This evening is our observance night, an opportunity to recollect the refuges and precepts, and to take the time to reflect on the direction we want to guide our spiritual practice. In the Thai language the observance day is called the “Wan Phra,” which means “Holy Day” or “Monk Day” or maybe “Day Worthy of Veneration.” Ajahn Chah used to say, “It's helpful having these special days. They were established by the Buddha and it's not as if he's asking too much of us, once a week having an observance day, a day worthy of veneration. We do it once a week, so in a month you get four days worthy of veneration and twenty six ordinary days, which is a good balance. The problem is that people tend to pull the days of veneration into ordinary days. So you end up with lots of ordinary days, but not many worthy of veneration.”
So the observance day is a way to have a day to set aside and reflect, for example asking ourselves, “What do we take as a refuge? What do we hold up as something worthy of veneration in our life? What are the boundaries and bases for our conduct and interaction with the world around us? What do we hold in value? How would we like to live? What qualities of virtue and integrity do we want to really cultivate? Just having a quiet day where we step back from the of busyness of day to day life, even the busyness of monastery life. Here at Abhayagiri we are consistently encouraging people to step back on these days, reminding the community, “Don't turn the computer on, don't be checking emails on the observance days.” It is a time to step back and not clutter up the mind with that kind of activity.
It is really important to give ourselves the opportunity. Observance days and precepts are opportunities to stop and see: “Oh, that's why we have that guideline,” or “Wow, that was stupid to let ourselves get caught up in that.” Because if we don't ever stop, then we don't ever reflect.
As we try to gain some perspective on our lives, it is helpful to remember that we are not trying to force ourselves to live up to the highest ideal all the time, but what we are trying to do is to reflect and see what is actually useful for our life, what actually brings good results? When we recognize that which clutters up the mind, clutters up one's life, then there's an intention and motivation to turn towards relinquishment and letting things go. That's why an observance day is quite helpful, because it gives us a structure to encourage ourselves to step back. That perspective of reflecting from a place of letting go and relinquishment is really central to the Buddha's teaching, and in terms of an ethos of how we're using the practice, whether it's on the level of our interpersonal relationships or in terms of keeping and holding of precepts, our training as monastics or as lay people. Not coming from a place of theoretical idealism but coming from a place of, “What actually works to decrease the dissatisfaction, discontent, and suffering of our lives?”