6 months an upāsaka

Bronze buddha statue beside a glass vase with some wilted sunflowers

At the beginning of the year I undertook a commitment to take my Buddhist learning to the next level by becoming an upāsaka, or “lay devotee.” Last fall I applied to and was accepted into the upāsikā program at Birken, the Thai Forest Monastery near Kamloops where I have attended a couple of different meditation retreats (for example see this and this ). It has been six months into the commitment, so I thought I would share a bit about the program here at the halfway point.

First of all, an upāsaka/upāsikā is a lay person who makes a personal commitment to change the way they live their daily lives. It is “more” than the regular layperson at home, but not to the level of an anagārika who chooses to leave the home altogether. And of course it is nowhere near as arduous as taking the robes to become a fully ordained monk or nun. Monastics must live by the vinaya code, which in the Theravadin tradition is comprised of 227 rules for monks and 311 rules for nuns. An upāsika need only commit to Five Precepts (see below). Upāsikas remain in the secular world, basically conduct normal lives, go to work, raise their kids, etc. But they do it all with a special intention.

Commitments

At the outset there are a number of rules one must follow upon the commencement of the upāsaka program at Birken: taking your study and the teacher (Ajahn Sona) seriously, doing the homework, maintaining a daily meditation practice, and supporting the sangha (spiritual community). But the centrepiece is taking the 5 Precepts, which are:

  1. To refrain from taking the life of any living being.
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given.
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. To refrain from false and harmful speech.
  5. To refrain from consuming intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

So, each day I do my meditation, take refuge in the Triple Gem, and try to abide by the above precepts. And to be honest, this isn’t too much of a deviation from my normal lifestyle. I was already meditating pretty much every day, I rarely drank alcohol, and I am very happily married and devoted to my partner of 22 years. These past six months have just been more intentional, more mindful of the day-to-day.

Another undertaking on this program are ”days of observance,” or uposatha days. These are part of the culture in many Theravadin Buddhist countries like Thailand. However, in North America (and even in Japan) it is more of a personal commitment. For me, I chose every Sunday to be my day of observance, in addition to the New Moon and Full Moon days. For these six days each month I up the stakes a little bit by taking the 8 Precepts, which are:

  1. To refrain from taking the life of any living being.
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given.
  3. To refrain from any kind of sexual activity.
  4. To refrain from false and harmful speech.
  5. To refrain from consuming intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
  6. To refrain from eating at inappropriate times.
  7. To refrain from entertainment, beautification, and adornment.
  8. To refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

As you can see, this does not vary that much from the regular 5 Precepts. What it comes down to is on observance days I don’t watch tv or movies (entertainment), make sure to stay celibate, and don’t eat anything past noon. This is how we live when on retreat at the monastery. Also, following tradition, I tend to do a body scan for my meditation on these days.

More about the program

The Birken Upāsikā Program is a year-long curriculum to help guide devotees. Each month we are assigned “homework” and have the opportunities to ask questions of Ajahn Sona, the abbot of Birken Monastery. I am very grateful for this structured approach to learning, since over the years I have been bouncing around between different topics and traditions and have not really felt like I have made too much progress.

On the first day of each month we receive our assignments for that month. Generally this means listening to a dhamma talk, reading a sutta, learning a new chant, and learning a new cultural aspect about Buddhism. As a sort of textbook we are reading through Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book Noble Eightfold Path. In fact, the whole program is a deep dive on the Noble Eightfold Path, that core concept to all branches of Buddhism. This is pretty much the first thing you learn about Buddhism, but after spending so much time digging into it, not only do I understand it better, I appreciate how profound it is. It is much deeper and well constructed than I first thought. That has certainly been one of the major benefits of doing the program with Ajahn Sona. Furthermore, having the ability to ask questions of the Ajahn to clarify the contents of teachings like the suttas is excellent. Probably the second thing you learn in embarking on a study of Buddhism in the modern period is “find a teacher” and I am certainly benefiting from having one.

Another purpose of the program is to build a “spiritual community”. An online forum is used to disseminate the teachings and assignments each month, and that is where we can ask questions to the Ajahn, the stewards at the monastery, and other upāsikās. There are about 120 people in this program, from all over the world. Many are conducting study meetings online via Zoom to enhance their learning. Being able to interact with all these kalyāṇa-mittā is a great benefit to my study, but also provides solidarity for maintaining your commitment.

First and last

This year was the first year the program went entirely online. In previous years there was a requirement to make a retreat at Birken. Being online, I think we likely have many more participants from overseas. One of the more prominent members is in Sri Lanka! It has also been of enormous benefit to me. I wanted to participate in previous years, but was always worried I would have to cut the commitment short, or miss the in-person retreat, if I had to relocate to Japan suddenly. As anyone who has been following my life for the past three years knows: this was a justifiable fear! But with a fully online program I have been able to continue from here in Kyoto. Rejoice!

I am also very lucky to have been able to participate this year as it is the last time the program will be run from Birken. After 7 years, they are retiring the program (the announcement is on the ups̄ikā program page). I think they reach much more people via YouTube, where Ajahn Sona takes questions during his weekly live Tea Time, gives dhamma talks, and even conducts “virtual” retreats!

So far the program has been of great spiritual benefit to me. I am grateful to take part. Once it is over, I suppose I can just continue on in the commitment. I will wait and see what advice we get as we near the end of the program.

 
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