Today is Asalha Buja Day (also transliterated as Asanha Bucha, Asarnha Bucha or Asalha Puja, etc. from the Thai อาสาฬหบูชา). In other countries it is known as Dhamma Day. It marks the day more than 2,500 years ago that the Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon, symbolized as a wheel called Dhammacakka. The Dhammacakka (also called the Wheel of Life, the Wheel of Law or the Wheel of Doctrine) is found on the yellow flag that is the symbol of Buddhism in Thailand. The exact date of the holiday is determined by the waxing moon and the lunar months, occurring on the full moon day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar (usually in July or August).
Like many other Buddhist festivals and holidays, Asalha Buja is a day many Thai Buddhists will go to their parents’ or ancestors’ house. They will tham bun (which means make merit or ทำบุญ in Thai) in their local wat (temple) in the morning. Traditionally, candles are amongst the items donated to the wat for Asalha Buja. Processions featuring candles are held at various towns in Thailand. The tradition dates back to the times before electricity where extra light was needed at the temple during the darker days of the rainy season. At the wat, the faithful will listen to sermons and will be reminded to keep The Five Precepts or The Eight Precepts. Thai Buddhists offer food and alms to monks in their alms bowl and give donations to the temples.
In the evening of Asalha Buja, local people will wian tian which involves walking around the wat three times with a lit candle, lotus flowers and an incense stick which will later be offered to the Lord Buddha. Some Thai Buddhists will wear white robes and stay in the temple for days to meditate.
The day after Asahna Bucha is another significant day with Wan Khao Phansa marking the start of the Phansa (พรรษา) period, the three-month annual retreat observed by Theravada practitioners. This comes from the Pali word vassa (varṣa in Sanskrit), meaning “rain.” Taking place during the wet season, Phansa lasts for three lunar months, usually from July to October. In English, Phansa is often glossed as Rains Retreat or Buddhist Lent, the latter by analogy to the Christian Lent (which Phansa predates by at least five centuries).
For the duration of Phansa, monastics remain in one place, typically a monasteries or temple grounds. In some wats, monks dedicate the Phansa to intensive meditation. Some Buddhist lay people choose to observe the period by adopting more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol, or smoking. While Phansa is sometimes casually called “Buddhist Lent”, others object to this terminology. Commonly, the number of years a monk has spent in monastic life is expressed by counting the number of phansas (or rains) since ordination.
Most Mahayana Buddhists do not observe Phansa, though Vietnamese Thiền and Korean Seon monastics observe an equivalent retreat of three months of intensive practice in one location, a practice also observed in Tibetan Buddhism.
Phansa begins on the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month, which is the day after Asalha Buja or Asalha Uposatha (“Dhamma Day”). It ends on Pavarana, when all monastics come before the sangha and atone for any offense that might have been committed during rains retreat. Phansa is followed by Kathina, a festival in which the laity expresses gratitude to monks. Lay Buddhists bring donations to temples, especially new robes for the monks.
The Phansa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha. It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics in India not to travel during the rainy season as they may unintentionally harm crops, insects or even themselves during their travels. Many Buddhist ascetics live in regions which lack a rainy season. Consequently, there are places where Phansa may not be typically observed.
The 2017 date for Phansa is July 9 until October 5.
Scott #1573 was issued by Thailand on July 22, 1994, to mark that year’s Asalha Buja Day. The 2-baht multicolored stamp, perforated 13½ and watermarked with zig zag lines, portrays a Thai painting of the Lord Buddha’s first sermon in the deer park at Sarnath, a city located near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna Rivers in present-day Uttar Pradesh, India.
Before Gautama (the Buddha-to-be) attained enlightenment, he gave up his austere penances and his friends, the Pañcavaggiya monks. Seven weeks after his enlightenment under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, Buddha left Uruvela and traveled to Isipatana to rejoin them because, using his spiritual powers, he had seen that his five former companions would be able to understand Dharma quickly.
While travelling to Sarnath, Gautama Buddha had no money with which to pay the ferryman to cross the Ganges, so he crossed it through the air. Later when King Bimbisāra heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. When Gautama Buddha found and taught his five former companions, they understood and as a result, also became enlightened. At that time, the Sangha — the community of the enlightened ones — was founded. The sermon Buddha gave to the five monks was his first, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It was given on the full-moon day of Asalha Buja. Buddha subsequently also spent his first rainy season at Sarnath at the Mulagandhakuti. The Sangha had grown to 60 in number (after Yasa and his friends had become monks), and Buddha sent them out in all directions to travel alone and teach the Dharma.