A Pure Life: Don’t eat at inappropriate times

This is part ten of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.

The precept here is to not eat at inappropriate times, which is typically understood to mean we do not eat after lunch.  The reason for this precept is not that it is inherently non-virtuous to eat after lunch, rather we do so as purification for all of the negative karma we have accumulated in our past lives related to food.

We all need food in order to survive. But we do not necessarily have to engage in negative actions in order to get our food. However, in our countless previous lives we have engaged in innumerable negative actions in pursuit of food. We see this in particular in the human realm, the animal realm, and the hungry ghost realm. In the human realm, people hunt or fish and kill animals for food.  In Joyful Path, Geshe-la tells the story of the man who was born in a resembling hell that during the day he was eaten by vicious animals, but at night he was visited by beautiful goddesses. This rebirth occured because in his past life he was a butcher, but made a promise to not kill animals at night. As a result, his practice of moral discipline led to him being visited by beautiful goddesses but his killing of animals during the day resulted in his rebirth being viciously attacked by animals. Many people hunt and fish thinking there is nothing wrong with it. But from a karmic perspective killing animals and killing fish is still killing.

We also see tremendous non-virtuous actions in the animal realm related to feeding. It is enough to watch Animal Planet or National Geographic documentaries about the animal realm to see what life is like and how virtually all day every day animals in the wild are either hunting other animals or being hunted.  The hungry ghost realm is worse still. Beings in the hungry ghost realm are almost never able to find food unless it has been specifically dedicated for them by kind practitioners. They engage in virtually every kind of negative action in pursuit of finding something to eat. Even if they acquire their food, the negative karma remains with them. We ourselves have been born countless times in the animal realm and in the hungry ghost realm, and as a result all of the negative karma we accumulated during those rebirths remains on our mind. If we do not purify this negative karma, it will eventually ripen.

When we take the precept to not eat after lunch, it is a practice of purification of our negative karma associated with food. The practice of purification can be understood according to the four opponent powers: the power of regret, the power of reliance, the power of the opponent force, and the power of promise. 

In this context, we aim to make our training in the precept of not eating after lunch a practice of purification. We generate the power of regret by contemplating deeply all of the negative karma we have created in this life and in our countless previous lives related to food. We should consider that we have not yet purified this negative karma and that it remains on our mind. If we do not purify it, we will inevitably suffer the negative consequences. We generate the power of reliance through engaging in the practice of actually taking the precepts. We imagine in the space in front of us is our spiritual guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni.  Our taking of the precept itself is relying upon the Dharma. If we are taking the precepts with our spiritual friends, us mutually encouraging each other to engage sincerely in our precepts practice is relying upon sangha. We generate the power of the opponent force by keeping our precept throughout the day. Every time the thought or tendency arises in our mind thinking that we should eat something, we can recall all of the negative karma that we have created with respect to food in the past and remind ourselves of are precept to not eat after lunch as purification. This mental action of keeping our precept functions as the direct opponent that we are engaging in out of regret. The power of the promise in this context is not the promise to just simply keep our precept for the day, but rather to refrain from engaging in negative actions associated with food in the future.

It is important to remind ourselves that we are all bound for the lower realms unless we purify. It is not a question of do we fall into the lower realms or not, nor is it like in Christianity where if we are 51% good we supposedly take rebirth in heaven. Rather, from a Buddhist perspective, everyone bound up in samsara will inevitably fall into the lower realms. Indeed, close to 99% of all living beings within samsara are in the lower realms. The lower realms are our actual home, and our present rebirth in the human realm is a very brief and very rare aberration from our normal state.

We also need to honestly acknowledge that up until now we have not taken the practice of purification seriously enough. If we had time bombs strapped to our back and we had no idea when they would go off, we would be extremely motivated to remove the timebombs from our back. Our situation is actually far more dangerous than this. We have countless karmic time bombs which could cause us to take lower rebirth and experience incalculable sufferings, and we have no idea when this karma will ripen or when we all die. It may happen today. We do not know. It is simply too dangerous to remain complacent and allow this negative karma to remain unpurified on our mind. This is the essential meaning of a pure life and the practice of the eight Mahayana precepts. We recognize we have created non virtuous karma by not following these precepts, and our training in them is a practice of purification aimed at solving this problem.

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