by Janice Cittasubha Sheppard
The phrase that titles this article is something I heard first when I attended a monastic retreat in 1996. It is recited during the daily morning recitation of the Homage to the Buddha. It stayed with me throughout that retreat and has continued to inspire and comfort me ever since.
An embodied sense of beauty, simplicity, clarity, and wisdom has drawn me to practicing with monastics again and again. This sense is not due to my personal propensities, but is the result of the Buddha’s wisdom in outlining the precepts and establishing rules for living in spiritual community. On a monastic retreat we join with the community of monks or nuns to devote ourselves to purifying the mind, and we experience firsthand the safety and goodwill of a setting where everyone lives in accord with the Eight Precepts.
I find that being around monks or nuns energizes my own practice. Seeing the evident benefits, to themselves and others, of their commitment to cultivate kindness, generosity, and wisdom encourages me to put forth that same effort. Now that I have known various monks and nuns over a period of time, I have seen how living in accord with the precepts while also training the mind results in a countenance that is increasingly bright and clear and a manner that is increasingly kind and at ease.
For monks and nuns, the process of training the mind is structured by the rules set down by the Buddha in the Vinaya. These rules establish the best conditions to encourage turning inward, where true freedom is found. On retreat, following the Eight Precepts offers us an opportunity to establish similar conditions.
The Eight Precepts build upon the basic Five Precepts. When living in accord with the eight, the precept on refraining from sexual misconduct changes to refraining from all sexual activity. The additional three precepts are to refrain from eating after noon; to refrain from beautification, adornment, and entertainment; and to refrain from sleeping in high or luxurious places. This last precept is usually interpreted to mean refraining from overindulgence in sleep or from using sleep as another way to distract the mind. These precepts, in addition to the basic five, simplify daily living so that effort and attention can more easily be directed to the purification and training of the mind.
When we let go of what we thought we needed, we discover for ourselves a beauty, purity, lightness, and ease previously unknown to us.
The precept regarding not eating after noon is the one that causes people the most concern when considering whether to attend an Eight-Precept retreat. I too was worried about how I would handle not eating after noon, but in fact have found that following this precept is pleasant and conducive to greater ease of well-being. For me (and for others with whom I have spoken), it is not difficult to be on Eight Precepts. For most of us, our bodies are well nourished, and we do not experience much hunger. In fact, undertaking this precept has helped me realize that what I thought was hunger has little to do with a need for food, but is usually thirst, sleepiness, boredom, or a simple, but strong, desire for distraction and mental engagement. I usually find that during the late afternoon, the habit to expect food will arise. What is a pleasant surprise, however, is how the clear fruit juice that is put out around 5 p.m. is completely sufficient, tastes wonderful, is incredibly satisfying, and gives more of an energy boost than most meals I eat. Also, the fact that no one else is eating, and that there are no sights or smells of food, makes it quite easy not to eat.
For me, the benefits of living on the Eight Precepts become evident after only a short while. I enjoy the experience of knowing that when I look at my plate of food at the midday meal, I am seeing everything I’ll eat for the rest of the day. That allows me to assess what to eat or not eat in a way that is much more difficult to do when I’m grabbing a snack here and a meal there throughout the day. To my surprise, the simplicity of seeing my food, my fuel, laid out, eating it, and then being finished with eating until the next morning is a great relief. I’m often surprised with how much mental energy is involved with anticipating, eating, and finishing a meal, and how much calmer I am when I don’t need to expend that energy. It is one less thing to deal with or make decisions about. I feel better, and sleep better too because I feel light and comfortable. I notice that after a retreat, when I return to eating throughout the day, I think about eating more often, I feel full and heavy most of the time, and, illogically, the sense of being full seems to encourage me to eat more frequently.
Being on Eight Precepts also means I have to be smarter in what I choose to eat at breakfast and the main meal and be certain to eat a variety of foods while avoiding those that fill me up without any nutritive value. In effect, I have to be intentional in eating wisely for the true purpose of eating—to nourish and maintain the body!
We frequently have strong views about what is necessary for our happiness. The wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings, and our own meditation experience, show us that these views are often misguided. We have been taught that activity, conversation, and satisfaction of our sensual desires are necessary for contentment. However, when we let go of what we thought we needed, we discover for ourselves a beauty, purity, lightness, and ease previously unknown to us. By living within rules that may initially seem constraining, we find within ourselves a place that is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end.