Uposatha: Seventh Precept

Hello friends,

Today I am observing November’s Full Moon Uposatha day. I’ve mentioned previously [here and here, for instance] that the Uposatha observance involves certain precepts that are additional to the regular practice proscribed by the Buddha to laypeople, so you should read those for additional background information that I may not choose to go into again here.

Today I intend to focus particularly on the practice of the seventh precept:

Nacca-gita-vadita-visukkadassana mala-gandha-vilepana-dharana-mandana-vibhusanathana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.

The precept calls for restraint, both in the employment of the sense faculties and in the sustaining of conceit. Each precept, whether we’re referring to the regular five lay precepts, the eight Uposatha precepts (or Anāgārika precepts), or the ten precepts observed by novice monks, is a tool toward the perfection of renunciation as much as it may be toward virtue.

The practice of restraint in any area can be stressful or frustrating, especially if it is an area in which one chooses to be less restrained as a general rule, but I find this precept to be the most challenging of all the Uposatha precepts.

First and foremost, the ease of access to entertainment of various kinds is different than 2,500 years ago. Today it is almost as if we’re bombarded with entertainment — there are TVs in the break rooms at work, radios in the car, and even advertisements can often be rather entertaining. Most of us even carry cell phones that are capable of spewing forth mind-numbing videos and music.

As I understand it, an offence against this precept is not simply the result of having heard or seen something that is purely for entertainment, but the intent to give it attention. The contemplative part of this comes in when one observes the mind and properly discerns that the intention exists (or does not) to give it attention.

The curious thing for me on this is the work to silence the mental music… the intention to enjoy music even if none is actually being played at that time and place. It is a neat trick that the mind plays to set up it’s own music studio, and it is often the precursor (for me, anyway) to tapping of the feet or fingers against something as if to emulate a drum beat, or even outright humming a tune.

The rest of the precept focuses on the matters of beautifying the body. I don’t wear “cosmetics” as far as the term is usually applied, but I do like to wear deodorant, brush my teeth, and will often wear a splash-on aftershave product that is nothing more than smelly-good stuff.

I have a general rule that I apply to whether I will use these products on Uposatha days: Does choosing not to use it cause a potential health issue or can I justify its use as a means to help others? Toothpaste falls into the first category and deodorant falls into the second (because our society is so conscious of the odor of the human body even if I am not so much). Using the aftershave or wearing jewelry, however, I would say is gratuitous so I choose to abstain.

But really, I’m just drawing arbitrary lines in the proverbial sand.

On the seventh precept, the Uposatha Sutta reads:

‘All arahants, for as long as life lasts, have given up singing and dancing, the playing of musical instruments and the watching of entertainments, which are stumbling blocks to that which is wholesome. Nor do they bedeck themselves with ornaments, flowers or perfume.’

So this is part of a series of practices designed to bring one closer to the Buddhist ideal (at least the Theravada ideal) of the Arahant — to give one a glance at the peace invoked by not worrying oneself with such things and the peace that can be attained instead. The entire Uposatha practice is aimed at giving laypeople that little nudge they need to practice more like the monks, even if only once every week or so.

I cherish the opportunity to practice even if it is challenging. I hope that I have given you something to think about.

May your own practice be fruitful — please be well, friends!

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