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A day worth living

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

The term 'awakening' (and even more 'enlightenment') is commonly used in relation to a wide range of diverse experiences, usually connected with some sort of personal breakthrough. The term is fairly rare in the discourses, where it mostly appears as one of the epithet of the Buddha (the 'awakened one'). But reading the discourses, one gets the sense that even at the Buddha's time, various teachers and traditions were propounding different forms of (or views about) 'awakening.'

When confronted with this plurality of views, the Buddha usually sticks to the pragmatic and straightforward idea that awakening consists in the complete extinction of greed, aversion, and ignorance (SN 35.28). In other contexts, though, this same idea is conveyed in a more embodied way, as the enaction and performance of a certain way of living, inspired by certain moral values.

One of the most canonical instances of this latter embodied approach is provided by the presentation of the eight 'uposatha precepts,' which were connected with lunar observances (AN 8.41). The precepts are not presented as just a list of rules or restrictions, but rather as a series of commitments embedded in a broader context.

The broader context is that of right view: someone has understood that those who have completed the training and fully realized the goal of practice (the 'Worthy Ones,' arahants), spend the rest of their days having abandoned certain forms of intentionality and action (killing, stealing, sex, falsity, intoxication, greed for food, entertainment, sleepiness) and dwell in their opposite (friendliness, contentment, celibacy, lucidity, dispassion towards food, contentedness, alertness). The practitioner sees that there is a value, a beauty in such a life, which appears worth living, and worth aspiring too.

Then one makes a commitment: I shall try this myself, for a day and a night. Notice: the commitment is not phrased as a life-long commitment on the spot. One has no control anyway on how long one shall live, or what one's life will demand. The commitment is much more practical and concrete: today and tonight I shall live in this way. This is a decision, and it reveals that the life of the Worthy Ones is also the result of their decision of living in a certain way. As always in the discourses, actions are based on intentionality and only intentional actions really matter. But this entails that committing to a life free from killing or stealing is not something that magically or unintentionally arises at some point. It is the result of a training of intentionality deliberately aimed at that goal. And training means repeated, consistent and sustained effort of keep deciding what to do and what to avoid. So, this begins now, by doing it once, for a day and a night. And if one appreciates the value and beauty that arises from this choice, one can repeat it, again and again.

This approach makes the goal of practice extremely vivid, and spares a number of rather unnecessary (if not misleading) speculative discussions about 'awakening.' It also reveals two major points that will become immediately apparent to anybody trying the eight precepts for even just one day and one night:

(1) there is no way of actually implementing the precepts without relinquishing to some extent (at least) one's concern for oneself, one's own interests, one's stories and desires, and so forth. Ordinarily, the uninstructed worldling puts themselves first, take their personal perspective as the centre of their world. In order to implement any of the precepts, this needs to be turned upside down, by recognizing how 'my own personal perspective' is but a consequence of the set of conditions that make up this world, which is always the same for everybody (uncertain, impersonal, unsuitable for fully settling in). In turn, this consideration also exposes that the difficulties that might arise in implementing the precepts (the hindrances in their full swing) indicate precisely where practice needs to be addressed.

(2) what results from any degree of success in implementing the precepts is a sense of perfection. Nothing is lacking, nothing is needed, everything that is there is just fine as it is. If there is any happiness in life, this is it. But this should not be mystified as a quietist attitude that would accept uncritically any sort of abuse or injustice. Insofar as abuses and injustices are based on the opposite attitudes of those supported by the precepts, they have been already relinquished for as much as this depends on the practitioner. And insofar as one finds oneself amidst circumstances that are unfair and yet somehow unescapable, one will not be troubled by them (cf. the simile of the saw in MN 21). The point is that moving beyond the very bases that create any possible abuse or injustice, one finds oneself entirely safe, imperturbable, untouched, and serene, even amidst the changing conditions of life.

The precepts mostly prescribe abstention from certain actions. But they also offer themes for reflecting on their deeper consequences. To spark this reflection, one might consider for instance some of the following points:

  • For each of the eight precepts: what are the aspects that you understand more clearly? What are the aspects that you do not fully understand? How could you clarify the latter based on the former?

  • When applying each of the eight precepts: what are the aspects that appear easier and more natural? Where do you encounter difficulties and resistance? How could you exploit the former to deal with the latter?

  • The practice of the eight precepts frees a good amount of time from a number of other ordinary occupations and concerns. This time might be spent to do something simple and self-contained, like sitting with the breath, walking up and down, or reflecting on a theme. When you try to do this, what are the hindrances that manifest more often or more intensely? How could you use the context provided by the precepts to counter them?

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