For centuries people have been indulging in superstitions, lucky charms, omens, divinations, and fortune-telling. They have used these things to help them make decisions and keep them from taking responsibility for their own actions.
The list of superstitions and omens is endless, but they have one thing in common: they are totally irrational and based on fear and ignorance.
Buddha called all of these practices ‘low art’, and on many occasions he stated that such things are of no use as we have to take responsibility for our own lives. He believed in individual responsibility, rational thought, and social obligations rather than unhealthy fears and irrational superstitions.
This point was made very clear in the Mangala Sutra. In this discourse, Buddha was asked what the most auspicious omens were, and which ones should be followed. He didn’t directly answer the question, but instead gave guidelines of how we can make our own lives auspicious without relying on outside omens. He spoke about thirty-eight principles that, if lived by, would bring us true protection.
These thirty-eight principles gradually lead you on a journey that will see you reforming yourself and turning into a responsible person within society.
The excellent thing about this sutra is that it is firmly planted on earth. It is not metaphysical, and you are not required to pray to or believe in any superior beings or mythical characters. It is written for ordinary people and so has universal appeal. It can be followed by anyone as it is not religious and does not involve any ritual practices or ceremonies. You do not need to buy anything or even call yourself a Buddhist. It truly is a breath of fresh air.
I will talk about each of the thirty-eight principles over the next few blogs.
Avoid people exerting a negative influence
Who are these people who exert negative influences on us? They could be people who steal, kill, rape, harm others, deceive, lie, cheat, and generally have no morality and no regard for anyone else. However, they could equally be our friends, family, and acquaintances. None of us is perfect; we all have times when we are being negative.
Negativity is contagious and are minds are easily swayed into bad ways. That is why we must be on our guard and not allow people to influence us negatively.
Having said this about negative people, we must be willing to help those who find themselves in bad ways. Buddha was not saying turn your back on these people. If we can help them in some way we must, but we must remain fully aware and guard our minds, so we are not adversely influenced by them.
Buddha put this at the top of his list of principles, which shows the importance he places on it. We should follow his lead.
Associate with people exerting a positive influence
People who exert positive influences on us will help us grow in morality, wisdom, and social responsibility. They clearly understand their duties within society and know the difference between right and wrong. They will stay mindful of their thoughts and actions, and so will not knowingly cause harm to others. The person can be a parent, teacher, mentor, friend or just an acquaintance. The important thing is that they have a set of ethics and boundaries that you can learn from and follow. But remember that they are only human, and so will have negative lapses from time to time.
It is with these people we should be associated because they will help us understand the importance of virtuous actions and the harm caused by non-virtuous actions. They will help us cultivate a charitable, compassionate, kind, and helpful manner, which will assist us to move smoothly through these thirty-eight principles, so we can reduce suffering for ourselves and others.
Show respect to those who have earned it
Traditionally, the commentaries to this text say we should respect our parents, teachers, elders, and employers, but I don’t think it is up to me to tell you whom you should respect. Nobody knows better than you yourself who is worthy of respect in your life.
What I would say is that respect has to be earned and not given blindly to someone with a title, a position of responsibility or someone older than you. All of these things do not guarantee that a person is worthy of any respect. If someone—anyone—has been of great assistance in your life, you should show that person respect.
Some people do not like to show respect to anyone. They probably overestimate their own abilities, and so find it hard to believe someone else can do something better than they can. This is just pride and something they should work on.
When we show respect to someone worthy of it, we are practicing humility, and where there is humility, there cannot be pride.
Remember this: ‘Treat others with justice and respect. In the long run, how you treat others will be how they treat you’.
Live in a suitable location
Now this may sound a bit strange at first, but just think what it would be like to live in a war-torn country, or a country ruled by a dictator or corrupt government. It certainly wouldn’t be easy to openly follow some of these thirty-eight principles.
I believe in this principle Buddha is talking about a place that is suitable both materially and spiritually.
When we talk about a materially suitable place, we are talking about a place that is peaceful, secure, healthy, comfortable, and well maintained. It is an area where you can go out after dark and your neighbours are friendly and helpful, or at the very least they are not causing you any harm. It is not always possible to live exactly where we wish to because of financial constraints or the location of our workplace. However, if we feel safe and the neighbourhood is clean and tidy, this is a materially suitable location.
A spiritually suitable place would be a place where you are free to follow these thirty-eight principles, free to have your chosen religion and free to express yourself spiritually. Many people in the world do not have this freedom as they are trapped by dictators and religious fanatics.
So, if we live in a suitably material and spiritual place that is a blessing indeed. If we do not live in such a place, we have to do the best we can by following the principles we are able to. But remember that no one outside of us can rule us inwardly. When we know this, we mentally become free.
To have done good deeds in your past
Some people believe in past lives and karma; others don’t. So here it is up to you to decide what Buddha meant by the past. If you believe in past lives, you can take it that way. However, if you don’t believe in past lives or are not sure, you can take it to mean deeds you have done in the past in this life. It doesn’t really matter as the meaning of this principle will be the same.
If you have done good deeds in the past, you will undoubtedly benefit in the future. If you have been kind and helped people in the past, they will be willing to help you in the future when you need it. However, if you have refused to help people in their hour of need, you cannot expect them to run and help you when you’re in trouble. This is known as cause and effect. Whatever actions we do—good, bad, or neutral—there will be consequences. It’s as if life is an echo, and whatever we send out comes back to us.
Cause and effect runs through our lives. Sometimes we can clearly see it, and other times it is not so obvious. If you kill someone and get caught, you will go to prison. That is the obvious cause and effect. However, if you tell a lie to a stranger, you may feel there has been no effect, but it plays on your mind and causes you to be tense and ill at ease—this is subtle cause and effect. You may be able to hide this subtle effect by keeping yourself busy, but if you sit down to meditate, it will reveal itself.
So, your past actions will help shape your life now and in the future. This is not some metaphysical law; it is plain common sense. If we do only bad things and harm people all the time, our minds are going to be agitated. This will in turn cause our thoughts to be the same, and from that our actions of body and speech will be harmful. However, if we do not break the law, we help people, and we are a responsible person in society, our minds will be calm and stable.
To sum it up: ‘as the cause is, so the effect will be. As the seed is, so the fruit will be. As the action is, so the result will be’. This is something we need to constantly reflect on.
Be on a suitable path
What is a suitable path? It is a path that is going to bring us a sense of ease and satisfaction with our lives. It is a path that will help us understand our responsibilities and show us how we are interconnected to everyone around us. It is a path that will reduce our suffering and increase our happiness.
What it isn’t is a path that promises things that it cannot deliver, such as enlightenment, or a path where we feel we are right and other people’s paths are wrong, or a path that gives us more pride and other negative emotions.
There are many paths we can choose to follow. The path I am showing you here is directly from Buddha, but without any mysticism or dogma, and so isn’t something I have dreamed up myself. It is a path I am teaching from my own experience, and I am able to verify it. That doesn’t mean it will work for you; the only way you can find out is by trying it.
No path is going to be clear sailing all the time. We will hit obstacles along the way, but we shouldn’t be put off by this. If we want results, we have to put in the effort. If you are just reading this and thinking it is a good path to follow, but you don’t do any reflecting, implementing, and reviewing, how do you expect anything to change? If you are a sportsperson and you don’t put in the effort, you will not compete in the Olympics. If you are a student and you don’t study, you will not pass your exams. If you read this but don’t put in any effort, you will not get any benefit.
This blog is an extract from my book ‘Life’s Meandering Path.’
You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on my website.