On Precepts, Faith, Wisdom and Merits

Venue: TIMS

Devas often came to see the Buddha at night and their presence would light up the whole place. According to Jara Sutta (SN 1:51), on one such night they came and asked the Buddha four questions:

What is good until old age?

What is good when established?

What is the precious gem of humans?

What is hard for thieves to steal?

There is more than one answer to each of these four questions, but the Buddha always formulated his answers according to the level of wisdom of the questioner. So his answers were as follows.

What is good until old age?

Precepts are worth keeping into old age. Most people, when they are young do not bother much with keeping precepts. It is natural that most young people do not give much thought to religion unless they have problems. Then, and then only do they look to the gods for help. Morally speaking, one suffers no loss by keeping precepts. Admittedly, it is a bit difficult in the business world for people to keep the fourth precept.

There is the story of a man in Sri Lanka whose sick mother was advised by the doctor to eat rabbit meat in order to get well. He found a rabbit trapped in a hedge and was about to catch it when he remembered his precepts. Reflecting that it was not right for him to take another life in order that his mother may recover, he let the anima go. When he reached home empty-handed, his elder brother scolded him for missing the opportunity. He then stood by his mother’s bedside and said, “I did not take another life in order to save my mother’s life. By the power of this truth may my mother be well.” Instantly, his mother recovered.

Another story also happened in Sri Lanka where a farmer went into the jungle to look for his lost cow. He was caught by a python which coiled itself round him. With parang in hand, he was about to kill the python and free himself. Then he remembered that he had just taken his precepts from a respected thera (elder monk) and to kill the python would be showing disrespect to the venerable. So he stopped himself. For a second time he was again about to strike at the python and again resisted the urge. On the third time that he was about to strike again, he threw away the parang, removing all temptation to kill the snake. Instead he said, “By the power of my precepts, may I be saved.” He was saved.

I have also personally experienced the efficacy of keeping precepts. I stayed alone in a forest kuti in Myanmar for seven years. During my first year’s stay there I used to encounter snakes around my kuti. One day, after watching the sunset, I came back to my kuti to find a cobra trying to get in. I tried to talk it into leaving but it refused to go, still snooping around for a way in. I then thought of using a stick to frighten it away. But then it occurred to me that such an action would mean I had no metta towards the snake. Instead, I recited Khandha Sutta (AN 4:67)—a protective sutta given by the Buddha for warding off animals, especially snakes. The snake then slithered off and disappeared into what I thought was a hole in the ground. When I went to check out the ‘hole’ I found none. It was the dry season and the grass was very sparse and dry and if there were a hole it could be seen. The snake had just disappeared into thin air—it had actually crossed into another dimension. That was no ordinary snake. When I told the local village monks about this, the abbot revealed that for more than ten years no one had been able to stay in the kuti for long because of snakes. From then on, I was very mindful of my precepts and practised metta regularly and frequently. No more of such incidents happened. If you keep your precepts, your precepts will protect you.

What is a good foundation to establish?

Faith is the best foundation. How is this so? Without faith, you will not believe the Dhamma that I’m teaching. If you do not believe in the Dhamma, you will not follow it. Buddha teaches us the way to happiness—how to live in order to be happy and the right approach towards a good rebirth. Faith allows us to believe. Today, morals are not important to people. In this age of science and technology, a materialistic outlook has replaced faith. This is so especially of people in the West. Their faith in the teachings of Christianity has been eroded by the culture of chasing after material gain at the expense of moral values. On the other hand, intelligence without faith will cause you to be too critical and sceptical to accept beliefs. Thus faith and intelligence have to be balanced.

What is the precious gem of humans?

Wisdom is the best treasure of humans. It does not matter whether it is worldly wisdom or supra-mundane wisdom. Faith must be balanced by wisdom. Faith without wisdom can bring you trouble. Just recently, I read a report about a number of people who were conned by a ‘monk’. In one instance, this ‘monk’ rang up a woman and told her that he had dreamt she would strike it rich if she were to believe in him and give him a few thousand dollars to gamble on a lottery. She believed him and did as he said. True enough, her buy struck a win, but she never saw the money because the ‘monk’ disappeared.

Faith without wisdom is also the reason why people give money to men dressed in monk’s robes, be they bogus monks or otherwise. These people are actually doing business, giving away amulets in exchange for money from gullible people. It is because they have faith without wisdom that they do dana blindly.

To give another illustration of giving without wisdom, I would like to relate an unfortunate incident that happened to the brother of a carpenter who used to work in SBS . His brother went to Singapore and got involved with a syndicate who roped in people to be bogus monks to earn money for the syndicate, paying them a salary. This brother used to stand in the MRT station and made easy money for himself and the syndicate. With this money, he indulged in drugs. When he heard that there was a police crackdown on the likes of him, he absconded with the money he had collected and came back to Taiping. One day, while sitting outside his house, he was run down by a lorry driven by a drunk. We cannot be sure that his tragic death is the direct effect of his cheating the gullible of money, but my point is that you should give with wisdom. Though the Buddha said that you can still get some degree of merit from such giving, beware that you may be encouraging these people to indulge in unwholesome, self-destructive activities.

What is hard for thieves to steal?

Merits cannot be stolen from you. They are spiritual investments, just like your material investments when you buy shares. They will follow you just as your shadow does. This is good kamma and when it ripens you will reap the benefits. Although the Buddha only spoke about good kamma in his answer, you can be assured that bad kamma cannot be stolen from you either. Rather, it will also follow you in the same way, giving unpleasant results instead.

Now that the noise and activities of Chinese New Year are almost over, you should have some quiet moments to reflect on the Dhamma you’ve heard today. So I hope that you will be able to practise the Dhamma and reap the resultant benefits. May all of you be well and happy.

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