The Origins of Dharma Day

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Asalha Puja, also known as Dhamma Day or Dharma Day, is one of Theravada Buddhism’s most important festivals. It celebrates the anniversary of Buddha’s first sermon after achieving enlightenment and, in effect, the birth of Buddhism itself. 

Each year the festival is celebrated on the full moon of the eighth month (Asalha) of the lunar calendar, usually in July. Join us for a look into the origins of Dharma Day, the Four Noble Truths of Buddha’s first sermon, and how the festival is celebrated each year around the world. 

The Origins of Buddhism

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Buddhism first began more than 2,500 years ago when a prince named Siddhartha Gautama was born in the country now known as Nepal. Though the prince lived a sheltered life, the inevitable day finally came when the realities of the world confronted him. 

Both shaken and moved by the realities of sickness, death, and other forms of suffering, he renounced his lavish life and set out on a spiritual journey. 

Buddha and the Bodhi Tree 

For six long years, he searched, until one day he finally sat down beneath a Bodhi tree. Here he vowed to remain until he found enlightenment. Traditions vary on exactly how long the prince remained beneath the sacred tree. Some claim he achieved enlightenment in one night, while others say he remained there for 45 days.

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Nonetheless, his journey to enlightenment was not without struggle. The prince had to achieve intense focus and concentration. He was also forced to contend with a spiritual entity known as Mara. Mara is known as a demon in some traditions, and as the Lord of Death in others. 

Either way, Mara was not pleased with the prince’s attempts to unlock the secrets of enlightenment. He threw all sorts of earthly temptations the prince’s way before finally calling in all his demon cohorts to attest to the idea that he alone deserved to enjoy the fruits of enlightenment. 

The prince replied by touching his right hand to the earth, which responded by bearing its own witness that the soon-to-be master Buddha was indeed deserving. Mara disappeared, and the first Buddha was born. Buddha is often still depicted with his right hand touching the earth to commemorate the earth as his witness. 

Buddha’s First Sermon

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Having attained enlightenment, Buddha faced a dilemma. On the one hand, he wanted to share his newfound knowledge with all of humanity. On the other, he was well aware that it wasn’t the easiest thing to explain to the average person. 

According to one legend, he decided to try sharing what he learned with a wandering holy man. As the story goes, things didn’t go well. Buddha’s first confidant merely laughed in his face and wandered on. Ultimately, he decided to create the Four Noble Truths to teach people how to reach enlightenment. 

These truths formed the basis of his first sermon, which he gave to five companions in the deer park near Varanasi on Dharma Day. The sermon is known as Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which means “Turning the Wheel of Dhamma.”

This sermon was much better received, and the five companions became Buddha’s first disciples. 

The Four Noble Truths

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The Four Noble Truths that Buddha presented in his sermon are still foundational tenets of Buddhism to this day. 

  • The first Noble Truth states that life involves suffering or “dukkha.”
  • The second reveals that desire or “samudaya” is the root of all suffering. 
  • The third states that suffering can be cured by a process called “nirhodha” in which this endless cycle of craving and desire is broken. 
  • The fourth outlines the Eightfold Path or “magga,” which is the key to achieving this freedom from suffering. 

The Eightfold Path

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What is the Eightfold Path that holds the secrets to nirvana, also known as the end of suffering? Each principle of the Eightfold Path is about living life in accordance with certain guiding principles. 

  • Right Understanding: Namely of the true nature of reality
  • Right Intention: Freeing the mind of selfish desires
  • Right Speech: Using words to help instead of hurt others
  • Right Action: Living and working in ethical and non-hurtful ways
  • Right Livelihood: Respect for all life
  • Right Effort: Striving for self-improvement and a wholesome character
  • Right Mindfulness: Utilizing meditation to gain mind and bodily awareness
  • Right Concentration: Gaining control and mastery over your thoughts

Common Misconceptions About Buddhism

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Many people in the West assume that Buddha is worshiped as the god of Buddhism, but this is not the case. Buddha literally means “enlightened.” While Buddha is considered a great teacher, he is not regarded as a deity of any sort. 

It sometimes comes as a surprise to Westerners to learn that the teachings of Buddhism don’t even include a solid concept of a god or supreme deity. 

Buddhism is more concerned with teaching its practitioners to live life in a way that allows them to achieve enlightenment, which is basically a sense of deep inner peace and wisdom. 

For this reason, many scholars hesitate to call it an organized religion, but rather a philosophical way of life. Buddhism is very open and tolerant toward other religions and is often practiced by members of other faiths in addition to their own. 

How and Where Is Dharma Day Celebrated?

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Buddhists around the world celebrate Dharma Day each year. It’s a particularly popular festival in countries with large numbers of Theravada Buddhists, such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

The purpose of the holiday is to reflect on and express gratitude for the Buddha’s teachings, which changed the lives of millions of people throughout history. 

On Dharma Day, Buddhists often attend temple services where they listen to sermons on their faith’s origins, light candles, and offer tithes, prayers, and other expressions of gratitude. 

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed learning about Dharma Day and the origins of Buddhism.