Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Snow Moon Buddhist Lunar Observance (video)

Bhikkhu Khantipalo, Lay Buddhist Practice: The Shrine Room, Uposatha Day, and Rains Residence (W. 206-7); Amber Larson, Seth Auberon, Dhr. Seven (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
Golden Buddha in strong full lotus sitting meditation position (Sue90ca/flickr.com)
(Farmers' Almanac) Learn how February's full moon came to be known as the "Full Snow Moon" among Native American tribes (almanac.com).

Lunar Observance
My meditation room is my practice shrine.
The Buddhist term uposatha -- lunar observance day -- literally means “entering to stay” in a vihara or monastic complex. But it has a long history before Buddhist times as it was the custom of the Brahmins who performed Vedic rites and animal sacrifices to go to the sacred place away from their homes and families and purify themselves by leading a secluded life for a day and night, returning after the rites were finished.

The days when they kept this seclusion were determined by the phases of the Moon, the most important being the full moon and the new moon days. Two other days, the quarter-moon days, were also observed [making it a weekly or sabbath observance].
Here it may be helpful to say something about the lunar month. This is a month (originally this word is cognate with “Moon,” as Wisdom Quarterly suggests a month being a moonth, a 28 day period with one full moon) of 29.5 days. Two months have 59 days, that is, one of 30 and one of 29.

Full and other regular phases of the Moon (Brennan Maxwell/npr.org/scpr.org)
Each month is divided into fortnights (a two-week period), one of the waxing (growing) moon and another of the waning (shrinking) moon. Each half is therefore of 14 or 15 days. And in each half the days are numbered from the first of the waxing moon (the day after the  new moon day) to the 14th (or 15th) of the waxing moon, and then from the first of the waning moon to the 14th of the waning moon.

A new lunar month always begins (in Buddhist reckoning) with the waxing half-month. The eighth day (usually) of both bright and dark halves is the quarter moon day.
In the Buddha's time, various groups of ascetics and wanderers used the traditional full and new Moon days for expounding their theories and practices, while the Buddha allowed Buddhist wandering ascetics -- monks, nuns, and trainees (novices) -- to assemble on these days to listen to the recitation of the fundamental monastic rules (Patimokkha) and to teach the Dharma to the people who came to their hermitages.
From that time down to the present, the lunar observance days have been kept by Buddhists, both ordained and lay, in all Buddhist countries. The practice of Theravada Buddhists in Thailand -- and there are many local variations -- runs along these lines:

You promised yourself a quest for enlightenment. Walk the path-of-practice.
Early in the morning, laypeople give alms food to the monastics who may be walking on alms round or invited to a layperson’s house. (See The Blessings of Pindapata, Wheel No. 73). Or lay Buddhists may take the food to a monastery, particularly if one of their children is a temporarily ordained or permanent monastic there.

Usually laypeople do not eat before serving food to monastics, and they will probably eat only once that day before noon as part of the lunar observance, especially where monastics practice eating a single meal.

In any case, everyone's food (with the exception of anyone who is ill) is all eaten before noon. Before the meal lay Buddhists request the Eight Precepts (listed below), which they pledge to keep for 24 hours, a day and a night.
The monthly LA Yoga Ayurveda & Health magazine
It is usual for laypeople to go to the local monastic complex and spend all day and night there. In different monasteries, of course, the way they spend their time will differ as much depends on which aspect of the Dharma is stressed there, study or practice.

Where there is more study, they will hear as many as three or four discourses (sutras, bana, "sermons") on Dharma delivered by senior monastics, and they will have books to read and perhaps classes on the Higher Teachings (Abhidhamma) to attend.
But they are quite free to plan their own time with meditation, Dharma discussion with the monastics, and so on. In a monastery where meditation is emphasized, laypeople will get less instruction but it will be about the practice of the Dharma, while most of their time will be spent engaged in mindfulness -- walking and seated meditation with some time given to helping monastics with their daily duties.

So the whole of this day and night (and enthusiastic laypeople restrict their sleep) is given over to the Dharma, the historical Buddha's teaching.

The Patimokkha
Meditation hall when Tulku Dakpa Rinpoche was giving a teaching on Seven Point Mind Training at Danakosha Dharma Center (Mitjoruohoniemi/flickr.com)
The monastics on these days have to meet (if they are four or more in number) and listen to one recite by heart the 227 monastic training rules called the Patimokkha, the "[direct] path to moksha or liberation."

This meeting may take an hour or more and laypeople may attend, according to the tradition of that monastery. Apart from this regular observance, some monastics may undertake extra austere practices (Pali dhutanga, Thai thudong), such as not lying down on the lunar observance night, which means the effort to try and meditate in the three postures of walking, standing, and sitting all night long.
This is the practice, in brief, of “entering to stay at” (uposatha) a monastery in Asia. Obviously a Buddhist who has no facilities like these in a non-Buddhist country must spend the lunar observance differently.

Perhaps the first thing to consider is whether it is worth trying to keep the observance days. Why are they kept according to phases of the Moon? The origin of these uposatha days in Buddhist teachings is found in the following story.

The back story
Meditation mudra (Sfarfal/flickr.com)
The occasion was this: The Blessed One was living at Rajagaha (Rajgir) on Vulture Peak rock, and at that time wandering ascetics of other traditions were in the habit of meeting together on the half moon days of the 14th and 15th and the quarter moon of the eighth and preaching their dharmas.

People went to hear about their dharmas from them. They grew fond of these wandering ascetics and believed in them. So the wandering ascetics gained support (as opposed to the Vedic Brahmins, the "temple priests" of Indian and Indian-influenced society).

Now while King Seniya Bimbisara Magadha was alone in retreat, he considered this and thought: “Why should the venerable ones not also meet together on these days?”
Then he went to the Blessed One and told him what he had thought, adding: “Venerable sir, it would be good if the venerable ones also met together on these days.”
The Blessed One instructed the king with a talk on the Dharma, after which the king departed. Then the Blessed One made this the occasion for a discourse on the Dharma, and he addressed the Buddhist monastics, his disciple wandering ascetics, in this way:
“Meditators, I allow meetings on the half moons of the 14th and 15th and the quarter moon of the eighth.”
Siddhartha, the Scythian wanderer
So the wandering Buddhist ascetics gathered together on these days, as allowed by the Blessed One, but they sat in silence. People went to hear the Dharma. They were annoyed, and they murmured and complained in protest: “How can these monastics, the offspring of the Shakyans [disciples of Shakyamuni, Siddhartha Gautama, a member of the Scythian clan the Shakyians who came from the west in what is now Afghanistan and Central Asia, formerly Indo-Scythia], meet together on these days yet sit in silence dumb as hogs? Ought not the Dharma to be taught when they meet?”
Monastics heard this. They went to the Blessed One and reported what they heard. He made this the occasion for a discourse on the Dharma, and he addressed the wandering ascetics thus: “Meditators, when there is a meeting on the half moons of the 14th and 15th and the quarter moon of the eighth, I allow teaching of the Dharma [The Life of the Buddha, Bhikkhu √Ďanamoli (trans), p. 157].
The Life of the Buddha, Ven. Nanamoli (FREE)
We can see from this that the lunar observance day was already popular at that time; in fact, "India" (or Magadha and neighboring kingdoms to be more exact) already had a lunar calendar. The Buddha sometimes allowed popular practices (from outside of his culture, which was different from the land he did most of his teaching in) after he investigated them to see whether they were harmless and profitable.

In this case he saw that there were advantages for Dharma-practice on lunar observance days, so he allowed them.
But we should understand clearly that the Dharma in its various aspects was not taught by him out of conformity with pre-Buddhist traditions. (How often one hears statements such as, “The Buddha accepted and taught the Hindu doctrines of karma and reincarnation!” or “The Buddha was born a Hindu!” when there was no Hinduism, and the Vedic Brahmanism that tried to rule religious practices was not dominant in the land he came from and was not dominant among non-Brahmin caste members of the societies he taught in).

The Dharma was taught by him based on enlightenment -- having seen everything as it truly is. So the teaching -- for instance, on karma -- was because he had seen the truth of this for himself. In fact, the Brahmins did not teach the doctrine of karma to non-Brahmins. That teaching innovation came from the wandering ascetic (shraman) movement, of which the Buddha was the most successful advocate along with Mahavira (Jainism).

Similarly with the lunar observance days, the importance of which are underlined by a number of discourses on the subject in the "Numerical Discourses" (Anguttara Nikaya), in the Book of the Eights.
The Moon
Phases of the Moon (Chandra, Luna, Soma) across the sky as Earth's universal calendar.
But if the timing of the lunar observance days in Buddhist tradition was fixed merely to coincide with the existing lunar calendar and the traditional observances connected with it, today when most people work in countries that do not follow a lunar calendar, it would seem sensible to have days for special Buddhist observance during the weekends.

Is there any other significance to the lunar observance days falling according to the phases of the Moon?
A fairly new branch of biology, called chronobiology, studies the rhythmicity in nature and appears to support the importance of lunar observance days, particularly the full moon observance. Dr. W. Menaker of New York, writing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (77:905, 1959) has observed as the result of an analysis of data on birth and conception that the coincidences between the lunar month of 29.53 and the average duration of the menstrual cycle of 29.5 days “constitutes a combination of circumstances that points to the synodic lunar month as the time unit of the human sexual reproductive cycle.”
It seems as though the keeping of the lunar observance days by large numbers of Buddhist laypeople until recent times will have helped limit the growth of the population in Buddhist countries. Some people have also observed that sexual desire comes to a peak with the full moon. Those who understand that restraint of this and other sensual appetites is beneficial will see that there is a cause for keeping at least the full moon as a lunar observance day.
Chronobiologists are now working on the assumption that as the oceans are affected by the Moon, so the water in the body is also affected: “As our bodies are about two-thirds ’sea’ and one-third ’land,’ we must sustain ’tidal’ effects” (Dr. Menaker, op. cit.)

This seems reasonable when looked at from the teaching given on the elements by the Buddha:

“Whatever is internal liquid element and whatever is external liquid element, just these are the liquid element” (see Maha-Rahulovada Sutra, MN 62) -- although the context for this quotation is the cultivation of insight.
At any rate, development in the Dharma goes in the direction of becoming less affected by craving for desires concerning the body, for to have such craving is to have a defiled heart/mind, which brings frustration and disappointment and obstructs liberation and freedom.
The defilements and passions can best be controlled when they can be seen -- when they are strongest. It is impossible to restrain defilements in oneself when they are not apparent, although they may be operating beneath the surface of awareness.
For instance, a person who is well-provided with wealth and comforts may not be able to see greed or aversion at work in oneself. These defilements will have not surfaced because the sea of satisfied desires in which they swim is deep enough.
But place this same person in a bare little hut with poor food eaten only once a day and a strict discipline to restrain actions and see what happens! The monsters of the deep all rise to the surface and clamor for more extensive waters in which to sport.
On the other hand, the attitude of good monastics shows the right way to deal with defilements. Some of the strongest cravings -- sensuality and sloth -- manifest themselves at night, so the night was recommended by the Buddha as the time when they could be tackled most effectively.
An enemy that one has not seen and known cannot be defeated, but an enemy well known and attacked with the instruments of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Collectedness [Concentration], has no hope of winning.
It is the same on lunar observance days. The defilements that show themselves then can be restrained and limited with the aid of the uposatha discipline, which includes the Eight Precepts.
Let us consider it from another point of view. Renunciation (letting go internally rather than grasping and clinging at impermanent things) is a thread that runs through all Buddhist practice. If one practices giving, then one renounces the pleasures that could be bought with that wealth.
When the Five Precepts are practiced then one renounces the actions covered by them which may be pleasurable or thrilling to some and are, in any case, unwholesome. And when effort is made to meditate, the earnest practitioner will soon find that certain pleasures and distractions offered by this world just do not go with a calm and mindful mind, so one renounces them.
The Eight Precepts to be discussed below are part of the same way of practice, a discipline for a lay person’s temporary renunciation. In the sutra mentioned above the Buddha speaks of a noble (enlightened) disciple reflecting: By undertaking the lunar observance with its Eight Precepts for a day and a night I renounce the way of common people and live as the arhats (fully enlightened) do for all their lives, compassionate, pure, and wise.

So the Eight Precepts are really a test of how far one can discipline oneself. That means really, to what extent do wholesome states of mind consonant with Dharma-practice predominate in one’s character over unwholesome desires motivated by greed, aversion, and delusion?

The practice of the Eight Precepts gives one a chance to find out about this. And this is an investigation that one can make four times a month if one wishes.

We have seen how laypeople in Buddhist countries periodically withdraw for 24 hours to a monastery for the practice of some special Dharma. But what is to be done where there is no monastery, no monastics, and no possibility of taking time off from work?
First, on these days, or on some of them, one could be a bit more in the shrine room. This would include reciting the Eight Precepts instead of the Five Precepts. And if one knows any special discourse of the Buddha, in Pali (the exclusively Buddhist language) or in English, it should be chanted or read through.
The sources of deep happiness are rare.
A very useful sutra to chant or read is the "Discourse on the Eight-Part Uposatha (see below). To this could be added such popular sutras as the "Discourse on Loving Kindness" (Karaniya Metta Sutta) and the "Discourse on the Truly Auspicious" (Maha Mangala Sutta). Longer discourses such as the "Discourse on Treasures" (Ratana Sutta) and the first sermon or "Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma" (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) would be appropriate if one has time.
Apart from precepts and sutras, more time could be given to meditation on these days. So if one uses the shrine room only once on ordinary days, it would be used twice on these days, while making the effort to sit rather longer. When the Eight Precepts are backed up by the calm, strong mind produced in meditation then they become easy to keep.
The Dharma that one can practice during the day at work must be decided by each person, taking account of one's own personality and of the surrounding circumstances. Of course, one tries to keep one’s conduct within the bounds of the Eight Precepts and do only those things which are consonant with the spirit of the precepts.

One may find it possible to practice giving (dana, generosity) in some way on these days and some short periods devoted to some of the recollections might be possible -- depending on each person to find one's own ways and means.

The Eight Precepts
When can be cultivated in terms of virtue, concentration, and insight, I will cultivate.
This brings us to the Eight Precepts and some remarks on them. (See Appendix):
  1. I undertake the training rule to refrain from killing living creatures.
  2. I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking what is not given.
  3. I undertake the training rule to refrain from unchaste conduct.
  4. I undertake the training rule to refrain from false speech.
  5. I undertake the training rule to refrain from distilled and fermented intoxicants which are the occasion for heedlessness.
  6. I undertake the training rule to refrain from eating outside the time.
  7. I undertake the training rule to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see [distracting or unsuitable] entertainments, wearing garlands, smartening with perfumes, and beautifying with cosmetics.
  8. I undertake the training rule to refrain from a high or large beds and seats.
It has always been understood by Buddhist laypeople that if one undertakes these Eight Precepts then great efforts are made not to break any of them. The Five Precepts represent a general measure for ordinary life, and in practice people have a flexible attitude towards minor infringements of some of them.
But voluntarily undertaking the Eight Precepts, particularly for just one day a week or month, is a more serious commitment and is not undertaken lightly.

If one does undertake them, one should feel reasonably certain, whatever one’s interior or exterior circumstances, that none of the precepts will be broken. In the case of the first precept... More

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