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Nothing to worry about, learn from Buddha's good sleep

How can I sleep "just right" without snoozing or overworking? In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha once explained the influence and retribution of "excessive and insufficient" sleep, and taught all living beings to practice diligently and stop the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Naturally, when we get proper sleep, our practice will be effective as well.

"Just five more minutes of sleep!" When you wake up in the morning, do you often press the alarm clock, continue to bury your head deeply in the pillow, and then accidentally oversleep? When working or studying during the day, the eyelids are heavy and drowsy, as if you can't hear anything, and you don't want to do anything... However, snoozing does  not only causes lateness, lack of efficiency and other consequences, but also has far-reaching effects.

Snooze has infinite negative results

In Dharmapadavadana Sutra, Volume 1, the Buddha talked about the consequences of excessive sleepiness. Once, the Buddha preached the Dharma for the monks in Jetavana-vihara in Sravasti City, teaching his disciples to practice diligently in order to eliminate all forms of distress. Among them, there was a bhikkhu who was mentally dull, and often closed his door and fell asleep after eating, wasting a great opportunity to learn and practice the Dharma. Seeing that the disciple had only seven days to live, the Buddha worried that he would fall into the evil realm because of his indulgence, so he went to his room to save him.

But the bhikkhu was still in deep sleep, unaware that the Buddha had entered his room. The Buddha snapped his fingers and said a verse: "Alas! Why sleeping like this? The scorpions, snails, mussels, and moths hide in unclean places; with delusion and confusion, mistakenly regarding these places as sources of bodily comfort....Right view is to be learned and wholesome deeds are to be increased, which represents brightness for the world. The blessings thus generated will be a thousand times, and you will never fall into the evil path."

(in plain language: Get up quickly! Why are you still sleeping? Just like the worms attached to animals, and snails, clams, and moths, they hide in unclean places, just to make the body comfortable, so they are lazy and obsessed.  … You must learn right knowledge and right view; this is the bright light in the dark world. The blessings obtained by the person with correct knowledge and right views are a thousand times greater than that of ordinary people, and he will never fall into the three evil ways.)

The Buddha's voice was like thunder, and the bhikkhu woke up suddenly. Seeing the Buddha arrive in person, he immediately stood up and bowed. The Buddha told the monk that he had been a monk in the past, but he was always lazy and greedy for fame and fortune. After death, he degenerated into the parasites found on cows and horses. 50,000 years later, after the retribution had been exhausted, he again incarnated as a scorpion, snail, mussel, and a tree moth, each for 50,000 years. These four creatures like to hide in hidden and dark places. Their minds are dull and obscured all their lives, without knowing how to seek escape, so they sank downward, life after life. After finally receiving the retribution, he was reborn as a human being in this life and even became a monk in order to practice. Why does he repeat the same mistakes, greedy for sleep and waiting to fall?

This bhikkhu heard that he was greedy for physical comfort, lazy and lethargic, and planted the cause and condition of falling into darkness for a long time and suffering for tens of thousands of years. He couldn't help being terrified and suddenly realized that he should seize the opportunity to practice in this life and work diligently. In the end, he attained Arhatship.

Eyes feed on sleep

By craving sleep, one will plant the retribution of being reborn as snails, clams, etc. On the other hand, is it true that by not sleeping at all and devoting to practice without rest, one will set a good example as a Buddhist disciple? The Buddha didn't think so.

According to a story recorded in the Ekottarika Āgama, when the Buddha was preaching the Dharma, the Venerable Anuruddha dozed off due to fatigue, and the Buddha admonished him not to indulge in sleep. This teaching was like a slap in the face. So Anuruddha immediately knelt down to the Buddha, with his palms joined together begging for forgiveness, and vowed not to sleep in front of the Tathagata in the future. From then on, Venerable Anuruddha always stayed up all night, and his eyes were gradually damaged.

Although the Buddha was happy to see that Anuruddha had the courage to correct his own mistakes, he was worried that he had overcorrected, so he reminded him that proper sleep was still necessary. "All dharmas exist on food. Nirvana feeds on vigilance, and the eyesight feeds on sleep. You should sleep." But Venerable Anuruddha did not want to break his oath. All day long he didn't want to close his eyes and soon went blind. Even so, he was still diligent and unremitting. Because of his dedicated concentration, he received the heavenly eye at the moment, and he could see the worlds of the ten directions without hindrance.

One day, the blind Anuruddha wanted to mend his clothing, so he shouted loudly: "Who wants to cultivate meritorious blessings? Come and help me thread the needle and sew my clothing!" At the time, the compassionate Buddha heard it with his heavenly ear, and came to his room: "Bring a needle, and I will sew a needle for you." Anuruddha recognized it was the Buddha's voice, and so stood up and bowed respectfully to the Buddha, and asked, "Bhagavan, you have already possessed immeasurable blessings, why do you still need to cultivate them?" The Buddha replied: "Who would mind cultivating more blessings? The Tathagata never mind cultivating more of the six kinds of dharma: Firstly is the practice of giving; secondly is preaching the Dharma and giving admonition; thirdly is patience and endurance; fourthly is to explain the Dharma and the doctrine; fifthly is safeguarding and protecting sentient beings; and sixth, to seek the supreme correct and true path.” Hearing the teaching of the Buddha, Venerable Anuruddha and the monks were all delighted and joyful, receiving it with conviction and understanding, aspiring to truly practice it.

Pure Mind and Perfect Sleep

However, even if we know the importance of proper sleep, ordinary people often lie in bed tossing and turning and cannot sleep peacefully due to their minds being entangled in deluded thoughts and afflictions, just like King Pasenadi of Kosala. As the Dharmapada Sutra's Story Collection Chapter  mentions, one day when King Persiani was patrolling the city, he was attracted to a young and beautiful married woman and wanted to win her love. So he set up a trick and asked the woman's husband to go underground to collect lotus flowers and red clay, and must come back by the evening of the day; otherwise he would be executed. The woman's husband overcame all difficulties to complete the task and returned, only to find out that the city gate had been locked ahead of time. He glued the red clay on the city gate, put the lotus flower on the red clay, and then went to Jetavana-vihara to seek the Buddha's protection.

That night, the king was filled with lust, thinking about how to kill the man and take possession of his wife the following day. He also heard strange noises in the middle of the night, which made him sleepless all night. The queen suggested that the king ask the Buddha for instructions. The Buddha told King Pasenadi that in the time of Dipankara Buddha, there were four people who had accumulated evil karma while they were alive, and they were still suffering in hell, so they made those terrible sounds. After hearing this, the king became vigilant and decided to let go of his desires. He said with emotion : "Now I understand how long the night is for those who can't sleep well at night." Standing on one side, the woman's husband also said to the Buddha: "After running here and there all day, I also realized how long the journey is for those who have worries.” It turns out that,in order to have a good night's sleep, one should cultivate mental calm. How difficult it is for ordinary people who are deeply saddened by sorrow. No wonder the Buddha said: "Samsara is indeed long for fools who don't understand the essence of the Dharma!"

The Buddha himself is the best example of a true "good sleeper". According to the records of Ekottarika Āgama Sutra, Volume 20, one year in mid-winter, the Buddha went to the ancestral hall in Alavī for a rest. The son of the elder Aālavak passed by, bowed to the Buddha, and asked him if he had slept well the previous night, to which the Buddha replied that he had a good night's sleep. The son of Elder Aālavak saw that there was only a straw cushion beside the Buddha, and his clothing was thin, so he couldn't believe the Buddha's answer.

The Buddha kindly told him that he took the Four Noble Truths as his seat and attained the concentration of the Four Bases of Spiritual Powers (Pali: iddhipāda; Skt. ṛddhipāda). More importantly, "All day long I am free from greed, anger, and ignorance. Because  my mind was free from the three poisons, I have escaped from the Three Realms, getting myself relieved from the cycle of birth and death, free from the suffering of samsara, so I can sleep well every night.”

Therefore, if we want to have quality sleep, we need to practice diligently to reduce our afflictions of greed, anger, and ignorance. Only then can we also become "good sleepers", just like the Buddha.

Extended Reading:

Sleep is for Rest and Practice

Nothing to worry about, learn from Buddha's good sleep

​Practicing Sleeping Meditation to Have a Good Night's Sleep

Q&As About Getting a Good Night's Sleep

Resource: Issue 388 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 388 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation (Photos painted by 劉建志)
Translation: James
Editing: Keith Brown, Chiacheng Chang (張家誠)