Today is the 8th full moon of the lunar year. As such it is celebrated as Asalha Puja in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Asalha Puja is one of Theravada Buddhism’s most important festivals, celebrating the Buddha’s first sermon in which he set out to his five former associates the doctrine that had come to him following his enlightenment. This first pivotal sermon, often referred to as “setting into motion the wheel of dharma,” is the teaching which is encapsulated for Buddhists in the four noble truths:
there is suffering (dukkha)
suffering is caused by craving (tanha)
there is a state (nirvana) beyond suffering and craving
the way to nirvana is via the eightfold path.
All the various schools and traditions of Buddhism revolve around the central doctrine of the four noble truths. In scriptures ascribed to the Buddha the eightfold path is described as follows:
Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.
(Nagara Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya ii.124)
This first sermon is not only the first structured discourse given by the Buddha after his enlightenment, it also contains the essence of all his subsequent teaching. At the end of the talk, one of the five participants recounted his understanding of what had been said and asked to be received as a disciple, a request the Buddha granted, thus establishing the first order of monks.
The day is observed by donating offerings to temples and listening to sermons. The following day begins the period known as Vassa, the Rains Retreat. Vassa lasts for three lunar months
For the duration of Vassa, monastics remain in one place, typically a monastery or temple grounds. In some monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation. Some Buddhist lay people choose to observe Vassa by adopting more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol, or smoking, hence it is sometimes casually called “Buddhist Lent,” although the analogy with Christian Lent is not really appropriate. Commonly, the number of years a monk has spent in monastic life is expressed by counting the number of Vassas he has observed. In some SE Asian countries, notably Myanmar, young men may become ordained monks during Vassa, but afterwards return to a secular life.
Most Mahayana Buddhists do not observe Vassa but it is normal in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and SE Asia. Vassa ends on Pavarana, when all monastics atone for any offense committed during Vassa. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha. It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics in India not to travel during the rainy season as they might unintentionally harm crops, insects or even themselves during their travels. Many Buddhist ascetics live in regions which lack a rainy season. Consequently, there are places where Vassa may not be typically observed.
Most of the dishes considered to be uniquely Buddhist are vegetarian, but opinions and restrictions on the eating of meat, and whether it should be prohibited, vary among sects. When monks and nuns who follow the Theravadan way feed themselves by alms, they must eat leftover foods which are given to them, including meat. The exception to this alms rule is that when monks and nuns have seen, heard or known that animal(s) have been specifically killed to feed the alms-seeker, consumption of such meat is considered karmically negative and should be refused. The Pali Sutras where this rule is set forth tell of the Buddha refuting a suggestion by his student Devadatta to include vegetarianism in the monastic precepts. In fact one tradition asserts that the Buddha died from eating tainted pork.
Some Theravada Buddhist sects follow a cuisine for monks and nuns that prohibits the killing of plants. Therefore, strictly speaking, root vegetables (including potatoes, carrots or onion and garlic) are not to be used because their use results in the death of the plant. There is also a prohibition on eating mango based on an old tradition.
Today I’ve prepared a dish of lentils, pasta, and fresh porcini mushrooms for my meals, not because I follow either a vegan or a Buddhist regime, but because that’s what my body wants today. For several years I’ve been very careful to eat only foods that appeal when I first begin the cooking process, and not rely on whim or convenience. If nothing I have on hand appeals, I go out to the market or I don’t eat. I am never driven by hunger or appetite. I found the porcini mushrooms in the market and they instantly appealed to me.