Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

October 28, 2016   |   Ithaca, NY


Commentary: Buddhists struggle with holidays on campus

People often ask whether Buddhists have holidays. The answer is yes, but most of the time I have difficulty explaining how we celebrate our holidays. It is not what many outside the religion would perceive as a holiday.

Buddhists have what are called Uposatha observance days that are determined by the phase of the moon. The new and full moon days are the two most emphasized. It is roughly equivalent to a Sabbath day, one day a week in which an observer is released from many mundane activities. Lay Buddhists, or Buddhists who are not monks, will often study and meditate more during these days, while some may spend the day at the monastery. Some lay Buddhists will follow eight moral guidelines, called precepts, instead of five. This is important because practice of the precepts can lead to improved circumstances in the present life and the future life, at rebirth. The eight precepts are abstaining from: intentionally killing; stealing; sexual intercourse; false speech; intoxicants; eating meals after noon; dancing, singing, music and entertainments as well as scents, perfumes and other cosmetics; and high and luxurious beds and seats.

These observance days begin at sunrise of the Uposatha day until the sunrise of the next day. They are quite different from what people commonly observe for holidays of other religious traditions. The goal on Uposatha observance days is to moderate our actions and live a life more in accordance with the “Middle Path” idea, a practice which encourages avoiding overindulgence in sensual pleasures while also avoiding extreme austerities or self-mortification. This runs counter to holidays such as Thanksgiving, where we tend to eat more than we should.

As one may imagine, observing these Uposatha days can be a challenge. The Ithaca College campus is no exception. The first five precepts are easier to uphold. However, there is usually music playing almost everywhere and, unless we have unscented deodorant, people may not wish to be around us. Also, the definitions of a high and luxurious seat or bed vary, so it is difficult to know if the college’s desks or beds are precept violators.

The music and entertainment parts can be avoided if one does not wish to work out at the Fitness Center and is willing to invest in earplugs to block out the blaring music from some of the Garden Apartments and other locations. But eventually, one can find a spot with no music playing such as Muller Chapel or the topmost floors of the library. Even in my Garden Apartment, I feel guilty asking my apartment mates to not play music or at least use earphones; sometimes they forget. Additionally, it’s probably annoying that my mattress is on the floor of the bedroom during this observance day.

To say the least, the college campus is not very Uposatha friendly. It becomes annoying, frustrating and ultimately demoralizing. At the same time, I know that it is not the fault of other students, my apartment mates or the college in general. After all, Buddhism is a minority religion, so what is the likelihood of having many practicing Buddhists on campus?

As a result, I may never observe a Uposatha day on campus again. It is too much of an annoyance for myself and an inconvenience for others. It is not like the Buddha is going to turn over in his Stupa if I only observe the five precepts on the Uposatha day. Regardless, not being able to fully observe an important holiday, such as the Uposatha, because of campus limitations makes me feel like a fraud.