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The Uposatha (Sanskrit: Upavasatha) is Buddhist Sabbath day, in existence from the Buddha's
time (500 B.C.E.), and still being kept today in Buddhist countries. The
Buddha taught that the Uposatha day is for "the cleansing of the
defiled mind," resulting in inner calm and joy. On this
day, disciples and monks intensify their practice, deepen their
knowledge and express communal commitment through millennia-old
acts of lay-monastic reciprocity.
Depending on the culture and time period, uposatha days have
been observed from two to six days each lunar month.
In general, Uposatha is observed about once a week in Theravada countries in
accordance with the four phases of the moon:
the new moon, the full moon, and the two
quarter moons in between. In some
communities, only the new moon and full moon are observed as
In Burma, Uposatha (called
ubot nei) is observed by more pious Buddhists on the
following days: waxing moon (la hsan), full moon (la
pyei nei), waning moon (la hsote), and new moon
(la kwe nei).
The most common days of observance are the full moon and the new
moon. In pre-colonial Burma, Sabbath was a legal holiday that was
observed primarily in urban areas, where secular activities like
business transactions came to a halt.
However, since colonial rule, Sunday has replaced the Uposatha day
as the legal day of rest. All major Burmese Buddhist holidays occur
on Uposatha days, namely Thingyan, the beginning of the Buddhist lent
(beginning in the full moon of Waso, around July to the full moon
of Thadingyut, around October). During this period, Uposatha is
more commonly observed by Buddhists than during the rest of the
For a calendar of Thai uposatha days, see John Bullitt's "Calendar of Uposatha
In Mahayana countries
that use the Chinese calendar, the Uposatha days
are observed six times a month, on the 8th,
14th, 15th, 23rd and final two
days of each lunar month. In
Japan, these six days are known as the roku
sainichi (六斎日 Six Days
The word "uposatha" is derived from the Sanskrit word "upavasatha," which refers to
the pre-Buddhistic fast day that preceded Vedic sacrifices.
In the Buddha's time, some ascetics used the new and full moon
as opportunities to present their teachings. The Uposatha Day was
instituted by the Buddha at the request of King Bimbisara, and the Buddha
instructed the monks to give teachings to the laypeople on this
day, and told the monks to recite the Patimokkha every second Uposatha day.
On each uposatha day, devout lay people practice the Eight Precepts.
For lay practitioners who live near a monastery, the uposatha is an opportunity for
them to visit a local monastery, make offerings, listen to Dhamma talks
by monks and participate in meditation sessions.
For lay practitioners unable to participate in the events of a
local monastery, the uposatha is a time to intensify ones own
meditation and Dhamma practice, for
instance, meditating an extra session or for a longer time,
reading or chanting special suttas, recollecting or giving in some special way.
On the new-moon and full-moon uposatha, in monasteries where
there are four or more bhikkhus, the
local Sangha will recite the Patimokkha. Before the recitation starts,
the monks will confess any violations of the disciplinary rules to
another monk or to the Sangha.
Depending on the speed of the Patimokkha chanter (one of the
monks), the recitation may take from 30 minutes to over an hour.
Depending on the monastery, lay people may or may not be allowed to
Describing his experience of Uposatha day in Thailand,
Khantipalo (1982a) writes:
- "Early in the morning lay people give almsfood to the bhikkhus
who may be walking on almsround, invited to a layman's house, or
the lay people may take the food to the monastery. Usually lay
people do not eat before serving their food to the bhikkhus and
they may eat only once that day.... Before the meal the laity
request the Eight Precepts [from the bhikkhus] ..., which they
promise to undertake for a day and night. It is usual for lay
people to go to the local monastery and to spend all day and night
there.... [In monasteries where] there is more study, [lay people]
will hear as many as three or four discourses on Dhamma delivered
by senior bhikkhus and they will have books to read and perhaps
classes on Abhidhamma to attend.... In a meditation monastery ...,
most of their time will be spent mindfully employed — walking and
seated meditation with some time given to helping the bhikkhus with
their daily duties. So the whole of this day and night (and
enthusiastic lay people restrict their sleep) is given over to
There are five full-moon uposatha days of special
- the most sacred Buddhist holiday, anniversary of the Buddha's
birth, awakening and parinibbana.
- anniversary of the Buddha's delivering his first discourse, "Dhammacakka Sutta." The three-month-long Rains Retreat residence starts the
- the end of the Rains Retreat residence during which time each
monk atones before the Sangha for any offense they may have
- anniversary of the Buddha's delivering the "Anapanasati
- anniversary of the assembling of 1250 monks in the Buddha's
presence during which time he delivered the "Ovada-Patimokkha
For examples of published Pali-English dictionaries that define
"Uposatha" as "Sabbath," see Buddhadatta (2002), p. 63, and, PTS
(1921-25), p. 151. For an example of the Uposatha being equated
with Sabbath by a modern Buddhist master, see Mahasi
(undated), p. 2, where he writes: "For lay people, these
rules [of discipline] comprise the eight precepts
which Buddhist devotees observe on the Sabbath days (uposatha) and
during periods of meditation." Harvey (1990), p. 192, refers to the
uposatha as "sabbath-like." For a description of the
contemporary practice of the Uposatha in Thailand, see Khantipalo
(1982a), which is also excerpted in this article below. Kariyawasam
(1995), ch. 3, also underlines the continuity of the ancient
uposatha practice in Sri Lanka: "The poya
[Sinhala for uposatha] observance, which is as old as
Buddhism itself, has been followed by the Sinhala Buddhists up to
the present day, even after the Christian calendar came to be used
for secular matters. Owing to its significance in the religious
life of the local Buddhists, all the full-moon days have been
declared public holidays by the government."
Thanissaro (1997b); Anguttara Nikaya 3.70: Muluposatha Sutta.
As indicated further below, each lunar month has eight days after
two uposatha days (after the new moon and after the full moon) and
then either six or seven days after the other two uposatha days
(after the quarter moons). Thus, in relation to the Gregorian
calendar's seven-day week, sometimes there are two uposatha
days that week (such as occurred the week of August 17, 2006, when
uposatha days fell on August 17 and August 23, 2006) and sometimes
there are none (such as occurred the week of January 15, 2006,
which fell between uposatha days on January 14 and January 22,
2006). Nonetheless, there are four uposatha days a month and the
average solar month's week has one uposatha day.
More specifically, using a Buddhist lunar calendar, Uposatha is
observed on the following four days of the lunar month (PTS,
1921-25, pp. 151-2):
According to PTS (1921-25), pp. 16, 152, the lunar month's eighth
day (that is, the eighth day after the new moon) and twenty-third
day (which is the eighth day after the full moon) are called in
Pali atthama, which literally means the "eighth," that is,
the eighth day of the lunar half-month.
- first (new moon)
- eighth (first quarter or waxing moon)
- fifteenth (full
- twenty-third (last quarter or waning moon)
Nyanaponika & Bodhi (1999), pp. 24, 307 n. 26.
Nyanaponika & Bodhi refer to the quarter-moon days as
"semi-Uposatha." Harvey (1990), p. 192, states that the
uposatha is observed "at the full-moon, new-moon and, less
importantly, two half-moon days." He goes on to state: "Except at
times of major festivals, observance [uposatha] days are
attended only by the more devout, who spend a day and night at
their local monastery." Kariyawasam (1995), ch.
3, makes a similar observation in regards to modern Sinhalese
society: "The popular practice is to observe [the Eight Precepts]
on full-moon days, and, among a few devout lay Buddhists, on the
other phases of the moon as well."
- ^ a
Melford, Spiro (1970). Buddhism and
Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Viscittudes. Harper
and Row. pp. 214–228.
Khantipalo (1982a); Ñanavara (1993), question #1; and, PTS
(1921-25), p. 151.
Khantipalo (1982a) also translates "uposatha" as literally meaning
"entering [a monastery] to stay" but no other source supports
Rhys Davids & Oldenberg (1881), pp. 240-41. Also see Khantipalo
(1982a) and PTS (1921-25), p. 152.
See, for instance, Kariyawasam (1995), Khantipalo (1982b), Ñanavara
& Kantasilo (1993) and Thanissaro (1997b).
Perhaps echoing the Buddha's teaching that laypeople should
"imitate" arahants on Uposatha days (see, for instance, "The
Uposatha Observance Discourse" in Nyanaponika & Bodhi, 1999,
pp. 216-18 or, using comparable wording, in Nanavara &
Khantasilo, 1993), Nyanaponika & Bodhi (1999), p. 307,
n. 26, mention: "... The Eight Precepts are modelled after
the Ten Precepts
observed by novice monks,
except that the seventh and eighth precepts for the novices are
combined, the ninth novice precept becomes the eighth, and the
tenth novice precept (non-acceptance of gold and silver, use of
money) is excluded as being impracticable for a lay person."
Bullitt (2005); and, Khantipalo (1982a).
- ^ a
Khantipalo (1982a), for instance, suggests reading one of the
- Visakhuposatha Sutta ("Discourse to Visakha on the Uposatha
with the Eight Practices," AN 8.43) (Khantipalo, 1982b).
Sutta ("Discourse on Loving-kindness," Sn 1.8) (Piyadassi, 1999a).
Sutta ("Discourse on Blessings," Sn 2.4) (Narada, 1985).
- Ratana Sutta
("Jewel Discourse," Sn 2.1) (Piyadassi, 1999b).
- Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
("Discourse on Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion," SN 56.11)
See, for instance, the "Muluposatha Sutta" (AN 3.70) (Thanissaro,
1997b) regarding Uposatha-specific recollections and Thanissaro
(1999) for the general Buddhist practice of recollections. In the
Muluposatha Sutta, the Buddha recommends practicing recollection of
the Three Jewels
as well as of ones own virtue (sila) and of the wholesome qualities that
leads to rebirth as a deva. In this sutta, if one spends the
Uposatha engaged in such a recollection, then that Uposatha
acquires the name of the recollection, such as Dhamma-Uposatha or
Rhys Davids & Oldenberg (1881), p. 281.
See, for instance, Buddhadatta (2002), p. 63, and Bullitt
Bullitt (2005). Bullitt orders these special uposatha days in
accordance with the Gregorian calendar, where Magha Puja thus
starts the calendar year. However, in accordance with Sinhala and
Thai lunar calendars, Visakah Puja is the first special uposatha
day of the year. The lunar calendar ordering of these days is
maintained in this article for primarily two reasons: Visakah Puja
is the most important of the uposatha festivals; and, ordering
these uposatha days in this manner (Visakah Puja [Buddha Day],
Asalha Puja [Dhamma Day], Magha Puja [Sangha Day]) celebrates the
Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) in the order in which it is
traditionally enumerated. Also see Kariyawasam, ch. 3, "Poya
Days," where he identifies the relevance of all twelve
full-moon uposatha days in contemporary Sinhala culture.
"Vesākha" (Pali) is the
second month of the Buddhist lunar year, usually occurring in the
calendar's February. Puja means "veneration" or "offering."
(Pali month names are from PTS (1921-25) entry for "māsa" (moon,
month) (p. 531)).
For Mahayana Buddhists, the celebration of the Buddha's
birthday is independent of recognitions of his awakening and
parinibbana and is celebrated on the waxing moon of the fourth
Chinese lunar month.
"Āsālha" (Pali) is the
fourth lunar month, usually around July.
Pavarana Day is in the seventh lunar month of Assayuja (Pali), usually in
Rhys Davids & Oldenberg (1881), pp. 329-30.
Anapanasati Day is the eighth lunar month of Kattika (Pali),
usually in November.
The Anapanasati Sutta ("Mindfulness of Breathing Discourse," MN 118)
(Thanissaro, 2006) opens on Pavarana Day in the town of Savatthi
where the Buddha declares to an assembly of monks that he is so
happy with the assembly's practice that he would stay in Savatthi
another lunar month. After that month passes, the Buddha delivers
the core instructions of the Anapanasati Sutta, instructions which
have guided lay people and monastics to higher achievement for
millenia. Thus, given this canonical chronology, Anapanasati Day is
celebrated a lunar month after Pavarana Day.
"Māgha" (Pali) is the eleventh
lunar month, usually around February.
The three-line Ovada-Patimokkha Gatha (Pali: "Patimokkha
Exhortation Verse") (translated in Dhammayut Order in the United
States of America, 1994) includes the Buddha's famous dictum:
"Not doing any evil, doing what is skillful, purifying one's own
mind, this is the Buddha's teaching." This verse is familiar to
many Westerners because it is rehashed in the widely popular Dhammapada, chapter XIV,
verses 183-85 (Thanissaro, 1997a).
- Buddhadatta Mahathera, A.P. (2002). Concise Pali-English
Dictionary. Delhi:Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN
- Harvey, Peter (1990). An introduction to Buddhism:
Teachings, history and practices. Cambridge: Cambridge
University. ISBN 0-521-31333-3.
- Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi
(trans. and ed.) (1999). Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An
Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek,
CA: Altamira Press. ISBN 0-7425-0405-0.