March, this year, began with a full moon. It was also the full moon that concluded the ancient lunar month of Magha. On another Magha full moon, more than two and a half thousand years ago the Buddha was staying on the Vulture’s Peak near Rajgir. Below him was the Bamboo Grove, the very first piece of land offered as a place where he and his disciples might stay. Suddenly, without any kind of prior arrangement, a great company of monks began to gather at the Bamboo Grove. Within a short space of time one thousand, two hundred and fifty monks had arrived and were sitting there. Every one of these monks was not only a personal disciple of the Buddha and had been ordained by him but was also an Arahant, that is Enlightened. Once they were all assembled the Buddha came down from the Vulture’s Peak and joined them and together they sat silently meditating into the night. Eventually, the Buddha addressed them and recited for them what is known as the Ovada Patimokkha.
Only three short verses long, this summary of the Buddha’s Teaching contains one particular verse that I want to draw your attention to and ask you to remember and often bear in mind. In translation it goes something like this: ‘Avoid all evil, cultivate the good and purify the mind; this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.’ I hope its meaning is clear. Do your best to control what you say and do and try to make sure that your actions and words do no harm. Keep well away from what is unskilful and brings no peace or happiness and do your best to promote what is good and productive of happy results. Then reflect, is that really good enough? It’s all very well but if your control slips or you forget, what then? Well we all know what happens. It doesn’t take much for bad words to escape your mouth or for you to do things that later you regret. And why is this? Isn’t it because your mind is not yet pure and still harbours greed, hatred and delusion? So, then there can be nothing else for it, you have to go further, to the very root of your bad behaviour, to the very place where all suffering begins. You still mustn’t neglect to be careful of what you say and do, that foundation in virtue is enormously important – it’s just that it’s not enough. But the peace and stability morality brings does enable you to gradually still and watch your mind – and so begin to gain insight into how things change, and how unsatisfactory and insubstantial they are. Thus, by seeing and knowing the true nature of things, the mind is eventually cleansed of greed, hatred and delusion.
At the celebrations of events like Magha Puja and at any important occasion the lay people always ask for and then receive and reaffirm the Three Refuges and Five Precepts. Having only a moment ago been speaking of avoiding evil and cultivating what is good, to help you do just that I recommend those precepts and suggest that you recollect them frequently and make sure they’re with you always, wherever you go and whatever you’re doing. And especially the least popular, the fifth, abstinence from alcohol and drugs. I know some people say it’s intoxication that you must avoid and therefore a small amount socially is alright but that’s not what the texts say. You don’t have to be unable to walk – even a sip is a breach of the precept. There is a saying, ‘First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man!’ We don’t say of the other precepts that a little bit of killing is alright or a little bit of stealing. No! In this practice it’s vital that you make your mind clear – how else can you begin to really see things as they are? That’s why we meditate and so if you’re determined to develop your mind there should be no place in your life for drink or drugs.