The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw | 1990 | 1,044,401 words

This page describes Atthanga Uposatha Sila (The Eight-Precept Observance) contained within the book called the Great Chronicle of Buddhas (maha-buddha-vamsa), a large compilation of stories revolving around the Buddhas and Buddhist disciples. This page is part of the series known as on Pāramitā. This great chronicle of Buddhas was compiled by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw who had a thorough understanding of the thousands and thousands of Buddhist teachings (suttas).

Aṭṭhanga Uposatha Sīla (The Eight-Precept Observance)

It may be questioned why, regarding the Five Precepts, the term ‘pañna’ alone is used, and, regarding the Ten Precepts, the term ‘dāsa’ is used; whereas in describing the Eight Precepts not only the term ‘attha’ but the additional term ‘uposatha’ is used?

The term ‘Uposatha’ has five meanings, namely,

(1) Recitation of Pātimokkha,
(2) Proper name for persons or animals,
(3) Observance,
(4) The sīla which should be observed, and
(5) The day for observing sīla.

Of these five, the first meaning (1) is concerned only with the bhikkhu; and the second meaning (2), being the name for a prince (e.g. Prince Uposatha) or of an elephant (e.g. Uposatha Elephant), etc. has no connection with the Chapter on Sīla; only the remaining three meanings are to be considered here.

The three meanings are derived from the Pāli term ‘Upavasa’ which means observing or fulfilling the precepts. The third meaning (3) is the act of observing the precepts. The fourth meaning (4) is the precepts, which should be kept. The fifth meaning (5) is the day on which the precepts are kept.

No particular day was fixed by the virtuous people in the past for observance of the Five Precepts and the Ten Precepts; only the Eight Precepts was observed on specially fixed day. Hence the special epithet of Uposatha for these eight precepts.

There is another point to consider. The Five Precepts is not as numerous as the Eight Precepts and as it is to be kept everyday, no special day was named for their observance. But as the Ten Precepts is higher than the Eight Precepts, the virtuous people in the past should have fixed a special day for their observance. If so, why had they not done so? The probable reason is that the Eight Precepts is specially suitable for the laity whereas the Ten Precepts is not. According to the Visuddhi-magga, the Ten Precepts is for sāmaṇeras and sāmaṇerīs. The Khuddakapatha Commentary also states that the last precept, Jātarūpa sikkhāpada, of the Ten Precepts, is a special one for sāmaṇeras. It is, therefore, evident that the Ten Precepts is specifically for sāmaṇeras, not for laymen.

Therefore, the learned and virtuous in the past selected, out of the two kinds of sīla which concerned them, the Eight Precepts which is of a higher form, to be observed on a specially appointed day. Only the Eight Precepts is therefore called Uposatha as explained in the Visuddhi-magga.

The virtuous are not content with the observance of sīla only; they also wish to make meritorious deeds through giving alms, which entail acquiring, buying, shopping of things to offer. Consequently, they cannot properly observe the Jātarūpa-rajata sikkhāpada. Therefore, the ancient people fixed a special day for observance of the Eight Precepts only.

Navañga Uposatha

In the Aṅguttara Nikāya (Navaka Nipāta, 2. Sihanāda Vagga, 8. Sutta) an exposition on Navañga Uposatha Sīla is given with this introduction: “The Nine Precepts is beneficial, advantageous, powerful”. In enumerating them, the Exalted One expounds the usual Eight Precepts from the Pāṇātipātā sikkhāpada up to Uccāsayana-Mahāsayana sikkhāpada, but ends up with the formula for practice of loving-kindness thus: “Mettā sahagatena cetasā ekam disam pharitvā viharāmi——I abide with thoughts of loving-kindness directed to beings in one direction.”

According to the discourse, to keep the Navañga Uposatha Sīla, after taking the usual Eight Precepts, one keeps on developing Loving-kindness. A man who observes the Eight Precepts without any breach and keeps on developing loving-kindness is called an observer of the Nine Precepts. Loving-kindness is to be developed whereas sīla is to be observed. Therefore, to practise the Nine Precepts, one need not recite the nine precepts when taking the vow. It is sufficient to take the usual Eight Precepts and to develop loving-kindness as much as possible; then one is said to be practising the Nine Precepts (Navañga Uposatha).

With regard to loving-kindness, as the Exalted One particularly mentioned ‘ekaṃ disaṃ’, diffusing loving-kindness with one direction in mind is more effective than doing so without minding the direction. One should direct one’s thought to all beings in the ten directions (the four cardinal points, the four intermediate points, plus above and below), one after another, beginning from whichever direction one wishes.

Even though there are four sublime mental states[1], the Exalted One takes only lovingkindness and adds it to the Eight, thus prescribing the Nine Precepts because lovingkindness has a great power. That is why the Exalted One has expounded the Mettā Sutta in the Khuddakapātha and the Suttanipāta.

Also, in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, (Ekādasaka Nipata, 2. Anussati Vagga, 5. Sutta), are expounded the eleven advantages that accrue repeatedly to him who develops lovingkindness:

(a) he sleeps well in peace,
(b) he wakes up well in peace,
(c) he dreams no bad dreams,
(d) he is dearly loved by human beings,
(e) he is dearly loved by non-human beings (ogres and petas), (f) he is protected by devas,
(g) he is not afflicted by fire, poison and weapons,
(h) his mind is easily concentrated,
(i) his face is calm and clear,
(j) he dies unconfused, and
(k) if he cannot penetrate higher Dhamma, arahatta-magga and phala, in this life, he will take rebirth in the Brahmā-world.

Therefore, it is clear that loving-kindness is more powerful than the other three sublime mental states.

Three Kinds of Uposatha Sīla

Uposatha Sīla is of three kinds:

(1) Gopala Uposatha - The Cowherd’s Uposatha
(2) Nigantha Uposatha - The Naked Ascetic’s Uposatha
(3) Ariya Uposatha - The Noble One’s Uposatha

as expounded by the Exalted One in the Aṅguttara Nikāya (Tika Nipāta, 2. Mahā Vagga, 10. Visakhuposatha Sutta). The essential meanings are—

(1) The Uposatha Sīla observed with thoughts of a cowherd is called ‘Gopāla Uposatha’. After grazing the cattle all day long, the cowherd returns them to the owner in the evening. On reaching home, he thinks only in this way: “Today, I have grazed the cattle in such-andsuch a field and taken them to water at such-and-such a place. Tomorrow, I'll take them to such-and-such field for food and to such-and-such a place for water.” Similarly, the observer of Uposatha Sīla, having greedy thoughts of food, thinks: “Today, I have taken such-and-such a kind of food. Tomorrow, I'll take such-and-such a kind.” If he spends the day thus like the cowherd, his uposatha is called Gopāla Uposatha.

(2) The Uposatha Sīla observed by a naked ascetic who holds wrong views is called Nigantha Uposatha. For example, according to their practice with regard to Pāṇātipātā precept, killing living beings beyond a distance of one hundred yojana east, west, north and south must not be done. Within such-and-such a distance killing is allowed, thus giving a chance of committing evil. Differentiation between forbidden and unforbidden places for doing wrong, they practise their uposatha. The uposatha practised by the holders of such a view is called Nigantha Uposatha.

(3) If the uposatha is observed after purifying the mind of defilements through recollection of the special attributes of the Buddha, etc. it is called Ariya Uposatha. The Ariya Uposatha again is of six kinds:

(a) Brahmuposatha - Noble[2] Uposatha
(b) Dhammuposatha - Dhamma Uposatha
(c) Saṇghuposatha - Sangha Uposatha
(d) Sīluposatha - Sīla Uposatha
(e) Devatuposatha - Devata Uposatha
(f) Atthanguposatha - Uposatha with the eight precepts

(a) The uposatha that is observed by taking the Eight Precepts and repeatedly recollecting the special attributes of the Buddha such as Araham, etc. is called Brahmuposatha.

(b) The uposatha that is observed by taking the Eight Precepts and repeatedly recollecting the special attributes of the Dhamma is called Dhammuposatha.

(c) The uposatha that is observed by taking the Eight Precepts and repeatedly recollecting the special attributes of the Sangha is called Saṇghuposatha.

(d) The uposatha that is observed by taking the Eight Precepts, observing without breaking any of them and repeatedly recollecting the special attributes of sīla is called Siluposatha.

(e) Reflecting that “there are in the world devas and Brahmās who have endowed themselves with noble qualities of pure faith, morality, learning, generosity, and wisdom in their previous births and as a result are reborn in the realm of devas and Brahmas; such noble qualities are present in me, too”, one observes the uposatha comparing himself with devatās. Such uposatha is called Devatuposatha. (Here devatā stands for both devas and Brahmās.)

(f) After taking the Eight Precepts, one reflects thus: “Just as arahats never kill or harm any living being and always have compassion for them, so also I do not kill or harm any living being and have compassion for them; by this practice, I am following the way of arahats.” The uposatha observed in this manner reflecting on each of the eight precepts is called Atthanguposatha.

It should be noted that the division of uposatha into the three and the six kinds is in reference to the manner of keeping it. Primarily, however, the sīla which is observed is of two kinds only, Atthanga Uposatha Sīla and Navañga Uposatha Sīla as already stated above.

Three Kinds of Uposatha Day

The classification below is made in the light of the Aṅguttara Nikāya(Tika Nipata, 4. Devadutadvagga, 7. Raja Sutta, etc.), which says: “uposatham upavasanti patijagaronti” and

cātuddasim pañcaddasim,
yā ca pakkhassa atthami,
pātihāriya pakkhañ ca,
atthanga susamāgatam

(1) Pakati Uposatha (Ordinary Uposatha Day)

In the above Pāli verse, the lines reading “cātuddasim pañaddasim, yā ca pakkhassa atthami” refer to ordinary Uposatha days. In accordance with this, each fortnight of a month, waxing or waning, has three uposatha days, namely, the eighth, the fourteenth and the fifteenth days. Therefore, a month has six Uposatha days, which are called ordinary Uposatha days. In the Commentary, however, the waxing fortnight has four Uposatha days, namely, the fifth, the eighth, the fourteenth and the fifteenth waxing days; the waning fortnight has four Uposatha days, too, namely, the fifth, the eighth, the fourteenth and the fifteenth waning days; altogether there are eight Uposatha days in a month. These eight are ordinary Uposatha days usually observed by the laity.

(Whereas, nowadays, the lay people observe only four Uposatha days in each month. These are the eighth waxing, the full-moon, the eighth waning and the new-moon days.)

(2) Paṭijāgara Uposatha (Pre-and Post-Uposatha Days)

Paṭijāgara Uposatha means the eight ordinary Uposatha days observed with one additional day before and after each of them. (Pati means ‘repeatedly’; Jāgara means ‘waking’. Therefore, Paṭijāgara-sīla may be interpreted as morality which repeatedly wakes up from the slumber of defilements.) To calculate the number of days: the fifth waxing Uposatha day is preceded by the fourth waxing, and followed by the sixth waxing Uposatha days; the eighth Uposatha day is preceded by the seventh waxing and followed by the ninth waxing Uposatha days; the fortnight waxing Uposatha day is preceded by the thirteenth waxing Uposatha day (but there is not Uposatha day to follow); the full-moon day is not preceded by an Uposatha day but is followed by the first waning Uposatha day. Hence, serially there are the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the thirteenth, the fourteenth waxing, the full-moon and the first waning days. Thus there are ten days in the waxing fortnight and ten days in the waning fortnight of the month, making altogether eight Pakati Uposatha and twelve Patijāgara Uposatha days in a month.

(3) Pāṭihāriya Uposatha.

The Uposatha which is more powerful than the Paṭijāgara is called Pāṭihāriya. Paṭijāgara-Uposatha has intervening days in the waxing and waning fortnight. Pāṭihāriya-Uposatha has no such days, sīla being observed continuously.

If the laity wants to observe Pāṭihāriya-Uposatha, they should observe for the whole three months of Vassa (rains-retreat) without a break. If they cannot observe for the whole three months, they should do so for one month from the full moon of Thadingyut (October) to the full moon of Tazaungmon (November). If they cannot observe for one month, they should do so for fifteen days from the full moon to the new moon of Thadingyut. This is stated in the Aṅguttara Nikāya Commentary.

However, according to the Sutta Nipāta Attakhatha (the Dhammika Sutta of the Cūla Vagga), the Uposatha observed for five months (Waso, Wagoung, Tawthalin, Thadingyut, Tazaungmon) without break is Pāṭihāriya-Uposatha. Whereas other teachers say that the Uposatha observed for each of the three months of Waso, Tazaungmon and Tabaung without break is called Pāṭihāriya-Uposatha. Still other teachers say that, according to Pāli Texts, there are three Pakati Uposatha days, namely, the eighth, the fourteenth and the fifteenth of each fortnight of a month. If, in addition to those three Pakati Uposatha days, four more days, namely, the seventh before the eighth and the ninth after the eighth, the thirteenth before the fourteenth and the first day after the fifteenth are observed, such Uposatha is called Pāṭihāriya Uposatha. The Commentator remarks that for the benefit of the good people, who wish to acquire good merit, all kinds of Sīlas are mentioned to enable them to observe whichever they like.

Of the three views shown in the Suttanipāta Atthakatha, the Commentator’s own view: “the Uposatha observed for five months is Pāṭihāriya Uposatha,” agrees in essence with the Aṅguttara Commentary, where the period of continuous observance is shown as three months;whereas in the Suttanipata Commentary, it is five months. That is the only difference.

The third view from the Suttanipāta Commentary is in agreement with that of the Commentaries on the Nemi Jātaka, Vimānavatthu (Uttara Vimānavatthu), the Theragātha and the Suruci Jātaka of the Pakinnaka Nipāta. However, according to the Sagathavagga of the Saṃyutta Aṭṭhakathā (Indaka Vagga, 5. Sutta) the Pāṭihāriya-uposatha days in each fortnight of the month are the seventh, the ninth, the thirteenth, and the first waning or waxing day after the fifteenth and the half month after vassa, i.e. from the first waning to the new-moon day of Thadingyut.

Herein, there is one thing to consider: Even though the Commentaries on the Aṅguttara, the Suttanipāta, the Jātaka, and the Saṃyutta are written by the same Commentator, Venerable Mahā Buddhaghosa, why are they different from one another regarding Uposatha days?

That the Buddha actually described the three kinds of Uposatha is clear from the Visakh'uposath Sutta, but there is no sutta delivered by the Buddha to set aside specific days, three or six, as Uposatha days. The fourteenth Uposatha, the fifteenth Uposatha, the eighth Uposatha, Pāṭihāriya Uposatha mentioned before are not prescribed by the Exalted One as days of Uposatha observance. Indeed, it was Sakka, King of Devas, who said to Tāvatiṃsa Deities: “People observe Uposatha on the fourteenth, the fifteenth, and the eighth. On the days called Pātihāriya, too, they observe Uposatha.” He was given this information by Catumaharajika who went round in the human world preparing a list of the virtuous. The Buddha was only reproducing the words of Sakka. The classification of the fourteenth, the fifteenth and the eighth Uposatha days is merely a statement of the Uposatha days traditionally observed by people. There is no special discourse expounded by the Exalted One to enjoin Uposatha must be observed on these days or must not be observed on other days.

Thus the fourteenth, the fifteenth, the eighth Uposatha days were the days of Uposatha observance prescribed by the ancient people. So, traditionally, there were only three Pakati- Uposatha days, but later on people observed the fifth day also and therefore there come to be four Uposatha days in each fortnight of a month. Thus the fifth Uposatha day is mentioned in the Commentary. Nowadays people observe only four Uposatha in a month.

The Buddha did not prescribe any specific Uposatha day because people can observe the precepts on whichever day they like. In mentioning Paṭijāgara and Pāṭihāriya Uposatha days as special days for observance, the Commentators are merely recording the various customary practices of the people. Hence these seeming differences in the Commentaries.

Moreover, the Aṅguttara, the Suttanipāta, the Saṃyutta and the Jātaka which make expositions of sīla are known as the Suttanta Desanā, the teachings in discourses; they are also known as Vohāra Desanā because, in these discourses, the Buddha, who is incomparable in the usage of the world, employs the terms and expressions of the people which can never be uniform. Thus, with regard to different classifications of Uposatha, as all are meant to develop good merit, it is not necessary to decide which view is right and which view is wrong. In the Suttanipata Commentary the three views are described advising readers to accept whichever they like.

Sīla-observers select suitable days which they prefer and observe Uposatha accordingly in many ways. And all their observance develops merits, so the Commentators write, recording the ways employed by the people. In the Discourses, Suttanta Desanā, even the Buddha expounded following the usages of the people. Why did the Exalted One expound in this manner? Because He wished them not to violate their traditional customs which are not demeritorious.

The principal objective of the Exalted One is to expound only such realities as mind and matter (Nāma-rūpa Paramattha Dhamma) that would facilitate attainment of the Paths, Fruition States and Nibbāna. Teaching in such abstruse terms could be beneficial to those with right perception. But it could make those lacking it to commit wrong deeds which would lead them to the four lower worlds. For example, those who have wrong perception of Nāma-rūpa dhamma would think thus: “In this world there is nāma-rūpa only;there is neither ‘I’ nor ‘others’; if there is no ‘others’ there will be no harm in killing them: and there will be neither ‘mine’ nor ‘others’; therefore, there will be no harm in stealing things, in committing adultery, etc. In this manner, they will freely break the rules of society and do such unwholesome acts which will cause rebirths in the lower planes of existence.

In terms of Ultimate Truth (paramattha-sacca) there is neither ‘I’ nor ‘others’, neither ‘man’ nor ‘woman’, etc. There are only aggregates of nāma-rūpa (mental and physical phenomena). For those incapable of understanding the terms of Ultimate Truth, the Buddha employed terms of Conventional Truth (samuti-sacca) in giving Discourses (Suttanta desanā). Though all is a mass of nāma and rūpa, by conventional-usage, it is determined for easy discrimination that such-and-such a mass is ‘I’ such and such a mass is ‘they’, such-and-such a mass is ‘mother’, ‘father’, etc. If people deviate the norm set up by conventional usages, they will go astray doing wrong deeds. It is to prevent them from falling to the lower planes of existence as a consequence of their misdeeds that the Buddha teaches the discourses in conventional terms.

If, however, only Discourses were delivered, people would take such term as ‘I’, ‘they’, ‘my son’, ‘my daughter’, ‘my wife’, ‘my property’, etc., as Ultimate Realities and their belief in Permanent Personality (sakkāya-diṭṭhi) would become so great that they would not attain magga, phala and Nibbāna.

Hence the teaching of Nāma-Rūpa Paramattha Dhamma by the Buddha.

Some teachers write: “In the Vinaya Piṭaka there is an injunction for bhikkhus not to observe ‘bhikkhu uposatha’ (recitation of Pātimokkha rules) on non-Uposatha days. If they do so, they commit the offence of dukkata-apatti. Likewise, laymen should not observe the Eight Precepts on non-Uposatha days.”

Such writing shows they are not accomplished in interpreting the Teaching of the Buddha. Vinaya Desanā is called Anādesanā in Buddhist literature; it means the authoritative injunction laid down by the Exalted One. If a bhikkhu commits even with good intention a forbidden act, he is guilty because he goes against the command of the Exalted One and transgresses the rules of the Vinaya. To assume that such a Vinaya rule is also applicable to laymen in their observance of Uposatha, to say that people must not observe precepts on non-Uposatha days and that doing so will be an offence, is a clear misinterpretation of the Desanā. In brief, Uposatha being a pure and noble observance can be fulfilled on any day. The more it is observed the greater will be the beneficial results.

Therefore, the Sub-commentary on the Mahā Sudassana Sutta of the Mahā Vagga, Dīgha Nikāya, says: “uposatham vuccati atthaṅgasamannāgatam sabbadivasesu gahaṭṭhehi rakkhitabbasīlam-uposatha is said to be the sīla with eight factors that can be observed by laymen on all days.” (This Sub-commentary is written by the Ven. Dhammapāla who has also written the Anutikā, the Sub-commentary of the Mūlatikā, the Visuddhi-magga Mahātikā, the Itivuttaka Atthakathā, etc., and other Sub-commentaries.)

Footnotes and references:


The Four Sublime mental states: Loving-kindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuṇā), Altruistic joy (Mudita) and Equanimity (Upekkhā).


Noble: Brahmā; here Brahmā refers to the Buddha, the Noblest Being.

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