Uposatha Reflections

While baby Aly naps this morning, I’m left thinking a little bit about the meaning behind my Uposatha observance… A wrote about this previously (in April), but I figure I might have a little more to say about it this time around, and the subject is worthy of consideration from time to time.

The observation of Uposatha offers an opportunity for the layperson to work towards a better understanding of the monastic ideal that is seen throughout East-Asian Buddhist culture. Some traditions observe differently, of course, much similar to the variations in practice between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians. For instance, I’ve learned that the Theravada tradition observes based entirely on the lunar calendar; the dates of the Full, 1st Quarter, New, and 3rd Quarter moon positions. I have generally observed the Full and New moon dates, mainly because most major Buddhist holidays fall on these dates, but also because it provided a convenient two-day-per-month [most months] cycle. I’ve recently expanded my practice to include all four days, and follow a calendar provided by the Thai Forest Tradition (associated with the late Venerable Ajahn Chah).

Mahayana traditions, however, generally observe on the 8th, 14th, 15th, 23rd and final two days of each lunar month, but being as how I can’t find a lunar calendar suitable to consistently define all of these dates in relation to the solar calendar with which most of us are accustomed, I have not tried to adopt these dates. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure that it makes much of a difference either way, and some Mahayana traditions seem to ignore Uposatha days entirely.

Still yet, Tibetan Buddhism further varies with Tsog days, which seem to be related but (in my opinion) involve far more mysticism than monasticism.

Uposatha isn’t solely about worship, although proper reverence towards those who practice rightly, and the self-enlightened one, isn’t exactly unimportant. I think the main point of the observance is to right one’s own mind, to wash away as much impurity as possible and become a better person through it.

As a general rule, the Uposatha observance involves the adoption of 8 Precepts (as opposed to the usual 5), which I’m sure I’ve mentioned previously but will post again now for new readers (Pali language in Bold):

  1. Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
    I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking life.
  2. Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
    I undertake the training rule to refrain from stealing.
  3. Abrahmacariya veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
    I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual activity.
  4. Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
    I undertake the training rule to refrain from telling lies.
  5. Surā-meraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
    I undertake the training rule to refrain from intoxicating liquors & drugs that lead to carelessness.
  6. Vikalabhojana veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
    I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at the forbidden time (i.e., after noon).
  7. Nacca-gita-vadita-visukkadassana mala-gandha-vilepana-dharana-mandana-vibhusanathana veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
    I undertake the precept to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.
  8. Uccasayana-mahasayana veramaṇī sikkhā-padaṃ samādiyāmi.
    I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

These precepts seem intended to to help the practitioner lessen unwholesome mind states. Generally, these are defined as greed, hatred, and delusion, but I feel comfortable breaking it down further to the ideas of ill-will, identification with self, and attachment (to ideas and to things). Each precept goes to the heart of some defilement or another in the human psyche, and adopting them consistently and without reservation is not without benefit. The Uposatha observance offers an opportunity to do just that without the worry of trying to adhere to a strict monastic code for the rest of one’s life.

Not that doing so would be without its own benefits, but I think most of us can admit that we’d have a hard time following a couple of these precepts on a full-time basis. Most of us just aren’t “karmically ready” for it, I suppose, but these observance days give us a chance to see what it would really be like in short doses, and that it really isn’t that hard to accomplish if we really want to.

For many Buddhists, Uposatha days also offer a great chance to speak with monastics, attend teachings, and make offerings to the Sangha (although in many countries, there are daily opportunities for these sorts of things too), so in a certain manner, it is much like the Christian Sabbath.

In my own case, I use the days to remember that there are people who are much less fortunate than I, and to reflect on the fact that there are people who actually choose to live with less; who renounce the world and it’s selfish pleasures, and live a simpler, more thoughtful life.

Even without adopting the 8 precepts full time, one may begin to bring that thoughtfulness into everyday life, and it can start with Uposatha.

I hope you are well, friends. I will write again soon.

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