The Eight Precepts of Restraint and Abstinence


Translated By Andrew Yang

In Buddhism there are the basic Five Precepts that refer to the five ethical guidelines observed by lay men and women followers throughout their lives. They are refraining from killing, refraining from stealing, refraining from sexual misconduct, refraining from false speech and refraining from consuming intoxicants. These Five Precepts are the fundamental moral principles for all Buddhist devotees.

Now, what about the Eight Precepts? As lay practitioners often find it challenging to fully uphold the Five Precepts due to their worldly involvement, an additional six days of abstinence and fasting each month are prescribed to help their observance. During these select six days, they adhere to the Five Precepts but also abstain from all forms of entertainment, to make sure they strictly abide by the precepts while avoiding indulgence. Thus, three further precepts are formed, making a total of eight precepts.

The three additional precepts are: first, refraining from engaging in any delightful, pleasant forms of entertainment, from deliberately adorning oneself with ornaments, from applying cosmetics or perfumes and from singing, dancing and listening to music. Second, refraining from indulging in comfortable, elaborate and luxurious seating or bedding arrangements. Third, refraining from eating after midday, except for drinking water. The first two are precepts by definition, and the third is a specified abstinence. These three rules of behaviour, together with the basic Five Precepts, make up what is known as the Eight Precepts of Restraint and Abstinence.

Analyzed word by word, of the term Eight Precepts of Restraint and Abstinence,

“Eight” refers to the number of precepts that one undertakes to uphold.
“Precepts” serves the purpose of preventing and stopping wrongdoing.
“Restraint”, meaning a measure to control and shut out, signifies closing doors to eight types of unwholesome action generated through body, speech and mind, thereby shutting down the path to all evil.
And “Abstinence” implies refraining from all forms of evil and actively cultivating virtue. Additionally, it means abstaining from eating after midday.

So again, the first seven of the Eight Precepts are precepts proper, while the last one, abstaining from eating after midday, is fasting. Thus, together, they form the Eight Precepts.

These eight rules were established by Buddha for lay followers and are observed on six days of each lunar month, ideally on the 8th, 14th, 15th, 23rd, 29th and 30th. By undertaking the Eight Precepts, lay Buddhist practitioners nurture wholesome qualities, making it a practice known as “long-term cultivation and ritual observance”. Their observance, however, is flexible and could be undertaken on any other chosen days, making them easier for lay practitioners to adhere to.

Lay practitioners who take on the Eight Precepts need to separate themselves from home while also separating from each other as a couple and reside instead in a temple or independent dwelling to help observe the precepts. According to the Eight Precepts Sutra, honouring them for six days each month generates more merit than that from offering precious treasures to the monastic community in sixteen kingdoms. The merit is greater than the volume of all the water in the five great rivers.

The Eight Precepts are a means to prevent wrongdoing, cultivate a pure mind and serve as a gateway to transcending worldly concerns. If one consistently follows them for six days in each month, their personal moral conduct will greatly improve. Ancient saints have hence advised with a poem,

Cultivate the Path amongst the world’s hustle and bustle.
A foundation of the “Five Precepts” makes what’s moral.
Abstain from killing and engage in mere acts of kindness.
Covet no wealth or possessions and be hale and virtuous.
Indulge in no sensual desire while keeping the mind pure.
Permanently abstain from meat and resist alcoholic lure.
Engage in no blabbermouthing, nor telling fallacious lies.
No seeking outside one’s own mind, awakening requires.

Lay Buddhists should seize the opportunity of this lifetime to uphold both the Five and Eight Precepts in their spiritual pursuit, in order not to suffer the agony of further transmigration. For those who practise Pure Land at home, if they steadfastly obey the Eight Precepts with faith, aspiration and wholesome conduct but without deliberately pursuing blessings, they will certainly be reborn one day in the heavenly western Pure Land. Amitabha Buddha!

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