Asalha is the eighth lunar month of the old Indian calendar which usually falls in July.
The main historical event this festival commemorates is the Buddha delivering his first discourse.
The Buddha’s enlightenment took place on the full moon of Vesakha – the sixth month. He was reluctant to teach but finally decided to rejoin the five friends he had previously spent several years traveling the Ganges Plain with. He attained enlightenment in Gaya and his friends were at that time in Baranasi – a distance of some 150 miles. This would have been quite a journey, allowing that there were few roads and a very sparce population. By simple mathematics we can see that the trip from Gaya to Baranasi took about two months.
The first discourse is of great significance. Not only was it the first structured teaching given by the Buddha after his enlightenment but it is generally agreed as containing the essence of all subsequent teachings. This occasion was effectively the establishment of Buddhism as a religion. A thorough study of this discourse is a must as it puts many of the later teachings into perspective.
At the end of the discourse one of his five friends, Kondañña, exclaimed his understanding of the Truths just taught and requested the Buddha to receive him as a disciple. This was done in what is seen as the most basic ordination procedure and so the order of monks was also established on this day.
The importance of this teaching can not be understated – without it there would likely have been no more – so the full moon of Asalha is celebrated as Dhamma Day. There are a variety of activities that may take place on this day but one common event would be a chanting of the discourse – now known as the Dhamma Cakkapavattana Sutta (the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Truth). This would usually be in the original Pali language and form part of the evening’s full-moon vigil.
In the early days of the Buddha’s dispensation monks and nuns tended to wander the countryside quite freely. As the order grew and became more established, monasteries were built and the Buddha laid down a rule that monastics should take up a determined residence for the three months of the rainy season. So, Asalha also marks the beginning of this retreat period in a monastery.
As if all this wasn’t enough Asalha is also the month in which the Buddha’s son, Rahula, was born. This is a story in itself but suffice here to note that this is the time of the Buddha’s great renunciation – giving up all of his royal privileges and taking up the holy life. The period of the rains is generally seen as a time of restraint and is sometimes thought of as a Buddhist Lent when various things are given up.
This year’s Asalha Full Moon day falls on 15/7/11 (this Friday). This is an auspicious day for the Buddhists, second only to Wesak Day.