The Genius of the Buddha Seen from Magha Puja
He summarized his teachings into three sentences, making it easier for his followers to practice and propagate his noble insights
The Buddha was a great man – the first genius to have discovered the direct Path to supreme happiness that everyone can attain even in this life. By giving advice and preaching sermons centered on the Way, he worked tirelessly and continuously for 45 years from the time of his Enlightenment (acquiring the Three Knowledges, and liberation from suffering and the mental toxins that are its cause) to his Parinibbana (the state of ultimate peace that follows the death of a Buddha), for a better life of other people. He was regarded as “Buddha” (awakened one or the one who possessed extraordinary wisdom). And he left Buddhasasana or Buddhism as a legacy to the world.
Nowadays, there are over 500 million Buddhists in more than 50 countries worldwide. Israeli historian Prof. Dr. Yuval Noah Harari called Buddhism the first universal religion in his book “Sapiens, A Graphic History, the Birth of Humankind”
Although the Buddha passed away more than 2,500 years ago, Buddhists worldwide as well as many non-Buddhists, who have experienced happiness and peace thanks to his teaching, celebrate important events in his life. Some important dates in the Buddhist calendar are Vesak Puja (to commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and nirvana), and Magha Puja (to celebrate the formation of the Buddhist community.)
On the first full moon of the third month of the lunar calendar, Buddhist celebrate Magha Puja day, which is considered the second most important Buddhist festival after Vesak Puja, Magha Puja celebrates a gathering of 1,250 of the Buddha’s disciples, or bhikku, more than 2,500 years ago, an event which is regarded as the first large gathering of the early Buddhist community. This event took place at Veluvan, known today as Venu Van Park in Nalanda District of Bihar State in India. During this gathering, the Buddha summarized his teaching to the bhikku, exhorted his followers to undertake the compassionate missionary work, and laid down rules for monks to observe in the community, which was founded for the welfare, benefit and happiness of the members of the new community as well as for people outside the group in general.
This year, Magha Puja day falls on Monday, March 6th. For Buddhists, this will be a day to meditate, make merit, and gather at the temple. Read on to find out about the history of this special day.
Venu Van is the place where the Buddha preached Ovada Patimokkha (picture courtesy: Mr. Theerawas Bampenbunbarami)
A pavilion with the Buddha statue inside is erected at Venu Van (or Veluvana) believed to be the garden where the Buddha proclaimed a summary of his teaching to 1,250 disciples on Magha Puja Day (photo credit: https://bit.ly/3Lo1Si8)
The Month of Magha and Its Long-held Importance
Magh was already considered a sacred month long before it entailed a Buddhist holy day. For example, in the Mahabarata, one of two major Sanskrit epics dating from ancient India, statements about the importance of Magh can be seen as follows:
He who gives gingelly as a gift to Brahmins (Hindu priest) during this month will never go to hell;
If one takes food only once a day during the whole of this month, one will be born very rich in the next birth;
He who bathes at Prayag (or Prayagraj city in India) during this month will be free from all sins.
Etymologically, Magha Puja was shortened from the old phrase Magha Maasam Puja meaning worship in the month of Magh. The word Magha itself comes from a Sanskrit word Magham, which can be separated into two parts – Ma and Agham. Ma means not present and Agham means evil, grief, sin and suffering. Magham therefore means no evil, grief, sin and suffering is present. People of this faith believed that Magha maasam (month of Magha) is the month which is highly meritorious, auspicious and free from any sin or suffering. In this month, devotees observed the tradition of worshiping the Sun God, Lord Vishnu, and Lord Ganesh. And on the last day of Magha month (Magha Purnima in Sanskrit), they worship ancestors, observe a day long fast, and take a holy dip in rivers including Ganga, Godavari, Kaveri, Krishna, Yamuna, Tapti and others to purify themselves of sins. The faithful worshiped or celebrated this Magha month greatly in Magha Mela in the past, and they do so even today in Kumbha Mela which is a major religious pilgrimage, rituals, social practices and festive events.
Devotees gathered at Prayag City to take a holy bath during the Kumbh Mela in January 2022. (Photo credit: https://bit.ly/3KG54VZ)
The Buddha’s Version of the Worship in the Month of Magh – Magha Purnima Puja
After his Enlightenment, the Buddha began to teach the Way leading to supreme happiness. He gained a lot of followers quickly. He first converted the group of five ascetics who had been his one-time spiritual companions. They became his first enlightened followers (arahanti) and the first Buddhist monks (bhikkhu) that formed the first members of the company of Buddhist monks (sangha.) In a few months – after this first conversion -, the Buddha instructed his liberated disciples to proclaim the teachings saying, “Monks, wander forth for the welfare, benefit and happiness of the many people, out of compassion…” As a result of their hard work, there were more than 1,000 new converts in the first nine months.
All of these new Buddhist converts had been mendicant-ascetics belonging to a variety of belief systems. Some came from high-caste background and were familiar with the vedic and brahmanical rituals, but others had been farmers and merchants with no inside knowledge of any religious system at all. But many of them used to observe Magha Mela or Magha Puja in their old faith.
Therefore, when the time for Magha Puja arrived in the first year of the Buddha’s ministry itself, these 1,250 Buddhist monks came to see the Buddha since they did not worship gods or take a river dip to purify their minds of sins anymore. And on the last day of Magha Puja month – Magha Purnami, the Buddha called an assembly of them at Venu Van Park and delivered the “Ovada-patimokkha” sermon.
The Buddha addressed a gathering of the 1,250 disciples on Magha Purnami Puja day at Venu Van (or Veluvana in Pali) (Photo credit: https://bit.ly/3GYt9ov)
Ovada-patimokkha summarized the ideal goal of Buddhism, the principles of Buddhism, and the compassionate missionary method of Buddhism, which was composed in three stanzas.
- The ideal goal of Buddhism
The goals as outlined in the sermon comprises three parts, namely:
- 1.1 Not harm other living beings. He is not one gone forth who harms another. He is not a recluse who molests others.
- 1.2 Nibbana is supreme. Buddhists have to realize that Nibbana (Nirvana in Sanskrit) is the ultimate goal for Buddhists, and not the reunion with the Creator God.
- 1.3 Enduring patience is the highest austere practice. It is the ‘internal’ method of spiritual practice that matters, and not the ‘external’ ascetic self-tortures. The Buddha exhorted his followers to be patient in order to reach the goal of Nibbana. To achieve or realize Nibbana, Buddhists have to rely on their own enduring effort as well as patience because there is no savior god who will lead anyone to Nibbana.
- The Principles of Buddhism
The Buddha taught these principles so that his disciples could practice to realize Nibbana, as follows:
- 2.1 Avoid doing all evil. Monks have to follow the precepts that require them to abstain from doing evil through physical action such as killing being and through speech such as telling lie.
- 2.2 Cultivate all that is wholesome. Monks have to undertake meditation practice as well as other practice to enhance wholesome qualities for one’s own and others’ welfare and well-beings.
- 2.3 Purify one’s mind. Buddhist should use the wisdom that arises from meditation practice to purify the mind from being defiled by greed, anger, and delusion.
- The Compassionate Missionary Method of Buddhism
The Buddha promulgated his teaching in a peaceful, compassionate way, and he exhorted his followers to follow suit saying:
- 3.1 Do not speak ill of others. The Buddha again forbade his disciples from speaking ill of others in propagating Buddhism,
“Anyone, with ill-thought, speaking ill of ascetics or clergy from other religions who are free from lust and have a concentrated mind, he accumulates much demerit. Anyone with ill-thought speaking ill of the Buddha’s disciples, who have right view, he accumulates more demerit.”
- 3.2 Do not be destructive to others. The propagation of the Buddha’s teaching, which teaches true peace, should be made without assaulting or harming each other.
The first set of rules the Buddha gave his disciples provided a broad outline on how to practice the holy life and how to compassionately propagate his teaching. This set of rules is called the Ovada-patimokkha in the Pali language.
After the Buddha delivered this sermon to 1,250 monks, they separated and went into different directions to propagate his teaching to people in various places for their welfare, benefit and happiness.
This is the genius of the Buddha, who, at just 36 years old, summarized his teachings in a succinct way that made it easy for his followers to remember. It enabled them to propagate his teachings far and wide. And as the leader of a new Buddhist community, he set himself as a good example for others to follow in walking the Path to supreme happiness.
On this auspicious occasion of Magha Puja, I wish that the readers will see the “genius” of the Buddha, particularly his ability to summarize his teachings, and that the readers will understand his advice on tolerance, respect and well-wishes for each other; being open, compassionate, generous and non-violent to one another; and promoting harmony instead of speaking ill of others – and put it into practice. If we employ them as the foremost practices in our daily life, we the practitioners will be happy ourselves, and the society we live in will also enjoy peace and happiness.
- The Most Venerable Prof. Dr. Phra Dharmakosajarn (Prayoon Dhammcitto). The Heart of the Buddhist Teaching, A Dhamma Talk on Ovada-pathimokkha, at https://bit.ly/3H8SHzx
- P.A. Payutto. The Nectar of Truth, A Selection of Buddhist Aphorisms, at https://bit.ly/3IFG3Iz
- Magha Puja at https://bit.ly/3AuKVxd
- Dalal, Roshen. The Penguin Dictionary of Religion in India. Penguin Reference, 2006
- Yuval Noah Hariri. Sapiens, a Graphic History, volume one the Birth of Humankind. Penguin Random House U.K., 2020
Author: Paitoon Songkaeo
2 March 2023