BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
Asalha Puja Day is an important day in Buddhism. It takes place on the full moon day of the eighth lunar month of every year (for this year, it falls on July 11). It commemorates four important occurrences which took place during the time of the Buddha:
- The Buddha delivered his first sermon. The sermon was delivered to five ascetics at the Isipatanamarugadivan forest near the city of Benares (present day Varanasi, an Indian city on the banks of the Ganga River in Uttar Pradesh).
- The Buddha gained his first disciple. Upon the completion of his sermon, ascetic Kondanna had attained the first state of enlightenment to become a Sotapanna (Stream-Winner).
- The coming into being of the first Bhikkhu. After attaining the holy state of Sotapanna, Kondanna asked for the Buddha’s permission to be ordained as a Buddhist monk, for which the Buddha granted. Kondanna thus became the first Bhikkhu in Buddhism, signifying the beginning of the Sangha, the Order of Monks.
- The establishment of the Triple Gem. The fact that the Buddha taught his Dhamma to others, had earned him the status of Samma-sambuddha, a self-enlightened being who teaches his Knowledge to the world (as differed from a Paccekabuddha, who does not teach).
After the Buddha’s Enlightenment, he spent seven weeks delighting in the bliss of emancipation. Afterwards, he pondered whether or not to teach his enlightened Knowledge to others. He was concerned that the Dhamma that he had discovered was so deep and profound that ordinary humans whose minds were clouded with mental impurities would find it difficult to comprehend.
Recognizing the Buddha’s reservations, the Brahma Sahampati came down from his Brahma world to implore upon him to teach his supreme Knowledge to the world instead of keeping it to himself. The Brahma expressed to the Buddha that not all humans were heavily engrossed in defilements, that some humans possessed enough purity to be worthy of his teachings.
The Buddha examined all the beings that existed in the cycles of rebirth and saw that humans were different in many ways: some were consumed by defilements, while others were relatively free of them; some possessed a strength of character and virtues, while others were weak in character and virtues; some were easy to teach, while others were difficult to teach. He likened them to lotus plants in their three stages of growth: one deep beneath the water, not having the capacity to bloom; one reaching the surface of the water, capable of blooming; and one risen above the water, ready to bloom at any time. Those that were difficult to teach were likened to lotus plants that were immersed deep beneath the water; those that were easy to teach were likened to lotus plants that had risen above the water.
The Buddha resolved that it would be beneficial to teach his supreme Knowledge, the Dhamma, to the world. He pondered as to whom he should give his first teaching—the one who would comprehend it readily. Ascetics Alara and Udaka came to mind. These were two holy men who possessed a brilliant mind and were relatively free of defilements.
The Buddha’s intention was noticed by a celestial being, who came down from his heavenly abode to inform him that both ascetics had already passed away. Through his divine vision the Buddha found that this was indeed the case. It was unfortunate, he thought, that these two ascetics had passed away before having a chance to hear his Dhamma, which would have benefited them greatly.
The first teaching and the first Bhikkhu
He then thought of the five ascetics who, during his early years of spiritual quest, had attended to him. So he set out on a journey to see them at the Isipatanamarugadivan forest where they dwelled. When the five ascetics caught sight of the Buddha from a distance they muttered among themselves: “Fellows, this monk Gotama was gluttonous, lax in perseverance, and had given in to self-indulgence. He is not worthy of our respect. We should not rise up to greet him, or pick up his alms-bowl or his robe. The only courtesy we shall extend to him is to let him have a place to sit if he chooses to sit down.”
But upon the Buddha’s arrival his divine presence caused the five ascetics to forget about their negative intention. All of them rose up to greet him and paid him respect. One ascetic picked up his alms-bowl and robe, another prepared an appropriate seat for him, and the rest of them fetched water to bathe his feet, placed a footstool before him, and laid foot-drying tiles for him to dry his feet. The Buddha took his seat and washed his feet.
After having extended their welcome the ascetics unwittingly called him by his name and addressed him as “elder”. The Buddha said to them, “Behold, my dear ascetics, it is no longer appropriate for you to call me by my name or address me as an elder, for I have attained self-enlightenment and have become a Buddha. Hear me well, I have found the eternal Truth, the Dhamma, and I shall share this Truth with you. If you practice the Dhamma that I am about to teach you, you will reap great benefits and live a life of perfect purity.”
The ascetics were skeptical. They questioned him thus: “Gotama our elder, you have practiced extreme asceticism in the past, yet you could not attain liberation. Later you became gluttonous, lax in perseverance and gave in to self-indulgence. How is it possible that you have achieved Enlightenment and become a Buddha?”
The Buddha replied: “My dear ascetics, gluttonous I was not, nor was I lax in perseverance, and self-indulgence was not my way. I am an enlightened being, a Buddha. Hear me well, I have found the eternal Truth, the Dhamma, and I shall share this Truth with you. If you practice the Dhamma that I am about to teach you, you will reap great benefits and live a life of perfect purity.”
The Buddha restated these words three times, and said to them, “Dear ascetics, these words I have not spoken anywhere. This is the first time I have spoken them.”
Seeing how assertive the Buddha was, the five ascetics relented and agreed to listen to his sermon with keen attention. And so, the Buddha’s first sermon was thus given. In this sermon the Buddha advised the ascetics of two unworthy practices that a holy person should avoid, namely:
- Indulging in sensual pleasure—this is an impure practice engaged by ordinary people and householders, not for a holy person to pursue.
- Self-mortification—this practice does not lead to spiritual attainment. It produces no benefit.
The Buddha encouraged one to follow the Middle Path, the Path that leads to liberation. This Path encompasses the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths.
After the Buddha completed his sermon, ascetic Kondanna attained the first state of holiness to become a Sotapanna. He was subsequently ordained as a Buddhist monk. This event completed the third component of the Triple Gem.
The Buddha’s first sermon is known as Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma. Its teaching encapsulates the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, regarded as the central doctrine of the Buddhist religion. Celestial beings in every heavenly realm, from earth sprites to the Brahma Worlds, sang their praises and adoration. Ten thousand universes trembled and resounded with joy. Incomparable brightness pervaded all the worlds.
We hope the background and history of Asalha Puja serve to reinforce your faith in the Triple Gem and inspire you to practice mental development until you reach the Triple Gem within.
May the power of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha bring you good health, good wealth and happiness.
 Stream-Winner: “Stream” in this sense implies the stream which leads to Nibanna.
 Bhikkhu: Buddhist monk
 Triple Gem: comprising of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha