Ven Sumangalo, 02: The 8 Positive Rules for a Happy Life

Editor’s Note: this is the second of a series of short articles on how to be a practicing Buddhist. It was written by Ven. Sumangalo, an American monk who had ordained in Loas in 1957, and who was active in Malaya and Singapore up and till his passing in 1963.

In that time he became a seminal figure in the propagation of Buddhism in these countries and helped set up Dhamma Schools and Youth Circles, as well as give many Dhamma teachings. The booklet has been transcribed by Jin, a 🙂 Buddhist.


Ven. Sumangalo

Now what are these eight rules of positive happy living? They are easy to recite and remember. These rules are for use everyday.

1. RIGHT UNDERSTANDING

First of all we must try hard to do the highest thinking. Now let us ask just what is meant by this statement. “Highest” means the highest and best of which an individual is capable. What is high for one many not be so high for another. But each individual must do what is for himself the very best and highest thinking. As a result of this best and highest thinking, we get highest understanding. If we do have highest understanding then we are like a man trying to run a motorcar on a highway and not knowing how to operate a motor car. He is sure to get into serious trouble. If he gained understanding of motor cars before trying to drive, then he would be following the Lord Buddha’s advice. First of all, we must try to get the best possible understanding of life by doing our best possible thinking.

2. RIGHT AIMS

As we learned in the preceding lesson, good understanding and good thinking go together like twins that are never separated. But to Buddhists the use of the word thought in connection with our religion has a very special meaning. We are all familiar with what is meant when someone says “I have made up my mind.” We know he has decided what he wants to do and is determined to do it. We cannot gain Right Understanding without thinking that is resolute, that has Right Aim.

We may have good beliefs without having good understanding that has come from rightly aimed thought, but when we accept someone else’s opinions, then we are going against Lord Buddha’s advice to us to do our own thinking and to have our own aims. Sometimes we heard it said of a person that “he is such an aimless man” or “he is so unthinking.” In the Dharmapada we are told that thoughtless persons are somewhat like dead people. Such persons dislike to be resolute, they have no real aim in life.

There is an old saying that is found in many languages and it is good advice for all of us: “Look and think before you leap.” Our Buddhist religion teaches us that each one of us has the kind of life he makes for himself. If we have no real resolution, no well planned aim in life, and do but little thinking, then the result can only be a life full of confusion and unhappiness. It is only stupidity to blame our unhappiness on “bad luck.” The best way to make a good start in this direction is to free the mind from all the dark and ugly thoughts that ought to be a shame to anyone, young or old. For example we must cleanse our minds of anger, ill-will, greed, hatred, jealousy, envy and laziness. If we do not have this aim, then we can only blame only ourselves if unhappiness overtakes us.

THE LISTLESS FOOL

There was a rich Brahmin, well advanced in years, whose sole aim in life was to get as much excitement and pleasure as possible. He had decided never to think of anything unpleasant. He even refused to give thought to the fact that someday he must die. This foolish man decided to build a great pleasure palace for himself. When the mansion was completed, he filled it with many treasures and luxuries sufficient to last one hundred years.

The Buddha sent Ananda to preach to the foolish old man and urge him to have a better aim in life and to do better thinking. But the rich old man would not listen. In his stupidity he had convinced himself that he would never die. His aim was wrong and so his thinking was wrong. Shortly after Ananda left, when the old man was stricken with apoplexy and fell dead. When this news was brought to the Buddha, the Lord said: “A fool, even though the wise instruct him, understands nothing of wisdom, because he only has foolish and selfish thoughts. Just as a spoon cannot taste the soup, even so those whose minds are filled with wrong thoughts can never know how to get free from sorrow.”

3. RIGHT SPEECH

We all know that one of the best ways to know whether a person is of high quality or low quality is to listen to his speech. There are not many secrets to this world and most of us give away our own secrets when we speak. People listen to us and sooner or later know by the quality of our speech whether we are really good persons or merely talkers. It is so easy to talk of religion and high and holy things. It is not always easy to let one’s actions speak instead of using words. You all know the saying “Actions speak louder than words.” But when we do speak we should always use good decent speech and avoid all evil talk and idle chatter and gossip. One of the worse sins of the tongue is to spread gossip.

Right speech must be both minus (-) and positive (+). That is it must be minus untruthfulness, minus anger and all ugliness. Our speech must be free from deceit, gossip and stupid chatter. We must speak in such a way that our kind and gentle words of reasonableness will bring happiness to all with whom we talk. If we cannot bring happiness to others by our words, at least we must not injure them by wrong speech. Lying is one of the worse forms of wrong speech. A lie that causes hurt to someone else is worst of all. It is also wrong to tell the truth in such a way as to cause sadness or injury to others. At times it’s better just to remain silent. Sometimes the Lord Buddha “kept the noble silence of the wise.” He showed us by His example, that silence is sometimes better than speech, even truthful speech.

4. RIGHT ACTION

The next of the eight rules for daily living is highest of actions. That is to say, we are to make the best use of our energies so that we may set a good example to all and avoid setting a bad example to anyone, especially the young. Not long ago a father came to me and said that his son had got into trouble. The father said “I never spoke a bad word in my son’s presence.” I then asked “Did you set your son a good example?” For a few seconds the father hesitated before he replied. Then he admitted that he did not set a good example.

Before we plan any course of action, we ought to think carefully to see if it will bring us joy or sorrow. If we think and act wisely and well, then we shall not need to feel shame for our conduct. Wise thought coupled with wise action bring us the respect of others and keep us from ever losing our self respect.

So many say they believe the Lord Buddha’s teachings. But when we look at their actions, we wonder if they are telling the truth, because their deeds do not fit their words. We must always remember that the Lord Buddha’s religion is something to do, not just something to talk about.

5. RIGHT LIVELIHOOD

Next we come to another important rule for living. It is called livelihood, or the best possible way to make a living. First we must make sure that our means of gaining a living is one that will harm no one. We must not make a living by bloodshed or by selling things that poison the body or mind of others. We must make sure that our way of making a living is a completely honest one. We must not gain a living by cheating or deceiving or in any low and disgraceful manner. If possible, we must earn our livelihood in a way that will help others and cause all who know us to respect us.

6. RIGHT EFFORT

Now we come to what has often been called one of the two most important of all the eight rules. Good Understanding is considered the most important, but all the good understanding in the world is worthless unless we use that understanding. This requires effort. EFFORT is the sixth rule. But if we use very great effort and do not have proper understanding, then we have a great chance of disaster. We are like a child trying to run a locomotive. If we put forth effort, without first knowing what we are doing, then we are sowing the seeds of bad karma for ourselves and unhappiness is sure to result. The two points, no 1 and no 6 must always go together. Strong effort is greatly dangerous, without good understanding and good understanding is of no value without strong effort.

When Right Effort is missing in anyone’s life we use an unpleasant word to describe the condition. The word is LAZINESS. If we do not overcome laziness, we cannot make any real progress on the road to happiness. Each of us must make real effort to lead a good moral helpful life. Usually we say there are four main efforts which we must make if we wish our lives to be according to the Buddha’s teaching. These four efforts are:-

  1. The effort to avoid evil not yet existing in our lives
  2. The effort to overcome evil which already exists in our thoughts and acts
  3. The effort to preserve the good already developed in our thinking and acting
  4. The effort to develop the good not yet existing in our minds hearts and actions.

So many of us have good ideas and good intentions, but we do not use effort to put our good ideas into practice. This is somewhat like being a bird with but one wing. Another mistake that is made by many people boys and girls included, is the bad habit of putting it off until tomorrow or next week or next month what we know we ought to do today. The only time we can be sure of is today. Yesterday has gone and tomorrow has not come. The best time to put forth Right Effort is this very day. The sooner we practice all the points of the Eightfold Path, the sooner we shall find real happiness. Boys and girls who start to follow this path very early in life will soon find out that it is the only road to true and lasting happiness. But nothing can be done till a start is made.

7. RIGHT MINDFULNESS

Right mindfulness is the seventh rule for daily living, it can be used with great benefit by anyone. Many of the most successful businessmen use it in their daily business. This means that we keep our attention on what we are doing. Not long ago I saw a lady with one of her fingers missing. She had been cutting chillies with a sharp knife and at the same time she was thinking of the cinema she had seen the evening before. Suddenly she cut off one finger. If she had kept her mind on what she was doing she would not have cut off the finger. This seventh point is a form of concentration and is of great benefit to all who use it. Anyone who cannot learn to use this seventh point can never be a highly successful businessman or professional man. Once I knew a man who almost died because a doctor had given him a wrong injection. The doctor had not kept his mind on what he was doing and thus made a mistake that almost killed a man. This seventh rule if of great importance for all of us … every day of our lives.

The most successful students are those who have trained themselves to give complete attention to whatever subject they may be studying. If the subject is mathematics, then it is not a good use of point seven if the student’s attention wanders away and he begins to worry over whether or not he will pass his history examination. He would have a better chance to pass all his examinations if he gave his undivided attention to each subject in its turn. Have you ever noticed that when we are trying to do three or four things at the same time, we usually get them only partly finished or at most, imperfectly done. That is because there is divided attention. Divided attention is never Right Attention.

8. RIGHT CONCENTRATION

The Eight rule is called in Pali SAMMĀ SAMĀDHI. Now this does not mean the ordinary concentration that is found in rule no 7. This eighth rule is a spiritual concentration and is commonly called MEDITATION. This rule eight is really the highest point on this pathway of eight rules and if it is correctly used, it can bring about calmness and great wisdom to those who regularly meditate. This eighth rule is so important to all of us who call ourselves Buddhists that I wish to be very clear on this point and try to give you as good a picture as possible of what will happen in your life if you will really use point eight regularly and rightly.

In this modern world, most of us are usually under somewhat of a strain. For a family man even the task of providing food and shelter and clothing and all the other necessities for a family is quite a problem. Then we have health worries and emotional troubles and a whole host of troubles, anxieties and fears. All this results in nervousness and lack of peace of mind and heart. As a rule, when people get into a highly nervous state or are highly worried, they buy medicine to calm the nervous system. Some do worse than that and take to alcohol and to worse things like narcotics. The Lord Buddha said the best of all medicines for all ills is meditation. How do we go about meditation? Can meditation be done by anyone, or is it necessary to be a monk? Can women meditate as well as men. Is it necessary to go to the jungle or to some remote place to meditate? What are the directions for meditation?

Yes, meditation can be done by laymen as well as monks. By women as well as men, in a city as well as in a jungle or remote place. Meditation is really not at all complicated. The big trouble is that so few are willing to sit utterly still for even a few minutes. In a short time a person wants a drink of water or hears the noise of motor car horn, or a fly lights on his head or his belt is too tight, or his knees hurt him, or he gives in to worry about how he is going to pay off all his bills. Even sitting utterly still and utterly quiet is quite a task for the beginner and it is necessary to have patience. But anyone who will be patient and actually try sincerely and regularly can learn how to meditate and will be greatly rewarded by using this practice. All life becomes different and great peace of mind and heart comes about by using this eighth rule.

As briefly as possible, here are the directions for meditation. It is better to meditate early in the morning after a night’s rest. Wash face and hands and clear the lungs of dead air. Wear loose clothing. Sit in a way to make yourself unconscious of your body. If you always sit on a chair and are uncomfortable on the floor with the legs crossed, then you cannot meditate on the floor. Sit bolt upright in a chair with feet firmly on the floor. The nose and chin should be in a line with the navel. Shoulders must be well back so the lungs can get a good supply of fresh air. Half close the eyes. Place the right hand on the left hand with thumbs touching.

Then take a breathing exercise. Silently say to yourself: One, I breathe in (then hold the breath for a moment) then, one, I breathe out – these inbreathings and outbreathings must be slow and regular. Do this until you have counted to ten. Then concentrate your mind on any single point and allow no other thought to enter your mind. If other thoughts come into your consciousness, do not grasp at them. Just let them slide through your mind without stopping. DO NOT HOLD ON TO THE OTHER THOUGHTS. If you select PEACE for your concentration thought then think of nothing whatever but peace for perhaps fifteen minutes.

Many make the mistake of trying to meditate a whole hour when they are first beginning their meditation exercises. This is not a good policy. Try 15 minutes for the first dozen or so times and then 20 minutes for a few weeks and then a half hour and then an hour after you have had six or seven months experience in meditation. If it is possible to get a good teacher in meditation then do so. But if no teacher is available, then use point one and point two and point six of the rules, that is, think carefully, get good understanding and use good effort.

Many European doctors are now recommending meditation to their patients who are suffering from high blood pressure, asthma, ulcers, hypertension, fears and anxieties and worries and nervous complaints. The percentage of complete cures is very high. Dr. Graham Lye of London has been using this method for a number of years and he is one of the most successful doctors in England in the treatment of certain diseases. If you wish to convince yourself that this cure is a real one, then just try meditation and see how calm your life becomes and how your blood pressure goes down until it is normal.

It is sad that so many people think that all they have to do is to be good Buddhists is to go to a temple now and then to offer joss sticks or to take the five precepts. The teaching of the Lord Buddha are like jewels in a deep mine. It is necessary to dig in order to get at the jewels. All who really try to learn the truth of the Buddhist religion find happiness and satisfaction that others do not have. Remember that merely saying “I am Buddhist” has no meaning. It is what we do with our lives that counts. The Buddhist idea of life is that it is something to do and do each day all through life. If we follow Lord Buddha’s way then we are surely on the road to happiness in this world and happiness in all other worlds after we die.

 




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