Upasaka & Upasika Vows

A basic understanding of the lay vows


As some of us have taken recently the upas(a)(i)ka, it is important to understand the meaning of these vows. Here is a most simple and brief explanation about these precepts:

The ‘Vinaya’ is derived from the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Turning the Wheel means to make it start to turn. These precepts are what it does.

The main topic is the four Noble Truths:

1. All beings struggle to overcome suffering. Gods, titans, etc. all suffer. No one in the various classes of beings, wants to suffer.

2. The cause of suffering is doing the wrong things: Although we all want happiness, we keep engaging in the actions of body, speech and mind that cause suffering.

3. By developing clarity and gaining control over our actions, we can achieve cessation.

4. How to? Cessation is accomplished by practicing the eightfold noble path.

The causes of suffering are in the mind. The defilements of the mind are the source of all the suffering: ignorance, attachment, aversion. To counter these, the Buddha taught us the five precepts for lay people and many more vows for the monastic community. These five precepts are the basis to counter the three defilements:

  • To overcome attachment towards sentient beings and to overcome greed, the precept is to avoid sexual misconduct. There is positive attachment towards sentient beings, which might be called love. But that, which is most harmful and detrimental is sexual misconduct. 
  • Attachment to objects of desire is removed by the precept not to steal. This means to appropriate the use of what is not given. Of course, you will not suppress all forms of attachment by these two precepts, yet it will deal with the most harmful ways leading to attachment.
  • Anger | Aversion are overcome by the precept of not killing. The killing is the outcome of most acute form of aversion and aggressive behaviour. Ignorance is overcome by taking the precept of not lying.
  • By lying, we deprive others of their access to the truth. We are fooling them, not to say ourselves! Not to lie is the precept counteracting this tendency.
  • Now about intoxication… Our mind is perfect ultimately. However, our mind is right now a little confused and interacting with the natural perception of this perfection. Taking intoxicants, we will interfere even more so that our natural ability to perceive our true relative and ultimate perfection. Moreover, it will also bring us losing control and we might consequently break our vows.

In this way we can understand more accurately the concept of taking precepts. There are various sets of precepts starting with the lay vows enunciated here above. These are then developed with more discriminating wisdom and lead one to observe subsequent levels of renunciation. 

Would one be interested in this topic, the next is to engage in the study of presented in the section of Study Notes available on this website.

There are then followed by the more restrictive vows of the monastics. Each level of commitments is taken at a ceremony by which the renunciant receives the blessings of the ordination lineage and is empowered to practice them. 

In fact, the vows are only received at the very moment that one takes a genuine commitment to train and keep them.