, thus creating in the world the Triple Gem, or Three Jewels, of Buddhism; the Buddha, the Dhamma (truth/teachings), and the Sangha (monastic community).
Lastly, by teaching, the historic Buddha completed his Buddhahood as a samma sambuddha, one who discovers the path to enlightenment by himself, and then teaches others.
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
The Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or The Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma, is considered the most famous sutta in Theravada Buddhism. Not only is it regarded as the first sermon, it is probably considered to be the most foundational. In fact, the sutta is considered to be a paritta, or a protective text, that Buddhists can chant or listen to in order to help protect themselves from danger.
Content wise, the sutta covers several of the core principles that many would consider to be defining aspects of Buddhism. The discourse starts with the newly enlightened Buddha telling his companions that to find enlightenment, one should not indulge in the joys of the senses, nor should they deprive themselves of basic necessities. One begets attachment, the other hardship. The key is moderation, a majjhima patipada, or a Middle Way, so to speak.
This is followed by a fundamental teaching on the recurring Buddhist theme of dukkha, or suffering. According to the discourse, suffering, which is what Buddhism aims to end, is all around us. Suffering is sickness, aging, death, not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want, etc. Basically, life is suffering.
The Buddha then teaches of non-attachment, a teaching very stereotypically associated with Buddhism. The sutta explains that the cause of suffering is tanha, or desire. Not just the desire for possessions, people or power, but the desire for and attachment to views, beliefs and opinions, the desire to become something, and the desire to not experience unpleasant things among others. The key to ending suffering, is the elimination of such desire through the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.
After these fundamental principles were outlined, the sutta affirms the Buddha’s complete enlightenment and the beginning of Buddhism at the Deer Park in Benares, and ends with an acknowledgment that Kondañña understood the sermon.
Although not related to the day itself, Asalha Puja lands on a day that marks the beginning of the rainy season in many tropical countries. The rainy season is significant in Buddhism because it is the period of the vassa, or rains retreat, for monastics.
In the time of the Buddha, monastics who made journeys during the rainy season would inadvertently cause harm to crops and vegetation or accidentally step on insects revealed by the rain as they traveled. This caused the Buddha to make a rule that monastics limit travel and not stay overnight at a place other than their declared location for the season, with reasonable exceptions of course.
The vassa also serves as a period where monastics are able to focus more on Buddhist practice, since they have more time for solitude and meditation during this time period. The rains-retreat begins, coincidentally, on the day after Asalha Puja.