Magha Puja (also written as Makha Bucha Day) is the third 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 Tabaung in Myanmar. It celebrates a gathering that was held between the Buddha and 1,250 of his first disciples, which, according to tradition, preceded the custom of periodic recitation of discipline by monks.

On the day, Buddhists celebrate the creation of an ideal and exemplary community, which is why it is sometimes called Saṅgha Day, the Saṅgha referring to the Buddhist community, and for some Buddhist schools this is specifically the monastic community. In Thailand, the Pāli term Māgha-pūraṇamī is also used for the celebration, meaning 'to honor on the full moon of the third lunar month'.

Finally, some authors referred to the day as the Buddhist All Saints Day. 

In pre-modern times, Magha Puja has been celebrated by some Southeast Asian communities. But it became widely popular in the modern period, when it was instituted in Thailand by King Rama IV in the mid-19th century. From Thailand, it spread to other South and Southeast Asian countries. Presently, it is a public holiday in some of these countries.

It is an occasion when Buddhists go to the temple to perform merit-making activities, such as alms giving, meditation and listening to teachings. It has been proposed in Thailand as a more spiritual alternative to the celebration of Valentine's Day.

Themes

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. The traditional story goes that a meeting was held in the afternoon, that had four characteristics, known as the cāturaṅgasannipāta 

  1. 1,250 disciples came to see the Buddha that evening without being summoned; These were mostly pupils from the Buddha's recently converted disciples, such as the three Kassapa brothers, and the monks Sāriputta and Mogallāna. 
  2. All of them were Arahants, enlightened disciples; 
  3. All had been ordained by the Buddha himself, and therefore were his direct spiritual descendants; 
  4. It was the full-moon day of the third lunar month. 

Because of these four factors, Māgha Pūjā is also known as the Fourfold Assembly Day. On this occasion, the Buddha taught those arahants a summary of Buddhism, called the Ovādapātimokkha. In these, three principles were given:

The non-doing of evil / the full performance of what is wholesome / the total purification of the mind.

This is followed by a formulation of Buddhist ideals: 

Patience (and) forbearance are the highest austerity. The awakened ones say nibbāna is the highest. One is certainly not a wanderer if one injures others; one is not an ascetic if one harms another.

Finally, the last stanza is about the path of religious practice: 

Not abusing, not injuring, and restraint under the rules of discipline, and knowing moderation in eating, and secluded lodgings, and exertion in respect of higher thought, this is the teaching of the awakened ones.

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 code of discipline by the Saṅgha themselves. On Māgha Pūjā today, Buddhists celebrate the creation of an ideal and exemplary community. 

Magha Puja is also the day that the Buddha is believed to have announced in Vesālī that he would die (parinibbāna) in three months, and after the announcement a supernatural earthquake followed. Moreover, In Sri Lanka, it is considered the day that the Buddha appointed his two main disciples, the monks Sāriputta and Moggallāna. Apart from the religious meaning, Māgha Pūjā also reflects the Southeast Asian agricultural year, as it is celebrated after the harvest.

Legends & History

This Buddhist holiday celebrates a moment about 2,500 years ago when 1,250 enlightened Buddhist monks who had all been ordained by the Buddha came to see the Buddha without being summoned on the night of the full moon of the third lunar month. At a second, similar gathering 45 years later, also held on the first full moon of the third month, the Buddha announced that he intended to die in three months’ time. This announcement marks an important moment in Buddhist history. It is traditional to use this day to honor the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha (his enlightenment), the Sangha (the community of Buddhists around the world) and the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha).

Little is known on how traditional Buddhist societies celebrated this event in pre-modern times, but Magha Puja was recognized and celebrated in Lan Na, Lan Xang and Northeastern Thailand. Practices of worship probably varied a lot. The first known instance in modern times was during the reign of the Thai king Rama IV (1804–68) who instituted it as a ceremony in 1851. He reasoned that the Magha Puja "... was an important gathering, a miracle in Buddhism. Wise and knowledgeable people have therefore used this opportunity to honour the Buddha and the 1,250 arahants, which is a foundation of faith and a sense of urgency".

He first held it in Temple of the Emerald Buddha, in the palace only. In the evening, 31 monks from the temples Wat Bowonniwet Vihara and Wat Ratchapradit would recite the Ovādapātimokkha, lit lanterns around the ubosot (ordination hall), and give a sermon about the same Ovādapātimokkha in the Pāli and Thai languages. 

The King or his representative would join the yearly ceremony. A recitation text used for this occasion is attributed to Rama IV. As part of an enduring effort to centralize and regularize Thai Buddhism, Rama IV's successor Rama V (1853–1910) expanded the practice and organized it as a national celebration in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

In 1913, he officially established it as a public holiday, as he started to organize the ceremonies in other places than the palace. 

By 1937, the ceremony was widely held and observed in Thailand, but by 1957, it had fallen out of usage. Supreme Patriarch-to-be Plod Kittisobhano helped to revive it. From Thailand, the practice spread to neighboring countries which have a majority of Theravāda Buddhists.

Celebration & Observances

Many Buddhists around the world celebrate Magha Puja Day with gift exchanges, lighting of oil lamps, chanting, meditation, attending temple for special observances and participating in Buddhist activities. 
The spiritual aims of the day are to do only good things and to purify one’s mind. In the evening, each temple in Thailand holds a candlelight procession while holding flowers and incenses. The monks and the congregation members circle the Uposatha Hall three times to represent the Three Jewels - the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

The practice of the Five Precepts or the practice of renunciation is one of the activities that is observed on Magha Puja Day. This involves observing the Eight Precepts, the practice of meditation and mental discipline, going to temple, and wearing white robes for a number of days.

For some Buddhist communities, there may be a series of meetings to discuss various aspects of the teachings, periods of group meditation, talks given by senior members of the community (both resident and visiting) and a variety of other events - often quite spontaneous - over a period of several days.

Thailand

In Thailand, Magha Puja is designated as a national holiday, on which sale of alcohol has been strictly prohibited since 2015. On the evening of Māgha Pūjā, urban temples in Thailand hold a candlelight procession and circumambulation around the main ubosot called a wian thian (wian meaning to circle around; thian meaning candle). 

Furthermore, people will make merit by going to temples and by joining in with activities. Other popular ways to spend one's time in the week of Māgha Pūjā, as found in a 2019 poll by the Suan Dusit University among 5,335 respondents of different ages:

Way to spend time Percent (self-reported)
To give alms to monks 56%
To make merit 55%
To abstain from entertainment, nightlife or gambling 48%
To persuade friends and family to visit the temple together 45%
To join the candle procession at the temple 44%
To listen to Buddhist sermons 35%
To give food to monks at the temple 28%
To uphold the five or eight precepts 26%
To meditate 26%
To recite Buddhist chants 21%

 

At times, special events are also held, such as a recital of the entire Buddhist scriptures and ceremonies for avowing oneself as a Buddhist lay person. The Dhammakaya Temple is particularly known for its visually grand celebration. 

In Northern Thailand, Magha Puja was only introduced in the 1960s, by a monk called Paññananda Bhikkhu . It is generally given less attention than in Central Thailand, due to the influence of the Central Ecclesiastical Council being less in the North. The candle procession has only become associated with Magha Puja in the 1990s. In Northern and Northeastern Thailand, Buddhist relics are usually worshiped during the Māgha period. 

In 2003, a parliamentary question was raised by Premsak Phiayura, House of Representatives, requesting a Day of Gratitude, to express the importance of gratitude in Thai history and culture. Uraiwan Thianthong, the then Minister of Culture, felt this was unnecessary, since "there are quite a lot of occasions" in the Thai calendar to express gratitude. 

However, in 2006, the government of Thailand made an announcement that Magha Puja should from then on be celebrated as a "national day of gratitude". This was intended as an alternative to Valentine's Day, in which Thai youth often aim to lose their virginity. 

Magha Puja was therefore presented as a day of spiritual love and gratitude instead. To what extent Thai people are well informed about Magha Puja is in dispute: in 2017, the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) held a poll among 1,250 subjects of diverse backgrounds and found that 58 percent of Thai did not know why Magha Puja was important in Buddhism, and 75 percent did not know it had been branded as a day of gratitude. 

However, the Dusit poll showed that 75 percent of the respondents was able to tell that Magha Puja was the day the Buddha taught the Ovādapātimokkha to his disciples, and 66 percent knew that it was the day that 1,250 of the Buddha's disciples came together spontaneously. 

Cambodia

In Cambodia, various celebrations are held during the Magha Puja day. Ceremonies are held at Preah Reach Trop Mountain, for example, which are joined by 30,0000 to 50,000 people, as of 2019; as well as alms offerings on Oudong Hill, which are joined yearly by thousands of people. 

On the day, devotees make merit, cook meals for elderly people or their parents, and clean up their houses. Since the late 2010s, the day has become more popular among youth, and more pagodas are organizing ceremonies. In May 2019, the Cambodian Ministry of Information proposed a ban of advertising of alcohol on Magha Puja and Vesak. 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Ministry of Cults and Religion have promoted activities on the day, and education for youths about it. However, in August 2019, local media reported the Cambodian government removed Magha Puja from the list of national holidays to increase the country's competitiveness, because the number of holidays had become too high. 

Myanmar (Burma)

In Myanmar, Magha Puja is observed on the full moon day of Tabaung, the final month of the Burmese calendar. Furthermore, tradition has it that a king of Ukkalapa completed the building of the Shwedagon Pagoda and enshrined the hair of the Buddha in it on this day. 

Fifteen days before this full moon day, the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival is held, on which a ceremony is held for offerings to the 28 Buddhas (from Taṇhaṅkara to Gotama Buddha), followed by a 10-day continuous recital of Buddhist texts. 

Burmese devotees make merits and meditate during this period, and in Mandalay and the North, sand pagodas are made in honor of the Buddha. 

Other pagoda festivals are held in this period, including the Shwe Settaw Pagoda Festival in the Magwe Region's Minbu Township and the Alaungdaw Kathapa Pagoda Festival, near the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park in the Sagaing Region. The Botahtaung Pagoda and the Sule Pagoda are also much visited. 

Furthermore, the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is very popular, and thousands of candles are lit around the boulder below the pagoda. 

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, Magha Puja is also observed. In the evening, a procession (Sinhala language: perahera) with approximately 5,000 people and many elephants is held, called Gangarama Navam. This tradition started in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and lasts for two days. Monks walk in the procession as well, chanting paritta texts. Dancers from multiple religious traditions perform during the walk.

Laos

Magha Puja is another religious festival of Buddhist followers in Laos. Magha Puja takes place on the night of full moon day in February. People hold this festival to commemorate the original teachings of Lord Buddha for over one thousand monks.

Magha Puja is an important festival in national scale. In each festival, there is a grand parade of worshippers with candles on their hand walking around their local temples. On these days, Buddhist followers worship rice, flower, incense to the pagodas for merit making. Besides the parade, there are many religious performances and chanting for peace and happiness.

The festival will be best observed at the various temples in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Wat Phou in Champasak.

Here is the dedicated article about Wat Phou Festival

Other regions

Chinese Thervadin Buddhist communities celebrate a similar festival. In addition, Magha Puja has become a popular event among Buddhist converts in the West, who consider it a day of exchanging gifts. 

When is Magha Puja?

Māgha is derived from the name of the third month in the traditional Indian lunar calendar, on which the celebration is held. It is also the name of a star, which during this period is close to the full moon. Magha Puja is held on the full moon day. In a leap year, the celebration will be postponed to the full moon day of the fourth lunar month.

This date varies by year on the Gregorian calendar, but for your convenience we’ve provided a list of this holiday’s date for the next ten years.

Year Thailand - Cambodia - Laos Myanmar
2021 26 FEB 27 MAR
2022 16 FEB 2 MAR
2023 5 FEB 6 MAR
2024 23 FEB 24-25 MAR
2025 11 FEB TBC
2026 1 FEB TBC
2027 20 FEB TBC
2028 9 FEB TBC
2029 28 FEB TBC
2030 18 FEB TBC

 

Public Life

Magha Puja Day is a public holiday in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia so government offices and many businesses are closed. It is not a nationwide public holiday in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States but some cities may hold large celebrations for the occasion.

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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