Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).
- How and why to take the eight Mahayana precepts
- A description of each of the precepts
- The meaning and purpose of the precepts
The Essence of a Human Life: The eight Mahayana precepts (download)
After a long break we’re coming back to The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for the Lay Practitioner, by Je Tsongkhapa. We were halfway through the seventh verse when the hiatus started. The seventh verse said,
With such thoughts make efforts in refuge,
live as best you can in the five lifelong precepts, [which we discussed]
praise by Buddha as the basis of lay life.
[And this is what I’m going to talk about today]:
Take sometimes the eight one day precepts
and guard them dearly.
The one-day precepts are taken for one day. You usually take them before dawn, in other words before it’s light enough to see the lines in the palm of your hand. The first time you take them you take them from somebody who already has them. After that you can take them by yourself in front of the altar.
At the Abbey we often have people who have not taken them before, and we don’t give them every full and new moon when we take them, so we have people do the ceremony with us and they have a similitude of the precepts.
The first five precepts
The precepts are just like the five lay precepts with a few exceptions.
- No killing
- No stealing (this is for the 24-hour period)
- Whereas the lay precepts are to avoid unkind and unwise sexual behavior, for this 24 hour period it’s celibacy—no sexual contact at all
- Not lying
- Not taking intoxicants
You have those five. Let me go on to the next verse since we hit the fifth one, because the next one talks about that. Although it isn’t talking about it just in the terms of when you take the precepts, it’s talking about it in terms of your life in general. So we’ll just skip ahead and then go back to count the eight precepts. The next verse says,
Drunkenness, particularly, is the ruin of the world,
held in contempt by the wise.
Therefore, my fine-featured ones,
it is good to turn from such despised behavior.
Drunkenness. It includes taking illegal drugs. Any kind of intoxication from illegal drugs. And also abusing prescription drugs, which actually cause more death than the illegal drugs.
Why is it called the “ruin of the world?” Because when we’re intoxicated we do all sorts of stupid things, and then we don’t even remember what we did. We say things that we would never say when we’re in our right senses. We make dumb decisions. We take risks that are totally out in left field.
Those kind of things harm ourselves. But also the image, how we present ourselves to somebody else when we’re drunk, is that how we want them to remember us? As some person who can’t walk a straight line and says all sorts of obnoxious things, and so on?
The damage to our own body and mind from that, there’s also the physical damage from illegal drugs, and certainly too much alcohol. There have been lots of studies about that.
Also what it does to our social relationships. I have so many people tell me, “You know, I really don’t want to drink, but when I go to a party everybody else is.” So I often wonder if anybody at the party wants to drink, or if they’re all doing it because they think everybody else expects them to drink. And not one of them has the courage to say, “I don’t want to drink.” Can you imagine at a party if somebody said, “I don’t drink,” then a whole lot of other people would probably say, “Oh, thank goodness. They said it first, now it’s okay for me to say it, too.” So strange how people are influenced by the peer pressure regarding this.
That’s why intoxicants are…. And I know that many business deals are closed over intoxicants. I also heard a story—it hasn’t been verified, and I’m not sure if I have the details of the story right—but I think that that’s somehow how Idaho, where the border between Idaho and Montana was set…. [Asks a person in the audience for input.] I heard some story where at least one of the governors was drunk and then gave part of the land to…I can’t remember if Washington gave it to Idaho or if Idaho gave it to Montana. Something like that, but it was one of the governors was drunk. That’s the story I heard. We should look it up. But that’s not such a cool thing to do, is it?
Let’s go back to the eight precepts. We have that one, not taking intoxicants.
Not sitting on high or expensive beds or seats
The next one is not sitting on high or expensive beds or seats. The reason for that is in ancient India everybody sat on the floor. If you were sitting higher, it was because you were an important person. So in order to not fall prey to arrogance or conceit, then not sit on high or expensive beds and thrones. High is anything higher than a cubit (elbow to fingertips).
In our culture people sit on chairs, and that’s usually not a sign of being arrogant, unless of course you sit up there while everybody else is on the floor and you’re looking down at others and feeling superior. In our culture it would be coming into the room, sitting at the head of the table. Taking the nicest seat, the most comfortable seat, or an elevated seat. Or a luxurious seat. Something where we are conveying to others our superiority. So to abandon that because it creates arrogance.
Entertainment and ornamentation
The next one has two parts. One part is not singing, dancing, and playing music. Although this is not a naturally negative action, it’s abandoned for the period of one day because, first of all, it takes a lot of time, singing, dancing, and playing music. Second of all, it draws a lot of attention to ourselves: “Look what a good singer I am, look what a good dancer I am, look what a good performer I am….” And third of all, then when you sit down to meditate, you’re replaying the songs, the dance steps, the entertainment.
Although the precept just says “singing, dancing, and playing music,” it actually includes all sorts of entertainment: just watching movies and things that are entertaining for the heck of it.
The second part of that is not wearing perfumes, garlands, ornaments. The reason for this, again, is because perfumes, garlands, and ornaments draw attention to ourselves. We want to make ourselves attractive so that others are attracted to us. It’s very distracting for Dharma practice.
In terms of scents we try to use unscented soap. If all you have is scented soap, please use soap. It’s okay. Same with deodorant, try and use unscented, but if there isn’t any, then use the scented. But try and get unscented things. And then don’t wear perfumes, aftershave, these kinds of things. Fingernail polish. Any kind of jewelry or ornaments. In India they used to wear garlands in their hair. We don’t have to worry about that. That’s the seventh one.
The eighth one is not to eat at inappropriate times. Inappropriate times meaning after midday, so after noon until dawn of the next morning. For that period to only take beverages. Beverages means thin beverages. You can add a little bit of milk to some tea, that’s fine, but not a whole glass of milk. Not yogurt. You can have fruit juice if it’s strained, without pieces (pulp) in it. You can have sweets that just dissolve in your mouth, but not things you chew. You can have vegetable broth, but again, it has to pass through a strainer (a tea strainer, not a noodle strainer).
When to take the precepts
Those are the eight precepts. It’s very good to take them. Here at the Abbey we already have the monastic precepts, but we take the eight Mahayana precepts for the period of a day on new and full moon days. But you can do it any day you want. It’s especially good if you feel like your practice is losing energy, or you’ve been really, really distracted and your mind is all over the place. Or you just did something that you don’t feel so good about doing and you know you need to get yourself back on track, then take the precepts for one day, and it’s a really, really good practice. That’s Tsongkhapa’s recommendation to lay practitioners.