The rarity of this precious life
The first chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life describes the benefits of developing the awakening mind, bodhicitta. As such, it is a perfect companion to Khunu Lama Rinpoche’s wonderful verses that we looked at above. After bowing to the sugatas, the buddhas, and explaining his intention in writing the book, Shantideva starts by showing us how we must see this life for what it is, precious and fragile, and make the most of it. He says,
[1:4] This precious human body, qualified with its freedoms and richnesses,
Is extremely difficult to find again.
If I don’t obtain the benefits with this body,
How can I hope to attain a precious body again in the future?
Only while we have this perfect human rebirth with its eight freedoms and ten richnesses can we create the causes to achieve all ultimate and temporal wishes. Therefore, we must not waste one second of this life. When Shantideva tells us to obtain the benefits with this body he means we must do whatever we can to create the beneficial causes that will lead to another perfect human rebirth and to enlightenment.
The most beneficial causes we can create are to train the mind in sublime bodhicitta. If we are able to generate this mind we can achieve whatever else we wish: release from all suffering, peerless enlightenment and even temporal happinesses, such as another rebirth in the realm of the happy transmigratory beings. While we work selflessly to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all mother sentient beings without any expectations for our own temporal happiness, this just happens by the way.
If we don’t create the causes for another perfect human rebirth now, how will it be possible in a future life when we don’t have a human form? This is why doing everything we can to develop bodhicitta is vital and, because this life is fragile and we might die at any moment, we must do it now.
At present we enjoy freedom like very, very few other beings do. We are free from being born in any of the lower realms—as a hell being, a hungry ghost or an animal. In any of these unfortunate rebirths, totally overwhelmed by unimaginable suffering, we would be completely unable to practice any Dharma at all. Conversely, if we were born as a god in the desire realm we would be overwhelmed by sense pleasure and equally unable to practice Dharma, only using up all the positive karma we had created in the past until we finished it and fell back into the suffering realms.
We rarely think about the impermanence of this life and yet there is proof of impermanence all around us. Probably many of our relatives have died already. Certainly, great-grandparents and their parents and parent’s parents are long dead, but who among our living relatives will be alive this time next year? Who can say whether we will be alive this time next year or next week? And when we die, who can say where we will be reborn? This is something we really need to consider deeply.
Think about this. If you were to die today or tomorrow, what kind of existence would you go to? Where is your next destination? Think about where you might be now if you had died at any time in the recent past. You might now be a lobster in restaurant tank, about to be plucked out and thrown into boiling water. Or you could now be a fish, flapping in the water, the fisherman’s hook already through your mouth, his knife cutting your body and causing you such pain. You could be a worm on the ground, being attacked by an army of ants, swarming all over you and tearing you to pieces. Worst of all, you might have been reborn in a hell realm, suffering heat or cold that you could never have imagined, so intense your whole being feels nothing but the pain of it.
In any of these rebirths, there is nothing you can do. No matter how much you don’t want the suffering you are experiencing, you have to go through it for however long it lasts, even if it is for eons. However, so far today you have not died. You are still alive. More than that, you are alive with this precious human body, able to practice the Dharma and determine by yourself whether you suffer or you are happy. You must realize how incredibly fortunate you are and never take this life for granted.
Even as a human, it’s almost impossible to meet and follow the Dharma. How many humans have no opportunity to practice Dharma because they are not born in a religious country? And even if they are, how many are unable to practice because they don’t have perfect faculties, such as sight, hearing or intellectual capacity? How many are too obscured through having done extreme actions like the five immediate negativities or are clouded by heresy, not believing in such fundamental ideas as karma and reincarnation?
Maybe some beings are lucky enough to be free from these hindrances, but how many of those have faith in the Dharma, and especially faith in the graduated path to enlightenment, the lamrim? Faith in the lamrim is vital because without it we can study Buddhism extensively but still not learn that we have the power to transform our mind from nonvirtue to virtue. We can memorize all the five great treatises studied in the great Gelug monasteries—the Abhisamayalamkara, Vinaya, Madhyamaka, Abhidharmakosha and Pramanavarttika—and still be as thick-skulled as we were before we started, still as incapable of subduing our mind and of changing our self-cherishing attitude to one that cherishes others. The lamrim is the perfect tool to train our mind, showing us the road we must travel to subdue our mind. Its whole focus is this and by listening, reflecting and meditating on each of the lamrim topics we can develop all the special qualities we need to reach enlightenment.
We have faith in the teachings, we are here at a time when the Buddha has descended and we are able to follow the teachings. We have all the right conditions to attain bodhicitta and achieve full enlightenment. All these incredible conditions have come together to create this wonderful opportunity for us. When we think about all the other beings on this planet and how few have any of these conditions, it’s truly amazing.
This is why Shantideva asks us if we can ever hope to find such a rebirth again. To attain anything we have to create the causes, and the causes for a perfect human rebirth are perfect morality, great generosity and stainless prayers for such a rebirth. This is what we have been diligently working toward for countless lives, and now we have it. That doesn’t mean we can now sit back and enjoy it without any effort from our side. Unless we continue to create the causes for a perfect human rebirth, there is no way we will have one in our next rebirth. The texts compare the likelihood of obtaining a perfect human rebirth to the chances of a blind turtle rising to the surface of the ocean once every hundred years and sticking its head through a golden ring floating on the surface. Almost impossible!
With each breath we have the chance to create the causes for enlightenment but how can we be sure when that breathing will stop? Our life hangs on the simple act of breathing in and breathing out but how can we guarantee that the next in-breath will be followed by an out-breath? While we have this opportunity to create the causes for all possible good things—a better future rebirth, the cessation of all suffering and full enlightenment—we must use it. Otherwise, after the last breath we might find ourselves in the body of a hell being, having to endure unbearable suffering for many eons. This life and the life of that hell being are separated by only a breath.
Death can happen at any moment, in a few years, a few months, a few days, any minute. We just don’t know. And at death, there are only two destinations to which we can go: the fortunate upper realms, the result of positive karma, or the terrible, suffering lower realms, the result of negative karma. In each day, in each moment, with each action of body, speech and mind, we are making preparations for heading one way or the other. With the Dharma as our guide, we can consciously ensure that our next rebirth, and all our future rebirths, will be only fortunate ones. Therefore, every moment is a crucial moment, one where we need to decide whether to create virtue or nonvirtue, whether to create the cause of happiness and enlightenment or the cause of suffering.
In the Precious Garland Nagarjuna explains,
From nonvirtues come all sufferings
And, likewise, all bad transmigrations;
From virtues, all happy transmigrations
And the pleasures of all lives.25
Everything—temporary happiness, ultimate happiness, day-to-day life problems and all the future lives’ sufferings, the endless sufferings of samsara—is dependent upon our own mind. We have the potential not only to attain the happiness of future lives but also liberation from the whole of samsara, to which we are bound by delusion and karma. We can go even further than that, eliminating not only the gross disturbing-thought obscurations but also the obscurations to achieving the fully knowing mind and hence attain full enlightenment. In Tibetan Buddhism this is what is called the graduated path of the three capable beings. As Atisha explains in A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment,
Know that those who by whatever means
Seek for themselves no more
Than the pleasures of cyclic existence
Are persons of the lower capacity.
Those who seek peace for themselves alone,
Turning away from worldly pleasures
And avoiding destructive actions
Are said to be of middle capacity.
Those who, through their personal suffering,
Truly want to end completely
All the suffering of others
Are persons of higher capacity.26
Working to simply attain a better future rebirth is the path of the lower capable being. When we see that being anywhere in samsara is suffering, like being in a nest of cobras or at the center of a raging fire, we are on the path of the middle capable being, and work day and night to free ourselves from all of it. For that we need the three higher trainings of morality, concentration and insight.
With the path of the higher capable being we see that all other sentient beings are also suffering in samsara, but unlike us they are incapable of freeing themselves. With that we completely renounce working for ourselves and dedicate our life to others, developing the peerless mind of bodhicitta and practicing the six perfections of charity, patience, morality, perseverance, concentration and wisdom. And because we can’t stand the thought of all beings waiting those long eons until we attain enlightenment by following the Sutrayana path, we enter the Vajrayana path, through which we can attain enlightenment in one brief lifetime of this degenerate age if we have the right circumstances.
We are capable of all this because we have this human body and we are endowed with the eighteen amazing qualities of a perfect human rebirth. It is more precious than a wish-granting jewel, a jewel that will effortlessly and immediately grant us any mundane wish we ask.
It seems like a miracle. If we had been buying lottery tickets for years and we suddenly found we had won a billion dollars, we would think that was a miracle, but attaining a perfect human rebirth is far more miraculous and far more valuable than that. To have this opportunity and not make use of it, how can we hope to ever have this chance again?
Like a flash of lightning
In the next verse Shantideva says,
[1:5] Just like on a dark, foggy night a flash of lightning
Shows up everything brightly for a brief second,
Likewise, in the street of this worldly life,
By the blessings of the Buddha a few beings generate merit.
On a completely dark, moonless night, when there is a sudden flash of lightning, we can see objects such as trees and the road with incredible clarity, but only for the briefest second. We are in the darkness—“street” here means samsara—and then we see the way to generate merit through the brief flash of Dharma we are shown. For the merest moment we have some direction and then it is completely dark again.
Shantideva uses the metaphor of lightning to show the rarity of this opportunity to meet the holy teachings we currently have. From beginningless time until now we have lived countless lives blinded by the fog of ignorance, without the light of Dharma, not having met the teachings of the Buddha or, having met them, not having practiced them. Therefore, it has rarely happened that we have created the causes for an existence such as we now have.
Now, miraculously, we are in the bright light of a perfect human rebirth where we have met the Dharma and been clearly shown the difference between nonvirtue and virtue, the difference between and the causes of suffering and happiness. If we don’t do something now, while we have such a chance, if we don’t try to create positive actions with all of our energy, then this precious period will end just as the light from a lightning flash will end and we will be in darkness again.
In the light we see what we must grab, like seeing a precious jewel on the road, but if we don’t grab it this instance it will be too late. If we fail to create the causes for another perfect human rebirth while we have this short time, due to the deep ignorance from our side, it will be extremely difficult to find the conditions in the future to work toward happiness, liberation and enlightenment.
To have a wholesome thought is very unusual. We human beings of this world seem overwhelmed by ignorance, continuously creating nonvirtue in the belief it will make us happy. We see what is worthless as valuable and because of that fall into great suffering. In Songs of Spiritual Experience, Lama Tsongkhapa says,
This life of leisure is even more precious than a wish-granting jewel;
That I have found such an existence is only this once;
So hard to find yet like a flash of lightning it is easy to vanish;
Contemplating this situation it’s vital to realize that all mundane pursuits
Are like the empty grain husks floating in the winds
And that we must extract the essence of human existence.
I, a yogi, have practiced in this manner;
You, who aspire for liberation, should do likewise.27
A husk doesn’t have any essence; it is merely the container of the kernel of grain. When the thresher is shaken, the grain falls to the ground and all the husks are blown away in the wind.
These verses explain the real meaning of life. This body with freedoms and richnesses is more precious than a wish-granting jewel and we should take the essence day and night. The real essence is not just to achieve power, fame or learning—even in Buddhadharma. None of these things gives real meaning to life. Even if we have scriptural understanding of all the sutras and tantras and can explain them by heart, we have still not taken the real essence. Taking the essence means realizing the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment: renunciation, bodhicitta and right view or emptiness.
As mentioned in the sutra teachings of the Buddha, in the teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa, in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand by the great enlightened being Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo, and in the teachings of all the other great lamas, yogis and pandits, without practicing the three principal aspects of the path there is no way to live life in peace and happiness, going from happiness to happiness to full enlightenment.
Without renunciation, nothing becomes a cause of liberation; without bodhicitta, nothing becomes a cause to achieve enlightenment; and without right view, nothing becomes a remedy to cut the root of samsara. Practicing the lamrim, practicing these three, is taking the real essence of life. Meditating on the three principal aspects of the path every day brings us closer and closer to those realizations.
The extensive teachings of the Buddha and the commentaries by the Indian yogis and pandits and others are like the ocean, the lamrim is like a boat, and the virtuous friend is like the boat captain who rescues us from danger and guides us across the river to the place we wish to go. And taking the three principal aspects of the path, the heart of the lamrim, is like taking jewels from the ocean. Without actualizing the three principal aspects of the path, no matter what great power we develop—clairvoyance, the ability to disappear, whatever—it is worthless. Whatever realizations we gain are unstable and we can slip back into gross negativity very easily.
Whatever success we have in the whole path to enlightenment, from the perfect human rebirth up to enlightenment, all depends on successfully devoting ourselves correctly to the virtuous friend through thought and action, which in turn depends on having a stable realization of guru devotion.
We have the opportunity now, at this moment, to ensure that we will never be lost in the dark again. This opportunity happens incredibly rarely. It has happened through the power of the Buddha and the guru and, as Lama Tsongkhapa says, we must extract the essence of this human existence, which is practicing Dharma purely. How many human beings are able to do this? Negativity is unbelievably powerful in this world and positive thoughts seem feeble in comparison, hence to be able to generate a positive mind is a wonderful thing. Bodhicitta can destroy all nonvirtue. This is the mind we should strive for at all times.
25 Vv. 20–21. [Return to text]