Upāsaka (masculine) or Upāsikā (feminine) (from Sanskrit: meaning "attendant") refers to Buddhists who are not monks, nuns or novices belonging to a particular monastic community but nevertheless still undertake certain ethical vows to cultivate beneficial Buddhist modes of behavior. While the word "Upāsaka" is often translated into English as "lay follower," it is better rendered by phrases such as "lay devotee" or "devout lay follower."
The five ethical vows undertaken by an Upāsaka (known as the "Five Precepts" (Pāli: pañcasīla)) offer guidelines for the behavior of Buddhist lay-devotees who are inspired to follow the Buddha's eight-fold path. These five specific vows are as follows: (1) I will not take the life of a sentient being; (2) I will not take what has not been given to me; (3) I will refrain from sexual misconduct; (4) I will refrain from false speech; (5) I will refrain from becoming intoxicated.
Given the ethical affinity among the lay-devotees and the monastics, the Upāsaka share an important symbiotic relationship with the monastic community: the monks provide a full-time example of ethical orthopraxis whereas the lay-devotees serve them with food and gifts.
In the Vajrayana Buddhism, Upasaka Dharmatala is a well known Upasaka is who serves as the attendant of the sixteen arhats. He is seen to be an emanation of Avalokitesvara.
In the Pali Canon's Jivaka Sutta, the Buddha is asked, "Lord, to what extent is one a lay follower (upāsako)?" The Buddha replies that one takes refuge in the Triple Gem. Asked how one is a "virtuous lay follower" (upāsako sīlavā), the Buddha replies that one undertakes the Five Precepts. Asked how one practices being a lay follower "both for his own benefit and the benefit of others," the Buddha states that one is consummate oneself in, and encourage others in, the consummation of conviction (saddhā); virtue (sīla); generosity (cāga); visiting monks; and, hearing, remembering, analyzing, understanding and practicing the Dhamma.
Accordingly, in traditional Theravada communities, a non-Buddhist becomes a Buddhist lay disciple by repeating the ancient formulas for the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts in response to the formal administrations of a monk. Newborns of Buddhist parents are traditionally initiated by being brought on their first outing to a temple on a full-moon or festival day where they are presented to the Triple Gem.
Specific ordination procedures for receiving precepts in the Chinese tradition are laid out in the fourteenth chapter of the the Sutra on Upasaka Precepts. it states that the disciple hoping to receive the precepts, first pays respects to the six directions, which represent their parents, teacher, husband or wife, friends, religious master and employees (and, traditionally, servants). Honoring the six directions is a "means fulfilling one's reciprocal responsibilities in each of these relationships." A person who has honored these relationships and paid his respects to the six directions must then receive permission from his parents to accept the precepts. If they agree, he informs his spouse and those under his employment. The disciple should then get permission from his king, though for obvious reasons this last procedure is no longer widely observed. The disciple, having paid his respects to the six directions and having the relevant permissions, may now ask a monastic to help him receive the precepts. (In modern times, these ceremonies are normally held on a regular basis at temples and presided over by the temple master, and one would not ask a random monk or nun to perform the ceremony.) The monastic and disciple then engage in a dialoge, with the monastic asking questions and the disciple answering. The monastic asks the disciple if he has paid respects to the six directions and if he has the relevant permissions. The monk will ask a series of questions that ensure the practitioner has not committed grave offenses and is both physically and mentally fit to receive the precepts.
The monastic explains the benefits of the precepts as well as the negative consequences of breaking them, and asks if the disciple is prepared to accept them and remain dedicated to the Triple Gem. Next, the monastic asks the disciple if to follow additional habits to prevent breaking the precepts, to discourage others from breaking them, and to avoid excessive attachment to the five skandhas. If the practitioner is prepared, the monk asks the disciple to practice all the precepts for six months while remaining under the monk's regular observation.
If, after six months, the disciple has upheld the precepts well, he may ask the monastic for formal taking of the precepts. The disciple will then take refuge in the Triple Gem, and the monastic will then ensure the disciple is prepared to take on all (as opposed to only some) of the precepts. If the disciple commits to accepting all the precepts, and recites them with the monk, then he has finished his lay ordination.
The chapter closes with a description of consequences of breaking the precepts and the obligations that one must take on after receiving the precepts.
Traditionally, in India, upāsakas wore white robes, representing a level of renunciation between lay people and monastics. For this reason, some traditional texts make reference to "white-robed lay people" (avadāta-vassana). This practice can still be found in contemporary Theravadin temples, especially during the occasion when a non-Buddhist converts to Buddhism or when one is observing the Eight Precepts on an uposatha day.
In the Chinese tradition, both upāsakas and upāsikās are commonly seen wearing black robes, symbolic of refuge in the Triple Jewel. Brown kesas (robes) worn outside the black robes are also commonly seen, symbolic of the upholding of the precepts.
Some Japanese Zen laity can also be seen wearing a wagesa, a formal ribbon-shaped garment but also a more simplified type of kesa (robe).
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