History of Esala Full Moon Poya Day
Esala Full Moon Poya Day is an important Buddhist holiday celebrated in Sri Lanka, particularly in the city of Kandy, during the month of Esala (July/August). This significant festival commemorates several events in the life of Gautama Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism.
The story of Gautama Buddha begins around 2,500 years ago in what is now modern-day Nepal. Born as Siddhartha Gautama, he was a prince who led a sheltered and luxurious life within the walls of his palace. However, Siddhartha became curious about the world beyond the palace and desired to understand the nature of human suffering.
One day, he decided to leave his comfortable life behind and embarked on a spiritual journey, seeking enlightenment. Siddhartha abandoned his princely robes and adopted the life of an ascetic, practicing extreme self-denial and meditation. For several years, he wandered from place to place, seeking guidance from various teachers and engaging in rigorous spiritual practices.
Eventually, Siddhartha realized that neither extreme self-indulgence nor extreme self-mortification brought him closer to enlightenment. He decided to follow a middle path, known as the Middle Way, which advocated for balance and moderation. Sitting under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, Siddhartha resolved to meditate until he attained enlightenment.
Legend has it that Siddhartha faced numerous challenges and temptations during his meditation. Mara, the personification of desire and temptation, tried to distract him with visions of wealth, pleasure, and fear. However, Siddhartha remained steadfast and continued his practice. Finally, on the full moon night of Vesak (Esala Poya), he achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha, meaning the “Awakened One.”
The Buddha’s teachings revolved around the Four Noble Truths, which state that suffering exists, suffering arises from attachment and desire, suffering can be overcome, and the way to overcome suffering is through the Noble Eightfold Path. This path encompasses moral conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom, leading to the cessation of suffering and the attainment of nirvana, a state of liberation and enlightenment.
Returning to Esala Poya, the festival held in Sri Lanka, it celebrates the Buddha’s first sermon, known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.” According to Buddhist tradition, after his enlightenment, the Buddha traveled to the Deer Park in Sarnath, India, where he delivered this pivotal sermon to his five former companions. In this sermon, he explained the Middle Way and expounded upon the Four Noble Truths.
During the Esala Poya festival, Buddhists engage in various religious activities and observances. One of the main highlights is the grand Esala Perahera, a vibrant and colorful procession featuring beautifully adorned elephants, traditional dancers, drummers, and flag bearers. The sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which is believed to be housed in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, is paraded through the streets in a golden casket atop a majestic elephant.
Devotees and spectators gather to witness this magnificent procession, paying their respects to the Buddha and seeking blessings. The festival also includes other religious rituals, such as offering alms to monks, participating in meditation sessions, and listening to Dhamma talks.
Esala Poya is a time of spiritual reflection, renewal, and reverence for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. It serves as a reminder of the Buddha’s profound teachings and the path to liberation from suffering. The festival fosters a sense of community and unity among Buddhists as they come together to honor their religious heritage and seek inspiration from the life and wisdom of the Buddha.
What are the religiously important events associated with Esala Poya
- The First Sermon (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta): Esala Poya is believed to be the day when Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon, known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, to his five disciples. This event is considered the turning point in the establishment of Buddhism and the initiation of the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic community).
- The Meeting with the First Disciples: After delivering his first sermon, Lord Buddha met his first five disciples who had previously abandoned him. The meeting took place at Isipatana (Deer Park) in Sarnath, India. It is believed that during this encounter, the disciples attained enlightenment and became arhats (fully enlightened beings).
- The Buddha’s Visit to His Mother’s Heavenly Abode: It is believed that on an Esala Poya day, the Buddha, accompanied by a large assembly of monks and celestial beings, visited his mother, Queen Mahamaya, who had been reborn in the Tusita Heaven. He preached the Abhidhamma to her and other celestial beings.
- The Buddha’s Journey to Tavatimsa Heaven: On an Esala Poya day, the Buddha is said to have ascended to the Tavatimsa Heaven to preach the Abhidhamma to the devas (celestial beings) for three months. This journey is known as the “Rain Retreat” or “Vassana” and is observed by Buddhist monks with the commencement of the annual rainy season retreat.
- The Buddha’s Visit to His Father: On the same day, after descending from the Tavatimsa Heaven, Lord Buddha visited his father, King Suddhodana, in Kapilavastu. It was during this visit that the Buddha’s foster mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, requested permission for women to enter the monastic order, leading to the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha (order of nuns).
- Being the sovan of Konadagna Tausa
- The birth of Prince Rahula also happens on Esala poya day.
- Apamaha Siddha Bosatha, after seeing the Five Maha Balums, conceived in the womb of Goddess Maha Maya to be born in the human world on Esala Poya.
Why Esala poya day is important to Buddhist peoples
Emphasis on Moral Discipline: Esala Poya Day serves as a reminder of the importance of moral discipline in the Buddhist faith. The Buddha’s teachings emphasize the cultivation of ethical conduct, known as sila, as a foundation for spiritual progress. Buddhist people use this day to reflect on their moral conduct, reaffirm their commitment to ethical living, and make resolutions to improve their behavior.
Practice of Generosity: Esala Poya Day encourages acts of generosity, known as dana, among Buddhist people. Generosity is considered a virtue and an essential part of the Buddhist path. On this day, Buddhists engage in various acts of giving, such as offering food to monks, donating to temples and charitable organizations, and helping those in need. This practice of generosity cultivates selflessness and compassion, key qualities in the Buddhist tradition.
Observance of Precepts: Buddhist people often observe the Eight Precepts on Esala Poya Day. These precepts are ethical guidelines that laypeople voluntarily undertake for a day, following a stricter code of conduct than their usual daily precepts. By observing these precepts, individuals aim to purify their minds, practice mindfulness, and abstain from actions that cause harm, such as killing, stealing, and engaging in sexual misconduct.
Pilgrimage and Rituals: Esala Poya Day is associated with pilgrimages to significant Buddhist sites. In Sri Lanka, for example, thousands of devotees gather at the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy. This temple houses a sacred relic believed to be a tooth of the Buddha. Pilgrims engage in religious rituals, offer flowers and incense, and participate in devotional practices to express their reverence and seek blessings on this auspicious day.
Cultural Festivities: Esala Poya Day is accompanied by vibrant cultural festivities in countries like Sri Lanka. The highlight of these celebrations is the Esala Perahera, a grand procession held in Kandy. It features beautifully decorated elephants, traditional dancers, drummers, and performers representing various aspects of Buddhist history and mythology. The Perahera culminates with the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic, symbolizing the connection between Buddhism and the nation’s cultural heritage.