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Laity, uposatha and retreats

In EBTs, the Buddha praises the observance of the uposatha by contemplative and lay disciples.

For bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, the uposatha is when the recitation of the monastic conduct code (pātimokkha) takes place, and AN8.20 offers a curious origin story for this.

For the non-contemplatives, i.e. householders or lay disciples, the Buddha of EBTs encourages an eightfold observance of the Uposatha which is all about emulating the behaviours of those deemed to be arahants. The eight factors as per AN8.41 stem from eight reflections:

(1) ‘As long as they live the arahants abandon and abstain from the destruction of life; with the rod and weapon laid aside, conscientious and kindly, they dwell compassionate toward all living beings.
Today, for this night and day, I too shall abandon and abstain from the destruction of life; with the rod and weapon laid aside, conscientious and kindly, I too shall dwell compassionate toward all living beings. I shall imitate the arahants in this respect and the uposatha will be observed by me.’

(2) “‘As long as they live the arahants abandon and abstain from taking what is not given; they take only what is given, expect only what is given, and dwell honestly without thoughts of theft.
Today, for this night and day, I too shall abandon and abstain from taking what is not given; I shall accept only what is given, expect only what is given, and dwell honestly without thoughts of theft.
I shall imitate the arahants in this respect and the uposatha will be observed by me.’

(3) “‘As long as they live the arahants abandon sexual activity and observe celibacy, living apart, abstaining from sexual intercourse, the common person’s practice.
Today, for this night and day, I too shall abandon sexual activity and observe celibacy, living apart, abstaining from sexual intercourse, the common person’s practice.
I shall imitate the arahants in this respect and the uposatha will be observed by me.’

(4) “‘As long as they live the arahants abandon and abstain from false speech; they speak truth, adhere to truth; they are trustworthy and reliable, no deceivers of the world.
Today, for this night and day, I too shall abandon and abstain from false speech; I shall speak truth, adhere to truth; I shall be trustworthy and reliable, no deceiver of the world.
I shall imitate the arahants in this respect and the uposatha will be observed by me.’

(5) “‘As long as they live the arahants abandon and abstain from liquor, wine, and intoxicants, the basis for heedlessness.
Today, for this night and day, I too shall abandon and abstain from liquor, wine, and intoxicants, the basis for heedlessness.
I shall imitate the arahants in this respect and the uposatha will be observed by me.’

(6) “‘As long as they live the arahants eat once a day, abstaining from eating at night and from food outside the proper time.
Today, for this night and day, I too shall eat once a day, abstaining from eating at night and from food outside the proper time.
I shall imitate the arahants in this respect and the uposatha will be observed by me.’

(7) “‘As long as they live the arahants abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music, and unsuitable shows, and from adorning and beautifying themselves by wearing garlands and applying scents and unguents.
Today, for this night and day, I too shall abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music, and unsuitable shows, and from adorning and beautifying myself by wearing garlands and applying scents and unguents.
I shall imitate the arahants in this respect and the uposatha will be observed by me.’

(8) “‘As long as they live the arahants abandon and abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds; they lie down on a low resting place, either a small bed or a straw mat.
Today, for this night and day, I too shall abandon and abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds; I shall lie down on a low resting place, either a small bed or a straw mat.
I shall imitate the arahants in this respect and the uposatha will be observed by me.’

The logic for pursuing this practice is presented in AN10.46 and is all about the power of the correct cultivation of the path opened by the Buddha to us:

“Now, Sakyans, there is the case where a disciple of mine, spending ten months… nine months… eight months… seven… six… five… four… three… two months… one month… half a month … ten days & nights… nine days & nights… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two days & nights… one day & night practicing as I have instructed, would live sensitive to unalloyed bliss for a hundred years, a hundred centuries, a hundred millennia. And he would be a once-returner, a non-returner, or at the very least a stream-winner.’

This topic is therefore created with the aim discussing, at least initially, the following points:

What are the similarities and differences between the observance of Uposatha by lay disciples found in the EBTs and the contemporary culture of Dhamma retreats?

What may be the pros and cons of each approach and to what extent the culture of Uposatha is compatible with the lifestyles of most of the laity of nowadays?

How could we summarise what the Buddha alludes to when he talks about practising as instructed by him?

:anjal:

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I’m not sure what you mean by “the contemporary culture of Dhamma retreats”, but I’ll assume you are referring to taking some time once in a while to go to a monastery or retreat center to dedicate time to practice. I think the main difference is that the EBTs seem to suggest that a whole day & night should be put aside every week to emulate the Arahants. And that such a practice would make it very likely for one to be reborn in one of the heavenly realms.

For me, the advantage in setting aside a day & night every week is that it establishes rhythm. But considering that nothing in the EBTs suggests that the moon phases play a role in the path, I think we have way better chances at making Uposatha practicable in the west by sticking to the gregorian calendar (ie: observing Uposatha on sundays).

As for the notion “practicing as I have instructed”, I think it simply comes down to the 8-fold path.

:anjal:

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We don’t hear much about lay disciples going on extended seclusion/retreat in EBTs. Whether this is because the EBTs are more focused on the monastic community, it is difficult to say. We do however hear of the lay community listening to the Buddha at a Dhamma sermon at the temple or during an invitation to their homes for a meal. This is pretty much what takes place in traditionally Buddhist communities. Now the Buddha was able to use his graduated talk (anupubbiya kata) to take lay disciples to stream entry, in the talk itself (Ud5.3). Was going on extended retreat (apart from Uposata 4 times a month) no necessary because of this?

Currently we have access to retreats and I think this is good, except for a select few who may have mental health issues who should take care in doing extended retreats. Becoming a monastic was a lifestyle choice, during the Buddha’s time. So perhaps if anyone wanted to spend time away in seclusion, they could take up robes. The ‘elephant caretaker’s son’ was supposed to have done just that. Equally not every stream entrant took up robes- people like Citta, Visaka, Anathapindika were famous lay people who didn’t ordain but lived ordinary lives. There’s a name of woman mentioned as the foremost among lay jhana attainers- suggesting a good deal of meditation, however, did take place.

The Noble eightfold path, with a change of setting (ie at the temple) -perhaps with some extra precepts thrown in- almost like a samanera ordination for 24 hours, in terms of precepts. I think however it can done at home too, with some support from those living with the meditator. It certainly would give a boost to one’s practice. It could also be done as a group- ie as a day retreat. Taking 5 precepts again at 5pm does undermine the practice somewhat, as is done in some temples. However you could argue it is not needed to sleep at the temple, but could equally be done at home, with reverting back to the 5 precepts in the morning, 24 hours later.

with metta

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I have thought about this as well-- there is, at least in the USA and europe, a kind of meditation retreat industrial complex primarily run by lay dharma teachers. A circuit of usually published meditation teachers, some affiliated with vipassana, and yes some with some degree of theravada training including periods of ordination. It seems to me that the focus may be a bit heavy on retreats, which was never something the Buddha intended I don’t think. Upasaka means “one who sits close by”, which I tend to think of more of a devout lay person whose life is organized in such a way that their main focus in non-work life is Dhamma and the Sangha-- not just during a few weeks where they go on retreat.

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I think this correct. A close relationship with a temple is helpful most of the time and allows one to give back to the community as well. One can practice being a spiritual friend as well as generosity and get to hear the dhamma back/go on retreats etc in return.

With metta

My apologies for reviving an old thread, but I didn’t want to start a new one when I’ve been thinking about the same topic.

I’ve been interested in developing my concentration and have been debating whether the best way to do this is by upping my regular practice and/or by going on intensive retreats. Like @dharmacorps mentioned, there is a whole industry that now caters to people who wish to go on retreat, and I wonder if the $1,400 price tag to learn jhana is worth it. (If I’m lucky I can get a 50% scholarship!)

Fortunately, there’s also a donation-based retreat center nearby, but I flat out asked the resident monk what it would take for a lay person to master jhana, and he mentioned hours of daily meditation was required, at the bare minimum(!)—in addition to spotless sila.

That, and I was re-reading Bhante Sujato’s A Swift Pair of Messengers, where he mentions:

“The Buddha never taught lay meditation retreats or established any lay meditation centers. The intensive retreat seems to have been for monastics only. This is quite in tune with the gradual training, which sees higher states of mind emerging, not from strenuous toil for a short time in artificial conditions divorced from everyday life, but from a holistic lifestyle of simplicity, contentment, and restraint… Rather than plunging in at the deep end of spiritual life at a meditation intensive, lay people were encouraged to spend one day a week in the monastery, keeping eight precepts, listening to Dhamma, and practicing meditation.”

The emphasis is mine, and I guess it makes my dilemma clear—at least as far as Bhante seems to think. It seems like the structure of my daily life should take precedence, with retreats as a kind of cherry on top :thinking:

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Not sure where you’re located @Sumano, but vipassana retreats in Goenka’s tradition are free/donation based. However, you mention jhana, and jhana is not taught at such retreats. However, at least this would give you a retreat option if finances are a major obstacle.

Regarding whether the Buddha instructed lay people to take extended retreats, the Rapture Sutta to Anāthapiṇḍika and other householders AN 5.176 comes to mind. There the Buddha teaches:

"So you should train like this: ‘How can we, from time to time, enter and dwell in the rapture of seclusion?’ That’s how you should train.”

Sounds like a retreat to me. Unfortunately, we are left with little detail in this and other suttas about how a householder should from time to time, enter and dwell in the rapture of seclusion. That said, this passage has served as a helpful guide for me at a number of retreats – especially the part about seclusion, including seclusion from the hindrances.

Wishing you find the retreat and/or resources best for you and your practice.

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Lay practice has been little documented in the suttas. But some instances a notable. Another lay person is heard saying they practice the four foundations of mindfulness and another was highly skilled layperson in jhana. Citta and others were anagamins with their skill of samadhi complete so would have been able to attain jhanas. I read a mindfulness research paper which said that the minimum practice to maintain some benefits from meditation is weekly practice, and this would be in line with uposatha practice as it is weekly. It’s a day where it’s conducive to quiet meditation and like a day retreat and lasts 24 hours. You might find someplace where you are. Also consider that jhana practice might require a jhana teacher so if you can come to Jhana grove it’s a great option.

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I wonder how much we are to read into the fact that the Buddha isn’t on record as teaching lay meditation retreats.

I’m guessing that in his time and place, statutory annual paid leave wasn’t a thing. Consequently, workers simply weren’t in a position to (metaphorically) set their email to automated ‘out of office’ response and head off on retreat for a few weeks each year.

Is there the danger of constructing a sort of argument ex silentio here? I.e. since our texts don’t attest to the Buddha establishing meditation centres for the laity, lay persons today should abstain from retreats?

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Interesting question, Leon. From the Rapture Sutta I mention above and the numerous lay stream-enters, lay once-returners, and lay non-returners mentioned in the EBTs, it seems probable that lay persons in the Buddha’s time must have gone into retreat “from time to time.”

Seems like most of us agree that not every word uttered by the Buddha is captured in the EBTs. Moreover, some argue that we are likely to have even less of a record of what the Buddha taught to lay persons than we have of what he taught to monastics. Based on the above, and intensive study of the four main Nikayas, leaves me the impression that retreats can be very helpful for lay persons and seem to be recommended by the Buddha, especially in the Rapture Sutta.

Moreover, my personal experience of doing retreats at least yearly for quite a few years now confirms this. First, during retreat, I and many others who go into retreat, experience significant insights. Secondly, when I get out of a retreat, my mind, equanimity, compassion, concentration, etc., is so much stronger than when I entered. Thirdly, these benefits carry over into the year. Then, as I get closer to the year mark since my last retreat, some of these benefits usually have waned. However, when I return to retreat, progress once again usually intensifies.

Personally, I cannot imagine life without regular retreats. Since committing to yearly retreats almost 9 years ago, my life has gradually but surely been transformed by the dhamma in every way. I wish everyone gets to enjoy the benefits of retreat with the dhamma.

That said, once I started studying the EBTs on a regular basis, the benefits of retreats seem to last much longer and insights continue to come throughout the year. I hope this is helpful.

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Sādhu, brooks.

I sat my first retreat in 2000 and the few weeks given over annually to a retreat is something I greatly treasure for all the reasons you so eloquently describe.

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Since I started practicing Buddhism about a year ago, occasionally people ask me if I have converted to Buddhism. My response is, one does not so much convert to Buddhism as one practices it. I consider attending retreats part of my practice, but so is my meditation at home, my participation in weekly English-language meditation lessons at my local Wat, my attendance at Sunday services at the Wat, not to mention the mindfulness I practice when eating, doing yard work, walking, bathing, etc. Pretty much everything I do I try (but not necessarily always succeed) to make part of my practice. I figure if I practice with right concentration, right mindfulness, right effort, right thought, and right view (and put into practice with right livelihood, right speech, and right action), eventually I will get good at it, or at least better :grin:

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At the time/place the Buddha lived, there was no TV, internet, telephones, movies, sound recording/amplification technology, or mass literacy (perhaps no literacy period). Heck, there is little archaeological evidence even of representational artwork. Perhaps this meant that going on retreat wasn’t as necessary as it is now. Plus, people’s brains probably developed differently than ours do, I would imagine, due to the lack of these distractions growing up. I suspect people had much better memories to begin with, and hence may not have needed so much practice developing their concentration and mindfulness.

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These are all distractions that lure people away from their meditative practice. On the other hand, the “distractions,” if you can call them that, of the Buddha’s time included much more pressing issues that posed a dire threat to people’s very existence, things such as starvation, disease, crop failure, dangers posed by venomous, parasitic, and predatory animals, exposure to the elements, etc. I suppose that the Buddha’s teachings on meditation were designed to help people focus their mind in ways that alleviated the suffering that was patently obvious and readily apparent in people’s daily existence.

Today we suffer more because of the attachments we have to the very distractions (TV, internet, telephones, movies, sound recording/amplification technology) people in the Buddha’s time would have considered unimaginable luxuries. In most respects, people in the Buddha’s time had it harder than those of us have it today. But in some ways, the difficulty people have in their meditation today is that that which they are escaping (TV, internet, telephones, movies, sound recording/amplification technology) is much more enticing than the causes of suffering (starvation, disease, crop failure, dangers posed by venomous, parasitic, and predatory animals, exposure to the elements) experienced by humans over 2,000 years ago.

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Here’s another passage from MN 51 that suggest lay followers entered meditation retreats from time to time. As in the Rapture Sutta, we see this same phrase: “from time to time,” which sounds like periodically participating in a retreat.

“For we white­ clothed lay people also from time to time meditate with our minds well established in the four kinds of mindfulness meditation. We meditate observing an aspect of the body … feelings … mind … principles—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world”

So, it seems that in the suttas there are at least two references to lay persons engaged in meditation retreats: The Rapture Sutta involving the practice of seclusion and rapture. And MN 51 above, which evidence lay persons were practicing the four foundations of mindfulness.

What other ways can these suttas be understood? Are there any other suttas documenting lay persons retreats or specific meditations?

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Good points. While not everyone has that luxury nowadays either, it is more common. I guess it’s more a question of how one spends free time, whether that’s the standard two weeks’ vacation, or two months like some in the education system have.

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I would strongly recommend against spending $1,400 to “learn jhana.”

Do this instead: Spend absolutely nothing, or only a trivial amount on books, and teach yourself the various early Buddhist meditation practices for free. Then practice them diligently… and see what happens. You’re not supposed to be striving for jhana, but for mindfulness, equanimity, and relinquishment.

Counterfactual: If jhana did not exist, would you still be on the path? If so, to what end?

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I didn’t know about the existence of Uposatha days until very recently. I think it’s a wonderful idea, I’m going to try it out! I like the idea of having concrete points in time throughout a year where one is reminded about what’s important and of value.

The fact that in stems back to EBTs is a cherry on top.

I found a nice calendar here:
https://forestsangha.org/community/calendars/year_planners/2019

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The cost of retreats usually includes room and board, and depending on the length of the retreat, $1400 may be very reasonable. Also, not everyone is probably wired to do a self-retreat. This may be especially true if its a person’s first retreat. For me and others I’ve discussed this with, one of the biggest benefits of a retreat is the environment and the structure it provides for meditation and seclusion.

That said, if one has an aptitude for being self-taught and right environment and resources, then perhaps a self-retreat might work. Just seems like people have different learning styles and circumstances. For example, if one lives in an apartment with noisy roommates, a self-retreat may be impossible.

That said, the approach Gus mentions sounds helpful, too. However, one could do both: follow the self-taught approach and from time to time take retreat with an experienced teacher.

with metta,

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I don’t advise avoiding all retreats. I was only suggesting that one should avoid retreats that seem transactional – spending X to get Y.

Retreats that welcome free donations seem much more in line with the teaching as I understand it, and if you’re willing and able to freely donate $1,400, then by all means do so. Just make sure it’s to an establishment that has taught you well.

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