The Uposatha (Sanskrit: Upavasatha) is Buddhist Sabbath day, in existence from the Buddha's time (500 B.C.E.), and still being kept today in Buddhist countries. The Buddha taught that the Uposatha day is for "the cleansing of the defiled mind," resulting in inner calm and joy. On this day, disciples and monks intensify their practice, deepen their knowledge and express communal commitment through millennia-old acts of lay-monastic reciprocity.
Depending on the culture and time period, uposatha days have been observed from two to six days each lunar month.
In general, Uposatha is observed about once a week in Theravada countries in accordance with the four phases of the moon: the new moon, the full moon, and the two quarter moons in between. In some communities, only the new moon and full moon are observed as uposatha days.
In Burma, Uposatha (called ubot nei) is observed by more pious Buddhists on the following days: waxing moon (la hsan), full moon (la pyei nei), waning moon (la hsote), and new moon (la kwe nei). The most common days of observance are the full moon and the new moon. In pre-colonial Burma, Sabbath was a legal holiday that was observed primarily in urban areas, where secular activities like business transactions came to a halt. However, since colonial rule, Sunday has replaced the Uposatha day as the legal day of rest. All major Burmese Buddhist holidays occur on Uposatha days, namely Thingyan, the beginning of the Buddhist lent (beginning in the full moon of Waso, around July to the full moon of Thadingyut, around October). During this period, Uposatha is more commonly observed by Buddhists than during the rest of the year.
For a calendar of Thai uposatha days, see John Bullitt's "Calendar of Uposatha Days."
In Mahayana countries that use the Chinese calendar, the Uposatha days are observed six times a month, on the 8th, 14th, 15th, 23rd and final two days of each lunar month. In Japan, these six days are known as the roku sainichi (六斎日 Six Days of Fasting ).
In the Buddha's time, some ascetics used the new and full moon as opportunities to present their teachings. The Uposatha Day was instituted by the Buddha at the request of King Bimbisara, and the Buddha instructed the monks to give teachings to the laypeople on this day, and told the monks to recite the Patimokkha every second Uposatha day.
For lay practitioners who live near a monastery, the uposatha is an opportunity for them to visit a local monastery, make offerings, listen to Dhamma talks by monks and participate in meditation sessions.
For lay practitioners unable to participate in the events of a local monastery, the uposatha is a time to intensify ones own meditation and Dhamma practice, for instance, meditating an extra session or for a longer time, reading or chanting special suttas, recollecting or giving in some special way.
On the new-moon and full-moon uposatha, in monasteries where there are four or more bhikkhus, the local Sangha will recite the Patimokkha. Before the recitation starts, the monks will confess any violations of the disciplinary rules to another monk or to the Sangha. Depending on the speed of the Patimokkha chanter (one of the monks), the recitation may take from 30 minutes to over an hour. Depending on the monastery, lay people may or may not be allowed to attend.
Describing his experience of Uposatha day in Thailand, Khantipalo (1982a) writes:
- "Early in the morning lay people give almsfood to the bhikkhus who may be walking on almsround, invited to a layman's house, or the lay people may take the food to the monastery. Usually lay people do not eat before serving their food to the bhikkhus and they may eat only once that day.... Before the meal the laity request the Eight Precepts [from the bhikkhus] ..., which they promise to undertake for a day and night. It is usual for lay people to go to the local monastery and to spend all day and night there.... [In monasteries where] there is more study, [lay people] will hear as many as three or four discourses on Dhamma delivered by senior bhikkhus and they will have books to read and perhaps classes on Abhidhamma to attend.... In a meditation monastery ..., most of their time will be spent mindfully employed — walking and seated meditation with some time given to helping the bhikkhus with their daily duties. So the whole of this day and night (and enthusiastic lay people restrict their sleep) is given over to Dhamma...."
Special uposatha days
There are five full-moon uposatha days of special significance:
- anniversary of the Buddha's delivering his first discourse, "Dhammacakka Sutta." The three-month-long Rains Retreat residence starts the following day.
- the end of the Rains Retreat residence during which time each monk atones before the Sangha for any offense they may have committed.
- Anapanasati Day:
- anniversary of the assembling of 1250 monks in the Buddha's presence during which time he delivered the "Ovada-Patimokkha Gatha."
- For examples of published Pali-English dictionaries that define "Uposatha" as "Sabbath," see Buddhadatta (2002), p. 63, and, PTS (1921-25), p. 151. For an example of the Uposatha being equated with Sabbath by a modern Buddhist master, see Mahasi (undated), p. 2, where he writes: "For lay people, these rules [of discipline] comprise the eight precepts which Buddhist devotees observe on the Sabbath days (uposatha) and during periods of meditation." Harvey (1990), p. 192, refers to the uposatha as "sabbath-like." For a description of the contemporary practice of the Uposatha in Thailand, see Khantipalo (1982a), which is also excerpted in this article below. Kariyawasam (1995), ch. 3, also underlines the continuity of the ancient uposatha practice in Sri Lanka: "The poya [Sinhala for uposatha] observance, which is as old as Buddhism itself, has been followed by the Sinhala Buddhists up to the present day, even after the Christian calendar came to be used for secular matters. Owing to its significance in the religious life of the local Buddhists, all the full-moon days have been declared public holidays by the government."
- Thanissaro (1997b); Anguttara Nikaya 3.70: Muluposatha Sutta.
- As indicated further below, each lunar month has eight days after two uposatha days (after the new moon and after the full moon) and then either six or seven days after the other two uposatha days (after the quarter moons). Thus, in relation to the Gregorian calendar's seven-day week, sometimes there are two uposatha days that week (such as occurred the week of August 17, 2006, when uposatha days fell on August 17 and August 23, 2006) and sometimes there are none (such as occurred the week of January 15, 2006, which fell between uposatha days on January 14 and January 22, 2006). Nonetheless, there are four uposatha days a month and the average solar month's week has one uposatha day.
- More specifically, using a Buddhist lunar calendar, Uposatha is observed on the following four days of the lunar month (PTS, 1921-25, pp. 151-2):
- Nyanaponika & Bodhi (1999), pp. 24, 307 n. 26. Nyanaponika & Bodhi refer to the quarter-moon days as "semi-Uposatha." Harvey (1990), p. 192, states that the uposatha is observed "at the full-moon, new-moon and, less importantly, two half-moon days." He goes on to state: "Except at times of major festivals, observance [uposatha] days are attended only by the more devout, who spend a day and night at their local monastery." Kariyawasam (1995), ch. 3, makes a similar observation in regards to modern Sinhalese society: "The popular practice is to observe [the Eight Precepts] on full-moon days, and, among a few devout lay Buddhists, on the other phases of the moon as well."
- Melford, Spiro (1970). Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Viscittudes. Harper and Row. pp. 214–228.
- Khantipalo (1982a); Ñanavara (1993), question #1; and, PTS (1921-25), p. 151.
- Khantipalo (1982a) also translates "uposatha" as literally meaning "entering [a monastery] to stay" but no other source supports this.
- Rhys Davids & Oldenberg (1881), pp. 240-41. Also see Khantipalo (1982a) and PTS (1921-25), p. 152.
- See, for instance, Kariyawasam (1995), Khantipalo (1982b), Ñanavara & Kantasilo (1993) and Thanissaro (1997b).
- Perhaps echoing the Buddha's teaching that laypeople should "imitate" arahants on Uposatha days (see, for instance, "The Uposatha Observance Discourse" in Nyanaponika & Bodhi, 1999, pp. 216-18 or, using comparable wording, in Nanavara & Khantasilo, 1993), Nyanaponika & Bodhi (1999), p. 307, n. 26, mention: "... The Eight Precepts are modelled after the Ten Precepts observed by novice monks, except that the seventh and eighth precepts for the novices are combined, the ninth novice precept becomes the eighth, and the tenth novice precept (non-acceptance of gold and silver, use of money) is excluded as being impracticable for a lay person."
- Bullitt (2005); and, Khantipalo (1982a).
- Khantipalo (1982a).
- Khantipalo (1982a), for instance, suggests reading one of the following:
- Visakhuposatha Sutta ("Discourse to Visakha on the Uposatha with the Eight Practices," AN 8.43) (Khantipalo, 1982b).
- Karaniya-metta Sutta ("Discourse on Loving-kindness," Sn 1.8) (Piyadassi, 1999a).
- Maha-mangala Sutta ("Discourse on Blessings," Sn 2.4) (Narada, 1985).
- Ratana Sutta ("Jewel Discourse," Sn 2.1) (Piyadassi, 1999b).
- Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("Discourse on Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion," SN 56.11) (Thanissaro, 1993).
- See, for instance, the "Muluposatha Sutta" (AN 3.70) (Thanissaro, 1997b) regarding Uposatha-specific recollections and Thanissaro (1999) for the general Buddhist practice of recollections. In the Muluposatha Sutta, the Buddha recommends practicing recollection of the Three Jewels as well as of ones own virtue (sila) and of the wholesome qualities that leads to rebirth as a deva. In this sutta, if one spends the Uposatha engaged in such a recollection, then that Uposatha acquires the name of the recollection, such as Dhamma-Uposatha or virtue-Uposatha.
- Rhys Davids & Oldenberg (1881), p. 281.
- See, for instance, Buddhadatta (2002), p. 63, and Bullitt (2005).
- Bullitt (2005). Bullitt orders these special uposatha days in accordance with the Gregorian calendar, where Magha Puja thus starts the calendar year. However, in accordance with Sinhala and Thai lunar calendars, Visakah Puja is the first special uposatha day of the year. The lunar calendar ordering of these days is maintained in this article for primarily two reasons: Visakah Puja is the most important of the uposatha festivals; and, ordering these uposatha days in this manner (Visakah Puja [Buddha Day], Asalha Puja [Dhamma Day], Magha Puja [Sangha Day]) celebrates the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) in the order in which it is traditionally enumerated. Also see Kariyawasam, ch. 3, "Poya Days," where he identifies the relevance of all twelve full-moon uposatha days in contemporary Sinhala culture.
- "Vesākha" (Pali) is the second month of the Buddhist lunar year, usually occurring in the Gregorian calendar's February. Puja means "veneration" or "offering." (Pali month names are from PTS (1921-25) entry for "māsa" (moon, month) (p. 531)).
- For Mahayana Buddhists, the celebration of the Buddha's birthday is independent of recognitions of his awakening and parinibbana and is celebrated on the waxing moon of the fourth Chinese lunar month.
- "Āsālha" (Pali) is the fourth lunar month, usually around July.
- Pavarana Day is in the seventh lunar month of Assayuja (Pali), usually in October.
- Rhys Davids & Oldenberg (1881), pp. 329-30.
- Anapanasati Day is the eighth lunar month of Kattika (Pali), usually in November.
- The Anapanasati Sutta ("Mindfulness of Breathing Discourse," MN 118) (Thanissaro, 2006) opens on Pavarana Day in the town of Savatthi where the Buddha declares to an assembly of monks that he is so happy with the assembly's practice that he would stay in Savatthi another lunar month. After that month passes, the Buddha delivers the core instructions of the Anapanasati Sutta, instructions which have guided lay people and monastics to higher achievement for millenia. Thus, given this canonical chronology, Anapanasati Day is celebrated a lunar month after Pavarana Day.
- "Māgha" (Pali) is the eleventh lunar month, usually around February.
- The three-line Ovada-Patimokkha Gatha (Pali: "Patimokkha Exhortation Verse") (translated in Dhammayut Order in the United States of America, 1994) includes the Buddha's famous dictum: "Not doing any evil, doing what is skillful, purifying one's own mind, this is the Buddha's teaching." This verse is familiar to many Westerners because it is rehashed in the widely popular Dhammapada, chapter XIV, verses 183-85 (Thanissaro, 1997a).
- Buddhadatta Mahathera, A.P. (2002). Concise Pali-English Dictionary. Delhi:Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0605-0.
- Bullitt, John T. (2005). Uposatha Observance Days. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sila/uposatha.html.
- Dhammayut Order in the United States of America (1994). A Chanting Guide. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/dhammayut/chanting.html.
- Harvey, Peter (1990). An introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, history and practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University. ISBN 0-521-31333-3.
- Kariyawasam, A.G.S. (1995). Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka (The Wheel Publication No. 402/404). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved 2007-10-22 from "Access to Insight" (1996 transcription) at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/kariyawasam/wheel402.html.
- Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (1982a). Lay Buddhist Practice: The Shrine Room, Uposatha Day, Rains Residence (The Wheel No. 206/207). Kandy, Sri Lanka:Buddhist Publication Society. Also transcribed (1995) and available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel206.html.
- Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (trans.) (1982b). Visakhuposatha Sutta: The Discourse to Visakha on the Uposatha with the Eight Practices [AN 8.43]. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.043.khan.html.
- Mahasi Sayadaw (undated). Practical Vipassana Exercises. Buddha Dharma Education Association. Available on-line at http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/mahasit1.pdf.
- Ñanavara Thera (Somdet Phra Buddhaghosacariya) & Bhikkhu Kantasilo (trans.) (1993). Uposatha Sila: The Eight-Precept Observance. Thailand:The Office of the Secretary of the Supreme Patriarch. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanavara/uposatha.html.
- Narada Thera (trans.) (1985). Maha-mangala Sutta: Blessings [Sn 2.4]. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.2.04.nara.html.
- Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans. and ed.) (1999). Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press. ISBN 0-7425-0405-0.
- Pali Text Society (PTS) (1921–25). The Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary (PED). London:Chipstead. The entry on "Uposatha" is available on-line at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.0:1:4011.pali. A general on-line search engine for the PED is available at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/pali/.
- Piyadassi Thera (trans.) (1999a). Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness [Sn 1.8]. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.08.piya.html.
- Piyadassi Thera (trans.) (1999b). Ratana Sutta: The Jewel Discourse [Sn 2.1]. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.2.01.piya.html.
- Rhys Davids,T.W. & Hermann Oldenberg (trans.) (). Vinaya Texts (Part I). Oxford:Clarendon Press. Available on-line at http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/sbe13/sbe1313.htm. The chapter on the Uposatha, "Second Khandhaka (The Uposatha Ceremony, and the Pâtimokkha)," is available at http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/sbe13/sbe1313.htm. The chapter on Pavarana Day, "Fourth Khandhaka (The Parâvanâ Ceremony)," is available at http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/sbe13/sbe1315.htm.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1993). Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion [SN 56.11]. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997a). Buddhavagga: Awakened [ Dhp XIV]. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.14.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997b). Muluposatha Sutta: The Roots of the Uposatha [AN 3.70]. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.070.than.html.
- Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (trans.) (1999). The Ten Recollections: A Study Guide. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/recollections.html.
- Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2006). Anapanasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing [MN 118]. Available on-line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.118.than.html.
- "Buddhist Ceremonies: Festivals and Special Days", on www.buddhanet.net
- "Calendar of Uposatha Days" (2009), (2008), (2007), (2006), (2005) on www.accesstoinsight.org.
- "The Rituals and Festivals of the Buddhist Life", by Robert C. Lester (1987), on buddhistgateway.com.
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