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Verse 19-1: The upper realms

Part of a series of talks on the 41 Prayers to Cultivate Bodhicitta from the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra).

  • Helping other beings to have a good rebirth
  • The god realms
  • Why a precious human life is precious

41 Prayers to Cultivate Bodhicitta: Verse 19, Part 1 (download)

We are at Verse 19 and it says,

“May I lead all beings to the higher forms of life.”
This is the prayer of the bodhisattva when going uphill.

When we are going uphill we are leading sentient beings to the higher forms of life. That means leading them to have a good rebirth. In other words, a precious human life or a rebirth in the god realm. Among the god realms are,

  • The desire realm gods, where they have super duper sense pleasure
  • The form realm gods, where they have very pleasant states of meditation
  • The formless realm-gods where they are in such deep meditation that they don’t really come out, they don’t relate to anybody else, they’re just completely absorbed in their meditation

The question often comes, “These god realms, they are blissful, but why do you want to be born in them?” Because you feel that, as Serkong Rinpoche said, getting to the highest part of samsara is like going to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The only place to go is down. That’s what happens in these god realms. You live your life of incredible sensual pleasure bliss. Then at the very end of your life you have signs that you’re going to die and your friends leave you, your flowers wilt, your body smells, everything becomes the opposite of the way it was. In addition, you have visions about the what your future life is going to be, which is definitely much worse than if you were just abiding in these god realms. It’s incredibly miserable at the time of death for them.

In the realms of meditative absorption it’s very blissful, but then again when the karma to be born there ends, no place to go but down. The question becomes, why are these considered higher forms of life? Why do you want to be born there? They’re considered higher forms in the sense that they have more pleasure than pain. If you look at it just in terms of that life itself, it’s very blissful, and it certainly beats being in the hell realm or in the hungry ghost realm or born as an animal. In that sense it’s considered an upper realm and a happy rebirth within samsara.

In terms of practicing the Dharma, it’s not an advantageous realm to be born into because you are so absorbed in your pleasant feelings that you don’t really see any need to practice the Dharma. In terms of really progressing along the path, we don’t want to be reborn in those realms. Beings are born there just due to the motivation of seeking the pleasure of either meditative equipoise or of sense pleasure. You don’t want to be born there with that kind of motivation. Of course, if you are a bodhisattva you might want to be born there to benefit sentient beings. But for us ordinary beings, if we’re just seeking more pleasure in samsara then we’re just perpetuating the cycle of life. Getting born and dying, born and dying, and so forth.

It’s in that respect that a precious human life is considered precious because we have enough suffering to keep us on our toes. Whereas, if you are born in one of those pleasurable god realms, then because there is no suffering you won’t have any oomph going to do anything. You can see whenever things are going very well in our lives, and we’re happy, and we have pleasure, sometimes our inclination to practice decreases. It’s like, “Well my samsara’s nice. Could not ask for more. It’s good enough. Why should I change it? Why should I want to get out of it? I can tweak it to make it a little bit better here, but why should I want to or push to get out?” You can see sometimes we get a little bit complacent. That’s the pitfall of the god realms.

Our human life has enough suffering that we go, “Oh yes, right I am in samsara. I am usually living under the pull of afflictions and karma and so I better do something about it.” That can spur us to practice harder.

In any case, when we’re going uphill, we lead them to the upper realms. And for sentient beings who can’t think beyond this life, if we are able to teach them the ways to have an upper rebirth it prevents them for having a lower rebirth in the next life. So that’s good. Of course we want to lead them beyond that. That is the starting point.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.