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In terms of karma and virtue, there are three forms of beings: Animal, Human and Saint.

“Animal” is a lower tier than human, “Human” is ourselves, and “Saints” are holy people. When we compare these three forms of beings, we know that we will take the path of Saint, not the path of Animal.

There are number of criterias to clearly identify the difference between “Animal”, “Human” and “Saint”. Based on these criterias, we will see the danger very clearly. If we’re not careful, we will be easily reborn into the Animal realm. Looking at a couple aspects, we see that animals usually live by an instinct that is programmed in their brains. For example, salmons and sardines start living their lives in the riverbed. After the eggs hatch, they swim out to the sea. But one day, they follow a call from their sub-consciousness and swim back to the riverbed where they were born to spawn and die there.

The first standard requirement to differentiate between “Animal”, “Human”, and “Saint”.

For example: dogs. We do not know the real reason, but their instinct is to be loyal to their owners, even if the owner is abnormal. There’s a story about a vicious dog. Its owner was a drinker. He did not care or love the dog. He only raised the dog because he used the dog to herd the sheep. But one day, he went away, and the dog wandered thousands of miles to search for him even though there was nothing special about him. He was just a gambler and a drunkard. But the dog is “pre-programmed” to be loyal to its master, so it just acted out of instinct.

Monkeys are programmed to imitate, especially human actions. Humans also imitate, but the imitation of monkeys is very primitive, because it’s an instinct that is pre-programmed in their brains. The instinct of Bees is to find honey to make nests. That is also an available instinctual program.

That is about “Animal”.

However, there are intelligent exotic animals. But most animals behave instinctually by the pre-installed program based on their karma. For example, tigers are strong, agile, fierce and cunning, because they have evil karma. But, they also have some blessings which makes everybody fear them.

Or the snakes with a long body, no arms, no legs, a head with fangs and venom. They do not need to bite anyone but they make us scared when we see them. Why? This is because in a past life, they wanted other people to be afraid of them. They thought that being strong and fierce would make them winners. They wanted to show their powers. Unfortunately, they did not know that making people fear them caused them to be reborn as snakes so that people would fear them.

Or dogs who are instinctually loyal, and to become a dog has multiple reasons. One reason could be that a person committed a sinful act and was reborn as an animal. But because he is a loyal person, he is reborn as a dog with loyal instincts to pay for his bad karma. And at the same time, he retains his loyalty value so someday he will be reborn as a good human again.

Or domesticated horses who always enjoy having someone riding on their back. But wild forest horses don’t like this. Domesticated horses like to be ridden by humans. This is because of a debt in the past. They are those who were in debt, but they did not have money to pay. And, they blurted out, “I can’t pay your debt in this life, I pray that in my next life I will be a horse or a cow so I can slave for you as payment.” Because of this saying, they are reborn to be wise and loyal horses, and they’re very excited to be ridden to pay off the old karma. So the domesticated horse enjoys it when its owner rides on its back.

That is about animal instincts. The instincts are based on past karma. And it is not just created by nature.

For human beings, we are based on two factors: a natural factor, and an environmental and educational factor. What is a natural factor? That is the good or bad personality or character available when we are born. Intuitive people can look at a baby and tell if the baby will have a good or mean personality, a good temper or hot temper, intelligent or stupid. They even know if the child will later succeed or not. Natural factor means that the program has been pre-installed in the baby. But, a human has more freedom than an animal. We can think and choose what to do or say during our lifetime.

The second factor is environmental and educational. If we live with many good people, they will create good impressions and a good environment which will ingrain in our mind, and we will gradually be transformed and will follow a better path in life.

For example, a naughty and stubborn child was born in a good family, and lives with gentle people who talk and behave gracefully. If his scale of badness was at a ten, it would gradually shrink to a four. So, our living environment and education has a strong influence. But to be reborn in a good or bad environment depends on the karma of the past.

In the past life, a gentle family was bullied over disputed lands. Suddenly, a thug protected them, and they didn’t lose their lands. That family has owed him since then. After maybe ten lives, the thug was reborn into that family. Everyone in that family is very kind, but the child is a rascal. Since everyone in the family is gentle and tender, the child’s mischievous personality slowly reduced by six from ten. The remaining four gives strangers an impression that he is rascal compared to the rest of the people in the family, but they do not know that his bad personality has been reduced by more than half.

Or a gentle person was born into a violent family, living with bad people. His perfect ten personality was slowly reduced by six, because he was born in a violent and troubled family, and he will gradually become a bad person. The reason why? This is because in a past life, he owed this family. So, he must be reborn and live with them to pay back the debt, etc. …

Just like us, when we practice the Buddha’s teachings, we try to create much merit, purify our mind through meditation, recite Buddhism sutras and pay respect to our Saints, and accumulate good deeds, so we will be reborn in heaven after death. Because we’ve just been reborn in heaven, our mind is not as pure as those who been in heaven for a long time. For those who have been in heaven for a while they have a pure mind, and can know each other just by initiating a thought. So, no one thinks about anything bad, and we should keep our mind pure like them while living here on earth.

Because of this second factor, many educators and many sages appear in this life hoping to transform humans to become holy. Without education, people will gradually become evil. This’s very dangerous. So, we must be grateful for the saints who appeared and created a good environment for us to live in.

If each of us acknowledge the truth about life, be truthful with ourselves and with each other, we must recognize that we have made a lot of mistakes. However, we are joining a sacred festival, living in Buddha’s arms, and share a warm and loving atmosphere, we should let go or forget about our guilts. We just want to love everybody, be mindful on Buddha and do not be annoyed with the crowds, hardships, poor sleep conditions, and windy environment. What do we do if someone sleeping next to us puts his/her legs on us when he/she is sleeping?

Normally we would get annoyed, but in this sacred festival, we’ll be more patient.

We would lift those legs and not wake up the sleeper or move somewhere else where we can find quietness and continue to rest. And when we are not angry, we’ll feel love, happiness and serenity.

In an ethical environment, we love one another, not hate one another, life is peaceful and serene. This environment will increase happiness in our hearts, helping us to mature in Dhamma. If we’re in another environment, such as on a train, we will be afraid of being robbed, and so we can’t feel peaceful and happy. But in a religious environment it is different. We are more patient because we have dharma and Buddha’s teaching and protection, so we can continue to cultivate.

So, a good environment is very beneficial. Thanks to the Buddha’s dharma we have stopped many wrong doings, and created peaceful cultivation environments. This promises us that after death we won’t be reborn in a miserable place. If we aren’t reborn into an extremely happy realm, we will certainly be reborn into good living realms where we can be satisfied with our cultivation. Thus, we need to grateful Buddhas, nuns and monks…

So, what’s our duty? That is: we have to create an ethical environment for future generations.

Currently, we are living in an ethical environment due to the work of many regions around us. When we go home, back to our villages, we also have to create such an environment for the children. We vowed to love all beings following Buddha’s teachings. So, we will love our neighbor’s children as our children. And we will try to set ethical and moral examples for children to imitate. We will help them to live in the aura of the Buddha and becoming good people. By doing this, we will create a good environment for the children, and our merit will be great.

So, we say that “Animals” live on instinct. “Humans” live half on instinct and half on education. What about the “Saints”?

“Saint” means that he can control his soul, not living on natural instinct. However, there are four levels of sainthood in Buddhism. The first is Srota-Apanna, the second is Sakrdagamin, the third is Anagamin, and the last is Arhat. Buddhas and Arhats are no longer governed by reincarnation.

For each of the four levels of Saints, the higher the level, the more powerful the supernatural ability. All Saints have a pure soul and they are capable of controlling themselves not to do wrong, and to not live on instincts. The first level of Sainthood, Srota-Apanna, is the hardest to reach. Why is that? It is because at this level, the Saints are aware of goods and bads. Because of past karma, they must struggle with their circumstances and with themselves extremely hard. Although Srota-Apanna goes through hardship and struggles, they have great souls to start with, and are gentle. Srota-Apanna does not have supernatural powers as we think but has mindfully followed Buddha’s teachings, cultivation and enlightenment. Those who have not reached Srota-Apanna level, can switch paths often. They can be easily persuaded by either good or bad people, and they follow a good path if they are persuaded by good people or bad path if they are persuaded by bad people. Saints who reach Srota-Apanna level are different than laymen, although they are not very powerful, they cannot be persuaded to follow anything other than ethical and good deeds.

We have distinguished that “Animals” are driven by instincts, “Humans” are driven by both instincts, educational and environmental, and “Saints” are driven by self-governed power and wisdom.

The second standard is desires and feelings.

“Animals” live on instinct. They act and behave as they feel like it, and do not think about right or wrong. For example, except for well trained dogs, dogs eat whatever people give them. Stray or wild dogs often bite each other to protect their food. They do anything to satisfy their desire without thinking. Humans think, evaluate and contemplate our actions. We evaluate our actions based on the law, ethics, morals, responsibilities, circumstances, and sins or merits. For example, when there is food on the table, “Animals” will dive right in and eat, but humans will consider how many people will need to eat, or we can eat it or who can not. We always consider thoroughly before we commit our actions.

Or when it comes to affection or reproduction, animals mate wildly, except those that are programmed to be loyal. The males and females will live together for their entire life. This is also determined by their karma. But most animals act and behave on instinct. So, after testing DNA of some species such as apes and monkeys, scientists discovered that their children haven’t got the same DNA. It means they mate with many different males or females.

Humans are different. We are bound by law, morals and ethics. So, we have to consider our actions before enjoying the desire of “flesh” and not just following our instinct. That is the difference between “Human” and “Animal”.

The Saints don’t have any pleasure and desires. Based on pleasure and desire, we know whether we’re going to be reborn in the “Animal” realms or “Saint” realms. For those who are inclined to enjoy pleasure and fulfill their desires, we know that they’re going to be reborn in the “Animal” realms, even if they have many blessing. For example, they have a lot of money, and they use it to do anything which makes them happy and pleased. Because they had money and they enjoy life the way they desire, they are heading towards the “Animal” path. They are planting the “seed” of becoming an animal because only animals enjoy life despite consequences. For those who always think carefully about the consequences of their actions and what they should or should not do, they will continue to be reborn in Human realms after death.

For those who forgo pleasure and desires, but instead focus on cultivation and practice religious life, they will be on the path of sainthood. We are judging this based on their pattern of behavior. The things that people enjoy, or animals incline to, the Saints feel trapped or restricted. This is a very strange difference! Just look at this, we will know if a person has the wisdom to cultivate or not. Those who enjoy life with a strong heart will enjoy all joy despite the consequences. Let’s make up a game to find out. Those who have strong desire for pleasure will gravitate towards it and we’ll know that they will head towards the “Animal” realms. If we invite them to attend a party, they will agree without thinking or considering. They are going towards the “Animal” path. But if they think about it or consider it before accepting the invitation, they are heading towards the Human realms. Because Humans think and evaluate before we make a decision. And those who refuse to enjoy casual pleasure and spend more time in cultivation in Buddha’s arms, or consider everything carefully before doing; they are going toward the “Saint” path.

The third standard of judgment is based on tame and vicious.

For animals, we roughly divide them into two types: tame and vicious. The tame animals, like oxen, rabbits and birds eat grass, vegetables, and small insects. The vicious animals, like tigers, panthers, and lions, violently hunt for prey. They rip their prey violently apart. It’s very painfully to look at.

But animals are programmed to follow their instinct. There is not much we can do. The tame animals, which don’t harm any other creatures, once they pay off their karma, will be reborn to the Human realm.

Humans are similar. Some are gentle, and some are cruel. Many people are very cruel, they can hit, kill, harm or deceive others. But there are also people who always love, serve, help others. In this world of animals, the cruel beasts are always cruel, the gentle beasts are always gentle. But humans are both gentle and cruel, sometimes we are gentle and sometimes we are cruel. A gentle person can also become a cruel person. This makes lots of people surprised when choosing a mate or lover.

For example, a guy feel in love with a gentle, cute girl, and got married with her. After they got married, he found out that the sweet woman was actually mean and cruel. If the husband questions her, she would say, “I had to be nice then in order to be married to you.” Or a girl got married with a gentle and brave husband. After a few years, he became a playboy… People can change easily. But, it’s very easy to change from good to bad, and it’s very difficult to change from bad to good. That is the reason why humans tend to fall to the Animal realms more often than to the Saint realms.

People say that: “Nature changes, but human nature can’t.” We’ve advised bad people to change to be good many times, but they haven’t changed. So we have concluded that it’s difficult to change people. But the truth is that it’s very easily to change a good person into bad person. And this has created tragedies in marriage and family life. At the beginning of a marriage, people live happily with each other. But after a while, we gradually change because we have to earn a living, so we stay away from cultivation and practicing dharma, and slowly change for the worse, day after day. It is very sad indeed. But if we were exposed to Buddhism dharma, we could cultivate and develop a sustainable happy life.

We can see that the tameness/gentleness or cruelness/viciousness in animals is designed and programmed in their instinct. Humans are both gentle and cruel. Saints are holy and because they are holy, they are Saints. It is taught in Buddhism sutras that there are four levels of meditation. Those who can reach the first level of meditation will completely forgo all bad thoughts from their minds. It’s very difficult to achieve this, so whoever can successfully reach the first level of meditation, they are the greatest.

There’s no law in the world of animals, they only live on instinct. For example, a female cheetah will hunt for food and raise her newborns affectionately. But when the newborns are fully grown up and can hunt for themselves, the mother cheetah will chase them away from her territory. They must leave and begin a new life by themselves and eventually lose the sense of their mother and child relationship. That’s determined by instinct and not by law.

Humans have ethical and moral standards and we can refrain from doing wrong. For those who cannot refrain themselves from doing wrong, we create laws to handle them. If all humans had high moral and ethical standards, we would not need the law.

For example, when we have a Buddhist festival at Phat Quang Pagoda, we have a rule: each person should not take more than three lunches. Why? Because when people take too much food, they cannot eat it all, and then others cannot get any food. Or when coming into the Buddha hall, everyone must keep their footwear in their own bags to avoid being stolen. Because our society still has greedy people, we must have rules.

Or in foreign countries, they have rules: parents mustn’t hit their children. How can we teach the children well if we can’t punish them when they do wrong? But, there is the reason for this. There’re many parents that hit their children with rage and cruelty and cause death or disability. So, that rule is very reasonable. When people are less ethical, we need to set more laws.

Or long ago, people trusted each other and loaned money to one another without entering into a contract or without the intervention of law. But nowadays, both sides have to sign the contract and involve the law. In early societies, there was very little law because people lived morally and ethically. These days the law has become more complicated because people have become less ethical and moral. To the point where, mostly in western countries, people are afraid to help others in an accident. This is because the victim could turn around and sue the rescuer for causing them more pain or causing the accident, and the law will punish them. Therefore, the only help they can do is to contact the emergency responders. In many cases, when the ambulance arrives, the victims are already dead. The victims could still be alive if they were helped right away. Sometimes kindness is not appreciated but betrayed, therefore, good people are afraid to reach out and so leave it all to the law.

We can see that the world of animals just rely on instincts. Human society has both ethics and law. The world of the saint in the heavens does not need law, because they live by morals and ethics. The saints know how to do the right thing. During Buddha’s era, for the 13 years of teaching Buddha Dharma, many people were enlightened without having any rules for monks. Nowadays, monks and nuns must follow 250 rules. Why do they have to follow so many rules? It is because too many of them have done wrong. For example, one of the rules is “No sexual conduct”. At the beginning, this rule did not exist. This happened when a married man become a monk. His wife cried and told him that she needs a child to inherit the family line before he could become a monk. He agreed with his wife. When the Buddha asked him the reason why, he said that Buddha did not have a rule against having children, that’s why he had one child with his wife. So, from that day, Buddha created a rule that monks cannot have children.

Many people asked us “why do some monks smoke?” Buddha did not set this rule because there was no tobacco in his time. Today, the circumstance has changed, life has changed, and we need to add more rules to justify our current situation.

Let’s look at desires and pleasure. If we like to enjoy life, enjoy the desire of our flesh, we know that we will be reborn in Animal realms or Human realms, and there is no other way. Only those who forgo of all pleasure and desires will become saints. Maybe they are not saints at the moment, but in their hearts and mind they are already looking forward to letting go of all pleasures and fleshy desires, and that will take them towards the sainthood path. Just look inside your heart and mind and you’ll know the path of your rebirth.

We need to be aware that worldly pleasures are temporary, impermanence, attachment, suffering … Because we think that it is pleasure, but the truth behind it is only suffering, and we must let go of it to be happy, and we need to recognize it in order to let it go. For those who let go of it will go toward the path of sainthood. Those who think this life is about happiness and must enjoy it are in danger. They walk a thin line between the animal and human realms. They can easily fall into Animal realms when they use up their blessings. As soon as we sin, we will be reborn into the animal realm. If today we curse someone, and tomorrow we get greedy or selfish, we continue to create bad karma. But when we realize that worldly desires and pleasure is temporary, impermanence, and meaningless, it is then we know we are leaving all these behind and heading to the sainthood realm. This is admirable!

But to fully understand this is not easy. For example, to a young adult who has just grown up and wants to fall in love and get married, we advise them “Do not fall in love. Become a monk…” They will be shocked and cannot understand.

Because to this person, love is wonderful, marriage is happiness, and everyone should have a family. When we tell them otherwise, it is very difficult for them to accept.

And for those who think that love, marriage, and family life is a burden, and suffering, and they are happy to accept that “cultivation is blessing, love is a trap” and love religious life, they already have the seed of sainthood in mind. Those who got married and experienced life suffering when they got old is a different case. They will continue to love and get married when they are reborn in the next life. They will never escape the cycle of reincarnation.

So, the body that we obtained today is temporary and not guaranteed, because it is a vessel for contemplation, struggling, and a mixture of animal instinct and sainthood. The animal instinct part wants to enjoy life, being vicious, selfish and dominating. The sainthood part believes in Buddhism dharma, loving, wanting to help others, and sometimes feels bored with this temporary life…so our mind is partly animal and partly saint.

Understand that we do not want to be human for too long, we must try our best to step up to the path of sainthood. We must escape the human realms with its many sufferings, hesitations, and insecurities which can take us into the animal realms when we can’t bridle our instinct. Many good people are born in animal realms because they once lost control and made mistakes because of their instincts. So animals are pitiful because we know that some humans have just been born as animals.

The realms of Animal, Human and Saint

The saint realms are higher. The animal realms are lower. The human realm is in the middle. It is easier for the middle realm to fall down than to go up. Therefore, there are more humans becoming animals than becoming saints. Being a human, we should know that over 80% will fall into animal realms and about 20% wants to become saints. Therefore, we must try our best to escape human life and become saints, although it’s really difficult.

Everyone came here to attend the ceremony and listen to the Buddha’s teachings, even though the food and drink is not delicious, resting space is crampled, and everything is not as comfortable as at home. But we want to be here to show our love for our religion and that means we are trying to go toward the path of saints. But in contrary, if we only love the beautiful scenery, we are afraid of the crowd, fear the lack of amenities and do not want to come, that means we are letting part of us fall down into the animal realm.

Many older Buddhists try to come here to attend Pagoda ceremony despite the lack of everything. An old lady prayed to come here one more time before death, and her children helped her finish that wish. On the way home, she died as her wish. We know that she will be reborn in a good realm with that wish. So young people, we must try more to control the enjoyment instinct in each of us.

Actually, going to the pagoda is not the only way to become a saint. Becoming a saint is getting rid of all life desires, selfishness, greed, hatred, anger, and always trying to love and help people. That is the way to step up the path of sainthood. To become a saint is very difficult, because going up is hard, falling down is much easier. We must know this to always try our best.

These are the character of saints which we should follow:

First, live a pure life without enjoyment.

When we still want to enjoy life, we are still living as an ordinary human being, so we must not focus on the worldly desires but purify our body and soul, and follow Buddha’s teachings such as the life of monks. It’s easy to say but it’s difficult to practice, but we must try our best.

Second, do not conduct evil acts.

What is evil? The wicked are those who like to make others suffer, and feel happy when others suffer. A saint has never said something which makes others sad, or has made anyone suffer. So, a saint has never harmed anyone.

Third, have compassion, be generous, and love all people.

For example, during the ceremony days in our Pagoda, there are many people, so space is always crowded, but we still feel pleased and happy. It is because we love people in every circumstance. Those who feel so will be reborn in peace realms, such as heaven, after death.

Fourth, help others.

Saints help others with anything they can such as looking for a job, rebuilding dilapidated houses, offering rice for the poor…, even small things like picking up a sandal for someone although they can do it by themselves. They’re ready to do any useful thing for anyone if they can.

Those who have seeds of saint in their mind always help people when they can. Though they have lots of money, they don’t spend it on enjoying life, because they will share it with others. The more money they have, the more useful things they want to do. Those who have a lot of money but they only want to enjoy life alone won’t be able to become saints. Most of us may not be rich, but we should help anyone we can help with all sincerity, from the bottom of our hearts.

There is a very touching story about the tsunami in Japan. Many families had to live with the lack of food and drink and shelter. The Japanese government sent a lot of food and drink to them. People had to line up waiting to receive the relief items. There was an orphan who stood at the end of the line. An aid worker brought her up to the front of the line, but she refused. She thought that everybody there was in need of food and drink immediately, so she didn’t want to be the first person that received it. What a touching action!

Although she was still a young child, she already intended to help others. This story has deeply moved the whole world. Those who always want to help others with anything will be reborn in good realms or heaven after death.

Fifth, do not be selfish and jealous.

A human often feels very jealous when someone is better than them. In our Pagoda, we have some dogs. When a dog is near us, it will chase the others dogs away if they come close to us. Because of this characteristic, it’s very difficult for them to reborn as human. As for us, if we feel jealous when someone is better, we will easily fall into animal realms. Those who feel happy when others reach their goals or make a great achievements: they are becoming saints one day. This is a very difficult thing, because there will be many losers who will amuse us, and there will be many winners who make us envious. So, we need to change our mind to help more inferior people than us, and feeling happy for those who live better than us. That is the characteristic of the saints.

An in order to become a saint, we must praise the saints, especially Buddha, to have merit to be a saint. The most important thing is to share stories about the life of the Buddha, the Arahant, and the Zen masters. We must praise our hero, the saints in our history or humanity. We should read books which teaches about famous people or history books to know about the great men and women, and tell our children or our friends about them. Those who do this are sowing the seeds of the sainthood.

For example, why do we glorify Tran Hung Dao to be a saint? Because he was the greatest general who led troops and defeated the Nguyen dynasty, which was the most powerful military in the world at the time. With this power, he could have taken revenge to regain his throne which belonged to his father – An Sinh Vuong Tran Lieu, but Tran Thu Do stole the throne for Tran Canh who was his uncle. However, he didn’t do so. That means he had no ambition to be king, he did everything for his country and people. He refused the throne, fame and fortune to practice meditation. Our nation will worship him as a saint forever.

Besides sharing our saint’s stories, we have to support those who are living a sainthood life. Who are the saint like people? They are monks or the Buddhists, who are living a life following the path of Buddha – living without enjoyment but contributing to the goodness of the society. We support them, so that means we’re sowing the seed of the saint.

Another important thing is that we must avoid gossiping about good people and hating good people mistakenly. There’s nothing more scary than thinking, talking and embellishing hurtful stories about good people. Those who conduct this act will bear a very serious and scary karma. We have witnessed a woman who often told others that a friend of hers was a whore. After a short time, she herself had to live with many men as a real whore. She realized what she had done and was regretful, but it was too late.

You should not only refrain from defaming others but you should also be careful about anything others tell you. Be careful with your “mouth” and your “ears”. Don’t believe bad things which we hear from others, because it can make us lose faith easily.

Some people say negative things about monks or nuns to make other people lose faith, become doubtful, and stop cultivating and return to enjoying life. Instead of practicing meditation diligently, they spend time on enjoying life, and their merits are lost gradually. Those who use “mouth” to defame good people will create very serious sins. So, we must be careful with our “mouth”, and don’t believe bad words, because we will also be able to create sins.

Another good thing is that we should try to advise others to live a moral life following the saint monks. And the important thing is to practice meditation diligently. Although we’re at Pagoda or at home, we need to practice meditation diligently. Despite the pain in our feet, we have to try to practice meditation, because it’s the only way to become a saint, so do not be lazy about it.

Life passes by very fast. Spring has just passed yet another has already come. Someone we met today may be gone tomorrow. Life is temporary, everything is very fragile and impermanent. So, we have to try to practice meditation diligently every day to be able to step up to the path of sainthood.

Namo Shakyamuni Buddha.