Friday, July 15, 2011

Guru Purnima, Asalha Puja (07/15/11)

For 2012 information on Guru Purnima, see:

“My Lord is the Lord of the universe, my Guru is the teacher of the universe, and my Self is the Self of everything.”
~Guru Stotram~
July 15th is the Hindu holiday Guru Purnima. It takes place on the full moon in Asadha, the Indian month equivalent to July/August. The date is different each year since it is a lunar holiday. Guru of course means “teacher” in Sanskrit, purnima means “full moon”. On Guru Purnima people pay their respects to teachers, not only spiritual gurus but other sources of lineage based knowledge like instructors in music, dance, and the visual arts.
The Sun enters Cancer in the sidereal zodiac during Asadha, a month later than the Western tropical zodiac. While we associate Cancer with heat, it signifies rain for many parts of the world. After a hot dry early summer, the monsoon season begins in India in July. Like the annual flooding of the Nile, which happens around the same time, the cool renewing rains bring fertility to the land.
Travel can be difficult, especially historically. Ascetics who spend the rest of the year wandering temporarily go on rainy season retreats. This period is called Chaturmas in Sanskrit, meaning “four months” (July-October). Being in one place allows students to visit their teachers while they can, to receive teachings and blessings. In return people often give gifts, traditionally to support them materially during the retreats. (Not all gurus wander but the holiday originates from this practice.) The four month retreats are also observed in Jainism, a faith rooted in non-violence. By not traveling monks avoid accidently killing the increased number of insects, animals, and crops.
Some Hindus choose to observe Guru Purnima, others the entire Chaturmas. It technically begins on the 11th day of the waxing cycle, right before the full moon. Chaturmas is sometimes described as “Hindu Lent”, since many lay people fast, give up a favorite food, or take religious vows. It is a period for inner purification, meditation, and reflection since the outer world is a mixture of wet chaos and growth.
“Arranging his upper robe over one shoulder, he [Brahma, the Hindu creator god] knelt down with his right knee on the ground, saluted the Blessed One [Buddha] with his hands before his heart, and said to him: "Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma [the teachings of Buddhism]! Let the One-Well-Gone teach the Dhamma! There are beings but with a little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma."
~Ayacana Sutta~
July 15th is also the Theravada Buddhist holiday Asalha Puja. Asalha is the Pali name for this lunar month, puja means “to honor, worship”. Before he became enlightened Siddhartha Gautama was an extreme ascetic, using methods like starvation to develop spiritually. He had five yogi companions, who abandoned him as a failure when he chose more moderate practices. After he reached enlightenment the Buddha struggled to put his insights into words, fearing they would only confuse others.
He left Bodhgaya to find his former companions, believing they might understand him. He found them meditating in a deer park near Varanasi. They rejected him at first but after listening to his teachings, their leader Kondanna also reached enlightenment. He became the first member of the Sangha, the monastic order of Buddhism. When Siddhartha Gautama was born, his father assembled eight Brahmin astrologers to examine his natal chart. Kondanna was one of them. He predicted the Buddha would become enlightened and became an ascetic himself based on that hope. This first sermon is called the Turning of the Wheel and represents the birth of both Buddhism and the Sangha. The Asalha Puja holiday commemorates it.
The day after Asalha Puja begins the Theravada Buddhist observation of the rainy retreats. They are known as Vassa, from the Pali word vasso, meaning “rain”. They last for three months. The first was observed in the deer park in Varanasi, where Buddha gave his first teachings. Later kings and wealthy merchants offered the Sangha places like groves and royal parks, some of which would later develop into monasteries. Today monks observe Vassa by not leaving the grounds of their home temples unless necessary. It is a time to deepen spiritual practice through meditation, study, and the support of community. Like Hindu Chaturmas they are sometimes call “Buddhist Lent”, since lay people can observe them by fasting, give up a favorite food, or taking religious vows.
Since other parts of Asia do not experience the monsoons, not all branches of Buddhism observe the rainy retreats. However most do have a summer retreat, believing Buddha gave his first discourse mid-summer. For example, Chokor Duchen, the Tibetan holiday that commemorates the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, is in August this year.