Wesak day this year falls on the 28 of May, and will be celebrated by Buddhists the world over. It is considered the most significant Buddhist festival of the year as it marks Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth, Enlightenment and passing into Parinirvana or clear light.
Usually Buddhists will make their way to their various temples and make prayers and offerings to maximise the auspiciousness of the day. Some Buddhists also take the Eight Precepts, which is the holding of eight vows for 24 hours. This was introduced by Lord Buddha for lay people to have an experience for one day and one night of the Sangha’s vows, even though the Sangha have many more vows than eight!
The Eight Precepts are basically an exercise in abstention from our usual attachments. The purpose of taking these precepts are to purify our minds and reduce our self-indulgence on this holiest of days. The effect of these vows can be tremendous. There is a story of a naga (a snake-like creature which lives in water) and a king – apparently they had previously been humans who took the one day vows. One had broken his vow of eating after noon and thus was reborn as a naga. The other who kept his vows was reborn as a king.
Discipline is not my forte but once a year, I don’t mind. Jason and his boyfriend Mark are a couple of my friends who endlessly debated whether they should take the Eight Precepts before Wesak day last year. This was what the drama was about.
The Eight Precepts:
1. I will not be harmful to living beings.
Ok, so today, I won’t kill my cats if they pee on the sofa. I’m used to letting mosquitoes buzz around without swatting them now, and I’ve even started a relationship with the cockroach who lives in my bathroom – his name is Clive – so not killing is not a big deal. Jason and Mark wouldn’t hurt a fly but when they heard that they had to be vegetarian, Jason who loves meat was immediately rather resistant.
2. I will not steal.
We may think this is easy but literally this means I will not take that which is not given. That includes not ‘borrowing’ anything from my housemate without him knowing or taking an extra Ikea wooden pencil from the shop. Jason and Mark apparently never borrow anything so they were fine with this precept.
3. I will abstain from any sexual activity.
This seemed to cause the most consternation for Jason and Mark. Last year, I gently said that it’s only for 24 hours. They looked at each other in mock horror. They had already been together for two years, which was the longest relationship either of them had ever been in. Shouldn’t that make it easier? I asked helpfully.
4. I will not lie.
What does a lie mean – how about a white lie? Jason asked. What if a friend was wearing an atrocious looking shirt, can I lie? I said that it would depend on his motivation. If he was telling a white lie to be polite, that was okay but only he would know what his true motivation is.
5. I will not take intoxicating drinks and drugs.
No problem there at all! Wait – coffee is not allowed?
6. I will not eat after 12 noon.
I find this a bummer but I have over 20 spare kilos I’m carrying around so I will survive. What’s disappointing is that the next day I don’t weigh a single ounce less despite fasting for half a day. Jason the carnivore said he would get gastric problem if he doesn’t eat regularly so he was concerned. I advised him that he could have some milk or yoghurt if necessary but that didn’t assuage him.
7. I will not have any enjoyment of the senses – eg listen to music, dance, put on make up, wear perfumes or smell nice scents etc.
I always forget to turn the radio off in the car but aside from that, the rest are not too difficult to keep. Both Jason and Mark said all their soaps were scented, so how? They asked plaintively. Use the least scented one and try not to indulge in it.
8. I will not sleep on a luxurious bed.
Jason and Mark thought it would be quite fun to sleep on the sofa instead of their bed, which is pretty damn luxurious. Then they thought that both of them couldn’t fit on the sofa…
In the end, Mark took the Eight Precepts but Jason decided not to. I was a little concerned that I might have caused some relationship disharmony as Mark slept on the sofa while Jason stayed in the bedroom. But it was for one night only. And Jason was ultra nice to Mark for being so valiant with the vows. Anyway, this year they have tentatively said that they would both take the Precepts. I didn’t dare ask about the sleeping arrangements.
So, what about you? Would you take the Eight Precepts this Wesak? It’s an interesting 24 hours to examine our minds. Whether you do or not, I wish you a very happy Wesak Day!
Sharon Saw is a writer / editor at Kechara Media & Publications, which focuses on publishing the teachings of H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, a high incarnate Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A selection of Buddhist and non-Buddhist related books from Kechara Publications is now available on Fridae Shop. You can follow Sharon on Twitter. This column appears every other Friday.