- Oxford Sayadaw Venerable Prof. Dr. Dhammasami DPhil (Oxford)
The full moon day of July, known in Burmese as waso la-pyi, is one of the most significant days in the Buddhist calendar, more so today for Theravada Buddhists, because, among many others, it is on this day some 2605 years ago that the Buddha starts his teaching mission and it has always been on this full moon day that Theravada Buddhist monastics commence their three-month rains-retreat (vassana).
Two months after his full enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Buddhagaya and on the full moon day of July, (asahla in Pali) the Buddha reaches the Deer Park, near Baranasi, and immediately begins to share with his five former friends the newly discovered Middle Path as the way to overcome suffering. The Middle Way is as an alternative to the existing thoughts current in India: the eternalist and the materialist (nihilist) philosophy, or the practice of self-mortification and of self-indulgence. The Buddha finds that all of those mutually exclusive philosophies and practices are based on a belief in either a supposedly unchanging metaphysical self or a physical self.
On his part, using the Middle Path factors, the Buddha explains our daily experience as a process of psychological and physical phenomena, basically ruled by the inter-dependent law of cause and effect, and not by any divine being such as creator God or mysterious entity such as an unchanging soul. This Middle Path teaching, formulated as the Four Noble Truths, raises the status of human beings to the supreme level and at the same time places in the hands of every human the full responsibility for their happiness and misery.
This First Sermon is known as the Dhamma-cakka-pavattana Sutta, the Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth. The principal approach of the Four Noble Truths is to face, recognize and accept the existence of psychological as well as physical discomforts in life, investigating them with calm contemplation, instead of fighting with them or running away from them. A wise observation like this can lead to full comprehension of what bothers us in day to day life because the calmness and experiential knowledge give us human beings necessary skills to manage our otherwise unregulated emotions and decision making processes. The skillful wisdom in the First Sermon also equips us with energy and tool to reduce the unavoidable pains in life and to overcome the pains that we unnecessarily create ourselves through habitual reaction.
The wheel (cakka/ cakra), part of the title of the First Sermon, is a metaphor that the Buddha used to demonstrate his message, dhamma. The wheel is generally the symbol of transport and the Buddha wants his teaching to serve humanity as a transport carrying them from problem to solution, from a stressful life to a stress-free one, from bondage to freedom and from repeated suffering to nirvana. The wheel indeed symbolizes three aspects of dhamma: (1) the Four Truths, the realization of it helps us overcome suffering; (2) the Middle Way, known as the Eightfold Path, the accomplishing of it enables us to reach a solution, a stress-free life or freedom and (3) the realization itself which has twelve aspects indicating the goal achieved through transformative wisdom, with the wheel having twelve spokes. The twelve aspects define the actual process of realization comprising: knowing something such as a problem as it is; knowing what action to take for that; and knowing how to verify that the action has been successful. As each of the Four Truths has these three steps in the process, the third wheel has twelve spokes while the first and the second wheel have four and eight spokes respectively. All these symbols represent one and the same positive message: it is possible to use our own concentration and wisdom power to solve life’s misery, if we can turn these wheels on and make them to function.
This compassionate and pragmatic message of the Buddha on finding problem (dukkha) and its solution (nirodha) is central to all communications that the Buddha constantly relays for forty-five years to the people of all walks of life. All the teachings that we are familiar with, for example, kamma, generosity, precepts, monastic disciplines, meditation and abhidhamma are to illustrate this key message. Finding a solution to human suffering has been of ethical, social and psychological importance for the Buddhist teaching. The revolutionization of the understanding kamma is a case in point. Before the Buddha comes along, kamma is merely understood as a ritual. The Buddha redefines kamma to mean one’s own intention giving everyone the control of their kamma and links it to moral and ethical behavior. While placing in human’s hands his own responsibility for his conduct, this kamma theory also brings social liberation to many freeing people, for example, in India from being dictated by the Brahmins, a higher caste, on what to do with their lives.
To honour the First Sermon, this July full moon day is officially recognized as the Dhamma-cakka Day (Sanskrit – Dharma-cakra) in Myanmar. It is a holiday for government departments and schools. Monasteries, meditation centres and pagodas throughout the land are crowded with the faithful, wearing white top and brown longyi, meditating or contemplating on the teachings of the Buddha and his First Sermon. Similarly, in Thailand, since the reign of King Mongkut (1854-1868 AD), the July full moon day has also been officially celebrated as the Asahla-puja Day, asahla being the Pali term for the month of July. Devotees, in white clothes, flock to temples and monasteries to observe the eight precepts, instead of the usual five; listen to sermons related to the Wheel of Truth, dhamma, and make offerings of requisites, especially the candles for the coming rains-retreat, known as tien-khao-phansa. The Laotian Buddhists have a similar tradition to the Thai, bringing the rains-retreat candles in great procession to the temples.
In Sri Lanka on this July full moon day, known as Esala Poya, Buddhists, who form 70% of the population and also wear white clothes on holy days, celebrate this special day, also as the first ordination day in Sri Lanka that was for Prince Arittha and fifty-five other Sri Lankans. So significant this day has been there that King Dutthagamini (161-137 BC) chooses to lay the foundation stones of the Ruwanveli Cetiya (Mahaceti) and sometime later to enshrine in it the relics of the Buddha on this July full moon day. Even today, the famous annual procession of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha in Kandy is held on the special day.
Another significant point associated with this July full moon day is, as mentioned earlier, the commencement of the three-month rains-retreat and which is, historically speaking, very important for us, monastics and laity alike, in many ways. However, it may surprise many to know that the Buddha did not invent this practice, but adopted it, and it is for the sake of harmony with the ecological environment and the majority of the people, Buddhist or non-Buddhist. It is true that the Buddha and all of his five former companions, who attained enlightenment within five days of intensive coaching by the Buddha on the Middle-Way-based meditative outlook, stay in one location in the Deer Park for three months during their first rainy season; however, the observation of the rains-retreat does not become a rule until sometime later.
The Buddha came to make that a rule only after being prompted by the complaint from the farmers. The complaints were that unlike other mendicants who stay in one place for that period of time, the Buddha’s disciples travel even during the rainy season damaging crops and injuring insects. Here, it is worth noting that the Buddhist monastic rule of observing the rains-retreat takes into consideration ecological concern and the people’s opinion. This is to say the rains-retreat practice recognizes concerns for environment and social harmony.
In other word, as far is Buddhism is concerned, the original idea about the rains-retreat does not stem from a religious reason, rather the Buddha embraces and makes the customary practice work, and indeed very successfully not just for the above ecological and social reasons but also for spiritual benefits as well once he has promulgated it as a rule. The benefits are mutual between the Sangha and the laity. The former can reduce the discomfort associated with travelling during the severe weather, get to know more fellow practitioners better from being together for a longer period and receive material support such as robe for the rainy period from the people nearby who come to be better informed of the monks and nuns’ specific need.
In return, the laity get the opportunity to learn the teaching from more monastics who observe the rains-retreat close to their home and ensure their own way of life was orientated to understanding problem and finding its solution. Very influential this practice has been in many Theravada communities that in quite a number of places people usually postpose events such as a wedding ceremony during the three months. In some countries such as Thailand Lao, monasteries organize a ritual of chanting the Vessantara-jataka, the last of the many former lives stories of the Buddha, which they call des mahachat (the preaching of the Great Life Story). In Myanmar, the month of July is simply known as waso, the month of the rains-retreat. This practice of the rains-retreat is a good illustration how the Buddha makes a wise decision balancing between the need to adopt a certain ritual for social harmony and the real spiritual benefit.
In addition to those two significant events (the First Sermon and the beginning of the rains-retreat), the July full moon day is also noteworthy for other main events in Buddhism. It is the day Prince Siddhattha, the future Buddha, was conceived in the womb of Queen Mahamaya; the birthday of Prince Rahula to Princess Yasodhara and Prince Siddhattha; the commencement of the Abhidhamma (psychology) teaching by the Buddha for his mother and other celestials in the Tavatimsa Heaven in the seventh year after his enlightenment; the performance through absorption meditation of the twin wonder (yamaka-patihariya) in Savatthi to subdue to the pride of the heretics, and the commencement of the first Buddhist synod (sangayana) to rehearse and classify the teachings, three months after the Buddha passes away.
Here one may note that this rains-retreat observation practice has been associated with the South and Southeast Asian monsoon and that in Europe and America where Buddhism has taken root for over a hundred years, July to September is the summer. Summer is the time western people go on long holiday; even the governments slow down their work. Parliaments have a long summer recess, for example, from 20 July to 5 September in the United Kingdom. This change in circumstances poses some of the challenges to the Buddhist missionary monks as their work becomes more and more international.
The dilemma for those Buddhist monks in the West is that the rains-retreat rule dictates them to stay in one location for the entire period. As already discussed, the Buddha adopts the rains-retreat practice from others and lays down certain rules for his disciples with reward and penalty attached to them: those who begin their rains-retreat on the day after the July full moon day are entitled to receive a new piece of robe, known as kathina, provided at the end of the three months individual monk invites his fellow monks to criticize his behavior if they found it blameworthy. If a monk failed to return to the original location where he started the rains-retreat within a given time, i.e. if he stays away overnight more than seven days he is not qualified to receive a kathina robe, even if there are donors. Indeed, this disqualification for the kathina robe is also applicable to a monk who chooses to take us an option of starting his three-month rains-retreat a month late.
Usually, European and North American Buddhists tend to organize meditation retreats and conferences during their summer holidays, which mean monks who engage in teaching have to travel often, something forbidden by the rule of the rains-retreat. But if they do not travel, the Buddhist missionary monks in the West would find their work limited, especially outside the country of their residence. I have seen some senior western monks coming up with an ad hoc solution: monks who would receive the kathina robe will not travel because if all the monks break the rule of the rains-retreat by staying more than a week each time they travel abroad, their kathina robe offering would be made irrelevant.
And, here the monks in the West who have to travel for overseas teaching would do so knowing that they will have to forego the privilege of being the recipient of the kathina robe. One other measure that the western monks, for example at Amaravati Monastery in England, have taken was to have a two-month retreat during the winter when they do not travel but engage fully in meditation practice. Some may have taken this decision mindful of the exceptional historical condition, recorded in the Vinaya-pitaka, the original monastic disciplines, when the Buddha allows monks to observe the three-month retreat in the summer, provided it is at the request of a righteous ruler. Despite these challenges, it is still possible to say that today even in some trying circumstances the spirit of the three-month rains-retreat is still fully respected and adhered to among the Theravada Buddhist followers.
Oxford Sayadaw Venerable Prof. Dr. Dhammasami DPhil (Oxford)
Fellow & Trustee, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Oxford;
Founder, Shan State Buddhist University, Taunggyi