Monday, February 22, 2016

Snow Moon: Buddhist Lunar Observance Days

Ven. Khantipalo (Lay Buddhist Practice) via; Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Crystal Quintero (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly; 2014 blood moon as seen in Milwaukee (
Boudhanath stupa, Eyes of Wisdom, Kathmandu, Nepal (~anup/dreamynomad/flickr)
Buddhist Lunar Observance Days
Ven. Khantipalo edited by Wisdom Quarterly
The word uposatha means "entering to stay," in the Buddhist sense, 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 the Vedic rites and 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 a 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.
It may be helpful to mention this about the lunar month: a month (originally cognate with "moon," a moonth) has 29.5 days. Two months have 59 days, that is, one of 30 and one of 29. Each month is divided into fortnights (two week periods), one of the waxing moon and another of the waning moon.
Monks and novices, Burma (Serena Ranieri)
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 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 monastics to assemble on these days to listen to the recitation of the patimokkha (the "path to liberation," leading out of the Wheel of Samsara, i.e., the fundamental rules of a monastic) and to teach the Dharma to lay people who come to the monastery or convent.
From that time to the present, the lunar observance (uposatha) days have been observed by Buddhists, both ordained and lay, in all Buddhist countries. The practice of Buddhists, as available to the writer from Thai Theravada Buddhist culture -- with many local variations -- is along these lines:
The Blessing of Almsround
Early in the morning lay people give alms food to the monastics, who walk on alms round (see The Blessings of Pindapata, Wheel 73, Buddhist Publication Society), or are invited to a layperson's home, or given by lay people who bring food to the monastery. Usually lay people wait to eat after serving food to the monastics, who eat only once a day (or in any case, take food only from sunrise to noon), particularly where monastics practice the sane austerity of eating a single meal. In any case, all eating is finished before noon.

Eight Precepts: intensive practice
The Eight Precepts are the Five Precepts with three additional undertaking to help cultivate, maintain, and bring to fruition one's meditation. One undertakes the training rule:
  1. to refrain from killing living creatures
  2. to refrain from taking what is not given
  3. to refrain from unchaste conduct
  4. to refrain from false speech
  5. to refrain from intoxicants which occasion heedlessness
  6. to refrain from eating outside the time
  7. to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, smartening with perfumes, and beautifying with cosmetics
  8. to refrain from high or large beds and seats.
Theravada monastics, Thailand, (
Before the meal lay donors request the Eight Precepts (Five Precepts with three additional rules observed on this special lunar observance day), which they vow to undertake for a day and a night.

It is usual for lay people to go to the local monastery and spend all day and night there -- listening to the Dharma, chanting, practicing meditation, questioning, and learning. In different monasteries, of course, the way one spends time will not be the same. Much depends on which aspect of the Dharma is stressed there, study or practice.
Korean monastics, Haeinsa (Joonghijung)
Where there is more study, lay people will hear as many as three or four discourses on the Dharma delivered by senior monastics. And they will have books to read and perhaps classes on the Abhidharma ("Higher Teaching") to attend. But people are quite free to plan their own time with meditation, discussion of the Dharma with monastics and so on.
In a meditation monastery lay people will get less instruction, and that will be about the practice of the Dharma, while most of their time will be spent mindfully (with a kammathana or "field of effort," a meditation subject or theme) -- meditating while walking or seated, with some time given to helping the monastics with their daily duties.
So the whole of this day and night (and enthusiastic lay people often restrict their sleep to accord with the monastic schedule of early rising) is given over to the Dharma.
Buddhist monks at doorway of monastery, Punakha, Bhutan (Donatella Venturi)
The monastics on these days have to meet (if four or more in number) and listen to one monastic recite by heart the 227 training rules contained in the patimokkha. This meeting may take an hour or more and lay people may or may not attend, according to the tradition of the monastery.
Apart from this regular observance, some monastics may undertake an extra austere practice -- such as not lying down on the uposatha night, which means the effort to try and meditate all night in three of the four postures of walking, standing, and sitting.
Monks, Hemis Gompa (Rishabh Asthana)
This is the practice in brief of "entering to stay at" in 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 lunar observance days. Why are they kept according to the phases of the moon? The origin of the uposatha days in Buddhist teachings is found in the following story:

Origin of the Observance Days
The Blessed One was living at Rajagaha (Rajgir) on the Vulture's Peak Rock.
At that time wandering ascetics of other doctrines were in the habit of meeting together on the half moons of the 14th and 15th and the quarter moon of the eighth and talking about dharma (their doctrines about proper practice and spiritual theory).
People went to hear their dharma from them. They grew fond of these wanderers and believed in them. So the wanderers gained support.
Now while King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha was alone in retreat, he considered this and thought: "Why should the venerable ones [Buddhist monastics] not also meet together on these days?"

Then he went to the Blessed One and told him what he thought, adding: "Venerable sir, it would be good if the venerable ones also met together on these days."
Maitreya Buddha, Himalayas (
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 monastics:

"Meditators, I allow meetings on the half moons of the 14th and 15th and the quarter moon of the eighth."
So the monastics met together on those 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 eventually protested: "How can the monastics, the sons [and daughters] of the Shakyans [the Buddha's family clan, many of whom had become monastics], meet together on these days and sit in silence as dumb [silent] as hogs? Ought not the Dharma to be taught when they meet?"
Monastics heard this. So they went to the Blessed One and told him. He made this the occasion for a discourse on the Dharma, and he addressed the monastics:

The Life of the Buddha (
"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, translated by Ven. Nanamoli, p. 157).
We can see from this that the lunar observance day was already popular at that time. In fact, India [separate republics and kingdoms from Afghanistan to Burma influenced by the once great Indus Valley Civilization of modern Pakistan, a realm of influence which later came to be called "India"] already had a lunar calendar.
The Buddha sometimes allowed popular practices when he had investigated them to see whether they were profitable. In this case, he saw that there were advantages for Dharma-practice on these traditional lunar observance days, so he allowed them.

But we should understand clearly that the Buddha's Dharma in its various aspects was not taught out of conformity with pre-Buddhist traditions. (How often one sees misguided statements like, "The Buddha accepted and taught the Hindu doctrine of karma and reincarnation"!)

Golden Thai Buddha (nippon_newfie/
The Dharma which the Buddha taugh was taught by him based on his enlightenment -- his direct perception of things as they truly are. So the teaching of, for instance, karma is based on what the Buddha saw for himself.

The Truth is there for all beings to realize, but it takes a supremely enlightened samma-sam-buddha to effectively teach it and establish it in the world. Because he realized the truth when there was no teaching, no Dharma leading to the realization of it, he himself made it known.
Similarly with lunar observance or uposatha days, the importance of which are underscored by a number of sutras on the subject in the Anguttara Nikaya, in the Book of the Eights.

But if the timing of the observance days in Buddhist tradition were fixed merely to coincide with the existing lunar calendar and the traditional observances connected with it, then today when most people work in countries which 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 days falling on 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 the uposatha days, particularly the full moon observance.
Theravada monastics (Nicolas Journey)
Dr. W. Menaker of New York, writing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (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 uposatha days by large numbers of lay Buddhists until recent times will have helped to limit the growth of the population in Buddhist countries.
Some people have also observed that sexual desire peaks with the full moon. Those who understand that restraint in this and other sensual appetites is beneficial will see that there is a good cause for keeping at least the full moon as an uposatha 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).
This seems reasonable 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 the Maharahulovada Sutra, MN 62). The context for this quotation is the development of insight. At any rate, development in the Dharma goes in the direction of becoming less affected by physical and sensual desires. Such desires arise, not because of the body but based on defilements of the heart/mind.
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 operate underneath 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 have not yet surfaced since the sea of satisfied desires in which they swim is deep.
But place this same person in a bare hut with poor food eaten only once a day and a strict discipline to control his or her actions, and then 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 meditators and monastics shows the optimal way to deal with defilements.
Some of the strongest -- sensuality and sloth, lust and laziness -- manifest themselves at night, so the night was recommended by the Buddha as the time when they can be tackled most effectively.
A near enemy that one has not seen and known cannot be defeated. But an enemy well known and confronted with the tools of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Mental-Collectedness (Concentration) has no hope to win.

It is the same on uposatha days. The defilements that show themselves can be restrained and limited with the aid of the observance day discipline, which includes the Eight Precepts.
Let us consider it from another point of view. Letting go or renunciation of what is not beneficial is a thread which runs through all Buddhist practices.
If one practices giving, one renounces the pleasures that could be bought with wealth. When the Five Precepts are practiced, one renounces the actions (unwholesome karma) covered by them, which may be pleasurable or thrilling to some but 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 the world just do not go with a calm and mindful heart/mind, so one renounces, abandons, lets them go.
Good karma leads to beauty (AH)
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 disciple reflecting in this way:
By undertaking the uposatha with its Eight Precepts for a day and a night, I renounce the way of common people and live as the noble ones (enlightened ones) do for all their lives, compassionate, pure, and wise. More

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