Ven Sumangalo, 03: The Law of Karma and Rebirth

Editor’s Note: this is the third 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

Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning action. As we Buddhists use the term, the meaning is clearer if we describe it as action and reaction, or act and result. Another way to describe KARMA is cause and effect.
When we plant rice we do not expect a harvest of pepper. We do not make a fire to produce coolness. In everything in life we find that if we know all the causes, then we can reliably predict the effects.

The Buddha taught us that happiness and unhappiness are effects or results, just as much as fire is a cause which produces heat as a result. If we lead selfish, ignorant, evil lives, we can expect only such results as go along with selfishness, ignorance and evil. Bad acts always produce bad results, good acts always have good results.

Probably many of you boys and girls have saving banks at home, and put some coins in the bank each week. Our thoughts and actions are like putting money in the bank of life, bad thoughts and actions are like counterfeit money. Sometimes people are arrested for trying to spend false money, either made of lead or else printed imitations of the real money. Misfortune is sure to come to anyone who tries to spend such money. Misfortune is also sure to come to anyone who puts bad thoughts and bad acts into the “The Bank of Karma.” We can save up real happiness only if we think good thoughts and do good acts. No one can ever rob us of our Karma. Evil results always come from evil causes; good results always come from good causes. If we wish to be happy, then we must store up causes of happiness, just as we plant rice in order to get a harvest of rice.

It is extremely important for all young people to keep in mind the importance of getting a practical understanding of the Law of Karma. If we have this understanding, then we shall be able to control results by controlling causes. We shall know that doing good produces happiness and doing evil produces unhappiness. This Law of Karma is a very deep subject, but even a small child can understand the main idea and learn how to live in such a way that happiness will result.

We cannot understand the teaching concerning rebirth, unless we have first understood how the Law of Karma works. Rebirth depends on Karma. If we think good thoughts and do only good acts in this life, we not only get good results here and now, but we also get a better rebirth when our life in this world is finished.

A person’s karma good or bad, is actually that person and it is the Karma that is guides rebirth in some other life, either in a heaven or a hell, or again in this world. In some cases, a person with extremely bad karma might be reborn as a tiger. Or to imagine another case – a person whose habits make him seem very much like a pig. How could we expect such a person to be reborn as a heavenly being or even as a good normal decent human being?

There is more than one kind of rebirth and one variety is a sort of rebirth here and now in this life. When a bad person changes and becomes good, that is a type of rebirth. The same is true of a good person who changes and becomes evil. But, as a rule, when we speak of rebirth, we are thinking of what happens to us when we die. If we want to know that kind of life we shall have when we die and leave this world, we need only look at our present lives. If we are lazy and do not study the Buddha’s teachings, and do not follow the Five Precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path, then we cannot expect a good and happy rebirth into a world better than this one. On the other hand, those who study the Dharma and live the Dharma who are kind and unselfish, such persons can expect a happy rebirth into a heaven-world or some other good rebirth.

Our lives move very swiftly. Now we are boys and girls, still going to school. But almost before we know it, we find we are grown-ups and soon we are old. Not many persons live to age one hundred, but even if we do live to that age, there comes a time when we must leave this life. Therefore it is very important for each of us to be very careful about all we think and do. Our thoughts and actions are our Karma, good or bad, and it is our Karma that is reborn.

Any boy or girl who begins to lead a good Buddhist life in childhood and continues to be a good Buddhist all through his or her life, need never worry about rebirth. But the really important thing to do is to make an early start. If we create only good Karma in our lives, we don’t have to wait till we die to receive the benefits. We shall surely obtain happiness in this life as well as in the life to come.

In this age in which we live we so often hear people say, “What am I going to get out of this?” Usually they refer to material benefits, such as money, position, health and so on. The answer to give to a person who wants to know what he can get from following the Lord Buddha’s teachings, is “You will have better health in both your mind and body, as a result of sensible living. You might even be more successful in business because of better thinking. You will gain peace of mind and calmness of heart – what more could a sane person wish?.”

In the daily newspapers we read much about “delinquent children” but when we talk to those boys and girls who have been sent to special schools for “naughty children” we usually find that they are just normal, average boys and girls, and the real reason why they became “delinquent” was because they were neglected by their elders who never taught the children right and wrong.

Surely such parents are not Buddhists. It is rather unreasonable to expect filial piety and good conduct from the very young, if their elders fail to set the proper example and to give the affectionate guidance every child needs as preparation for a good, wholesome, happy life. Many judges say that there are more delinquent parents than there are children who are really naughty. A Dharma is a wonderful idea, but the real instruction in right living must begin in the home.



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