By comparison, there are only 10 official public holidays celebrated across the United States of America; 9 across the United Kingdom; 10 across Australia; 13 across France; 8 across Russia; 11 across Singapore; 16 across Thailand; 15 across Japan; and 6 across the United Arab Emirates.
Interestingly, Sri Lanka appears to have the most official public holidays in the world.
In Sri Lanka, 12 of the 26 public holidays are known as full moon poya days. Poya is a pali word (or Uposatha in sanskrit) given to the Buddhist day of observance, which has been in existence from the Buddha's time (500 BCE). It is a public holiday celebrated in Sri Lanka on each full moon day, and it signifies a "day of fasting" or "day of cleansing the defiled mind".
There are distinct names that have been given for each of the poya days to honor specific significant events related to Sri Lanka (see bottom of this page for the name and description of each poya). Usually businesses and retail shops do not trade on these days and the sale of alcohol and meat is prohibited.
Initially, what I noticed on poya days was the change in atmosphere or vibration around my neighborhood, and around Colombo. It seemed quieter, less vehicles driving around, less tuk-tuks revving their small engines, and hardly any sounds of people having conversations on the street. In some ways, you could say it's a tiny bit like a "sunday" in the West.
As the years have passed I have a greater appreciation for the celebration of poya. In a Buddhist country like Sri Lanka, or even countries like Thailand and Burma, poya represents a day for practicing Buddhists to visit the temple, request the Buddhist eight precepts. make offerings, listen to teachings, chant suttas and to deepen their practice. The basic premise being to put aside worldly or everyday life and attend to spiritual practice.
Often I've seen locals visiting the temples to chant suttas; make offerings of illumination, flowers, incense and water; and circumambulate the Stupa or Bodhi tree. I'm always in awe of the beautiful radiance on the faces of those that visit the temple on poya days. At other times I've witnessed offerings of robes, medicines and other requisites to the Sangha. I've also seen other people make donations of food to the poor, to elderly homes and to orphanages. To understand poya and to appreciate the gift of generosity, I've participated in some of these activities as well. I always feel uplifted and honored by the acts of kindness and generosity that result from celebrating and honoring poya days.
As a result of learning and being invited to participate in poya days, I undertook some research into the Theravada Buddhist scriptures to see what the Buddha had set out for laypeople with regards to worship on poya days. I found a couple of references to Uposatha observance days, which usually occur with the four phases of the moon. However, in Sri Lanka only new moon and full moon (poya) are observed as Uposatha.
The first reference is the Uposatha Sutta: The Uposatha Observance in chapter eight of the Anguttara Nikaya. The Buddha summarises the eight Uposatha day observances to the Sangha.
The second is the Visakhuposatha Sutta: The Discourse to Visakha on the Uposatha with the Eight Practices also in chapter eight of the Anguttara Nikaya. The Buddha explained to a laywoman named Visakha the benefits of following the Uposatha day practices.
"Visakha, when the Uposatha undertaken with its eight component practices, is entered on, it is of great fruit, of great advantage, of great splendor, of great range. And how, Visakha, is the Uposatha undertaken with its eight component practices, entered on, is of great fruit, great advantage, great splendor and great range?" -AN 8.43
The eight observances or practices are otherwise known as the eight precepts. A layperson may request the eight precepts from the Sangha. In making the request you undertake to observe the following:
- I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life (both human and non-human).
- I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given (for example stealing, displacements that may cause misunderstandings).
- I undertake to abstain from sexual activity.
- I undertake to abstain from wrong speech: telling lies, deceiving others, manipulating others, using hurtful words.
- I undertake to abstain from using intoxicating drinks and drugs, which lead to carelessness.
- I undertake to abstain from eating at the wrong time (the right time is after sunrise, before noon).
- I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).
- I undertake to abstain from luxurious places for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.
Significance of each Poya in Sri Lanka:
Duruthu (January) - commemorates Buddha's first visit to Sri Lanka
Navam (February) - commemorates the appointment of Venerables Sariputta and Mogallana as chief disciples of the Buddha, and the Buddha's announcement of his death within three months of his Paranibbana
Medin (March) - commemorates the Buddha's return to teach the Dhamma to his father, King Suddodhana and his other relatives
Bak (April) - commemorates Buddha's second visit to Sri Lanka
Vesak (May) -commemorates the triple anniversary of Gautama Buddha's birth, Supreme Enlightenment Parinibbana. It also commemorates the Buddha's third and final visit to Sri Lanka
Poson (June) - commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Arahant Maha Mahinda (son of King Asoka of India) at Mihintale in the third century B.C.
Esala (July) - commemorates the Buddha's first sermon to the five ascetics of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta at Sarnath
Nikini (August) - commemorates the first Buddhist Council (five hundred Arahants participated) held three months after the passing away of the Buddha
Binara (September) - commemorates the Buddha's visit to the deva realm to preach to his mother and other celestial beings. Also commemorates the commencement of the Bhikkhuni Sasana (Order of Nuns)
Vap (October) - commemorates the conclusion of the Buddha's preaching of the Abhidhamma for three months in the deva realm; request from the Sri Lankan King Devanampiyatissa to King Asoka to send his daughter Arahant Sanghamitta Theri to establish the Bhikkhuni Sasana (Order of Nuns) in Sri Lanka
Ill (November) - celebrates the conclusion of the Sangha's three month rains retreat
Unduvap (December) - celebrates the arrival of the Bodhi tree sapling to Sri Lanka by Arahant Sanghamitta Theri, who also established the Bhikkhuni Sasana (the Order of Nuns) in Sri Lanka