The Benefits of an
Eight Precept Retreat

The Buddha taught that for his teachings to be sustained it would require a four-fold assembly composed of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. He said that these groups have much to offer to one another and a complete spiritual community includes them all. For many people in the west, exposure to the devoted practice of monks and nuns is limited.

This retreat offers you an opportunity to practice with an ordained member of the Thai Forest Tradition. One of the many benefits of practicing with a monk or nun is hearing the words of the Buddha chanted. Often there are words or phrases that really catch one’s interest and attention. One such phrase is part of the daily morning-chanting recitation of the homage to the Sangha. It says: “They give occasion for incomparable goodness to arise in the world.” The idea of incomparable goodness arising in the world expresses the possibility that any of us can train our hearts and minds so as to embody beauty, simplicity, clarity, and wisdom.

The remarkable sense of purity and release that comes from practicing with monks (or nuns) is not accidental or due to personal propensities or preferences, but is the result of the Buddha’s wisdom in establishing rules for living in spiritual community. On a monastic retreat, we live by the Eight Precepts (listed on the sidebar on this page) and in a way similar to monastics who have devoted themselves to purifying the mind, through simplicity and the cultivation of kindness, generosity, and wisdom. Their model encourages us to put forth that same continuity of effort and intention.

Following the Eight Precepts offers lay practitioners a similar opportunity to establish conditions supportive of turning inward and training the mind. Although we may think of precepts as limiting and confining, in fact abiding by the Eight Precepts frequently results in a noticeable sense of relief and release. When the Eight Precepts become second nature, it is evident how they support a sane and healthy lifestyle—and how the habitual choices and behaviors that arise when we are not living within the framework of the Eight Precepts contribute to suffering and delusion.

The Eight Precepts build upon the basic five precepts to: 1) refrain from destroying living creatures; 2) refrain from taking that which is not given; 3) refrain from sexual misconduct; 4) refrain from incorrect speech; and 5) refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs that lead to carelessness.

In the Eight Precepts, the precept on refraining from sexual misconduct changes to refraining from all sexual activity. The additional three added precepts are to: 6) refrain from eating after noon; 7) refrain from beautification, adornment, or entertainment; and 8) refrain from lying in high or luxurious places. The last precept is usually interpreted to mean refraining from overindulgence in sleep or from using sleep as just another way to distract the mind.

These Eight Precepts simplify daily living so that effort and attention can more easily be directed to the training of the mind. The precept regarding not eating after noon is the one that usually gets people’s attention and causes some concern or worry. This precept means that the main meal of the day is served and finished by noon. After that, only clear liquids are eaten or drunk.

When we first try abiding by the Eight Precepts it is normal to worry about how we will manage not eating after noon, but in fact most people are very surprised to find that it is pleasant and conducive to greater ease of well-being. For most of us, our bodies are well nourished, and have plenty of reserves. In fact, not eating after noon can help us realize that what we thought was hunger has little to do with a need for food, but is usually thirst, sleepiness or boredom. By late after-noon, the habit to expect food will often arise, but the clear fruit juice that is put out around 5 incredibly satisfying, completely sufficient, tastes wonderful, and gives a welcome energy boost. People report that they feel better and sleep better when not eating after noon because they feel light and comfortable.

Another practice that can help us to recollect the actual reason to eat, both on retreat and off, is to recite a short chant before taking the first bite of a meal.

Wisely reflecting, I eat this food not for fun, not for pleasure, not for beautification, not for fattening, but only for the maintenance and sustenance of this body, for keeping it healthy, for living the spiritual life. Thinking thus, I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.

“Blamelessly and at ease” is a beautiful phrase that can help us redirect the trajectory of our intentions in many situations, not just those involving food. It reminds us to consider, “What response or reaction would pave the way for me to feel blameless and at ease right now?” Using that reflection to shape decisions, rather than endlessly weighing what is right, justifiable or rational, is usually much more conducive to action that is beneficial to oneself and others and doesn’t result in remorse or regret.

We sometimes have strong views about what is necessary for our happiness. When we open ourselves to living by the Eight Precepts, it means we are willing to let go of what we thought we needed and discover for ourselves what it is that helps the heart to feel bright, peaceful, and happy. Living in this way, and being with others who are doing the same, “gives occasion for incomparable goodness to arise in the world.” What better gift could we give to ourselves or to the world?

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Madison Vipassana, Inc. 2017