On the 7th July we celebrate Asalaha Puja (Asalha Puja) – one of the biggest Buddhist holidays. It commemorates the day that the Buddha first “set forth the wheel of Dhamma”. Or in layman’s terms, when he first started teaching.
After attaining to what he first declared as The Deathless (the word ‘nibbana/nirvana’ came later), the Buddha, according to legend, was not inclined to teach. What he had found was ‘subtle, hard to see’and he did not think he would be able to communicate it to anyone. The story goes that Sahampati, a high god, came to him and begged him to teach “For there are those with but little dust in their eyes”.
For whatever reason the Buddha determined to try, and set out to find his former ascetic friends. He met a few people on the way, but it was not until meeting the five ascetics that he was able to properly ‘set forth the Wheel of Dhamma’. Kondannya, who had known the Buddha since birth, is said to have ‘opened the eye of Dhamma’ upon hearing this first teaching, by understanding ‘All that is of the nature to arise, will pass away’. An intriguing insight – why is it so supreme in Buddhism? The other ascetics gained the same insight the same day, after further dhamma talk that is not recorded.
The words taught in that first interaction are recorded in the Dhammacakka Sutta. – the first real sermon of the Buddha. In fact we know that this sutta has been modified and adapted since that first day, due to the large number of versions available. There is a Pali version, Sanskrit, and several Tibetan and Chinese versions. Scholars find a lot of interest in the sutta and the extent to which it has been modified or maintained the core teaching. In fact the essense of the sutta remains the same both in general and in detail throughout the different versions. Adaptations probably came in order to make it easier to recite, and to add in clauses that the Buddha taught later in his ministry.
This sutta is learned by heart for many, if not most monks, and recited in temples all the world over on Asalaha Puja day. Especially in Thailand – all temples will be reciting the sutta, and gearing dhamma talks around the Four Noble Truths that it encapsulates.
Naturally, Asalaha Puja is a national holiday in Thailand, and is followed by ‘Wan Kao Pansa’ the following day.