The Perfect Human Rebirth

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Lama Zopa Rinpoche's The Perfect Human Rebirth: Freedom and Richness on the Path to Enlightenment, edited by Gordon McDougall, is the third book in our FPMT Lineage Series and is drawn from Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s graduated path to enlightenment (lamrim) teachings given over a four-decade period, starting from the early 1970s.

Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche at Lawudo Retreat Centre, Solu Khumbu, Nepal, 1970. Photo possibly by Terry Clifford.
Chapter 1: What is Dharma?

The Path We Must Follow

People get excited about strange things. I recently saw a group of men kicking a ball into a big net between two sticks and hundreds of thousands of people were cheering and throwing their hands up in the air, while millions watched on television. Everybody was totally out of control with excitement. In fact, their faces were so distorted I couldn’t tell whether they were very happy or in great pain. This World Cup seems extremely important to many people, but it also brings misery and jealousy, as well as anger and hatred when your country beats my country.

On the other hand, a real cause for excitement and happiness is simply having this human body. If we could truly understand even a tiny part of its value, we would have a million times more reason for jumping in the air and shouting for joy the way those soccer fans do. Every day—every second—we should have a huge feeling of joy in our hearts that we have this precious possession that gives us the opportunity to do whatever we want. With it, we can achieve anything we want, to benefit ourselves and to benefit others.

In sports and in worldly activities, people are always chasing the best and trying to be first in whatever they do. But winning at the Olympics, climbing Mount Everest, whatever people consider to be a great achievement, is really nothing. We have all done this kind of thing innumerable times, in past lives if not in this one, and it certainly hasn’t made us any happier.

In fact, in our countless previous lives we have enjoyed every kind of pleasure innumerable times. We have achieved states we can’t even imagine. There is no new pleasure or experience that we have never had. We have been born in god realms where there is no overt suffering at all. We have achieved great powers of concentration, a concentration so profound that, as the great master Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo explains in his commentary on The Three Principal Aspects of the Path to Enlightenment,2 even a big drum beating right next to our ear could not disturb us. And we have even attained high psychic powers such as clairvoyance and the ability to fly. None of this is new. Such things seem special only because we don’t understand reincarnation and therefore don’t realize that in our beginningless previous lives we have done it all over and over again.

The first students at the early meditation courses at Kopan Monastery in Nepal,3 came for many different reasons. Many of them were hippies and had read in books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead or The Third Eye4 how meditation can bring about magic powers, like flying. There is nothing special about flying. Billions of birds can fly but does that mean they have the secret to happiness? Some students were interested in astral travel or developing the aura around their bodies. Fireflies emit light but do we really want to be like them?

In fact, although the greatest magic powers may sound wonderful, they are really just mundane achievements that mean very little in the long run. They cannot assure real happiness for us and they cannot free us from samsara, this cycle of dissatisfaction in which we are trapped. They have no power to eliminate or even diminish our delusions, which is the only real way of destroying our suffering and becoming happy.

None of these samsaric things can even last. That is their very nature. To achieve them we undergo much hardship, have them for a short while and then they’re gone, leaving us discontented again. Furthermore, everything of this nature is achieved through a motivation that longs for the mundane pleasures of this life, which, as we will see, is a nonvirtuous motivation and the cause of future suffering.5

Many of the other Kopan students, of course, came because they could see that the happiness being offered them in the West was somehow illusory. Even those from great cities like New York could see through the material progress that had been made there and realized that it was not enough. Every year there was more progress but somehow there was never any more happiness. A new invention solved one problem but immediately there were more problems to be solved. As their societies became more and more complex, the problems became more and more complicated. These students could see that there was something missing in the methods being used to overcome problems. Those who made it to those early Kopan courses shared a dissatisfaction with their societies’ reliance on external methods to fix external problems, and somehow intuitively knew that there must be a deeper, more meaningful way of attaining happiness. Just taking this step was a very wise action; it opened the door to inner peace. Outside in the street was the crazy, confusing world, but they had found the gate to a beautiful park.

Right now, with this precious human body, we have the perfect conditions to see beyond this external confusion—we can understand what suffering is and how to overcome it and what true happiness is and how to attain it. We have the Dharma.

The Dharma is whatever leads us toward happiness and away from suffering; it is whatever destroys the root of suffering—delusion and karma. It is the path we all must take, whether we consider ourselves Buddhist or not. Only by renouncing the causes of suffering, such as attachment, and developing compassion and a correct understanding of the nature of reality can we truly liberate ourselves. This is the new experience we should strive for, not clairvoyance or flying; this what we have never achieved in the past.

The Dharma is anything that can do that, but it is often specifically used to mean the teachings of the Buddha. It is said that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, gave 84,000 teachings in the forty years between his enlightenment in India 2,600 years ago and his death. In Tibetan Buddhism these incredible teachings have been classified into a system that makes them easy to study and actualize—the graduated path to enlightenment, the lam-rim.

Here, the three main areas we need to develop—renunciation of samsara; bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to become enlightened in order to benefit all sentient beings; and right view, the understanding of emptiness—are set out in a progressive series of teachings, from the need for a spiritual guide at the very beginning to the most subtle minds needed for enlightenment at the very end. The lam-rim contains everything we need to take us all the way to the ultimate state of enlightenment.

In fact, I can definitely say that the lam-rim is the very essence of the Dharma. When the great Indian teacher Atisha went to Tibet from the Buddhist university of Vikramashila in India in the tenth century, he condensed everything the Buddha taught into this graduated path, with nothing missing. After that, Tibetan teachers such as Lama Tsongkhapa6 wrote commentaries on the lam-rim, and to study these commentaries is to see just how the lam-rim presents the whole picture.

The comparison is made to butter. Milk is very nutritious but the very essence of milk is butter. We can use milk to make other things but still, butter is its ultimate essence. The great philosophers and yogis like Lama Tsongkhapa gave incredible teachings based on their own experience. They had a knowledge and an understanding so deep that we can’t even begin to fathom it. From that profound understanding they were able to distill the essence—the butter—and clearly show us the path we must take from where we are now all the way to enlightenment.

Just now we have incredible freedom. We have enough intelligence and leisure and we have the interest to learn. I think if you investigate a little you will see that this is true. Traditional teachings on the perfect human rebirth explain the eight freedoms and the ten richnesses. These teachings show us very clearly just how fortunate we are and how rare it is to be in the position in which we now find ourselves. At this moment we have in our hand the means to attain anything we want; we have the means to create the causes for perfect happiness. It is crucial that we don’t waste this precious opportunity.

Without studying the lam-rim it is very difficult to appreciate how rare this chance is and how to make best use of it. Perhaps we try to meditate, perhaps we pray or read sutras; perhaps we even call ourselves a Buddhist, but without a good background in the lam-rim it is very difficult to see how crucial it is not only to practice Dharma but to do nothing else. Dharma practice is the most important thing in life.

First we should know that without the Dharma there is no happiness at all. No happiness at all. The very definition of Dharma is that which brings happiness. Any tiny happiness that we experience today comes directly from having acted virtuously in the past, and that act was Dharma, whether it was generosity or kindness, patience or right understanding. And all the happiness we will experience in the future is entirely dependent on our creating only virtuous actions from now on, and that is Dharma as well.

To make our life meaningful, we have to do meaningful actions. That means recognizing how fortunate we are to have this precious opportunity and determining never to squander it. This is the main thing that allows us to generate the energy we need to undertake the long path ahead of us. This is going to be a long, hard journey and we will need to develop many skills—like a major expedition requires many porters. It will be hard because we have never made it before and because it is a solely mental trip with many obscurations and hindrances blocking the way. To attain complete freedom from suffering, liberation and enlightenment, we have to destroy all our self-created mental hindrances. Destroying the earth would be easier.

But, this is a great journey we must undertake and the lam-rim is the road map that will take us all the way on the shortest route without getting lost, and it starts from understanding the perfect human rebirth. Therefore, it is very good, at this initial stage of our journey, to have a very clear understanding of what the perfect human rebirth is, its incredible rarity, its fragility and the wonderful benefits it can bring.

Traditionally, in texts such as Lama Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise and Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, after an explanation of the lineage of the great teachers that have expounded the lam-rim and their direct link to Shakyamuni Buddha and the importance of the spiritual teacher, the guru, the main body of the lam-rim teachings is divided into two:

  • persuading your mind to take the essence from your perfect human rebirth
  • how to extract the essence from your perfect human rebirth—the actual method

The actual method is the rest of the entire path to enlightenment, so you can see that in this great store of teachings, the perfect human rebirth is at its very core; it is the foundation.

In this book I will try to show something of this first point, understanding what the perfect human rebirth is and why it is so important. In Lama Tsongkhapa’s and Pabongka Rinpoche’s texts, the teaching on the perfect human rebirth has three main sections:

  • identifying the perfect human rebirth with its the eight freedoms and ten richnesses
  • the great benefits of the perfect human rebirth
  • the difficulty of acquiring the perfect human rebirth

Furthermore, teachers such as Lama Tsongkhapa and Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo start their extensive lam-rim texts with a section encouraging the student to take advantage of the perfect human rebirth. That is basically the structure we will be following here.

What is Dharma?

The meaning of the Sanskrit word Dharma is “that which saves.” Dharma is whatever saves sentient beings from all forms of suffering and the causes of suffering. This is completely inclusive. A sentient being is any unenlightened being that has sentience—a mind that can function and therefore naturally wants to have happiness and avoid suffering—and suffering is anything undesirable, from the worst suffering of the hot hells to the most subtle pervasive suffering a god experiences.

Say we are slipping down a steep cliff face, with the rocks way down below waiting to smash us to pieces. The only thing that can save us is a rope at the edge of the cliff. Holding onto that rope is the most important thing we can do; that is what can save our life. That is what the Dharma is. It is that which saves us from falling into suffering. Thus we can say that Dharma is whatever leads us to happiness and allows us to eliminate suffering. The analogy of the rope is a good one because it also shows that we are the ones who need to make the effort. The rope is there to help us but we ourselves must hold on to it and pull ourselves out of danger.

Once, Lama Atisha’s disciple Dromtönpa7 asked him to explain the results of actions done with what Buddhism calls the three poisons—ignorance, anger and attachment—and of actions done without these attitudes. Lama Atisha answered,

Actions done with ignorance, anger and attachment bring rebirth in the lower realms as a suffering transmigratory8 being. Greed causes rebirth in the hungry ghost realm, hatred causes rebirth in the hell realm, ignorance causes rebirth in the animal realm and so forth. Actions done with an attitude not possessed by the three poisonous minds bring the result of rebirth as a happy transmigratory being [in one of the three upper realms].

Here, Lama Atisha clearly delineates between what is Dharma and what is not Dharma, what is a worldly action. Just as actions that arise from delusions result in suffering, actions that arise from a virtuous mind, Dharma actions, are the source of all happiness.

If we want to be happy, the very first thing we need to know is what actions will make us happy and cultivate those, and what actions will bring us suffering and avoid those. This is the very essence of Dharma practice. When we investigate, we will see that any action stained with the deluded minds of ignorance, anger and attachment and the many, many other delusions that derive from these three will create suffering, and any action done with a virtuous motivation, one of love, kindness, generosity and so forth, will bring a happy result. This is definite. In fact, this is the fundamental fact about karma.9

We can easily see that hatred, jealousy and so forth are negative and bring all sorts of problems, but so too does attachment. Simple actions like eating, reading and walking, when stained by attachment, are nonvirtuous and the cause of future suffering. Any action motivated by self-interest and attachment is nonvirtuous. We can say prayers for hours every day, we can meditate or make offerings, we can read countless Dharma books—but if those actions are motivated by attachment, such as the wish for a good reputation, then those seemingly good actions are in fact nonvirtuous. They may look like Dharma but they are not Dharma; we may look like a Dharma practitioner but we are not a Dharma practitioner.

We need to be very clear about this. It is not the action but the mind behind the action, the motivation that creates it, that determines whether it is positive or negative, whether it is Dharma or non-Dharma. Eating, sleeping or working can just as easily be unstained by the mind clinging to the happiness of this life, and hence be virtuous Dharma actions, as reciting mantras can be nonvirtuous when done with greed or anger. The action might seem similar, but the difference in the result of happiness or suffering it brings is like that between earth and sky.

Whether the motivation is virtuous or nonvirtuous determines whether the action that results is virtuous or nonvirtuous.

Happiness and suffering come from the mind

There are two kinds of happiness: worldly, mundane happiness and Dharma happiness. Beings in the lower realms are essentially unable to experience either kind and apart from humans, those in the upper realms are mostly unable to experience Dharma happiness. When we can start to understand that worldly happiness, chasing sense pleasure, is in fact another form of suffering, then we can start to appreciate how it is only in this human form—and only when we have all the unique conditions that we currently have—that we can go beyond mundane concerns and become truly happy by practicing Dharma. That is why this time is so precious.

We will be looking at the beings of the other realms later, those in the lower suffering realms and those in the god realms, but let us now briefly consider the state of most human beings on this planet. If we look beyond the surface differences to try to understand what every single person is doing every single day, we will see that all of us are only looking to have happiness and avoid suffering. No matter what form it takes—success at our career, a good relationship, lots of possessions—that is what we are all doing.

But how many people are successful at attaining that simple goal, happiness? How many are truly satisfied and content? How many can say that they have no suffering in their lives? I think, if you look deeply enough, you will find that there are very few people who can truthfully answer yes to all those questions.

Why is there no real peace for the people of this planet? It is because the vast majority are still ruled by ignorance. With minds that are agitated and unsubdued, they don’t understand how to find real happiness.

For most people, happiness is something that is grabbed from the things around them, from relationships, money, travel, possessions and so forth, and obtaining these things requires great effort and often harms others in some way. They cannot appreciate that happiness is in fact a state of mind and that it comes from virtue. They try to get happiness by creating nonvirtue and wonder why they are never really happy. They equate happiness with obtaining external objects of desire without understanding that peace is real happiness, the peace of Dharma.

Without relying on the practice of Dharma, people go around the world looking for happiness, not realizing that it is inside them all the time. From childhood until death they visit different countries, climb different mountains, go around and around, yet still they are not free, still there is something missing. Acquiring possessions, experiences, knowledge, no matter what form the quest for happiness takes, when people rely on external methods there is always something missing.

This is where an understanding of karma is so important. Until we can see clearly that both happiness and suffering are created by the mind and that happiness is the result of a virtuous mind and that suffering is the result of a nonvirtuous mind, we will continue to make the mistake of chasing happiness by doing negative actions. There is no happiness at all in external things. Just as a sunflower grows from a sunflower seed, happiness grows from past virtue. If we are unhappy now it is because we have done negative actions in the past. If we want to be happy in the future, we must do only positive actions from now on. The choice is that simple. But we cannot start to work skillfully toward happiness until we have a firm conviction that all happiness and suffering come from the mind, not external factors, and a good understanding of what positive and negative actions are.

We need to see the fault in thinking that material things equate to happiness. Are we, the people of the twenty-first century, any happier than the people of two centuries or two millennia ago? We certainly have more. I’m not contesting that we have more comfort, more knowledge, more possessions, but do we have more happiness? If material possessions were the cause of happiness then there should be far more peace and happiness now than there has ever been, but that is clearly not the case. In fact, the original human beings, without the comforts we have, without houses filled with material possessions, without the electronic things we have, were far happier than we are. There was much greater peace then, even though there was not one machine on the entire planet. We can see this even without looking that far back. If we look at today’s very advanced countries and compare them with poorer “backward” countries, we will see that those with more possessions are not necessarily happier than those without.

Can we find any very rich person who is freer and more peaceful than somebody who is not rich? If you investigate you will see that wealth does not equate to happiness. For most people, more wealth and power means more responsibility and worry, more stress and misery. There are many miserable millionaires and the suicide rate in rich countries is much higher than in poor ones.

If material possessions and wealth were the cause of perfect peace and happiness we would have already obtained it, because in past lives we have had great wealth and numberless possessions. But our mind is still ignorant. To change our mind’s orientation from a negative, grasping, “me, me, me” mind to a positive, open, selfless one is the way to perfect peace. All the jewels in existence cannot destroy even one of the thousands of negative minds, cannot diminish in the slightest one of the delusions that cause us to act harmfully. We may forget our unhappiness for a while and pretend it is not there, but we are really just habituating ourselves to needing material comfort. Momentary cessation of some mental pain is not the end of all suffering. True cessation from a Dharma point of view is ending the continuity of suffering by eradicating its cause.

Unless we can recognize the nature of suffering we cannot recognize its cause. Nor can we recognize perfect happiness and the way to attain it. Using temporary means to stop suffering momentarily only creates the cause for more suffering; doing this, we are creating more suffering while mistakenly thinking we are stopping it. Locked into always chasing worldly happiness and mundane pleasure, we not only destroy our chances of gaining real happiness but we also ensure that we will never be completely successful at getting the small, temporary happiness we seek. We can never be free from problems, and seeking mundane happiness requires great and repeated effort. We become slaves to our greed, to the mind that wants worldly happiness, the mind that forces us to work ourselves to exhaustion trying to fulfill its needs.

What is so unique about the position we are in is that we have a choice. Animals don’t have a choice; people locked into complete poverty don’t have a choice; but what places the perfect human rebirth between the two is that we have neither too much suffering nor too much pleasure. We have enough suffering to wish to renounce it but not so much that we are helpless and overwhelmed by it; we can easily see how others are suffering and thus can develop compassion for them.

We can choose to study about the cause of happiness; we can choose to learn to use our mind as a tool to create that happiness by learning how to meditate. We can listen to great teachers and we have the intelligence to understand their message; we have the literacy to read Dharma books, the wisdom to see the truth in them and the intelligence to start to live our life according to the Dharma.

We have the capacity to create the causes for perfect happiness and completely eliminate all the seeds of suffering. Isn’t that amazing? Within a minute we can hear an explanation of karma and the cause of happiness and understand it. Furthermore, our mind is not obscured by gross negativities, so when we hear about karma and suffering it makes sense and we have the wisdom to make the right choice. Then everything we do every moment of each twenty-four hours can become Dharma.


There is still so much that is beyond our understanding—the subtle explanations of emptiness and so forth—and because other realms are not part of our daily experience, when we hear about them we might find it hard to believe that they actually exist. But these explanations have come from the Buddha and been verified by the great sages and yogis down through the ages, in India, Tibet and other Buddhist countries. Just because they are hard to fathom does not mean we should dismiss them. We can see the animal realm and accept that animals have miserable existences, but there are other realms as well. There are the realms of the gods, the hungry ghosts, which are dominated by incredible hunger and thirst, and the hell beings, where the suffering is beyond description. Many great yogis, whose minds are highly developed, have actually seen these realms and told us about them. Our not seeing them is insufficient reason for us to deny that they exist; our karmic obscurations, the delusions that fog our mind, prevent us from seeing reality.

Our obscurations also stop us from realizing that the mind is beginningless. Possibly we have never thought of it, or maybe we have but rejected it, or else not really considered its consequences, but when we see that the mind we currently have has been with us since beginningless time and will continue after our death into our next life, and the next and the next—when we start to understand all this—it can come as a big shock. But without the fundamental understanding of mental continuity, the rest of the meditations on the lam-rim will make little sense—they’ll feel like a heavy rock or an unclimbable mountain. And so we might prefer to just believe in the fairy tales we’ve grown up with rather than explore exactly what these meditations mean.

It is extremely important to clearly see how the mind is beginningless, because then reincarnation becomes a reality to us, and with that comes the understanding of how the imprints of actions we did in previous lives are ripening on our mindstream right now, causing happiness or misery, and how what we are doing now will have consequences not just in the future in this life, but in countless future lives. Seeing this, suddenly our world becomes huge. Everything becomes much more significant.

Buddhism is really the science of the mind. We need to know the mind—what it is, how it works and how to use it to gain real happiness and ultimately enlightenment. And this is why there is so much emphasis in Buddhism on meditation. It is only through observing our own mind in meditation that we can really start to understand it. Reading about it in books but not meditating on it is like reading about India but never actually going there.

This is inner science, not the external materialistic science they teach in schools. Here we are studying what is vitally important in order to see the reality of this world. True understanding is not a field of empirical knowledge but an inner wisdom that comes from understanding the mind. A medical researcher might be able to tell us why a particular person died of a certain disease but he10 can never tell us why human beings have to die in the first place. By relying on external experimentation and not investigating inner causes, modern science will always be flawed. It can never penetrate deeply enough to give ultimate answers. Without relying on the inner science of Buddhadharma, the principal cause for why animate beings have to die and be reborn can never be found in outer objects, no matter how many eons are spent in research.

For instance, human beings used to live for thousands of years and now the lifespan is decreasing. Why is that so? A scientist might even deny this fact but he would be ignoring the findings of the great yogis who had clear knowledge of this. As meditators reach higher and higher stages of development, subtle understandings such as this become clearer. This is not just one person’s experience but the experience of countless buddhas.

Only we, with this perfect human rebirth, can become inner scientists and discover the true cause of happiness. Our pets can’t. Even if we play recordings of Dharma teachings to them all day long, they have no power to understand, no freedom to listen and no way to communicate anything meaningful.

There are people who live in countries where religion is suppressed and therefore have no access to wisdom. They have never even seen an image of the Buddha, let alone read his words. There are people with impaired faculties who have no way of understanding the Dharma. There are people who are blind and thus unable to benefit from the psychological effect the image of a buddha has on the mind. There are people with huge karmic obscurations who might be standing right in front of a buddha image yet not see it. There is a story in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand about a person who looked at a buddha statue but, because of his karmic obscurations, saw instead a great pile of meat.

We have none of these problems, so we’re unbelievably fortunate. We have the opportunity to study, meditate and understand everything that the Buddha taught, from the simplest lam-rim topic to the most advanced. We have the opportunity to develop the altruistic heart, the attitude that wishes to be fully awakened to benefit others, and to understand the reality of things and events—emptiness. There is nothing we cannot understand with this perfect human rebirth.

Only through the blessings of the Buddha can we do this. And we have received these precious teachings from a fully-qualified teacher. Without this direct link to the Buddha there is no assurance that the teaching is pure and able to lead us all the way. That is why the very first topic in the lam-rim concerns the qualities of the teacher. That is the start. Without a fully-qualified teacher we have no way of knowing if what we are studying is really of benefit to us. From that vital beginning the whole path is laid out, and that is the lam-rim, the graduated path to enlightenment, each topic fitting into the three levels of practice. It is all there: the path of the lower capable being that leads to a better future rebirth, the path of the middle capable being that leads to individual liberation, and the path of the higher capable being that leads to full enlightenment. The two higher scopes rely on the complete understanding and realization of the previous scope, so each is vital. The mind working toward full enlightenment needs to be built on the mind renouncing the whole of samsara—the middle scope. This, in turn, needs to be built on the mind that has realized the preliminary subjects, such as the perfect human rebirth, impermanence and death, refuge and karma—the lower scope. In other words, there is not one single lam-rim topic that we can omit.

It is not like a buffet, where we can pick and choose whatever we fancy. Perhaps meditating on the lower realms is too painful, so we leave that one out. Or trying to understand emptiness seems too intellectual, so we don’t bother with that one. No, we can’t treat the lam-rim as a buffet. We have to eat the whole feast, otherwise we won’t get what we want, liberation or enlightenment. Perhaps we already have a good heart. That is wonderful, but that alone won’t get us there. We need to realize bodhicitta. For that, we need complete renunciation of samsara; and for that, we need to see how each and every sentient being is suffering; and for that, we need to understand the nature of suffering. When we explore the lam-rim we will see how each topic leads into the next and how each is therefore indispensable.

The meditations on the perfect human rebirth come right at the beginning of the path, just after relying on a spiritual teacher. We need to understand karma and we need to have refuge, and to deepen our commitment we need to understand impermanence and death. But none of that will happen if we squander this precious and unique opportunity that we now, this one time only, have. That is why the great meditator, Lama Tsongkhapa, who formalized the whole lam-rim structure, broke the lam-rim up into two: appreciation of this life of freedom and richness—the perfect human rebirth—and how to make use of this precious opportunity—the rest of the lam-rim topics from impermanence and death, refuge and karma up to the point where we attain full enlightenment. That is how fundamental an appreciation of the perfect human rebirth is to our Dharma journey.

The boat to cross samsara

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life the bodhisattva, Shantideva, said,

Relying on the boat of a human body,
Free yourself from the great river of pain!
As it is hard to find this boat again,
This is no time to sleep, you fool.11

Samsara is the endless cycle of birth and death that we are all trapped in due to karma and delusion. It is often described as a river or an ocean in which we are all drowning and liberation and enlightenment are like reaching the other shore. Here, Shantideva, the great eighth century Indian sage, compares this precious human body we now have to a boat capable of crossing the river of samsaric suffering. Only now, only while we have this “boat,” can we cross. And as we can never be sure of having this opportunity again, he strongly admonishes us to use this unique chance now, while we have it. To waste this chance—to sleep this time away—is utterly foolish.

This is the whole reason we have this human body. This is the meaning of our life. Imagine that we’re in a terrible place but across a wide and dangerous river is a wonderful land, if only we could reach it. However, we have a boat, and so we must push it out onto the water and row across the river, despite any difficulties we might face. How amazing that we have this boat, this chance to save ourselves. How incredibly lucky we are. We should feel extremely happy. Of course, there is no question of being too lazy to make the effort and being stuck in this terrible place forever. We cannot delay for even a second, because if we do, this precious opportunity could be snatched away from us. In the same way, our perfect human rebirth could end at any moment, so there is definitely no time to sleep, to remain trapped in ignorance.

Ignorance is a dark, heavy mind. In many ways it is like sleep. We are unaware of what is happening around us, even if there is danger. If we don’t make the effort to wake our mind from ignorance, to gain wisdom, and instead put all our effort into trying to gain the comforts of this worldly existence, all of our actions will create only more ignorance. As long as we work for greed, hatred, pride, jealousy and the many other negative minds, we are working for ignorance.

Because of ignorance of the true nature of the mind, our actions always produce effects opposite to those desired; as long as we are controlled by delusion we will always make mistakes in our physical and verbal actions. No matter how long and how strongly we desire to avoid suffering and attain happiness, our methods will fail. By using our precious rebirth in this way, we not only fail to give meaning to our life, we continuously cheat ourselves as well; we perpetuate our imprisonment in samsara.

As we will see, the causes of this perfect human rebirth are incredibly difficult to create. In many, many previous lives we worked tirelessly, practicing perfect morality and generosity in order to receive the body and conditions that we now have, so we really owe it to ourselves not to waste all that hard work. Our goal should not just be a better, more comfortable human existence in our next life, but complete and perfect enlightenment for the sake of all other kind mother sentient beings. Anything less is unworthy of this amazing life we have, and we do have the potential to reach that goal. That is why Shantideva compares this life to a boat. With it we can cross the vast ocean of samsara and reach that distant shore of liberation.

We can also think of this perfect human rebirth as the key to the door of understanding or the medicine that cures all illness.

Because the mind is fundamentally pure—at its core lies what is called buddha nature—and because the defilements that create all our problems are not one with the mind and therefore can be destroyed, we can definitely attain full awakening. No matter how obscured we now seem, no matter what physical or mental problems we face—we might have cancer or AIDS, be paralyzed from a car crash, feel utterly worthless and that nobody loves us—all these problems are temporary. They will not last. They are like fog that is not oneness with the sky. Just as there has never been a fog that stayed forever, our problems cannot last forever either. Impermanence is the nature of all things, and so they must pass. When the day is dark and horrible with thick fog, it might seem as if it will never go away but we know it will pass. We must have the same conviction about our problems.

Causes and conditions have come together to create a particular problem, but because of the buddha nature of our mind we can consciously create other causes and conditions that will cause us not to have it. Not only can we eliminate mental and physical suffering at the gross level, we can also eliminate even the most subtle form of suffering, the pervasive compounding suffering that is at the heart of all suffering. And as we do, our life will get better and better. It is not just a matter of some happiness for a short while, but more and more real happiness that goes on and on, life after life. This is due to this precious human body with all its attributes.

Until we reach that other shore there will always be problems. Whether we are reborn as a lower realm being, as a god enjoying the highest pleasures or as another human being, there is always suffering. The Buddha showed that there are three types of suffering: the suffering of suffering, which is what we recognize as suffering; the suffering of change, which we call pleasure but which is in the nature of suffering because it is unreliable and creates attachment and other negative emotions; and pervasive compounding suffering, which is the most subtle suffering of all and is always present as long as we are in samsara.12 Even formless realm gods, who have no physical body and remain absorbed in perfect meditation for eons, are not free from pervasive compounding suffering; their minds are not free from delusion. And a mind that is not free from delusion will always degenerate, allowing grosser delusions to grow like weeds spreading in a garden.

Therefore, to not waste this perfect human rebirth, we must motivate every action we do with the wish to be free from the whole of samsara, to achieve liberation. But really, that is still not the ultimate meaning of our life. There is one stage further we can go. To achieve liberation for our own happiness, we need incredible wisdom and many other qualities, but by taking the Mahayana path we turn away from our own liberation and motivate everything for others. It is a far harder path, but it has the power to destroy even that last vestige of self-cherishing.

Nothing else will realize our full potential. Every tiny bit of happiness we have ever experienced arose because we created virtuous actions in connection with other beings. Therefore all our past happiness is due to the kindness of other beings. Just as cherishing the self is the source of all suffering, so cherishing others is the source of all happiness. As I often say, happiness begins when we start cherishing others.

The enlightened mind has the ability to take in the suffering of all sentient beings equaling infinite space; it can see immediately and spontaneously how best to help those beings, in accordance with their capacity to be helped. We have the potential to achieve this mind by systematically removing all our delusions and replacing our self-cherishing attitude with the attitude of cherishing others. This is what enlightenment means—freeing the mind of all delusions and their imprints in order to bring all other sentient beings to full enlightenment.

In Tibetan Buddhism we often call sentient beings “kind mother sentient beings.” This is to remind ourselves that because we have had infinite lives we have had infinite mothers, and so it is impossible to posit one being who has not been our mother. And if every being has been our mother at some time or other, then they have each been incredibly kind to us. By looking at what our present life’s mother has done for us—bearing us for nine months in her womb, giving us life, feeding us, educating us, sacrificing her life for us—we can easily realize the debt we owe every single sentient being. And to see how they are suffering becomes unbearable. It is as if our mother of this life, old, frail and blind, were tottering toward a high cliff, about to topple over the precipice. We would have no hesitation to do whatever we could to save her; we would even risk our own life. So it is with every living being. That should be our attitude, and it is an attitude we can develop. To repay the kindness of all kind mother sentient beings is the aim of a bodhisattva, a being with bodhicitta, and we have the potential to become a bodhisattva.

There is nothing else to do but cherish other beings. That is our life’s work; that is the work of all our lives from now on, until we attain enlightenment. And it is this perfect human rebirth that allows us to do such perfect work for all other beings. All we need is the determination.

If the teachings of the Buddha had degenerated, then we could not say that here is the perfect way to lead us to freedom. If the essential points had been lost over the millennia, or if due to misinterpretation by the practitioners the message of the Buddha had been corrupted, then we would have to admit that the Buddhadharma was flawed, and no matter how earnestly we practiced it we could never reach enlightenment. But that has not happened. Within the Buddhadharma that is taught and practiced in Tibet there is not only the lam-rim, which encompasses the entire path, but also the Vajrayana, the esoteric teachings on tantra that show us how to skillfully combine the method and wisdom sides of the path.13 This all still exists in the holy minds of the great lamas, and it is transmitted from teacher to disciple unblemished due to the great realizations of the teachers. We have the opportunity to tap into this well of wisdom and gain realizations ourselves; we have the possibility to attain full enlightenment quickly, not just at some time in the distant future, but in this very lifetime.

The only factor that is missing is our determination to do it. It is completely in our own hands. All the conditions are there, waiting for us. We have the teachings, the teachers, the intelligence, the freedom—it’s only a matter of whether we choose to follow the path or not. The inner conditions are perfect, with all the attributes we ourselves possess, and all the outer conditions are there, with the teachings existing and having access to the virtuous teachers. But for how much longer?

It is said that there will come a time soon when there will no more qualified teachers to guide us. The teachings will still exist in books, and perhaps our wish to progress on the path will be there, but we will be without guides. And without somebody to lead us to enlightenment it will be impossible, because the most subtle subjects can only really be understood, and more importantly realized, by taking guidance from a fully qualified teacher.

Therefore, we must generate the determination to make the most of every moment. At this time, with this body and mind, in this environment, we have a unique and precious opportunity to understand the teachings of the Buddha and to generate the realizations of the path to enlightenment. If we attempt it, there is nothing we cannot do. We need to see this. We need to understand how limitless our potential is and not block our precious chance with delusions of incapability: “I can’t do it! I’m hopeless.”

It is time to have big thoughts—huge thoughts! It is time to make vast plans, to lay out the immense project ahead of us and feel happy that we can achieve our goal of developing ourselves to our ultimate potential. We have perfect role models in the Buddha and the numberless great yogis who followed him, as well as the precious lamas we have the fortune to be able to take teachings and gain inspiration from, and we know that we have exactly the same potential as they do. Shakyamuni was once exactly like us; His Holiness the Dalai Lama was once exactly like us. In turn, we can be exactly like them. All the conditions are there. What we now need is the determination to do it.  


2  Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo Rinpoche (1871–1941) was a highly regarded lama, root guru of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s senior and junior tutors and author of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, which served as the structure for most of Lama Zopa’s early meditation courses (and hence this series of books). The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, a letter written by Lama Tsongkhapa to a disciple, is a key text in the Gelug tradition. [Return to text]

3  Kopan, the FPMT’s main monastery, has hosted annual one-month meditation courses since 1971. [Return to text]

4  The Evans-Wentz translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was one of the few books on Tibetan Buddhism available in English in the early 1970s. It recounts the stages a person travels through in the intermediate state between this life and the next. Many of its passages would have seemed quite fantastical to a reader unfamiliar with any Buddhist concepts. The Third Eye, by “Lama” Lobsang Rampa, was very popular then, all about Tibetan monks attaining great powers through concentration, including the attaining of a physical third eye in the center of the forehead. Rampa was later exposed as a fraud. [Return to text]

5 Rinpoche’s How to Practice Dharma covers this point in great detail. [Return to text]

6 Lama Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1417) was the founder of the Gelug tradition, one of the four main Tibetan traditions, and revitalized many sutra and tantra lineages and the monastic tradition in Tibet. [Return to text]

7 Lama Atisha (982–1054) was the renowned Indian master who went to Tibet in 1042 to help in the revival of Buddhism and established the Kadam tradition. His text A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment was the first lam-rim text. Dromtönpa (1005–64) was his interpreter and heart disciple and propagator of the Kadam tradition. [Return to text]

8 A being who “transmigrates” from one life to the next and so is trapped in cyclic existence or samsara. [Return to text]

9 That karma is definite is one of the four aspects of karma. See Rinpoche’s forthcoming book on karma. [Return to text]

10 Or she. There is no really satisfactory way in English of referring to the third person unspecified—the use of “they” for a singular subject is clumsy—so we will simply alternate genders. [Return to text]

11 Ch. 7, v. 14. [Return to text]

12 For a full explanation of these three types of suffering, see Rinpoche’s forthcoming book on the general sufferings of samsara. [Return to text]

13 Of the two main divisions in Buddhism, Hinayana and Mahayana, and of the two main divisions within Mahayana, Sutrayana (or Paramitayana) and Vajrayana, only Vajrayana has the ability to simultaneously combine the method side of the teachings—developing positive emotional states such as love, compassion and equanimity—with the wisdom side—an understanding of the nature of reality, such as emptiness, in the one mind. [Return to text]