These are the eight precepts a lay Buddhist undertakes when practicing in a Buddhist monastery, particularly on the lunar quarter days each month. For many years I have practiced with the five precepts in daily life, but recently I took a vow to practice the traditional eight precepts on each full moon day for a year. What a difference that vow has made in my practice!
Known as Uposatha Days throughout the world of Theravada Buddhism, the lunar quarters are times of renewed dedication to dharma practice. For monastics, these are days of more intensive reflection and meditation. In many monasteries, physical labor and work projects are curtailed. On new moon and full moon days monasteries typically hold fortnightly confession and recitation of the monastic rules of conduct.
Especially in Asian Buddhist countries, laypeople often observe Uposatha Days as a support for meditation practice and a way to re-energize their commitment to the dharma. Such days present an opportunity to visit the local monastery to make special offerings, to listen to dharma teachings, and to practice meditation with dharma companions late into the night. Those of us without a local monastery (most of us in the West) can draw on the invisible but powerful support of these millions of other practicing Buddhists around the world.
Upon taking my full moon vow, I first noted the entire year’s Uposatha Days on my Palm Pilot, also marking the day before as a reminder. (The calendar of Uposatha Days is calculated using a complex traditional formula that is loosely based on the lunar calendar.) As the first full moon day approached, I felt fear arising in anticipation. How daunting, I thought. Will I be able to take on three additional precepts?
Precept six—not eating after noon—at first seemed scarier than it has turned out to be. On work days, I meditate for half an hour before lunch, then eat my last meal of the day—a normal amount—noticing the anxiety I feel knowing I will be skipping dinner. Examining this fear, I’ve had a surprising revelation: it’s not so much a fear of death or weakness or even hunger. It seems to be a fear of not doing. Eating dinner and all that goes into it is a big part of my after-work life and without that activity, I find myself alone with myself. No distractions. No comfort to be taken in my evening routine. Much of our lives revolves around eating and planning meals, and that truth has revealed itself to me with this practice.
Of course, complications around meals can and do arise. Generally I meet with my dharma buddy each week over dinner. Recently our date fell on a full moon, and I arranged to join her in the restaurant after she had finished her meal. After agreeing to this plan, I immediately began to worry: What if she’s not finished when I arrive? What if people all around me are eating things I really like? What if the odors drive me wild? I just sat with these “what ifs,” appreciating how my practice vow provided such a unique opportunity to investigate the feelings that arise.
Whether the full moon falls on a work day or a weekend, the question emerges, Just what is a dharmic activity and what isn’t? For me, this is the essence of the seventh precept, and it forms the basis of my investigation of questions of entertaining and beautifying myself.
I generally don’t make social plans for these monthly Uposatha Days, and I aspire to examine every activity I choose. Recently, I chose to attend a friend’s fiftieth birthday party for just a half hour because I wanted to honor her. Being at the party brought up many discomforts to observe. I felt the pull of wanting to chit chat, noticing the thrusting of my “party girl” identity into the room. The “me” I bring to parties requires a certain lack of mindfulness in order to be at ease, hiding in the party habits of intoxicants, music, dance and feasting. This desire to “get away” was the very thing I was seeking to uncover through my full moon practice.
If my eight-precept practice falls on a workday, I rise earlier and meditate a little longer in the morning. Refraining from entertainment, I do not listen to the radio or read the newspaper. There is often a moment of realization: Oh, I can’t have my comfort, my radio. It takes such effort, such tolerance of the discomfort to break a habit, even for just a day. Refraining from beautification, I dress mindfully, more conservatively than usual, with no jewelry and just functional cosmetics. No “prettying up.” This is tricky for me, because my mind says, I have to look a certain way to be successful in the work world. I am learning to see how much time, energy and money goes into my clothes, cosmetics and jewelry to create the particular image I have come to think is me. There have even been times on a full moon day when I have wanted to apologize for my appearance. Instead, I just watch my discomfort. This simple practice has lightened up my attachment to my self-image.
If the full moon falls on a weekend or holiday, I have more freedom to practice and study. I sometimes choose to stay quiet the entire day, alternating sitting and walking meditation, as well as listening to a dharma talk on tape or reading an inspirational book.
One Uposatha morning, after getting money from the ATM, I caught a desire that had already pulled me several steps toward a neighboring shoe store. I could actually feel the force pulling. I stopped. I stood there, midway between the bank and the store’s window, recognizing the incredible force of that desire. Just a peek, no buying, cajoled the mind. The physical need to see those shoes was actually a bit frightening in its intensity. Greed, I noted. That time I got away. On any other day, I might have found myself buying a new pair of shoes with no idea of how they actually came to be in my closet.
To practice the eighth precept, I choose to sleep out of my own bed, which is too “high and luxurious.” I usually move to the blowup guest bed. Climbing into bed, not my bed, I often wonder, What difference does it make where I sleep? But in the morning, as I awaken in this “strange” place, various answers become apparent. I review the previous day’s activities and find so many places where mindfulness was present where it might not have been on a “normal” day, thanks to my eight-precept vow. If I had woken up in my own bed, I would have headed habitually straight into the day, full of its plans and pulls.
As I pack up the guest bed each month, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for how much just a few simple changes in a day’s activities can bring so much more mindfulness. Isn’t that why I practice meditation? To wake up? To be free of being driven by the habits that lurk in the corners of the mind?