The Blessed One asks some Sakyans at Kapilavatthu whether they practice the eight precepts every Uposatha Day. [The Sakyans are a clan of people whose capital city is Kapilavatthu. The Buddha was from the Sakyan clan. Uposatha Day occurs about every two weeks and follows the lunar calendar.] The Sakyans reply that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. The Blessed One explains that it is no gain to them in a life fearing suffering and death. He then gives a simile of a man who works in some business to earn money and others praise that man for being clever and energetic. And so on increasing wealth until he was quite wealthy. The Blessed One then asked the Sakyans if this rich fellow would abide in utter happiness for even as little as half a day simply because of his accumulated wealth. The Sakyans reply that this fellow would not enjoy his wealth because sensual pleasures are impermanent, insubstantial and deceptive; of a deceptive nature.
The Blessed One then told the Sakyans: suppose here a follower of mine, living seriously, ardent, resolved, were to strive as I have advised for ten years, he would spend … a hundred thousand years enjoying utter happiness. And he would be an anaagaami (non returner – third level of enlightenment), or a sakadagaami (once returner – second level of enlightenment), or at least a sotapanna (stream enterer – first level of enlightenment). Let alone ten years… for a single year… for 24 hours, he would spend … a hundred thousand years enjoying utter happiness. And he would be an anaagaami, or a sakadagaami, or at least a sotapanna. The Sakyans respond that they will observe the eight precepts from that day forth.
The eight precepts are a more intense version of the five training precepts. If you don’t know what these are you can find out more by following this link to Access to Insight. Following training precepts is a form of ethical behaviour (siila) that helps one to live mindfully, simply and harmlessly.
Most Theravada Buddhists who go on short or long meditation retreats will practice the eight training precepts. This practice strongly supports their meditation practices and mental development.
A casual observance of eight training precepts for one period of 24 hours may not be enough to attain any level of enlightenment though still accumulates merit. In some places, devotees may practice the training precepts for the 24 hours of the Uposatha Day and do voluntary work at a temple or do devotional practice such as offering flowers, candles and incense and chanting in Paali. This is a sincere form of merit making (not casual) but still may not be sufficient to gain any stage of enlightenment. [I’ll write more on this another day.]
Whilst following the training precepts one is usually motivated to restrain the six senses and cultivate wholesome states of mind. It is this mental development (bhavanaa) that enables one to know and see phenomena as they really are. This penetrative insight leads to enlightenment.
I recommend readers also read the Muluposatha Sutta [Sister Upalavanna translation] [อุโปสถสูตร] to understand the various ways of observing the Uposatha. Indeed the Blessed One emphasises the practice of six recollections (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, caaga-generousity, siila-morality, deva-deities) on the Uposatha. One can practice these recollections at any time not only on Uposatha Days.
In the Mahaanaama Sutta, [มหานามสูตรที่ ๒] the Blessed One also encourages Mahaanaama to practice the six recollections “while you are walking, while you are standing, while you are sitting, while you are lying down, while you are busy at work, while you are resting in your home crowded with children.” While recollecting in this way, the mind is temporarily free from unwholesome mental states. Once the mind is made clear and bright in this way, it may be possible to attend to the true nature of phenomena arising and passing and thus gain deep insight that leads to enlightenment. It is in this way that the results mentioned above in the Sakya Sutta will be realised.
Also note that in the Mahaanaama Sutta, the Blessed One qualifies practitioners of the six recollections in the following five ways: “One who is motivated to practice is one of conviction, not without conviction. One motivated to practice is one who is persistent, not lazy. One motivated to practice is one of established mindfulness, not muddled mindfulness. One motivated to practice is centered in concentration, not uncentered. One motivated to practice is wise, not ignorant.” [MK modified a portion of Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation] Someone who is motivated in these five ways is very like someone who is confidently and sincerely practicing the eight precepts on Uposatha Day.
Some materialist hedonists may doubt the simile above where the wealthy man is supposed to be unable to enjoy utter happiness even for a short time simply on account of his amassed wealth. That is because of their limited notion of what utter happiness may be. Readers should note that happiness from sensual pleasures is paltry compared with happiness from mental development in accord with the Buddhadhamma. Also happiness from sensual pleasures is flickering and insubstantial whereas happiness from mental development is incomparably deeper and long lasting. I say this from personal experience, not merely out of faith or hearsay. Materialist hedonists may not agree because they do not have confidence in the Buddhadhamma and have never experienced true spiritual happiness.
[I’ve written this on 28 March 2010 but scheduled it to appear on the blog on 20 April 2010. I’m still on retreat until late June 2010.]