Sila & The 8 Precepts

During Uposatha days, the 8 Precepts may be observed. The 8 Precepts are:
1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
3. Abrahmacariya veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual activity.
4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
6. Vikalabhojana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at the forbidden time (i.e., after noon).
7. Nacca-gita-vadita-visukkadassana mala-gandha-vilepana-dharana-mandana-vibhusanathana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.
8. Uccasayana-mahasayana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

It has always been understood by Buddhist lay people that if one undertakes these Eight Precepts then great efforts should be 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 the Eight Precepts are a more serious commitment and should not be undertaken lightly. If one does take them on, then one should feel reasonably certain, whatever one's interior and exterior circumstances, that none of the precepts will be broken.

In the case of the first one, not only should one not kill any living being but also one should not do the sort of work which might involve one in killing unintentionally, where one has no choice in the matter (work such as digging and cultivating). Even acts which are harmful in any way to others should be avoided on an Uposatha day. Few people have work which involves killing and fewer still of these people will be Buddhists, as such work must be repugnant to sincere Dhamma-practicers.

The second precept will need attention in such things as using for one's own purposes materials belonging to the firm (government, etc.) that one works for, or taking extra or surplus materials for oneself or others without permission to do so. Taking what is not given would also include such practices as adulteration of materials for sale and making others work without adequate remuneration.

The third precept is changed from the set of five. There "wrong conduct" means all kinds of sex which results in harm to others — breaking up for others' marriages, rape and the seduction of minors, for instance. But under this precept "unchaste conduct" means that all kinds of sexual behavior are to be avoided whether they are wrong conduct or are allowable in normal lay life, whether with others or by self-stimulation. The Buddha has said:

Do not engage in heedlessness!
Do not come near to sexual joys!
The heedful and contemplative
attains abundant bliss.

— Dhp. 27

And when this abstinence is to be practiced only for one, two or four days a month there should be no great difficulty.

The fourth precept requires a special watch on the runaway tongue. This means the effort to practice Right Speech that is, speech which is true, brings harmony between people, is gentle and has meaning. Dhamma has all these qualities and one's speech should be in accordance with it. One who has taken the Uposatha precepts should try not to become involved in worldly chatter or arguments. And similarly with words on paper: news-papers and magazines which just distract the mind should be avoided for this day. If one wants to read then it should be a book on Dhamma.

It should not be too hard to keep the fifth precept strictly on these days. Under this precept one must include any kind of intoxicant taken for pleasure and escape, so drugs soft and hard find a place here as well as alcohol. At all times a Buddhist is trying to increase in the quality of heedfulness —

Heedfulness — the path to Deathlessness,
heedlessness — the path to death:
the heedful ones do not die,
the heedless are like unto the dead.

— Dhp. 21

But intoxicants only increase unwholesome states of mind so that a person becomes more heedless (or careless as pamada has been translated in this precept).

The sixth precept also follows the practice of bhikkhus and aims at cutting down the sloth which is experienced after a day's work and a substantial evening meal, while it ensures that the body is light and fit for meditative practice. In the precept, the words "outside the time" mean after twelve noon until dawn the following day. During this time no food is eaten. However, some flexibility will be needed here with people going out to work. For them it would mean no food after their midday lunch until breakfast the next day. If one is troubled by tiredness after work on a day when these precepts are undertaken then tea or coffee are allowable as refreshing drinks. If hunger is the trouble then cocoa (or even plain chocolate) should cure it. None of these refreshments should contain milk, which is considered a food, though sugar, honey and butter are allowed (to bhikkhus, and therefore to lay people keeping the Eight Precepts), presumably because one can take only a little of these things. Fruit juices which have been strained (without fruit pulp) are other possible drinks.

The seventh precept is really a compound of two in the Ten Precepts of a novice and therefore falls into two parts: the first on "dancing... entertainments," and the second concerned with "wearing garlands... cosmetics." The first half is aimed at keeping mind, speech and body away from all kinds of amusements. Not of course that they are "sinful," but that they turn the mind out through the senses, arouse defilements and cause conflicts where there might be peace. So these days, under this precept must be put radio, television, theater, cinema and sporting events. These are all ways of escape from being quiet. The second half of the precept is directed against vanity and conceit arising by way of the body. The tradition in the East is for Buddhists who undertake these precepts to clothe themselves simply in white cloth with no adornments. This will not be possible for the lay Buddhist who goes out to work, but on such days jewelry could be left at home, scents and lotions not used on the body, nor cosmetics on the face.

The last precept concerns sleep. Just as all the other luxuries have been cut out, so the luxury of a large, soft bed should be dispensed with for this night. In warm Buddhist countries a mat on the floor is enough, but where the weather is colder a hard mattress or folded blankets on the floor could be used. On a hard surface the body actually relaxes more than on a soft one, also there is less desire to sleep long. On these nights an effort should be made to restrict sleep to the minimum. A "large bed" means one in which two people sleep. The Buddhist who practices these precepts for a day and a night always sleeps by himself.

This summarizes the practice of the Uposatha day. Some people may think these precepts too difficult to carry out in the midst of an alien society. Others may think them too easy to bother about. But before any judgment is passed on them try practicing them for a few Uposathas and then see what is the result. Effort made to practice Dhamma can never bear bad fruits.

According to tradition, one may practice the Eight Precepts on the Full Moon, New Moon and two Quarter-moon days. This is for someone who is really making an effort and whose circumstances allow him to do so. Others might undertake them on the two Uposatha days — the Full and New Moon days. Or if they are to be undertaken one day a month this will usually be on the Full Moon.

Where this had been found by experience to be quite impossible, then the Uposatha could be kept on weekends. Better this than nothing at all! But then married lay people may find that this will conflict with their family responsibilities — perhaps to others in the family who are not Buddhist. This is something for individual Buddhists to decide for themselves.

This indeed is called the eight-part Uposatha taught by the Buddha, gone to dukkha's end.

Extracted from "Lay Buddhist Practice: The Shrine Room, Uposatha Day, Rains Residence", by Bhikkhu Khantipalo. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010,