Master Sheng Yi’s Dharma-words A Discussion on the Eight Prohibitions
(Master Sheng Yi (圣一法师) [1922-2010] became a novice monk at 19 years old, and when he was 36 years old (in 1958) he received the Wei Yang Lineage (沩仰宗 – Wei Yang Zong) Ch’an transmission from Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) whilst staying on Yunju Mountain. From 1983 to 1990, Master Sheng Yi served as the 4th generation Abbot of the Po Lin Ch’an Temple (宝莲禅寺 – Bao Lin Ch’an Si), situated on the Ngong Ping Plateau area of Lantau Island, Hong Kong. This translation is drawn from the Chinese language text entitled ‘八关斋戒开示——圣一法师’,or ‘Dharma Master Sheng Yi’s Dharma-words - Eight Controls of Purification Prohibitions’. These prohibitions are also known in English as the Eight Fast-day Vows, or Eight Lay Precepts, etc. These vows are ‘controls’ or‘gates’ that assure purification by preventing corruptive influences from entering the mind and body of the practitioner (from the environment), and are a modification of the Ten Prohibitions followed by ordained monks and nuns in the Chinese tradition. Master Sheng Yi teaches that all Buddhist discipline originates from the Triple Gem Formula, and clearly explains the lay precepts from the perspective of the monastic tradition. This Dharma talk was delivered in 1991 and was recorded by Dharma Master Yan Lun [衍轮法师])
Time passes quickly. Buddhism teaches that everything in life is impermanent, subject to change, and that there is no self. All the Buddhist sutras state clearly that there is no self. The Heart Sutra (心经 – Xin Jing) states; ‘When the five aggregates are understood as empty, all suffering is transcended.’ Most people think that a permanent self exists within the five aggregates – but this is wrong, the five aggregates are empty, so where could a permanent self abide? If no self exists, then there is nothing to receive suffering. If a self exists, then there is something to receive suffering. Any belief in a permanent self – no matter how small – creates a proportional level of suffering. If a cup drops and shatters and you have even a small level of attachment, then sadness will be generated. Even a small attachment is persistent, and hurts like a cut in one’s own flesh: the Great Master Lian Chi (莲池大师 – Lian Chi Da Shi), before he became a monk, once dropped and broke the white jade cup used for ancestral rites on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Although very sad, he comforted his wife, saying: ‘Everything is impermanent’. Due to the generation of good karmic roots in the past, the master was able achieve an awakening, and left the family life to become a monk. He understood that in reality all is empty, and there is no suffering. Suffering is only caused by the habit of attachment generated in the mind.
Another example is that of taking a walk in the evening, when it is dark and difficult to see. Suddenly you think you see a snake on the ground right in front of you, and you are terror-stricken! However, when you look closely, you see that it is a length of harmless rope; immediately your fear and panic disappear. As unenlightened human beings, our delusions are many. Other people gossip and speak many words, and immediately your ears listen with interest. This leads to continuous thoughts of worry and anxiety that continue to influence the mind long after the actual details of any conversation have been forgotten. This is what happens when we participate in pointless gossip – worry spreads from one person to the next, without end. Buddhism teaches that one should not partake in gossip, or deliberately over-hear the conversations of others, as this is a violation of the precepts. This admonition also includes the deluded habit of incomplete listening, whereby the beginning of the conversation is perceived, but due to a wondering mind, the end of the conversation is not heard or understood. This type of incomplete listening leads to endless misunderstandings, worry and anxiety. Before the five prohibition vows, a practitioner should first take Refuge in the Triple Gem (三宝– San Bao). Does the Triple Gem Refuge involve following vows? When the Triple Gem Refuge is taken, there is a formal acknowledgement of taking refuge in the Buddha’s discipline, the Dharma’s discipline, and the Sangha’s discipline. Therefore taking Refuge in the Triple Gem, is also called taking Refuge in the Triple Disciplines (or ‘Triple Vows’). When one takes Refuge in the Buddha, all corrupt action must cease. When one takes Refuge in the Dharma, there must be no falling into heretical paths, and when one takes Refuge in the Sangha, there must be an abstention from all defilements. This is why the Triple Gem Refuge formula is also called the Triple Discipline (or ‘Triple Vow’). The Triple Disciple protects the body through the use of precepts that define Buddhism as a distinct path.
Once the Triple Gem Refuge has been taken then there follows the formal acceptance of the five prohibitions which are the abstention from; killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and alcohol. When the Triple Refuge is taken, then immediately implicit within it is the necessity to follow the discipline of the ten good deeds, which are the abstention from; killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, the use of flattery, the use of harsh speech, the use of gossip, the generation of greed, the generation of hatred, and the generation of delusion. This is how you live disciplining yourself throughout the day to overcome the bitterness, or suffering of life. If you do not take the Triple Refuge, then there is the risk of falling into the realms of hell (份儿 – Di Yu), hungry ghosts (饿鬼 – E Gui), and animals (畜生 – Chu Sheng). The Triple Gem Refuge has the supportive power to keep a practitioner out of these three lower realms of rebirth. Knowing this, it is strange that some people fear dropping into hell at death, but refuse to take the Triple Gem Refuge. The teaching is clear; if refuge in the Buddha is taken, there is no falling into the lower realms of hell, if refuge in the Dharma is taken, there is no falling into the realm of hungry ghosts, and if refuge in the Sangha is taken, there is no falling into the realm of animals. Therefore the Triple Gem Refuge protects a practitioner by disciplining the body through the use of vows.
Many people live in lay society and have no opportunity to become a monk (or nun). However, as we are all essentially the Tathagata Buddha in essence, it is possible to follow the Dharma, with no need to leave home and shave the head. Instead a layperson can discipline their mind and body by following the eight controls of purification prohibitions (八关斋戒 – Ba Guan Zhai Jie). The eight controls of purification prohibitions are;
a) No killing b) No stealing c) No sexual activity d) No incorrect speech e) No taking of intoxicants f) No eating at forbidden times g) No adorning the body, singing, dancing, or entertainment h) No lying on high or luxurious beds
These vows maybe taken (and followed) by a layperson at anytime, for any length of time, but are usually only taken for 24hr periods at special times of the year. These Eight Prohibitions are drawn from the Ten Prohibitions (十戒 – Shi Jie) of Buddhist monastic discipline. The difference between the eight and ten prohibitions is that a monk and nun must always follow the ten prohibitions, whereas a lay person may pick and choose when to follow the eight prohibitions for a short time. As the eight prohibitions are drawn from the ten prohibitions, I will now explain nine out of the ten monastic prohibitions that are relevant to the eight prohibitions followed by the laity, leaving out number ten, as it is the abstention from carrying gold and silver (i.e. money). Monks and nuns must never touch or deal with money, but lay society functions through the exchange of money, and so this is not set as a restriction for lay Buddhists:
1) No Killing
With regard to the first prohibition it is said that: ‘From dynasty to dynasty, it is clear that all the Buddhas put a great emphasis upon not taking life. Therefore, we as individuals must try our utmost not to take a life.’ Although human beings can be attached to all kinds of things, it is important never to take a life. If all the Buddhas do not take life, then those living in lay society should not take life. Of course, if you are not a monk, it is possible that you will take life. In the past, before his conversion to Buddhism and eventual enlightenment, a disciple of the Buddha was engaged in killing countless sheep everyday. When he took refuge in the Buddha, Sariputra put down the butcher’s knife. In the monk’s life there is no killing.
2) No Stealing
With regard to the second prohibition it is stated that; ‘As all Buddhas are not happy to steal, then those living in lay society should not be happy to steal.’ You should not be happy to take from others what does not belong to you. In the world there is much thieving activity which is not usually associated with stealing. This includes such things as secretly listening to others conversations (eavesdropping), looking when you should not (voyeurism), stealing names (identity theft), stealing profit (embezzlement), and stealing the will-power (through negative influence) of those trying to escape the three realms. There was once a Bhikkhu who decided to sit and meditate beside a pond surrounded by sweet smelling flowers. His eyes did not see, and his ears did not hear. Despite this achievement, a gentle breeze blew the lotus flower fragrance from the river, which entered his nostrils. At that exact moment, his nose smelt the sweet fragrance, and his mind was stirred. The Bhikkhu thought that the fragrance was so delicious! Immediately a flower god appeared (花神 – Hua Shen) and said: ‘Bhikkhu – why are you stealing my fragrance? You are supposed to be practicing single-pointed concentration (定– Ding), how can you, as a human being, steal incense whilst meditating?’ The monk was speechless and did not know how to reply to these questions. In Sanskrit the practice of entering samadhi (三昧– San Mei), is premised upon strictly fixing the mind on a single-point of concentration. Stealing incense (i.e. fragrance), disturbs the concentration and loses the one-pointedness. At this moment in the story, a farmer appeared and started gathering lotus flowers in pairs. He picked the lotus flowers by uprooting and breaking their stems. When the farmer had gone, the Bhikkhu asked the flower god: ‘Not long ago I was sniffing your lotus flower fragrance and you scolded me for committing an offense. Now the farmer has plucked all your lotus flowers and taken them away. He has uprooted them all, so why do you not criticise him?’ The flower god answered: ‘Bhikkhu, you wear the pure white clothing of the ordained, if they are contaminated, they do not look good. This is why you are criticised, why should I scold the famer (a lay-person) who lives in the filthy world of delusion?’ The Bhikkhu listened to the flower god and realised his error. From that moment onward he did not steal. What family does a Bhikkhu have? A Bhikkhu is not part of a worldly family and should not participate in stealing of any kind.
3) No Sexual Relations
The third prohibition is regarding purity of the body. Everyone should strive to keep the body clean and pure. When the body is clean, the mind is clean. If the body is not clean, the mind can not be clean. If you attain insight into the empty nature of reality (Chinese: 胜义 – Sheng Yi: Sanskrit: Paramartha-satya), then why not use this understanding to abide in the empty essence? If the floating dust root (浮尘根 – Fu Chen Gen) that underlies sensual craving (through the six senses), is not transcended, then this causes harm to the mind and body (through inappropriate touch) – and sullies the monk who has left lay society.
4) No Bad Language
How should false speech be defined? This is self-deception, and self-contradiction, whereby the mouth speaks, but does not see, and is not true to the mind. Although the mouth can not see, the mind can see itself clearly – this is how we cheat ourselves. First, a person tells a lie and this deceives their mind; they then spread this lie to other people, in turn deceiving their minds in the process. It is like a person deceiving himself by using his hand (to cover his eyes) and thinking he has blocked-out the sunlight during the day – he shouts; ‘I can not see in the daytime, where has the light gone?’ How can daylight be blocked-out by a single human hand? Now, if other people also cover their eyes and restrict the light, they too will deceive themselves. In reality, the light is not blocked-out at all, and only a single person (covering his own eyes) caused this lie to spread throughout the population. People spread lies with the mouth and not the mind. This is an example of the mouth and the mind not corresponding. I ask how the Dao of Enlightenment (悟道 – Wu Dao) can be realised in this (deluded) state. The Dao of Enlightenment is only achieved when the mind and the mouth are acting in accordance with one another. Do not lie in word, deed, or thought, if you do these things how can you live the pure life and attain the Dao of Enlightenment? If everything is real, then reality is everywhere; but if everything is corrupted, then corruption is everywhere. Even if all kinds of austere practices are engaged in, if there is lying, then this will produce bad karma in the future, negating any positive achievement. A monk, who has left home, should give-up all false speech without exception. When the Tathagata speaks, his voice is pure and there is no lying or false talk – his language is solid. This is the example a true monk should follow. This is the ideal lifestyle a Bhikkhu should live, and the ideal lifestyle of the Bodhisattva. The Tathagata Buddha lived like this all through his life, and there is no confusion. Everyone can follow the example of the Buddha day and night in self cultivation, even if they live in lay society.
5) Not drinking Wine
The drinking of intoxicating spirits obscures the essential nature, and explains why alcohol is referred to as ignorance inducing. Drinking adds another layer of ignorance to a mind that is already deluded. People like this often have angry energy (脾气– Pi Qi) due to drinking alcohol – this is not good. If people drink alcohol, then poison is heaped upon poison, and intoxicating spirits have been known to cause murderous actions between people. Human ignorance is already heavy and then the ignorance of alcohol is added to it. This is like adding fuel to fire, and the Bodhisattva always avoids alcohol consumption. Bhikkhus are forbidden by their vows to drink alcohol. The eight prohibitions are followed day and night, and so no drinking alcohol is allowed at any time. The power of abstaining from alcohol consumption gradually builds good karma for the future, generated through the development of virtuous behaviour. This takes years of correct self-cultivation to achieve, and you should recall that all Buddhas are pure and do not consume intoxicating spirits. To escape suffering, alcohol must not be consumed, even by the laity.
6) Do not adorn the Body with Flowers and Perfume
Do not rub sweet smelling oil on the body. The body is corrupt and emits impurity through the nine orifices, so why adorn it with perfume? The true nature of the body is that it stinks with corruption; this is why it is called a smelly skin bag. There is no point pretending that the body is something it is not – it emits impurity through the nine orifices all the time, why hide this fact with perfume? Surely it is hypocritical to artificially adorn the outside of the body, when the inside is full of urine and faeces? You can see rich people who eat very refined and expensive food that looks beautiful and smells fragrant – and yet this very same food leaves the body in a disgusting state. In India people use sesame seed oil to hide the smell, whilst in Hong Kong people use perfume to disguise the corruption of the body. The perfume is designed to mislead others into thinking that the body is pure – this craziness can prevent strong and effective meditation, and delay self-cultivation. It is a lie about the true and filthy state of the body. It is best not to break this vow and mislead yourself and others. Monks are not allowed to adorn the body in any way.
7) Do not Participate in Dancing
Do not sing and dance, and do not watch singing and dancing. It is as if we are living in a house on fire. The Lotus Sutra has the analogy of a rich man owning a house that is on fire. His children are caught in the fire and can not get out. The children are symbolic of sentient beings stuck in the world of the ‘three bitters’ (三苦– San Ku), which are 1) the suffering of suffering 2) the suffering of change 3) All-pervasive suffering, and the ‘eight bitters’ (八苦 – Ba Ku), which are 1) birth 2) ageing 3) sickness 4) death 5) parting with what we love 6) meeting with what we hate 7) unattained aims, and 8) all the ills of the five skandhas. This is immeasurable suffering, and yet the children mentioned in the Lotus Sutra are unaware of the danger, and continue to dance and sing happily. They do not realise that they are dancing in a house on fire – this is the world of delusion that all beings live within. We are imprisoned in the three realms (三界– San Jie) of suffering, which are the realms of form, non-form, and desire. Like prison inmates we are stuck in these three realms of existence and instead of working on our escape, we participate in stupid games of singing and dancing, how can we be so stupid? Some sing and dance, whilst others stupidly look-on. Eventually even the onlookers are persuaded to join in the deluded singing and dancing. It is clear, if you want to escape the burning house, stop singing and dancing like deluded fools.
8) Do Not use a high, wide, or large Bed
Sakyamuni Buddha had a Vajra seat made of grass, which he always sat on crossed legged and never slept. In later times, the ancestors used a rope bed (绳床 – Sheng Chuang) for meditation, which had four short legs, was flat and wide, but not high. Meditation was pursued with the utmost vigour, morning, noon, and night. As monks following the example of the Buddha, we must always keep in mind that all in life is impermanent. High beds are designed only for people to rest and sleep upon, and so a monk must always avoid their use. This kind of comfort dulls the senses and prevents effective self-cultivation. Low beds are for monks, high beds are for the laity.
9) No Eating at Inappropriate Times
This vow deals with fasting and the control of appetite. Fasting refers primarily to the control of the body through the use (of a vegetarian) diet. Within Buddhism, everything follows the middle-way and is useful in the cultivation of the Dao. If our everyday activities do not accord with the middle-way, how can our self-cultivation be effective? There should be neither excess nor deficiency in our daily activities if we intend to abide by the middle-way. Life in the ordinary world is excessive in every manner of existence. With regards to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Cantonese people are even worse! There is too much eating late at night, this is excessive. Indian ascetics from heretical schools, deliberately do not eat for days on end, this is an example of too much deficiency. The rule should be one of cultivated balance with neither excess nor deficiency. Meals should be governed through the principle of following the middle-way. Controlling food intake and following the Buddha’s path is exactly the same. We should emulate the Buddha’s example by controlling our dietary intake.
When the Buddha was alive, there were no clocks to measure time. Instead, a bamboo stick was inserted into the ground, and when the shadow was not inclined, this represented noon. This is the time that eating should stop for the day. The Buddha taught that there should not be any eating after mid-day. This time is the exact middle of the day.
After lunch there is no more food. In this way the mind becomes very quiet due to a reduction in delusive functioning. Not only this, but there is also a reduction in desire, and sleepiness. At the same time there is an increase in eloquence during Dharma debate and teaching (辩才 – Bian Cai), as well as a strengthening of one’s ability to meditate and enter samadhi. Much positive merit is secured through a vegetarian diet that is disciplined throughout the day. Controlling the consumption of food is fully in accordance with the Buddha’s middle-way.
10) No Touching Gold and Silver (Explanation omitted as this prohibition is not a restriction made on lay practitioners).
Lay people may not be in a position to ordain as a monk or nun, but they can make effective use of the eight prohibitions. They can take these vows for a 24hr period, or whenever they wish. Also, if they have the commitment, they can follow these eight prohibitions continuously in their lives and create much positive merit. Even if you only have the strength of spirit to follow the five precepts, this is still very good. From the ancient times until today, Buddhism has made extensive use of vows for self-cultivation. Whatever the case, all the different lists of precepts and prohibitions are compatible and equally valid – they all arise from the practice of monastic discipline.
Ladies and gentleman, time is running out. Over-all, monks and laity are of equal standing. The eyes can see, the ears can hear, and all can be correctly used to follow the Dao. Time is short, study hard with diligence and do not waste it!
May the merit of this Dharma-talk about the Dao of Buddha spread throughout the universe – leaving no one behind – and benefit all beings!
'Licchavi Vimalakirti came to the foot of that tree and said to me, ’Reverend Sariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that neither body nor mind appear anywhere in the triple world. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest all ordinary behavior without forsaking cessation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.' Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra