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Observing the Uposatha (Sabbath)

The Pāli word uposatha means “observance,” and refers to the ancient Buddhist tradition of devoting a day to our practice, much like the Christian sabbath, which is a fine translation of the word. The Buddha strongly encouraged lay practitioners to keep the uposatha, as the texts at the bottom of this page indicate.

Observing the uposatha day might be as simple as being sure to meditate or take more time for formal practice than you might on an ordinary day. It could also include some form of ritual dedication to practice like chanting the Refuges and Precepts (you can find audio of our pūjā here). And traditionally it includes keeping three additional precepts on top of the usual five, mimicking the renunciate life of ordained monastics:

The additional 3 precepts

6. Fasting before dawn and after the noon meal

7. Abstaining from watching entertainment or ornamenting oneself

8. Abstaining from sleeping on an excessively luxurious bed

Timing

Uposatha days traditionally fall on the quarter moons in the lunar calendar, which makes them inconvenient for practitioners embedded in the standard work week. To observe them, then, some people just do them on a weekend day, or carve out a regular day in the week, if their work is flexible.

As usual, I feel like resisting the easy modernization, not just because I’m contrarian, but because I find it valuable in my own life to make some gestures to be in actual sync with the moon. The lunar calendar has a grace and beauty that’s palpably different from the bright synchrony of the solar Gregorian version we’re embedded in. So as an experiment, I want to start offering Uposatha Practice Days on some of the lunar quarter days.

(For a calendar plugin that tells you all the lunar Uposatha days as observed by the Forest Sangha tradition, go here.)

I’ll release a schedule soon, but probably will do the new and full moons whenever I can. We’ll do the first one this Wednesday (May 6, 2020) on the Buddhist holiday of Vesak (visākha pūjā), the May full moon. We’ll meet online from 7:30-8:30am (PDT), using the link on our Weekly Gatherings page. We’ll chant, sit together, and I’ll talk just a bit about how we might orient to the day.

Following the online call, I’ll encourage a day of dedication to practice. Some options might be:

  • Meditate more.
  • Take the day, or half the day, or a meal in silence.
  • Do some work in service of others.
  • Engage the “Eight Precepts” practice wholeheartedly, including not eating after the midday meal.
  • Go “screen free” for part of the day, particularly after dark.
  • Practice dāna, giving to monastics and spiritual teachers.

A note on fasting

The most challenging part of this practice for many of us is the fasting. The practice of not eating after the midday meal is one of the most ancient and respected practices in Buddhism, and has been a feature of monastic life and the Uposatha Day observance for 2600 years. Lately, in the medical and pop health worlds it’s called “intermittent fasting” or “circadian rhythm fasting,” and is being recognized as having some health benefits (Harvard 2018, NIH 2020). The Buddhist practice isn’t specifically for health benefits, but it doesn’t hurt.

The main difficulty with this practice for a lot of folks is that it disrupts both the social/family ritual of dinner, and isn’t always compatible with our busy schedules, where you might need more food to make it through an evening or night of work. When I’m stressed or too busy, and have to just push through, I find being hungry in the evening quite unpleasant. But isn’t this the point of a sabbath in the first place — to work a bit less, focus on practice, and take care of ourselves in a deeper way?

If we broaden this fast to include the 7th precept of avoiding entertainment, and include the intention to devote a bit more time to spiritual practice, we may be able to craft an afternoon and evening in which the fasting isn’t just a discipline to get through but a valued support for contemplative life. Try stopping work at 5 or earlier if you can on an uposatha day, and giving the rest of the evening to practice: meditate, walk, get outside, exercise gently, talk with someone, but stay off the screen and out of the fridge and cupboards. The hope is that our families might be supportive of this practice, especially if it includes not just abstaining from dinner but abstaining from distractions and work after dinner, slowing down, and being more available.

The other caveat, as always with food-based disciplines, is to be cautious around this practice if you have a history with unwholesome eating habits or eating disorders, or of course if you have a medical condition that precludes fasting like this.

You might practice it like this:

In the morning of the day you intend to take 8 Precepts, eat a healthy breakfast, and plan for a healthy lunch. Avoid sugar and refined grains, and make sure lunch isn’t going to be rushed or insubstantial. Eat lunch at your usual time, and then only drink water or clear drinks (tea, coffee, strained juice) the rest of the day and night. I take the time requirement flexibly, not being about the hour of 12 noon as a kind of deadline but as a principle in which we take a main meal and then let the body process it without further complication for the next 18+ hours.

I’ve done this practice for months at a time on retreat, and in that context it’s easy. As a sabbath dropped into the middle of a bust week, it’s harder, but also a beautiful discipline in doing with less, having a bit more time to practice, and remembering that there are deeper currents in your life than the endless circle of working, feeding, and cleaning up.

However you bring awareness of the Uposatha days into your practice, may it be for your lasting benefit.


Sutta: The Uposatha with Eight Factors

So I have heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. There the Buddha addressed the mendicants, “Mendicants!”

“Venerable sir,” they replied. The Buddha said this:

“Mendicants, the observance of the sabbath with its eight factors is very fruitful and beneficial and splendid and bountiful. And how should it be observed? It’s when a noble disciple reflects: ‘As long as they live, the perfected ones give up killing living creatures, renouncing the rod and the sword. They are scrupulous and kind, and live full of compassion for all living beings. I, too, for this day and night will give up killing living creatures, renouncing the rod and the sword. I’ll be scrupulous and kind, and live full of compassion for all living beings. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its first factor.

‘As long as they live, the perfected ones give up stealing. They take only what’s given, and expect only what’s given. They keep themselves clean by not thieving. I, too, for this day and night will give up stealing. I’ll take only what’s given, and expect only what’s given. I’ll keep myself clean by not thieving. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its second factor.

‘As long as they live, the perfected ones give up unchastity. They are celibate, set apart, avoiding the common practice of sex. I, too, for this day and night will give up unchastity. I will be celibate, set apart, avoiding the common practice of sex. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its third factor.

‘As long as they live, the perfected ones give up lying. They speak the truth and stick to the truth. They’re honest and trustworthy, and don’t trick the world with their words. I, too, for this day and night will give up lying. I’ll speak the truth and stick to the truth. I’ll be honest and trustworthy, and won’t trick the world with my words. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its fourth factor.

‘As long as they live, the perfected ones give up alcoholic drinks that cause negligence. I, too, for this day and night will give up alcoholic drinks that cause negligence. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its fifth factor.

‘As long as they live, the perfected ones eat in one part of the day, abstaining from eating at night and from food at the wrong time. I, too, for this day and night will eat in one part of the day, abstaining from eating at night and food at the wrong time. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its sixth factor.

‘As long as they live, the perfected ones give up dancing, singing, music, and seeing shows; and beautifying and adorning themselves with garlands, fragrance, and makeup. I, too, for this day and night will give up dancing, singing, music, and seeing shows; and beautifying and adorning myself with garlands, fragrance, and makeup. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its seventh factor.

‘As long as they live, the perfected ones give up high and luxurious beds. They sleep in a low place, either a small bed or a straw mat. I, too, for this day and night will give up high and luxurious beds. I’ll sleep in a low place, either a small bed or a straw mat. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect.’ This is its eighth factor.

The observance of the sabbath with its eight factors in this way is very fruitful and beneficial and splendid and bountiful.”

(“The Sabbath with Eight Factors”, AN 8.41, tr. Sujato)

Sutta: With the Sakyans

At one time the Buddha was staying in the land of the Sakyans, near Kapilavatthu in the Banyan Tree Monastery. Then on the sabbath several Sakyan lay followers went up to the Buddha, bowed, and sat down to one side. The Buddha said to them:

“Sakyans, do you observe the sabbath with its eight factors?”

“Sir, sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.”

“That’s your loss, Sakyans, it’s your misfortune. In this life with its fear of sorrow and death, you sometimes keep the sabbath and you sometimes don’t.

What do you think, Sakyans? Take a man who earns half a dollar for an honest day’s work. Is this enough to call him a deft and industrious man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think, Sakyans? Take a man who earns a dollar for an honest day’s work. Is this enough to call him a deft and industrious man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think, Sakyans? Take a man who, for an honest day’s work, earns two dollars … three dollars … four dollars … five dollars … six dollars … seven dollars … eight dollars … nine dollars … ten dollars … twenty dollars … thirty dollars … forty dollars … fifty dollars … a hundred dollars. Is this enough to call him a deft and industrious man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think, Sakyans? Suppose that man earned a hundred or a thousand dollars every day and saved it all up. If he lived for a hundred years, would he not accumulate a large mass of wealth?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you think, Sakyans? Would that man, on account of that wealth, experience perfect happiness for a single day or night, or even half a day or night?”

“No, sir.”

“Why is that?”

“Because sensual pleasures, sir, are impermanent, hollow, false, and deceptive.”

“But take one of my disciples who lives diligent, keen, and resolute for ten years, practicing in line with my instructions. They can experience perfect happiness for a hundred years, ten thousand years, or a hundred thousand years. And they could become a once-returner or a non-returner, or guaranteed a stream-enterer. Let alone ten years, take one of my disciples who lives diligent, keen, and resolute for nine years … eight years … seven years … six years … five years … four years … three years … two years … one year … ten months … nine months … eight months … seven months … six months … five months … four months … three months … two months … one month … a fortnight … ten days … nine days … eight days … seven days … six days … five days … four days … three days … two days …

Let alone two days, take one of my disciples who lives diligent, keen, and resolute for one day, practicing in line with my instructions. They can experience perfect happiness for a hundred years, ten thousand years, or a hundred thousand years. And they could become a once-returner or a non-returner, or guaranteed a stream-enterer. It’s your loss, Sakyans, it’s your misfortune. In this life with its fear of sorrow and death, you sometimes keep the sabbath and you sometimes don’t.”

“Well, sir, from this day forth we will observe the sabbath with its eight factors.”

(“With the Sakyans”, AN 10.46, Sujato)

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