Rebirth, Alms-bowls and Pets: Some Questions and Some Answers


(Freshly fired alms-bowls)

Just before I left for Thailand towards the end of last year I visited a school in Coventry and spoke to three classes of 10/11 year olds. The school was in quite a deprived part of Coventry but the children turned out to be some of the most inquisitive and mature I have met in my long and varied experience of teaching Dhamma in schools. Following the visit I received an email with some questions from the children but as I was about to jump on the plane I didn’t have time to answer. So, being back in Blighty and having finally responded, I thought I’d share the questions and my answers here.

Did you live near the monastery before you became a monk?

Yes, I lived in a village about 9 miles away. Even though I lived so close to the monastery I didn’t know it existed until shortly before I came to live here (when I was about 19 years old). I even used to walk my dog and camp in my tent by the river Avon about 1 mile away, but I still didn’t know!

What happens if you break one of the 5 Precepts?

You get struck by a bolt of lightening. Only joking! Remember that the five precepts are not commandments laid down by a god who will punish you if you break them; they are rules to help you live happy and harmless lives. Really the question should be: What happens if you kill someone? Think about it: the victim suffers, their family and friends suffer, and you suffer. Everybody suffers! The same is true for the other precepts. So by breaking one of the five precepts you cause suffering for yourselves and others. If you keep the five precepts then you help one another to be happy and peaceful.

I should say a little bit about the monks’ rules. We live by many more than 5 precepts – 227, in fact. The first four of these, called the Parajika, are very important. If we break one of these we are immediately expelled from the Sangha (the community of monks) and we can never be a monk again in this life. The four rules include not killing another person, not stealing, and not lying about having reached enlightenment.

Are you allowed to have a pet?

Most monks don’t have pets, partly because they move from monastery to monastery quite frequently. It is common, though, especially in Thailand, for Buddhist people to rescue animals such as chickens, fish and monkeys and set them free in a forest monastery. There is one monastery in Thailand that looks after a lot of animals, including wild pigs. I heard a story that one day a wild pig turned up at this temple because there had been a fire in the forest in which he lived. Not long afterwards he left; but he soon returned – this time with all of his friends! He obviously loved it there! If you think about it, a monastery is a very safe place for an animal to be in.

At this monastery we do have animals, though we don’t like to call them pets. A pet is something that belongs to you, but can we really own another creature? So, we just call them our friends. Here we have two dogs, two tortoises and a cockerel; these all live with the Abbot. We used to have many more animals including goats, a parrot, ferrets, a duck, rabbits, a goose, etc. Most of them have been rescue animals, including Ben and Jimmy, the two dogs, and many were given to us.

As we love animals so much we are also vegetarian. We regard all animals as our friends, and obviously we don’t like to eat our friends…

Is it true that you are not allowed to open a door if you are holding your alms bowl?

Wow! I’m surprised you know about that rule. Yes, it’s true. We do this so that we don’t risk dropping the bowl and breaking it. We first put down the bowl before opening the door and walking through. Then we have to put the bowl down again to close the door! It’s a time consuming process but it makes us very mindful. Actually, this is one of the main reasons behind many of our rules: they make us mindful. Mindfulness means to be aware of what we are doing and thinking at all times.

If you read the Buddhist scriptures you will understand why we have a lot of rules. When the Buddha was alive he had many, many monks, and sometimes these monks would make a mistake. So I think that one day a monk must have opened a door while carrying his bowl and then – smash – he dropped it! So the Buddha made it a rule that we shouldn’t open a door while carrying our bowl.

As monks we are taught to be careful and respectful of our alms–bowls both for practical and symbolic reasons: as we don’t have any money we must look after our possessions and make sure they last for as long as possible (my teacher had his cast iron alms-bowl for almost 30 years!); and as the alms-bowl is a symbol of the life of a monk we are taught to be respectful of it. When I was a new monk I was told to treat my bowl as if it were the skull of the Buddha. If I ever knocked it on something – clangggg – I felt terrible!

When you die will you come back as another living creature?

This will take a little time to explain as it’s a complicated subject, so please be patient. I will try to keep as simple and as brief as possible!

The Buddha taught that this life we are living now is just one in a very long chain of lives. He called this chain of lives Samsara, and he said that it has no beginning and that, if we don’t reach enlightenment, it has no end. Can you imagine that? This means that we have all lived many lives before and that when we die we will be reborn again (if we aren’t enlightened). But people aren’t just reborn as humans; we can be reborn as animals and other types of beings, too.

You might ask why an enlightened person doesn’t get reborn. Well, first of all we should ask: what is it that makes us come back after we die? The Buddha taught that it’s our greed and desire that bring us back. The thing that makes an enlightened person special is that they don’t have any greed or desire (or anger or hatred) in their mind. They are free. That’s why they’re so happy, and it’s why they don’t come back.

You might also ask why one person is reborn as a rich and handsome prince that lives in a palace and why another person is reborn as an ugly rat that lives in a sewer. It’s a good question, and to understand it you need to know a little bit about the law of karma.

The word karma means action – it’s what we do. When we say something: that’s karma; when we do something: that’s karma. Now, everything that we say and do has an an effect on us. If the karma, the action, is helpful – such as saying something kind or helping an old lady to cross the road – the effect will be pleasant and we will be happy. But if the karma is harmful – such as bullying someone or killing an animal – then the effect will be painful and we will suffer. So, to put it very simply: good karma (helpful actions) brings happiness; bad karma (harmful actions) brings suffering.

The most important thing about karma, however, the thing that really makes it good or bad, is our intention. Our intention is what we mean to do. It’s whether we mean to hurt someone or mean to help them. So, if you step on an ant accidentally, that is not bad karma because you didn’t mean to harm it. But if you saw that ant and thought, ‘Right, you!’ and then – crunch – you squashed him, that would be bad karma because you meant to kill it. So, good karma happens when we mean to do kind, generous and wise things. Bad karma happens when we mean to do selfish, cruel and stupid things. Got it?

So, back to that question:  why will someone be reborn as a rat and another a prince? Well, it all depends on their karma, on what actions they do in this life. For example, if you say and do harmful things all of the time then you might be reborn as a creature that suffers a lot, like a rat in a sewer; whereas if you have been very generous and virtuous then you might be reborn as someone who is comfortable and privileged, like that rich and handsome prince (though princes can be unhappy too – the Buddha used to be one and he got fed up with it!).

Now we must remember that it isn’t a god that decides whether we will be reborn as a prince or a rat. If we are reborn as a rat: that is just the result of our karma; if we’re reborn as a prince; that too is just the result of our karma. It’s like if you plant an acorn in the soil: you know that it will produce an oak. It doesn’t need a god to make the oak, does it? So it is with our karma: the karma is like the acorn; the result is like the oak. So if we plant good actions in our life our rebirth will be a good one; if we plant bad actions, it won’t be. Can you understand? I’ve tried to make it sound simple, but it’s actually much more complicated than this!

You might think this idea of rebirth is very strange, but there is actually a lot of evidence for it. This mostly comes from children who remember a previous life. For instance, there might be a four year old girl called Sally who keeps describing her former life. She says that she used to live in Nottingham, on a street called Smith Street, in a big blue house with a red front door. And she says that she was married to a man called Jim and that the neighbours were called Ted and Molly. Now the parents think she’s making it all up, as you might imagine! But after a while they go to visit Nottingham and – do you know what? – they find that everything she said is true! There is a big blue house, with a red front door, on a street called Smith Street, with neighbours called Ted and Molly. And, to top it off, living in the house is a man called Jim whose wife had died five years before (remember – Sally is four). Everything that Sally said is true, but she had never been to the house, or even Nottingham, before! Now I just made up that story about Sally, just to help you to understand. But there are many, many stories just like this one, except they are all true, and some of them are even more amazing than this!

We should remember that the goal of Buddhism is to free ourselves from this chain of being born again and again and again by becoming enlightened. After all, who wants to keep going back to school! And even if you do get reborn as a prince or princess you will still get old and die again. The only true happiness is to free ourselves from Samsara, this endless chain of birth and death.


When someone becomes a monk and gives up their personal possessions what happens to them?

That all depends on the individual. Some monks sell all their things and give the money away to friends and family; some monks don’t have anything to give away! Other monks will just go to the monastery and leave their friends and family to tidy up after them (like me!).

With no money, how do monks get robes and clothes?

This is a good question. As monks we don’t have any money, we can’t grow food, and we can’t cook for ourselves… We’re pretty helpless! And so we have to depend on what people give us.

In Buddhist countries like Thailand monks go out every morning with their alms-bowls to collect food. We walk through the local village or town, keeping our eyes downcast, and people line the streets waiting to put some food into our bowls. By the time we get back to the monastery we have plenty to eat. Regarding robes, the material is also given to us and then we usually sew the robe ourselves. You might think we are a burden on people, but they actually love to give things to monks. If we don’t go out to collect food they aren’t happy! Buddhist people, you see, love to give.

In England we don’t really go out to collect food and so instead people come to the monastery to cook food for us. I did once go on a 7 day walk by myself with no money or food, just relying on what people put into my bowl every morning. People were very kind and I had enough to eat every day. It was amazing!

So we depend upon people for material things, like food, robes, a place to live in, and medicine; and the people depend upon us for spiritual guidance and teaching. Or you could put it the other way around and say that people give us material things; and that we give them our example, guidance and teachings. And that, in fact, is just what I’m doing now!


2 Replies to “Rebirth, Alms-bowls and Pets: Some Questions and Some Answers”

  1. This is a good read. My main reservation is that sewer rats etc may enjoy their lives more than we think. These ideas of privileged / non privileged rebirths are subjective. Moreover, I still maintain that a lot of the karmic rebirth stuff is lifted from Hinduism (as one might expect at of the time) and doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Still nicely put together though!

  2. Hi Mike,

    I’ll have to write something for adults!

    My rat vs. prince example was a grossly oversimplified explanation intended to impress upon the children the notion that the moral nature of an action determines the result of that action – both in this life and in future lives.

    The workings of kamma are said to be subtle and complex. There are certainly consistent patterns (good actions = happiness, etc.), but they are often difficult to trace. Indeed, the Buddha regarded the subject as one of the four ‘Unthinkables’ – subjects which transcend the limits of mundane thought. That’s not, of course, to say that we shouldn’t contemplate it at all (a basic understanding of kamma is imperative if we are to progress on this path); his point was that to attempt to understand the law of kamma in its entirety would at best be a waste of time and at worst lead to madness.

    Being that kamma is such a complex subject it’s not surprising that it’s also one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented of the Buddha’s teachings. You’ll often hear it being used in place of ‘fate’; or that if you kill a bug you’ll be reborn as a bug; or that your merit is stored in some sort of celestial ‘bank account’… Although we may scoff at these examples, we can still easily veer towards a rather materialistic perception of kamma and thus fail to account for the fact that the most important element in the law of kamma is the mind. And perhaps our biggest obstacle to understanding the intricacies of kamma and how its results unfold is this solid sense of self that we possess. It is therefore important that we tread carefully when exploring this subject lest we take one of the countless wrong turns.

    Regarding the sewer rat vs. prince illustration, it’s true that Reggie the Rat may at times be a little more comfortable than poor old Prince William. The working of kamma is most definitely not black and white: our experiences are a great mixture of happiness, pain, and everything in between, and there are many cross overs: humans living like dogs; dogs living like humans (one lucky pup in Luangpor’s kuti springs to mind).

    I think the point that needs to be made is that on the whole a rat is susceptible to a great deal more suffering (from predators, lack of food, disease, etc. and the associated mental distress) than a human, and so the state of a rat is deemed to be inherently less favourable.

    Another critical difference that the Buddha highlighted (most notably with his famous blind turtle, wooden hoop, great ocean simile) is that an animal such as a rat is practically unable to develop spiritually, unlike us (very privileged) human beings. For instance, we can easily practise generosity, morality and meditation, and consciously lessen our desire, anger and delusion. A rat, to all intents and purposes, cannot. To a follower of the Buddha this is a significant point: in terms of favourable circumstances, the opportunity to develop the mind is second to none.

    So that’s the crux of the matter: How much suffering and potential suffering is there in the various stations of rebirth? And what is the scope for spiritual growth? For a prince, there’s really not a lot of the former (certainly not on the physical level), and, whether he takes it up or not, there’s probably a good deal of the latter. For a rabbit (which I frequently hear being torn apart in the fields around us – screaming and wailing in the process) there is plenty of the former, none of the latter. And for a rat in a filthy sewer I would say that his existence is similarly plagued by discomfort and potential discomfort, and the opportunities and desire to develop the mind are non-existent.

    I think it’s worth pointing out here that categorising beings into higher and lower realms is not a judgement. I have read (for instance on the BBC’s atrocious section on Buddhism) that in Buddhism animals are viewed as lesser beings, and hence may be treated poorly. Not all Buddhists are perfect, and some may behave in this way; but it certainly isn’t the fault of the teaching. To say that the animal realm is lower than the human is not a judgement; it is an objective summary of the general quality of life in those realms. Animals, for reasons mentioned above, tend to be subject to more suffering – both physical and mental, and in almost all cases (not all) are unable to grow spiritually. Of course the Buddhist attitude to all beings should be one of sympathy and compassion, especially for those in particular distress, like many animals.

    As for Hinduism’s influence on the original teachings (as opposed to how it affected Buddhists who came along later), I don’t think that amounts to anything doctrinally significant. There may be some similarities when it comes to the explanations of the various realms of existence, but that can probably be put down to the following.

    In the suttas we find the Buddha speaking fairly regularly of certain psychic abilities which are achieved through advanced meditative states, one of which is called the ‘divine eye’ (dibbacakkhu). This ability enables the meditator to perceive using the mind’s eye different realms of existence. Now it was not only the Buddha and some of his followers who possessed this talent; so too did various samanas (holy men/truth seekers) from other sects. Thus, among some groups there was a consensus on these matters – a consensus that arose through direct experience. But as for the actual workings of kamma there is often disagreement. The Buddha is sometimes found in conversation with a fellow samana, pulling apart the latter’s explanations of the workings of kamma, showing him the errors in his arguments.

    So, finally, how did the Buddha acquire his knowledge of the actual workings of kamma? This, we are told, he first perceived with the Divine Eye on the night of his Awakening, whilst experiencing what he called the Second True Knowledge: The Passing away and Reappearance of Beings. Here he saw beings passing way and being reborn in the various stations of existence, and he saw how this process was determined by nothing more or less than their own actions, and he understood how the result of the action was determined by the moral quality of the intention behind it. This experience was an integral component in the process that culminated in his comprehension of the Four Noble Truths; and it was this knowledge that formed the basis for his teachings on Kamma and Rebirth.

    Hindu hand-me-downs? Never!

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