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Lay Buddhist Practice by Bhikkhu Kantipalo

Uposatha

The word means "entering to stay," in the Buddhist sense, in a vihara or monastery. But it has a long history before Buddhist times as it was the custom of the brahmins who performed the Vedic rites and sacrifices to go to the sacred place away from their homes and families and purify themselves by leading a secluded life for a day and night, returning after the rites were finished. The days when they kept this seclusion were determined by the phases of the moon, the most important being the Full Moon and the New Moon days. Two other days, the quarter-moon days, were also observed.

Here it may be helpful to say something about the lunar month. This is a month (originally this word is cognate with "moon") of 29 1/2 days. Two months have 59 days, that is, one of thirty and one of twenty-nine. Each month is divided into fortnights: of the waxing moon and of the waning moon. Each half is therefore of 14 or 15 days and in each half the days are numbered from the first of the waxing moon (the day after new moon day) to the fourteenth (or fifteenth) of the waxing moon, and then from the first of the waning moon to the fourteenth of the waning moon. A new lunar month always begins (in Buddhist reckoning) with the waxing half-month. The eighth day (usually) of both bright and dark halves is the quartermoon day.

In the Buddha-time, various groups of ascetics and wanderers used the traditional Full and New moon days for expounding their theories and practices, while the Buddha allowed bhikkhus to assemble on these days to listen to the recitation of the Patimokkha (the fundamental rules of a bhikkhu) and to teach Dhamma to the lay people who came to their monastery.

From that time down to the present, the Uposatha days have been observed by Buddhists, both ordained and laity, in all Buddhist countries. The practice of Buddhists, as known to the writer from Siam -- and there are many local variations -- is along these lines: Early in the morning lay people give almsfood to the bhikkhus who may be walking on almsround [*], invited to a layman's house, or the lay people may take the food to the monastery. Usually lay people do not eat before serving their food to the bhikkhus and they may eat only once that day, specially where the bhikkhus practice eating a single meal. In any case, their food is finished before noon. Before the meal the laity request the Eight Precepts (see below), which they promise to undertake for a day and night. It is usual for lay people to go to the local monastery and to spend all day and night there. In different monasteries, of course, the way they spend their time will not be the same and much depends on which aspect of the Dhamma is stressed there: study or practice. Where there is more study, they will hear as many as three or four discourses on Dhamma delivered by senior bhikkhus and they will have books to read and perhaps classes on Abhidhamma to attend. But they are quite free to plan their own time with meditation, discussion of Dhamma with the bhikkhus and so on. In a meditation monastery lay people will get less instruction and that will be about the Practice of Dhamma, while most of their time will be spent mindfully employed -- walking and seated meditation with some time given to helping the bhikkhus with their daily duties. So the whole of this day and night (and enthusiastic lay people restrict their sleep) is given over to Dhamma. The Bhikkhus on these days have to meet (if they are four or more in number) and listen to one bhikkhu recite by heart the 227 rules of training contained in the Patimokkha. This meeting may take an hour or more and lay people may, or may not, attend, according to the tradition of that monastery. Apart from this regular observance, some bhikkhus may undertake an extra austere practice, such as not lying down on the Uposatha night, which means the effort to try and meditate in the three postures of walking, standing, and sitting all night.

* [See Wheel 73, "The Blessings of Pindapata."]

This is the practice in brief, of "entering to stay at" (uposatha) a monastery in Asia. Obviously a Buddhist who has no facilities like these in a non-buddhist country must spend his Uposatha differently. Perhaps the first thing to consider is whether it is worth trying to keep the Uposatha days. Why are they kept on the phases of the moon? The origin of the Uposatha days in Buddhist teachings is found in the following story:

The occasion was this: The Blessed One was living at Rajagaha on the Vulture-Peak Rock, and at that time Wanderers of other sects were in the habit of meeting together on the Half Moons of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth and the Quarter Moon of the Eighth and preaching about Dhamma. People went to hear about the Dhamma from them. They grew fond of the Wanderers of other sects and believed in them. So the Wanderers gained support.

Now while Seniya Bimbisara, king of Magadha was alone in retreat he considered this, and he thought: "Why should the venerable ones not meet together too, on these days?"

Then he went to the Blessed One and told him what he had thought, adding: "Lord, it would be good if the venerable ones met together too, on these days."

The Blessed One instructed the king with a talk on the Dhamma; after which the king departed. Then the Blessed One made this the occasion for a discourse on the Dhamma and he addressed the bhikkhus thus: "Bhikkhus, I allow meetings on the Half Moons of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth and the Quarter Moon of the Eighth."

So the bhikkhus met together on those days as allowed by the Blessed One, but they sat in silence. People went to hear the Dhamma. They were annoyed, and they murmured and protested: "How can the monks, the sons of the Sakyans, meet together on these days and sit in silence dumb as hogs? Ought not the Dhamma to be preached when they meet?"

Bhikkhus heard this. They went to the Blessed One and told him. He made this the occasion for a discourse on the Dhamma, and he addressed the bhikkhus thus: "Bhikkhus, when there is a meeting on the Half Moons of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth and the Quarter Moon of the Eighth, I allow preaching of the Dhamma.

(From: "The Life of the Buddha", trans. by the late Bhikkhu Nanamoli, p. 157).

We can see from this that the Uposatha day was already popular at that time; in fact India had already a lunar calendar. The Buddha sometimes allowed popular practices when he had investigated them to see whether they were profitable. In this case he saw that there were advantages for Dhamma-practice in the Uposatha days, so he allowed them. But we should understand clearly that Dhamma in its various aspects was not taught by him out of conformity with pre-Buddhist traditions. (How often one sees statements like "The Buddha accepted and taught the Hindu doctrine of karma and reincarnation"!) Dhamma was taught by him based on Enlightenment -- having seen everything as it truly is. So the teaching -- for instance, of kamma -- was because he had seen the truth of this for himself. Similarly with the Uposatha days, the importance of which are underlined by a number of discourses on the subject in the Anguttara-nikaya, the Book of the Eights (see the Appendix).

But if the timing of the Uposatha days in Buddhist tradition was fixed merely to coincide with the existing lunar calendar and the traditional observances connected with it, then today when most people work in countries which do not follow a lunar calendar it would seem sensible to have days for special Buddhist observance during the weekends. Is there any other significance to the Uposatha days falling on the phases of the moon? A fairly new branch of biology, called chronobiology, studies the rhythmicity in nature and appears to support the importance of the Uposatha days, particularly the full moon observance. Dr. W. Menaker of New York, writing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (77:905, 1959) has observed as the result of an analysis of data on birth and conception that the coincidences between the lunar month of 29.53 and the average duration of the menstrual cycle of 29 1/2 days "constitutes a combination of circumstances that points to the synodic lunar month as the time unit of the human sexual reproductive cycle." It seems as though the keeping of the Uposatha days by large numbers of the Buddhist laypeople until recent times will have helped to limit the growth of the population in Buddhist countries. Some people have also observed that sexual desire comes to a peak with the full moon. Those who understand that restraint in this and other sensual appetites is good, will see that there is a good cause for keeping at least the full moon as an Uposatha day. Chronobiologists are now working on the assumption that as the oceans are affected by the moon, so the water in the body is also affected -- "As our bodies are about two-thirds 'sea' and one- third 'land,' we must sustain 'tidal' effects." (Dr. Menaker, op. cit.) This seems reasonable looked at from the teaching given on the elements by the Buddha: " Whatever is internal liquid element and whatever is external liquid element, just these are the liquid element" (see Maharahulovada Sutta, M. 62) -- though the context for this quotation is the development of insight. At any rate, development in the Dhamma goes in the direction of becoming less affected by desires concerning the body, for to have such desires is to have a defiled mind.

The defilements and passions can best be controlled when they can be seen -- when they are strongest. It is impossible to restrain defilements in oneself when they are not apparent, though they may operate underground. For instance, the person who is well-provided with wealth and comforts may not be able to see greed or aversion at work in himself; these defilements have not surfaced since the sea of satisfied desires, in which they swim, is deep enough. But place this person in a bare little hut with poor food only once a day and a strict discipline to control his actions and then see what happens! The monsters of the deep all rise to the surface and clamor for more extensive waters in which to sport. On the other hand, the attitude of good bhikkhus shows the right way to deal with defilements. Some of the strongest -- sensuality and sloth -- manifest themselves at night, so the night was recommended by the Buddha as the time when they could be tackled most effectively. An enemy that one has not seen and known cannot be defeated, but an enemy well known and attacked with the weapons of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Collectedness, has no hope to win.

It is the same on Uposatha days. The defilements that show themselves then can be restrained and limited with the aid of the Uposatha discipline, which includes the Eight Precepts.

Let us consider it from another point of view. Renunciation is a thread which runs through all Buddhist practice. If one practices Giving then one renounces the pleasures that could be bought with that wealth. When the Five Precepts are practiced then one renounces the actions covered by them which may be pleasurable or thrilling to some and are, in any case, unwholesome. And when effort is made to meditate, the earnest practicer will soon find that certain pleasures and distractions offered by this world just do not go with a calm and mindful mind, so he renounces them.

The Eight Precepts to be discussed below are part of the same way of practice, a discipline for a lay person's temporary renunciation. In the Sutta mentioned above the Buddha speaks of a noble disciple reflecting: By undertaking the Uposatha with its eight precepts for a day and a night I renounce the way of common men and live as the Arahants do for all their lives, compassionate, pure and wise. So the Right Precepts are really a test of how far one can discipline oneself. That means really, to what extent do wholesome states of mind consonant with Dhamma-practice predominate in one's character over unwholesome desires built on greed, aversion and delusion? The practice of the Eight Precepts gives one a chance to find out about this. And this is an investigation which one can make four times a month if one wishes.

We have seen how lay people in Buddhist countries periodically withdraw for twenty-four hours to a monastery for the practice for some special Dhamma. But what is to be done where there is no monastery, no bhikkhus, and no possibility of taking time off from work?

First, on these days, or on some of them, one could be a bit more in the shrine room. This would include reciting the Eight Precepts instead of the five and if one knows any special discourse of the Buddha, in Pali or in English, they should be chanted or read through. A very appropriate sutta to chant or read is the Discourse on the Eight-part Uposatha (see Appendix) and to this could be added such popular suttas as the Discourse on Loving- kindness (Karaniya-metta Sutta) and the Discourse on the truly Auspicious (Mahamangala Sutta). Longer suttas such as the Discourse on Treasures (Ratana Sutta) and the Discourse on Setting in motion the Wheel of Dhamma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) would be appropriate if one has time.

Apart from precepts and discourses, more time should be given to meditation on these days, so if one uses the shrine room only once on ordinary days, it should be used twice upon these days, while making the effort to sit rather longer. When the Eight Precepts are backed up by the calm strong mind produced in meditation then they become easy to keep.

The Dhamma that one can practice during the day at work must be decided by each person, taking account of his own personality and of the circumstances surrounding him. Of course, one tries to keep one's conduct within the bounds of the Eight Precepts and do only those things which are consonant with the spirit of the precepts. One may find it possible to practice Giving (dana) in some way on these days and some short periods devoted to some of the recollections might be possible -- it depends on each person to find his own ways and means.

This brings us to the Eight Precepts and some remarks upon them. The precepts are as follows:

     I undertake the rule of training to refrain from
        killing living creatures.

     I undertake the rule of training to refrain from
        taking what is not given.

     I undertake the rule of training to refrain from
        unchaste conduct.

     I undertake the rule of training to refrain from
        false speech.

     I undertake the rule of training to refrain from
        distilled and fermented intoxicants which are the occasion for
        carelessness.

     I undertake the rule of training to refrain from
        eating outside the time.

     I undertake the rule of training to refrain from
        dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing
        garlands, smartening with perfumes and beautifying with
        cosmetics.

     I undertake the rule of training to refrain from
        a high or large sleeping-place.

It has always been understood by Buddhist lay people that if one undertakes these Eight Precepts then great efforts should be made not to break any of them. The Five Precepts represent a general measure for ordinary life and in practice people have a flexible attitude towards minor infringements of some of them. But the Eight Precepts are a more serious commitment and should not be undertaken lightly. If one does take them on, then one should feel reasonably certain, whatever one's interior and exterior circumstances, that none of the precepts will be broken.

In the case of the first one, not only should one not kill any living being but also one should not do the sort of work which might involve one in killing unintentionally, where one has no choice in the matter (work such as digging and cultivating). Even acts which are harmful in any way to others should be avoided on an Uposatha day. Few people have work which involves killing and fewer still of these people will be Buddhists, as such work must be repugnant to sincere Dhamma-practicers.

The second precept will need attention in such things as using for one's own purposes materials belonging to the firm (government, etc.) that one works for, or taking extra or surplus materials for oneself or others without permission to do so. Taking what is not given would also include such practices as adulteration of materials for sale and making others work without adequate remuneration.

The third precept is changed from the set of five. There "wrong conduct" means all kinds of sex which results in harm to others -- breaking up for others' marriages, rape and the seduction of minors, for instance. But under this precept "unchaste conduct" means that all kinds of sexual behavior are to be avoided whether they are wrong conduct or are allowable in normal lay life, whether they are wrong conduct or are allowable in normal lay life, whether with others or by self-stimulation. The Buddha has said:

     Do not engage in heedlessness!
     Do not come near to sexual joys!
     The heedful and contemplative
     attains abundant bliss.

                                (Dhp. 27)

And when this abstinence is to be practiced only for one, two or four days a month there should be no great difficulty.

The fourth precept requires a special watch on the runaway tongue. This means the effort to practice Right Speech that is, speech which is true, brings harmony between people, is gentle and has meaning. Dhamma has all these qualities and one's speech should be in accordance with it. One who has taken the Uposatha precepts should try not to become involved in worldly chatter or arguments. And similarly with words on paper: news-papers and magazines which just distract the mind should be avoided for this day. If one wants to read then it should be a book on Dhamma.

It should not be too hard to keep the fifth precept strictly on these days. Under this precept one must include any kind of intoxicant taken for pleasure and escape, so drugs soft and hard find a place here as well as alcohol. At all times a Buddhist is trying to increase in the quality of heedfulness --

      Heedfulness -- the path to Deathlessness,
      heedlessness -- the path to death:
      the heedful ones do not die,
      the heedless are like unto the dead.

                        (Dhp. 21)

But intoxicants only increase unwholesome states of mind so that a person becomes more heedless (or careless as pamada has been translated in this precept).

The sixth precept also follows the practice of bhikkhus and aims at cutting down the sloth which is experienced after a day's work and a substantial evening meal, while it ensures that the body is light and fit for meditative practice. In the precept, the words "outside the time" mean after twelve noon until dawn the following day. During this time no food is eaten. However, some flexibility will be needed here with people going out to work. For them it would mean no food after their midday lunch until breakfast the next day. If one is troubled by tiredness after work on a day when these precepts are undertaken then tea or coffee are allowable as refreshing drinks. If hunger is the trouble then cocoa (or even plain chocolate) should cure it. None of these refreshments should contain milk, which is considered a food, though sugar, honey and butter are allowed (to bhikkhus, and therefore to lay people keeping the Eight Precepts), presumably because one can take only a little of these things. Fruit juices which have been strained (without fruit pulp) are other possible drinks.

The seventh precept is really a compound of two in the Ten Precepts of a novice and therefore falls into two parts: the first on "dancing...entertainments," and the second concerned with "wearing garlands...cosmetics." The first half is aimed at keeping mind, speech and body away from all kinds of amusements. Not of course that they are "sinful," but that they turn the mind out through the senses, arouse defilements and cause conflicts where there might be peace. So these days, under this precept must be put radio, television, theatre, cinema and sporting events. These are all ways of escape from being quiet. The second half of the precept is directed against vanity and conceit arising by way of the body. The tradition in the East is for Buddhists who undertake these precepts to clothe themselves simply in white cloth with no adornments. This will not be possible for the lay Buddhist who goes out to work, but on such days jewelry could be left at home, scents and lotions not used on the body, nor cosmetics on the face.

The last precept concerns sleep. Just as all the other luxuries have been cut out, so the luxury of a large, soft bed should be dispensed with for this night. In warm Buddhist countries a mat on the floor is enough, but where the weather is colder a hard mattress or folded blankets on the floor could be used. On a hard surface the body actually relaxes more than on a soft one, also there is less desire to sleep long. On these nights an effort should be made to restrict sleep to the minimum. A "large bed" means one in which two people sleep. The Buddhist who practices these precepts for a day and a night always sleeps by himself.

This summarizes the practice of the Uposatha day. Some people may think these precepts too difficult to carry out in the midst of an alien society. Others may think them too easy to bother about. But before any judgment is passed on them try practicing them for a few Uposathas and then see what is the result. Effort made to practice Dhamma can never bear bad fruits.

According to tradition, one may practice the Eight Precepts on the Full Moon, New Moon and two Quarter-moon days. This is for someone who is really making an effort and whose circumstances allow him to do so. Others might undertake them on the two Uposatha days -- the Full and New Moon days. Or if they are to be undertaken one day a month this will usually be on the Full Moon.

Where this had been found by experience to be quite impossible, then the Uposatha could be kept on weekends. Better this than nothing at all! But then married lay people may find that this will conflict with their family responsibilities -- perhaps to others in the family who are not Buddhist. This is something for individual Buddhists to decide for themselves.

This indeed is called the eight-part Uposatha
taught by the Buddha, gone to dukkha's end.

(see the Discourse to Visakha, below)

next: The Rains Residence

Dhamma Essay:
Renunciation by Ayya Khema


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