Upgrading Your Uposatha Observance: five then eight and beyond

The Dhamma is internally consistent and truthful. It is amazingly complete and flawless.  It is possible to take almost any aspect of the Dhamma and see relations with most other aspects of the Dhamma.
Some people misunderstand precepts and think that more is better. Thus someone practicing ten precepts might be considered more virtuous than an eight preceptor and even more superior than a five preceptor. According to this incorrect understanding, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis would be inherently more virtuous than lay people because they are obliged to practice over 200 or over 300 rules respectively.  Think about it though: are bhikkhunis more virtuous than bhikkhus because they have more rules?  The first five bhikkhus (pancasaavakaa) and maybe even the first few hundred thousand bhikkhus did not have any rules. Vinaaya rules were created over time to guide worldling-putthujana monastics. Many of these lacked mindfulness and may have been motivated to join the Sangha for because the Buddhasangha was popular, well supported by lay benefactors and rapidly growing in size and influence.  So the number of precepts or rules is not a measure of virtue. 

Virtue-siila, concentration-samaadhi and wisdom-pa~n~naa are all related and integrated parts of the eightfold noble path.   Virtue and other aspects of the path are qualities rather than quantities.  Greater virtue necessarily implies deeper concentration and profounder wisdom. The three go together simultaneously developed and improved as qualities. 

We need to focus on the practice and the results, the cause and effect of actions – kamma.  Wholesome/skilful – kusala actions such as observing Uposatha precepts will lead to pleasant results and visa-versa.   The precepts are guides to daily life that help us reduce the chances of unwholesome/unskilful akusala actions that lead to harmful results.   Monastics who are supposed to be free from the usual distractions of sensuality, earning a living and supporting families are able to use the observance of so many rules to develop deep concentration – samaadhi and with that concentration are able to gain insight into the Dhamma and find liberation from suffering.  Lay people can do this as well. The principles are the same though the lifestyle may be different.    

First five precepts. By not taking life, we are compassionate and loving toward all beings that fear death and prefer to live. We also give the gift of life. By not taking what is not given, we reduce the fear that other beings have for losing their belongings.  We also give material things to others. By refraining from sexual misconduct or indeed any sexual conduct, we reduce opportunities for our minds and the minds of our lovers to be flooded with extreme emotions which reduce mindfulness and create conditions for suffering.  We also give social harmony to our communities.  By refraining from lies, abusive speech other wrong speech acts, we avoid harming other’s reputations, we avoid inflaming their anger and confusing them with ignorance.  By refraining from intoxicating drinks and other substances, we keep our minds relatively clear and sharp so we can remember the Dhamma and act wisely in all situations.   Intoxicated people are more likely to break the other precepts due to their degraded senses. 

The perpetrators and victims of acts of violence, theft, molestation, slander and so on are at least temporarily mentally disturbed and restless. Without a perspective of the Dhamma and some degree of Right View (sammaadi.t.thi) the victims may seek revenge and due to their confusion, harm others.  By doing so, they perpetuate the cycle of suffering and rebirth.  Only by love is hate quenched. Only by renunciation is lust abated. Only by wisdom is ignorance destroyed.  

Other beings will feel less fear in our presence due to our practice of virtue-siila.  This wholesome behaviour will immediately increase environmental peace and safety.  Our good example may inspire others to practice .  Imagine how peaceful our lives would be if we did not have to worry about murder, theft, molestation of self and family, verbal abuse and so forth. Thus with quieter and safer environmental conditions, people will be better able to see clearly what is happening in mind and body. There will naturally be more opportunities for developing the higher mind and possibly achieving a breakthrough in the Dhamma

The last three Uposatha precepts. Most lay people temporarily observe the last three Uposatha precepts either on meditation retreats or on Uposatha days.  Not observing these last three precepts doesn’t obviously lead to harm for ourselves and others so why observe them?  We observe the other three precepts in order to simplify our lives and avoid indulgence in sensual pleasure.  Sensual pleasure is the practice of the lay person in daily life, not the practice of a someone intensifying their progress on the eightfold noble path.  In itself, sensual pleasure is not wrong so don’t get all guilty about having fun.  However, sensual pleasure is distracting, reduces concentration and reduces the opportunities for wisdom to arise.  In other words sensual pleasures slow you down your progress on the spiritual path.  The suttas have many references to sensual pleasures being inherently disappointing and unsatisfactory with only the most fleeting sense of gratification.  Thus by observing the eight Uposatha precepts we can create more conditions for environmental peace and concentration (samaadhi). 

The last three precepts are like an upgrade on the first five. The reduced indulgence in sensuality will help us to maintain a clear peaceful mind in which samaadhi and the other controlling faculties (panc’indriya) can develop.   The difference between an enlightened being and an ordinary worldling is the development of the controlling faculties.

The benefits arising from observing the last three Uposatha precepts is highly dependent on successfully observing the first five precepts. The first five precepts are the basic foundation and the last three are the more advanced practice with more profound results.   

Upgrading Uposatha.  
Some Buddhists may not have convenient living conditions to formally observe Uposatha precepts in all respects. For example, they may feel obliged to wear cosmetics and jewellery to work and may have to eat an evening meal with non-Buddhist family.  Perhaps a non-Buddhist lover may seduce us or demand services on Uposatha day.

Some Buddhists may observe Uposatha precepts regularly but feel they are not making much progress or struggle to see how it is beneficial.  It is inconvenient and maybe they feel dissatisfied.  So how do we upgrade or revive our spiritual life in these two sets of circumstances?   

I suggest below a few ways to give some focus to your observance of Uposatha whether you can practice eight precepts or not. This should give you some ideas which you can adapt for your particular lifestyle and background.

Loving-kindness/friendliness – mettaa and compassion – karunaa. It is helpful to deliberately observe five precepts and Uposatha precepts with mettaa and karunaa in mind. Restraining ourselves from harming others is loving and compassionate. We wish other beings were happy and well. We wish other beings were free from harm and suffering.  It would be odd to attempt mettaa and karunaa practice while not keeping at least the first five precepts because in breaking any of these precepts, we would be directly harming others or intoxicating the mind so that it is unable to concentrate. Beware the near-enemies of mettaa and karunaa.  Beginners in the practice or those who are intoxicated may confuse mettaa with lust or karunaa with pity. 
Observing the five precepts or the Uposatha precepts is practicing love and compassion towards ourselves because we don’t create unwholesome/unskilful kamma that will result in our suffering.  Lord Buddha said that sincerely observing the five precepts will result in a heavenly rebirth, how much more beneficial would be the results of observing Uposatha precepts.  Note that aiming for a heavenly rebirth would be a ‘wrong aim’.  It is better to aim for liberation from the cycle of rebirths altogether.

Sympathetic joy – muditaa. When we go onto Facebook or attend the temple, we may come to know about other Buddhists who practice the five precepts or the eight Uposatha precepts. We can deliberately practice muditaa for these fellow Buddhists, recollecting that they are excellent, practicing in the good way, the true way, the straight way and the proper way.  By recollecting that these fellow Buddhists will be happier and will benefit greatly from this practice we also share in their merits. We say “saadhu, saadhu, saadhu…” congratulations, well done!  Beware the near enemy of muditaa is pride in the achievements of others. Pride in the achievements of others includes attachment.  Muditaa is similar to mettaa and karunaa because it has no aspect of attachment.

Equanimity – upekkhaa. In daily life we will meet many people who do not consciously practice the Uposatha precepts or any precepts. As a result these people wander about in ignorance and suffering. It is not easy for anyone to lead another person to follow the right path. There may be small chances here and there to influence others. Usually, we wait until others ask questions. So we practice equanimity for the sufferings of others.  Remembering that everyone will get the results of their actions. Note that equanimity is not the same as indifference which is allied with ignorance. Equanimity is allied with wisdom and insight.  Equanimity is an underlying component in the other three divine abodes and present in all wholesome mental states. 
It is possible to develop mental aborptions – jhaana with any of the four divine abodes above though traditionally mettaa, karunaa and muditaa can be used for 1st-3rd jhaana while upekkhaa can be used only for 4th jhaana. This is a technical topic for another post. You can read more in the Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga and other meditation manuals. However, there is a lot of benefit from just reflecting on the four divine abodes during the day. As we refrain from taking life, or stealing etc. we can say to our selves “may all beings be happy and well, may all beings be free from harm and suffering…” I find this useful on the bus crowded with noisy people when commuting to work.  When I find a cockroach or spider in the home I capture it and recite “may all beings be happy and well….” as I gently take the insect outside. 
It is also useful to just recite “may all beings be happy and well” at free times during the day. It is relaxing and wholesome. This practice helps keep unwholesome objects from taking over.  
Dhamma study. Choose one Dhamma topic, read a bit, write some brief notes and then reflect on it throughout the day. For example, read about the one of the seven sets in the 37 seven aids to enlightenment – Bodhipakkhiyadhamma. Maybe start with the seven factors for enlightenment – Bojjhanga. Try to remember the Paali words for the factors and memorise the correct sequence of factors. On another day, read about what the commentaries say for ways to cultivate and improve the seven enlightenment factors.  On another day read some more suttas that might refer to the seven factors and may refer to some of the benefits (such as improving health and length of life) in recollecting the seven factors.

As you contemplate the Dhamma in this way you will be practicing dhammanusati which is one of the six recollections recommended by the Blessed One for purifying the mind.  This works because the mind is focussed on a wholesome/skilful object and not distracted with lust, anger or delusion. 


Siilanusati – recollection of virtue.  As someone who is keeping precepts you may be feel confident enough to reflect on your accumulating virtue.  If you have been able to keep five precepts and eight precepts then you have good grounds for reflecting on the merits of your practice. Without necessarily getting  big-headed about it, you objectively realise that this practice is beneficial, it is purifying, creating conditions for happiness and leading you to more wholesome mental states.  Someone who is able to keep precepts is also someone who has enough mindfulness and Right View to control impulsive cravings and has learned to live peacefully to some extent. This is the foundation of training for higher mental development.  On occasions when there are breaks in the precepts (hopefully minor) then one immediately determines to sincerely refrain from breaking the precepts again. It is possible to recover a mind free from remorse, a mind settled and peaceful once again.  Do not underestimate the power of keeping precepts even for a short time such as one minute.  If one is sincere, there are great benefits here and now including greater self-esteem, courage and confidence.

Caaganusati – recollection of generosity. In being generous, by giving and sharing, you have been reducing attachment and clinging.  This wholesome conduct will benefit others and oneself and lead to more wholesome states. This is faultless behaviour. 


32 parts of the body. For those of us who are living a celibate life, I recommend memorising the 32 parts of the body in forward and reverse order as outlined in the Visuddhimagga.  I found this practice is very effective in temporarily overcoming lustful states of mind.  Remembering this famous list is a useful way to concentrate the mind and give it temporary relief from worry and strife. Note there are intensive ways of practicing the 32 parts of the body which can lead to first mental absorption – jhaana though that need not be the goal of the practice.  There are many benefits without necessarily attaining jhaana. Again I refer keen readers to the various meditation manuals for more details.  
Devanusati.  On Uposatha day and other days deliberately recollect that the devas attained their fortunate rebirth and powers on account of previously virtuous conduct such as practising the five precepts and the eight Uposatha precepts. Now you and other sincere Buddhists are practicing in this same way and likely to attain a fortunate rebirth in a heavenly realm. As you practice in this way, you may sometimes  recite “may the devas be happy and well…”.  Remember that many devas are Buddhists and have attained various paths and fruits in the Buddha’s dispensation.  You may recollect these noble devas as part of the ariyasangha
In times when you feel afraid that someone maybe going to hurt you, recollect the devas and maybe you can overcome your fears. But don’t just rely on the devas to protect you. Use common sense and find safety.  Note that overcoming fears in this way is possible with other wholesome objects such as recollecting any or all of the three refuges (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha)
Death – maranaanusati. On Uposatha day and other days, deliberately recollect the certain fact that you will die and so will all the people you know. Recollecting death is a way to put our lives in perspective and determine what is really important.  In Australian culture, recollecting death is considered a negative and gloomy occupation. Actually it is a wholesome and sensible activity.  Some people may find it difficult at first to overcome previous preconceptions and biases. If you persevere you may develop some equanimity and a completely different set of priorities will emerge. I found that recollecting the inevitable nature of death gave me a greater sense of spiritual urgency – sa.mvega. This really motivates and intensifies the practice.  You may find it much easier to practice the five precepts and eight Uposatha precepts after you have deepened your maranaanutsati.
Summary. By simplifying our lives and deepening our practice of the 4 divine abodes and other methods outlined above we will definitely be upgrading our Uposatha observance.   The basic peace in life created by the first five precepts can be deepened by the 8 Uposatha precepts. This results in greater peace and concentration – samaadhi. The deliberate practice of the 4 divine abodes and other methods is further deepening of the practice that will bring enormous benefits to ourselves and all others in the environment.
May you dear reader feel inspired to go deeper into the Dhamma. May you be free from harm and suffering.

Benefits from regular observance of eight precepts

A10.47 Sakya Sutta (The Sakyans and the Eight Precepts) paraphrased from The Book of the Gradual Sayings (Anguttara Nikaaya) vol. 2, translated by F.L. Woodward by MK.  

[Thanissaro Bhikkhus translation] [Sister Upalavanna’s translation] [สักกสูตร]

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.

Michael’s comments

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.

[Mahaanaama was a Sakyan leader, cousin of the Buddha and elder brother to Ven. Anuruddha and Ven. Aananda. The commentary says he attained sakadaagaami – second level of enlightenment.]

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.]

Out of Yangon – happy and well

I left Yangon and arrived in Bangkok on Friday, 7 August. It was not convenient to write blogs in Yangon though I sometimes went to Internet cafes and wrote e-mails. Most of the time I was meditating at either Saddhamaransi Yeithka (about 4 months) or Mahasi Sasana Yeithka (3 weeks). I’ll write more about some that in later posts.

I learned a lot about meditation, the mind, the Dhamma, Buddhism as practiced in Myanmar and surprisingly I also learned a little about Mahayana Buddhism from 4 visiting Chinese Mahayana monks. I’ll write more about these topics in later posts.

I lost about 15 kg while in Myanmar. This is partly due to not eating in the afternoon or evenings while maintaining 8 precepts. It was also partly due to frequent bouts of travellers’ diarrhoea and having less exercise than usual at Saddhamaransi Yeithka. Even at Mahasi Sasana Yeithka the exercise was very low impact – slow walks and some yoga. Fruit is relatively expensive in Yangon right now with most of it being imported from China and Thailand. Most of the fruit trees in the Yangon area were destroyed in cyclone Nargis (May 2008). So the meditation centre monks, nuns and yogis sometimes didn’t eat fruit or if they did it was only bananas. Even so I had good health most of the time.

Now I’m staying at Suk 11, a hostel on Sukhumvit Road. It is comfortable, friendly and central. I may stay here until mid next week and then travel on to either Nong Khai or Cha Am for a week or two of quiet time to write. While in Bangkok, I’m looking for a notebook laptop to use for writing while travelling from here onwards (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal etc.).