Ven Sumangalo, 01: What is Practical Buddhism?

Editor’s Note: this is the first 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

So many people, especially young people, ask me to tell them what is the basis of Buddhist teaching and how Buddhism differs from other religions. That is not easy to do in one conversation or one lecture, but there are certain teachings that can be given as forming the very foundation of our religion and certain differences that widely separate Buddhist religion from other religions.

At the very first, it is necessary to teach people that Buddhism is not just a set of beliefs. More than anything else it is a way of living. What we believe is of very little importance unless we live in the way that the Lord Buddha taught us to live.

The entire Buddhist teachings rest on the basic teaching that nothing in all the world happens by accident. The Lord Buddha taught us that everything comes from a cause. This includes our human happiness. The Buddha taught us that if we wish to change our lives for the better and be happier and healthier and more prosperous then we must change all the causes so that we can have better effects. In Buddhism this is known as the law of karma and in science it is called the law of cause and effect.

Everywhere I go I hear so many complaints about “bad luck.” Many who see others who prosper and have good health and happiness, claim that this comes from what they mistakenly call “good luck.” Our religion teaches us there is no such thing as luck. Good causes produce good effects and bad causes produce bad effects. if we are unhappy, then the fault is our own and we cannot properly blame someone else.

Many say that they lead good lives and yet have unfortunate things happen to them. Our religion teaches that this is the result of the bad karma of past lives that is being reaped in this life, just as we plant paddy and must wait for it to ripen before it can be harvested. So it is with karma. Sometimes it takes a long time to ripen and what we do in this life may ripen in another life.

Others see evil people who seem to prosper and have a pleasant life. But we know that the bad seeds that they are planting will sooner or later ripen and bring unhappiness. It is the same with good seeds or karma. If we plant only good seeds, sooner or later we reap a good harvest. No one can rob us of our karma.

The Lord Buddha taught us that all good and evil springs from our thoughts. If we think good and kindly thoughts then we shall do good and kindly acts. This results in good seeds of merit (good karma). If we think only dark and evil thoughts or are very lazy and hardly think any kind of thought, then we shall have the kind of life that comes from our thoughts, whether those thoughts are good or bad. But all karma comes from either bad thinking or good thinking or lazy thinking.

Every normal human being wants to be happy. Even animals run away from pain and try to be happy. We see that on a chilly morning a dog likes to lie in the sunshine. That is because the dog is more comfortable in the sunshine. It is the dog’s way of seeking happiness. The frogs are happy when it rains because it is their nature to like water. When there is no rain but little water, then they are unhappy. Every living thing seeks happiness. But those who desire happiness more than any other living being is the human race.

All other religions tell us that happiness is something that we can get after we die. Buddhism tells us that we can be in Heaven here and now and have happiness in this present life. All of Lord Buddha’s more important teaching is on the subject of how to escape sorrow. He gave us very clear instruction on how to find happiness both in this present life and also after we leave it for other worlds.

We have what we know as THE THREE TRUTHS and these are as follows: The first is that SORROW comes to all. The second is that there is NOTHING THAT ENDURES, the third is that even the human personality is constantly changing. We call these three DUKKHA, ANICCA and ANATTA. The most important of the three is ANICCA, the law that everything is constantly changing and also changing for the better or for the worse.

Modern science finds nothing in the universe that is static. Everything is dynamic. That is to say: everything is in motion. Nothing stands still. We either go forward or backward. We grow better and happier or else we grow in the direction of non-goodness and thus accumulate unhappiness. Therefore it is our main concern as Buddhists HOW TO MOVE IN THE DIRECTION OF HAPPINESS.

Here are the directions on how to overcome sorrow and be happy. These directions for living are quite the same for rich and poor, high and low, educated and uneducated, all races and both sexes, children as well as adults and for all times, past, present and future. These directions for life are really quite simple to listen to and to memorize. The difficulty starts when we try to use these directions. It is so easy to talk of mercy and charity. It is not always easy to show mercy and charity … by one’s own acts.

Everything in this world has an opposite. Thus it is that in our Buddhist teaching we have positive and negative rules for living. The first rules are five in number and are all on the negative side. That is, they are things not to do.

  1. We must NOT kill or be cruel
  2. We must NOT steal
  3. We must NOT be guilty of improper sexual acts
  4. We must NOT be liars
  5. We must NOT stupefy ourselves with drugs and liquors or anything that will poison our minds and bodies.

These five rules are the basis of practical Buddhism and until we abide by these negative rules we cannot start on the road to positive happiness.

One of the main reasons why so many people have so little happiness in their lives is that they do not follow the eight positive rules. They are those who follow only the five negative rules. Many people will tell you: “I NEVER DO ANYTHING WRONG yet I am unhappy.” They want to know why they are unhappy. The answer is easy to give. These people never do anything wrong but also they never do anything right. Their lives are entirely negative. To state it another way, it is like a mynah trying to walk on one leg or a bird trying to fly with one wing. In order to have a balanced life it is necessary to know the pair of opposites. We must NOT do evil but we MUST also DO GOOD. Otherwise we have lost the balance.


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