Many of those living in Thailand only know that today they do not have to go to work. This is exciting for many, and can also be difficult to discover exactly what the significance of the day is. While it may appear to be just another day “Buddha Day,” Asarnha Bucha day is, in fact, one of the most holy days of Theravada Buddhism.
The holiday lands on the full moon of the eighth lunar month. On this day, hundreds of years ago, Buddha gave his first sermon following his enlightenment. The sermon itself took place at Deer Park in Benares, India. The sermon was attended by five ascetics. Buddha taught these men the Four Noble Truths. These Truths explain the conceptual framework of Buddhism and enlightenment. They are the understanding that life is suffering, suffering is caused by craving, there is an attainable state beyond suffering and craving, and the final truth is the path to attain this state. After the sermon, the monks decided to become followers of the Buddha and, therefore, the first order of monks was started.
Asarnha Bucha day also marks the beginning of Vassa, which is commonly referred to as Buddhist Lent in the West. Vassa lasts three lunar months. Most monks will remain in their monasteries for the duration and spend their time meditating. Many Buddhists will refrain from cravings such as meat, alcohol and smoking.
Thais will celebrate the day in various ways. Most will go to temple, listen to sermons and make merit. In the evening candles are lit and they circle the temple’s stupa three times. In places such as Ubon Ratchathani, they have an entire candle festival in which elaborate candles are displayed and paraded through the city. In Saraburi, monks will walk the town and locals will make offerings of flowers in their alms bowls instead of food.
In sum, Asarnha Bucha is one of the most important days of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. It is mostly important because it marks the date in which the Buddha delivered the vital framework and teaching to reach enlightenment, but also celebrates the founding of the first order or monks and the beginning of Vassa.