Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Guru Purnima (07/03/12), Asalha Puja (07/03/12 or 08/02/12)

 [18th century painting, depicting Vishnu resting between the periodic destruction and creation of the universe.]


“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 3rd, 2012 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 means “teacher” in Sanskrit, purnima means “full moon”. On Guru Purnima people pay their respects to their gurus, both living and dead.  Not only spiritual teachers are honored but other sources of lineage based knowledge, like art, music, and dance instructors.

The Sun enters Cancer in the sidereal zodiac during Asadha (July/August), a month later than the Western tropical zodiac. While the West associates 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 rain renews the fertility of 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, to receive teachings and blessings before travel gets complicated. In return people often give gifts, traditionally to support them materially during the retreats. Not all teachers wander but the holiday of Guru Purnima originates from this custom. 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 plants.  


The monsoons bring life giving rain but also storm damage, venomous snakes, driven from their homes by rising water, and disease.  Since the outer world is disturbed, it is a period for inner work.  Chaturmas is sometimes described as “Hindu Lent”, since many lay practitioners fast, give up a favorite food, or take religious vows.  Some people just observe Guru Purnima, others the entire Chaturmas. It technically begins on the eleventh day of the waxing cycle, ~4 days before the Guru Purnima full moon (June 30th this year).

In Hindu mythology, every year is a day to God.  The four month Chaturmas symbolizes the night and the gods themselves are believed to rest.  Ceremonies like weddings are postponed, since they are less active.  For example, Vishnu goes into yoganidra ("deep meditation, conscious sleep"), floating upon the back of a huge serpent.  He is usually depicted resting like this after the periodic destruction of the universe.  Vishnu begins to dream and a lotus rises from his navel, bearing the god Brahma, who starts recreating the cosmos.  The yearly monsoon season is like creation in miniature, new growth rising from a chaotic wet mixture.  

“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~

The Buddhist holiday Asalha Puja usually falls on the same day as the Hindu Guru Purnima.  Confusingly, two different dates are listed this year.  Periodically lunar calendars need to add an extra day or month to keep them aligned with the solar one.  The Thai calendar has an extra month this year.  So there are different dates for Asalha Puja, depending on the country. 

Asalha is the Pali name for the 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 that Buddha would become enlightened and became an ascetic himself based on that hope, the other seven predicted he would either become a great king or a religious leader.  This first sermon is called the Turning of the Wheel and represents the birth of both the Buddha Dharma and the Sangha. The Asalha Puja holiday commemorates them.

The day after Asalha Puja begins the Theravadan 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 patrons 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 July this year.

© 2012, C. L. Matthews
[Image Source: Public domain, Wikipedia Commons]

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