Māgha Pūjā is the second most important Buddhist festival, celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka and on the full moon day of Tabodwe in Myanmar. The spiritual aims of the day are not to commit any kind of sins; do only good; purify one’s mind. Māgha Pūjā is a public holiday in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and is an occasion when Buddhists go to the temple to perform merit-making activities.
On Māgha Pūjā, Buddhists celebrate the creation of an ideal and exemplary community, which is why it is sometimes called “Saṅgha Day”. The Saṅgha refers to the Buddhist community, and for some Buddhist schools this is specifically the monastic community.
Māgha Pūjā day marks an event occurring at the Veḷuvana grove, near Rājagaha (present Rajgir) in northern India, ten months after the enlightenment of the Buddha. A meeting is then held, that traditionally has four characteristics:
- 1,250 disciples come to see the Buddhathat evening without being summoned;
- All of them are Arahants, enlightened disciples;
- All have been ordained by the Buddha himself, and therefore are his direct spiritual descendants;
- It is the full-moon day of the third lunar month.
On this occasion the Buddha teaches those arahants a summary of Buddhism, called the “Ovādapatimokha”. Those principles are: “The non-doing of evil / the full performance of what is wholesome / the total purification of the mind.” According to the traditional Pāli commentaries, the Buddha continued to teach this summary for a period of twenty years, after which the custom was replaced by the recitation of the monastic discipline code by the Saṅgha themselves.
Apart from the religious meaning, Māgha Pūjā also reflects the Southeast Asian agricultural year, as it is celebrated after the harvest. Māgha Pūjā is also the day that the Buddha announced he would die in three months.
It is unknown how traditional Buddhist societies celebrated this event in pre-modern times. The first known instance was during the reign of the Thai king Rama IV (1804–68), who instituted it. His successor Rama V(1853–1910) expanded the practice and organized it as a national celebration in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. From Thailand, the practice spread to neighboring countries.
Celebrations and observances
Māgha Pūjā is a day that laypeople make merit. Monastics and devotees will hold processions, light candles, and make offerings. Māgha Pūjā is celebrated most extensively in Thailand, but it is a national holiday in most Southeast Asian countries.
In Burma, Magha Puja is called the “Tabodwe Full Moon Day”, and is a traditional merit-making day.Tabodwe is the month before last month of the year in the traditional Burmese calendar. The country’s largest pagoda festival, the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival, begins during the new moon of the month of Tabodwe in the traditional Burmese calendar and continues until the full moon.The festival begins with a nakyake shitsu ceremony for offerings to the 28 Buddhas (from Taṇhaṅkara to Gotama), followed by a 10-day, non-stop recital of the Patthana, Buddhist scriptures on the 24 causes of worldly phenomena.
Other pagoda festivals are held on this day, including the Shwe Settaw Pagoda Festival in Magwe Region’s Minbu Township and the Alaungdaw Kathapa Pagoda Festival, near the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park in Sagaing Region.
The Full Moon of Tabaung also coincides with the Pa-O National Day, traditionally set on the day of King Suriyachanda’s birth.
In Thailand, Māgha Pūjā was instituted by Rama IV. It is currently designated as a national holiday. On the evening of Māgha Pūjā, most temples in Thailand hold a candlelight procession called a wian thian (wian meaning to circle around; thian meaning candle). Holding flowers, incense and a lighted candle, the monks and congregation members circumambulateclockwise for three times, around the phra ubosot (ordination hall), once for each of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the teaching of the Buddha, and the Sangha. Furthermore, people will ‘make merit’ (Thai: tham bun) by going to temples and by joining in with activities. For example, observing the Five or Eight Precepts (Thai: rap sin), practicing meditation and mental discipline, staying in the temple, and wearing white robes. This is usually done for a number of days.
In Chinese communities, a similar festival is observed. Moreover, Māgha Pūjā has also become a popular event among Western Buddhists.
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