Saturday, July 04, 2009

Celebrating the Buddha's First Sermon Today

Along with American Independence Day, today is also Asanha Puja. After a frenzy of people worrying over a speech Alaska's governor gave yesterday, it seems appropriate to spend time on a sermon given about 2500 years ago.
Asalha Puja (known as Asanha Puja or Asarnha Bucha in Thailand) is a Theravada Buddhist festival which typically takes place in July, on the fifteenth day of the waxing moon of the eighth lunar month. It commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon in the Deer Park in Benares and the founding of the Buddhist sangha. In Thailand, Asalha Puja is a government holiday.
The day is observed by donating offerings to temples and listening to sermons. The following day is known in Thailand as Wan Kao Pansa; it is the first day of vassa, the Theravada rains retreat.
(test and picture of Buddha under tree below from Wikipedia)

J and I went to join in the celebration at Wat Alaska Yanna Vararam. I knew about this because I've been trying to keep up my Thai by studying with one of the monks every Tuesday.

People from three different wats (Thai temples) joined together to celebrate and there were 12 Thai and Lao monks.

Don't worry, it was ok to take pictures. The monk even gave me his camera and asked me to take some for him too.

So what did the Buddha say in that first sermon? Well, I would say this text is worthy of a lot more time than we've given Governor Palin's resignation address which I doubt will be looked at in 20 years, let alone 2500 years.

Here's part of an account of it from one of the Buddha's disciples:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Varanasi in the Game Refuge at Isipatana. There he addressed the group of five monks:

"There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.

"And what is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding? Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

The Text of the Sermon comes from where you can get the rest of it. See below for the copyright information on using this text.

My understanding of all this is amateur at best. But my experience living with Thais in Thailand 40 years ago, was that no one is exhorted to live a certain way. People aren't condemned for not following the path, but rather, the path is explained and people may follow it or not. The path, that is to nirvana, to escaping the cycle of life.

And while the letting go of desires for pleasure may seem extreme to Americans, we do understand that people should give up 'vices' such as alcohol and drugs because while these may cause temporary pleasure, they cause long term discontent. Desires for food beyond what we need to stay healthy, for inappropriate sex, for possessions beyond what we really need, are also seen as offering short term pleasure at the cost of greater long term harm.

From my limited understanding of Christianity, I don't think the message is significantly different from that of Jesus five hundred years later. The desires for more than we need, lead to the problems of discontent from unfulfilled desires, jealousy of others, anger, etc. Only when we let go of these desires, can we experience a peace that is a greater solace than all the desires. Obviously, I'm not there and can only cite what I've been told.

But I think this is all good to think of the day after our governor announced her resignation. What sorts of desires led her to where she is today? What sorts of desires have caused many to take joy in her apparent fall from grace? What desires lead Alaskans to covet the Permanent Fund but be stingy about paying taxes? We are all humans and should be looking for ways to bring comfort to our fellow humans, not pain. If we offer help to those around us and refrain from bringing them pain, our community will be better for it. I'm not exempting myself here.

And we can take these messages not just from Buddhism, but from all the world's religions. Let us reject those religious leaders who interpret their holy texts as sources of hate and intolerance and war, and embrace those who see the messages of peace, tolerance, and love.

Let's show love and compassion to our politicians too. That doesn't mean giving them a pass when they do wrong. But our corrections of them, like our corrections of our children, should be with caring. Not with glee at their pain.

©1993 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Transcribed from a file provided by the translator.
This Access to Insight edition is ©1993–2009 John T. Bullitt.
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How to cite this document (one suggested style): "Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion" (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, June 7, 2009,


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