Two events occurred during the full moon on the last month of the lunar calendar. One is the impromptu ordination of 1,250 Enlightened monks by Buddha himself 2,500 years ago and the last preaching of Buddha to his disciples forty-five years after. A full moon occurred on both occasions.These two events are combined in Makha Bucha, a special celebration for the important milestones in Buddhism, when believers are enjoined together as one. It is a public holiday in countries with high concentration of Buddhists including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma (Myanmar).
Meaning of the festival
Makha Bucha or Māgha Pūjā, or the Full Moon of Tabaung is a Buddhist festival held on the third lunar month’s full moon day, which could be anywhere in February or March. On this day, the followers of Buddhism are more deeply engaged in gaining many spiritual merits. They are totally committed in doing only good things, not erring in any way and purifying their minds.
In the Pāli language, the third lunar month refers to “Makha,” while“Bucha” translates “to honor” or “to venerate” in the English language. If you translate the festival’s name, it is basically the celebration of giving honor to Buddha and his teachings, held when the full moon occurs on the third lunar month. The Pāli language is the sacred literary language of Theravāda Buddhism.
Makha Bucha embodies the core principle of Buddhism, the Ovadhapatimokha, which was given by Buddha to the monks he ordained. It became known as the “Heart of Buddhism,” which is central to this festival. The teachings include the performance of good things, mind cleansing and preventing the chances of doing evil.
Celebrating Makha Bucha
Makha Bucha is a public holiday in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. For the Buddhists though, this may be a day off work but it is still a day full of activities for them. For one, they have to visit the temple, doing good deeds the whole day to earn merits and venerate the teachings of Buddha. It is an observance that is communal but at the same time personal, just like following the Ten Commandments if a person is a Christian. Buddhist practitioners are still not infallible human beings and there will be times when the maxims of Buddhism could be broken. Makha Bucha is the day to receive enlightenment, the day to seek forgiveness for pass errors and sins and the day to purify the heart and mind.
Different types of observances are carried out during the Makha Bucha. In Myanmar (Burma), the festival is called Tabaung Full Moon Day. This coincides with the last month of the year in their calendar. Makha Bucha is then celebrated within the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival, starting from the new moon until the moon grows full. It begins with the “nakyake shitsu” ceremony where all of the 28 Buddhas from Taningara to Gautama are given offering. This is followed by the non-stop recital of the Buddhists scriptures describing the interdependence of all things in the world from multiple conditions and causes, called Pathana.
The observance is different in Thailand. Buddhists wake up quite early in the morning on this special day to start earning merits. They start by giving alms to the monks and novices who go around carrying their alms bowl. The ritual is known as “tam bun.”
In the evening the Buddhists in the country start by holding a “wian tian” or candlelight procession. In Thai, “wian” means circle while ‘tian” means candle. Buddhist monks and practitioners carry incense, flowers and lighted candles while they walk around a “phra ubosot” or ordination hall three times, walking clockwise.
You do not have to be a Buddhist to observe Makha Bucha when you are in Thailand or any place where this special day is celebrated. They welcome practitioners, followers and people of all denominations to join.