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A rare and valuable opportunity

A rare and valuable opportunity

Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.

  • The three ways to make a precious human rebirth meaningful
  • The difference between the Buddhist view of how to live a meaningful life and the cultural view
  • How to reflect on the rarity of a precious human life and the difficulty of attaining one

Easy Path 08: Value and rarity of precious human life (download)

Good evening everybody. We’ll start our meditation—a little bit of silent meditation with the breath. And then we’ll visualize the Buddha and do the recitations. As you’ll notice from last week, I’m not leading you through the practice as much as before with as much detail because I’m hoping—I’m knowing—that you are doing this practice every day. Therefore you don’t need me to lead you through it, right? The more you get familiar with it the more you can lead yourself through it and the less you need me to do it. That’s why I’m not doing it. If you’re lost, then please do the practice every day and go back to the first couple of teachings where I explained how to do it. Also, if you go to there’s the meditation on the Buddha online that you can download.

Let’s start with the breath. Let the mind settle. [silent meditation]

In the space in front of you visualize the Buddha sitting on a throne and lotus, moon, and sun discs, his body made of golden light. Remember to visualize all the other Buddhas and bodhisattvas surrounding him, and yourself surrounded by all the sentient beings. Take a minute or two and describe the visualization to yourself and visualize that—remembering that it’s all made of light. Cultivate a relationship with the Buddha as you visualize him looking with kindness and acceptance upon you and all other beings. [silent meditation]

With a sense of the disadvantages of cyclic existence and the dread of experiencing them; and also a sense of confidence in the Buddha’s ability to lead us beyond cyclic existence; and then third, with compassion for all living beings wanting them to be free of cyclic existence as well—then we take refuge and do the recitations imagining that we’re leading all the other sentient beings in doing these together with us. Really think about what you’re saying as you’re saying it.

Refuge and Bodhicitta

I take refuge until I have awakened in the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. By the merit I create by engaging in generosity and the other far-reaching practices, may I attain Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings. (3x)

The Four Immeasurables

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes.
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes.
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

Seven-Limb Prayer

Reverently I prostrate with my body, speech and mind,
And present clouds of every type of offering, actual and mentally transformed.
I confess all my destructive actions accumulated since beginningless time,
And rejoice in the virtues of all holy and ordinary beings.
Please remain until cyclic existence ends,
And turn the wheel of Dharma for sentient beings.
I dedicate all the virtues of myself and others to the great awakening.

Mandala Offering

This ground, anointed with perfume, flowers strewn,
Mount Meru, four lands, sun and moon,
Imagined as a Buddha land and offered to you.
May all beings enjoy this pure land.

The objects of attachment, aversion and ignorance–friends, enemies and strangers, my body, wealth and enjoyments–I offer these without any sense of loss. Please accept them with pleasure, and inspire me and others to be free from the three poisonous attitudes.

Idam guru ratna mandala kam nirya tayami

Now a replica of the Buddha comes and sits on top of your head, facing the same way as you do and assists you in making requests to the Three Jewels.

Requesting Inspiration

Glorious and precious root guru, sit upon the lotus and moon seat on my crown. Guiding me with your great kindness, bestow upon me the attainments of your body, speech and mind.

The eyes through whom the vast scriptures are seen, supreme doors for the fortunate who would cross over to spiritual freedom, illuminators whose wise means vibrate with compassion, to the entire line of spiritual mentors I make request.

Shakyamuni Buddha’s Mantra

Tayata om muni muni maha muniye soha (7x)

While meditating with the guru-deity on your head, reflect: The freedom and fortune that I have attained not only carry great potential, they are also extremely difficult to attain. The majority of sentient beings, human and otherwise, engage mostly in the ten nonvirtues and so forth, which are obstacles to attaining freedom and fortune. In particular to attain an excellent rebirth complete with freedom and fortune, you must have pure ethical discipline as a base, supplement it with generosity and so forth, and complete these with stainless prayers and so on. Since such causes are very rarely created, the probability of attaining a simple high rebirth as compared to a low rebirth as an animal and so on is barely conceivable.

Compared to simple happy rebirths, lives complete with freedom and fortune are as infrequent as stars visible during the day. For that reason I must not waste in meaningless activities the difficult-to-attain and once attained very meaningful life complete with freedom and fortune that I have found just this once. Instead I must take full advantage of it. The way to take full advantage of it is to rely on my spiritual mentors who are inseparable from the Buddha and to apply the key instructions of the supreme vehicle that they teach. May I thereby in one life easily attain Buddhahood! Guru-deity, please inspire me to be able to do so.

In response to your requesting the guru-deity, five-colored light and nectar stream from all parts of his body into you through the crown of your head. It absorbs into your mind and body and those of all sentient beings, purifying all negativities, and obscurations accumulated since beginningless time, and especially purifying all illnesses, spirit interferences, negativities, and obscurations that interfere with attaining a superior realization of the difficulty of attaining freedom and fortune. Your body becomes translucent, the nature of light. All your good qualities, lifespan, merit, and so forth expand and increase. Think in particular that a superior realization of the difficulty of attaining freedom and fortune has arisen in your mindstream and in the mindstreams of others. [silent meditation]

Last time we talked about precious human life and the different qualities of a precious human life. And remember that human life and precious human life are different. There are many human lives, but even regular human lives are very infrequent compared to the number animals, insects and so on. But among human beings having a precious human life with the ability to learn the Dharma and practice the Dharma is really rare. If you think about it, how many people? There are over seven billion human beings on the planet right now, and how many of them at this moment are engaged in some kind of Dharma practice?

Think of your family members. Are any of your family members practicing the Dharma? How about all of your old friends that you grew up with? Yes? When we think about it, not so many people are practicing. So having that opportunity to practice is really quite rare. And yet, having a precious human life is very meaningful. We’re going to talk a little bit tonight about the meaning of the precious human life and then the rarity of attaining it.

When we talk the usefulness of the precious human life there are three ways we can make it useful. One is from the viewpoint of our temporary goals; and two is from the viewpoint of our ultimate goals; and three is in every moment.

Usefulness of a precious human life: Temporary goals

Temporary goals means creating the cause for happiness within cyclic existence. In terms of our temporary goals with a precious human life we have the opportunity to abandon the ten non-virtues and practice the ten virtues. We have the ability to take and keep precepts. All of this enables us to create the cause for an upper rebirth in the future, which is the most immediate thing we need to take care of. Before we can think of attaining liberation or full awakening, we have to be sure that we can at least not be born in the lower realms in the next life. This is not our ultimate goal, but this temporary goal is a very important one if we want to attain the ultimate goal. So we can make our life useful by creating the causes for a good rebirth in the future.

Ethical conduct is the main cause for a human life or for a fortunate rebirth. Having that opportunity now to keep ethical conduct—so whatever level of precepts that we feel comfortable taking, to take that level and then keep the precepts well.

Then also to practice generosity and some meditation and things like that, so that in a future life we have some familiarity with those things—so we feel somewhat close to those activities and then therefore can continue in future lives.

Usefulness of a precious human life: Ultimate goals

In terms of our ultimate goal we have the opportunity with a precious human life to attain either liberation or full awakening. And we’re aiming for full awakening because we want to be of the greatest benefit to all the sentient beings. So while it’s difficult to attain full awakening in this life, it’s definitely possible. They say that a human body—with the elements in our human body—is a perfect basis for practicing the tantric path which quickly eliminates the defilements. However before we can really do that—you know, that’s like the roof of the house—we have to build the foundation, the walls. But we have the potential in this life which is really something.

Usefulness of a precious human life: Every moment

Moment by moment we have the ability to make our life meaningful by practicing the Dharma and transforming all of our daily life activities into practice. So when you’re out there pulling knapweed and spraying knapweed—think that you are destroying the afflictions in other peoples’ minds; and in your own mind too. When we’re cutting down and thinning the trees because the forest is too crowded, it’s like clearing away all the distracting thoughts in our concentration. When we go upstairs we think we’re leading sentient beings to the upper realms and to liberation and enlightenment. When we go downstairs we think that we’re happily going to the lower realms in order to be of great benefit to sentient beings. When we’re washing the dishes or vacuuming the floor, again, we’re cleansing the minds of ourselves and others of defilement.

So moment by moment, in every activity we do, through transforming our motivation and through learning how to think in a correct way, we can transform daily life activities and other things that we’re doing into the path of awakening. When you think about how to make our life meaningful, this is really pretty significant. I say this because, think about when you grew up, what did you grow up with as the meaning of your life? What did your parents and society tell you about the meaning and purpose and goals in your life?

Audience: [inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes. Get a good education. Have a good job. Get married. Have 2.5 kids. Or only two kids now. Raise geniuses.

Audience: Buy a house. Get a car.

VTC: Yes. Buy a house. Get a car. Go on vacation two weeks out of the year. Come back exhausted.

Audience: Four weeks.

VTC: Maybe in Germany, four weeks. Here there’s only two weeks. Work overtime so that you can get more money so that you can send your kids to a good therapist because they feel unloved because their parents didn’t spend enough time with them. Is that kind of how you were taught as a child? What you could do, and the value and purpose of your life? What you could become. Stay as healthy as possible. Try and pretend that you’re not going to get old. When death is approaching, deny it. True or not true? Is this how you were brought up? Did anybody tell you that you could do something more meaningful with your life than just have as much pleasure as possible? And gain money and status. Have a wild sex life. I mean what were we really taught? These people—our family—cared for us, you know. They love us and they really want us to be happy. And they taught us to the best of their ability. But they really have no idea about how to make the life meaningful in the long term. No idea about karma, rebirth, anything like that. True or not true?

Audience: Also in there somewhere, somehow, be a good person; but there was no…

VTC: Yes. Be a good person but always look out for yourself first.

Audience: Not too good.

VTC: Be good but not too good?

Audience: If something went wrong, not to get caught.

VTC: Yes. Don’t get caught. Look good, but don’t necessarily be good. Or somebody said, “Look responsible but don’t be responsible.” People who really loved us taught us this because this is what they knew. Encountering the Dharma and what the Buddha teaches us—it’s so much vaster than that; so much more meaningful than any of that. If we practice the life as our parents mostly dictated to us, then what happens? We accumulate a lot of nonvirtue. Maybe a little bit of virtue; but then we might destroy it because we get angry.

People taught us anger was bad, but mostly other peoples’ anger is bad. We should be angry and we should stick up for our self to defend ourselves. And defeat the enemy. The optimum vision of a perfect life that society could give us and that was it—without any idea of karma. Of course then death approaches and being terrified. Yes. Being terrified because we’ve spent the whole life creating this whole ego identity—with the family and with people and possessions and reputation—and death comes and whole thing’s gone. Instead we’re left with asking ourselves, “Well, what, really, was the meaning of my life? What did I do that was of value? I had a good time. I have a lot of pictures of all the good times I had. But how does that really benefit me or anybody else at the end of the day. What does it do?”

Here we really see the kindness of the Buddha in giving us an alternative. Buddha is telling us about what kind of potential and meaning we can make of our lives. Really think about that and take it seriously. You can see why every human life isn’t a precious human life. Because many people have human lives but they don’t know the Dharma so they don’t know about how to make their life meaningful and give it purpose like this.

To have this opportunity that we have right now is actually very difficult to attain. Sometimes we take our lives so much for granted. It’s like, “Oh yes. I have all these good conditions. But, you know, I can get it again.” We take it for granted thinking, “There’s plenty of time. If I don’t practice this life, there’s next life. I can practice then.” Buddhism has the idea of many lives so, “Okay, I enjoy myself this life. Next life I’ll practice.”

We don’t really appreciate how difficult is, or was, to get the opportunity that we have right now. Instead we think that it will come easily again in the future—which is not the case at all. In the motivation that we meditated on prior to the teaching, it talked about that. So now I want to go into a little bit about why it is rare and difficult to attain this precious human life so that we will appreciate our opportunity to make it meaningful.

The rarity of precious human life: Creating the causes

With the rarity of the precious human life, we can talk about it in three ways: in terms of the causes (creating the causes for it); in terms of analogies; and in terms of numbers.

In terms of the causes to have a precious human life—so first of all, as I was just saying—just to have a human life we need to keep good ethical conduct. Now, how many people, how many human beings on this planet keep good ethical conduct? Yes, there are a lot of people who don’t lie—well except unless it’s convenient, yes? And they don’t kill—unless their house has an infestation of insects or they’re being threatened. And they don’t steal—unless there’s the opportunity to take something from their company without anybody noticing. And they don’t sleep around—unless there’s somebody they really want to sleep with and it’s a good opportunity and they won’t get caught. And they don’t lie—unless there’s something they don’t want other people to know about. Are you getting my point?

And it’s not just other people. It’s also us. We like to think, “Oh, we keep very good ethical conduct—and most people keep good ethical conduct.” But when we really look closely, you know, we keep good ethical conduct as long as we feel no urgency to keep bad ethical conduct; or as long as we can’t get something out of breaking the precepts. But when the opportunity comes to get something more for ourselves and not get in trouble for it, or a low risk of getting in trouble for it, then we go for it.

To really keep good ethical conduct is not a simple thing. Even if we respect ethical conduct, how many times do we lie and it just kind of comes out? We don’t realize it until later. It’s the same with harsh speech, divisive speech, idle talk, coveting, ill will, wrong views—all of that stuff. So it’s not easy to create the cause of having good ethical conduct.

Ethical conduct isn’t the only cause of a precious human life. That’s just enabling us to have an upper rebirth. To have a precious human life then we also need to practice generosity so that we’ll have the wherewithal to be able to practice well in future lives—so we won’t be impoverished. We need to practice fortitude and build up our mental strength so that we will be able to get along with others. So we’ll look appealing and be able to meet people and learn together with people. We need to develop some joyous effort that takes delight in virtue, and some concentration and wisdom.

All these kinds of things are necessary to have a precious human life. Especially some of the qualities of the precious human life—we have to, from our side, have respect for the Dharma, have interest in the Dharma. How do we create the cause for that? It’s not just going to pop up in our mind magically. To have interest in the Dharma, to have confidence in it, again we have to learn, we have to study, we have to think about it, we practice it. There’s a lot that we need to do even to get a precious human life.

We also need to dedicate our merit so that we will attain a precious human life. If we dedicate it for full awakening, as a byproduct of that, then we can have a precious human life. But it’s good to pray for one too. That doesn’t mean leaving out dedicating for full awakening. We should definitely do that. But really dedicate the merit to have precious human life; and to meet completely qualified Mahayana and Vajrayana teachers. I say this because if you’re familiar with the Buddhist world you see that there are a lot of people who have the name ‘teacher’ but who don’t have the quality of teachers. If you follow people like that you wind up going down the wrong path—which kind of messes you up for many lifetimes. So it’s important to dedicate to meet good spiritual mentors; and not just to meet them but to recognize their qualities and to establish a relationship with them.

Many people meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but in the eyes of the Beijing government he’s seen as a devil and the splitter of the motherland. From the viewpoint of the Communist government he’s the last person on earth you would ever follow as a spiritual mentor. If we cultivate that kind of view, or any other view like that, then we’re separating ourselves from meeting these kinds of teachers. And instead, we may wind up with “Charlatananda” as our guru. [Venerable Chodron’s term for a charlatan teacher] I have friends who have had “Charlatananda” as their guru. It’s really dangerous. It’s quite dangerous.

Just creating the cause of a precious human life is rare, so thereby creating the effect of a precious human life is going to be rare.

Often when we dedicate, we might sometimes be thinking, “Yes, precious human life and enlightenment; and may I win the lottery and may these people like me and may I get this and may this and that happen…” We dedicate for all sorts of worldly aims. If we dedicate our merit for worldly aims maybe it will ripen like that, and then it’ll finish. So we really have to dedicate for awakening so the merit can last a long time and bring great results. But we’re very attached to the happiness of this life—and that’s so often what we pray for and dedicate for.

The rarity of a precious human life: By analogy

By analogy we can see a precious human life is difficult to attain. Here the example that’s often given is a turtle, a visually impaired turtle. This example is in the Pali suttas. I was so surprised; I was reading the Pali suttas and, “Oh! Look! Same example [as we have in the Tibetan tradition].”

If the visually impaired turtle at the bottom of the ocean pokes his head up once every hundred years, and there is a golden ring floating around the vast ocean, what’s the chance of him getting his head through the ring? Very small for when you think about it, the ring can be near Japan and the turtle is near Chile—and so of course a long ways away. But then every once in a while he gets so close and comes up and hits the edge of the ring, but his head doesn’t go in. And then a hundred years later they’re widely separated again. This is used as an analogy of how difficult and how infrequent it is to have this life.

The rarity of a precious human life: By numbers

By numbers is the other way that we can see this rarity. The Buddha once took a pinch of sand from the Ganges River. In ancient India the Ganges was seen as huge and vast, kind of like we see the Pacific Ocean nowadays. So the Buddha took a pinch of sand from the Ganges and he said, “The number of grains in this pinch is equal to the number of sentient beings who will be born again in the upper realms. And all the rest of the sand everywhere along the Ganges is the number of sentient beings being born in the lower realms.”

Does that give you some kind of feeling? Pretty rare. Pretty difficult. If we even look here at the Abbey and compare the number human beings to the number of insects. We have two hundred and forty acres. Counting the number of insects on that is just like, “Whoa!” But even the number of insects just here in the garden and around the buildings—between yellow jackets and ants and gnats and spiders and all sorts of other little guys. And then you throw in the birds and the moose—we human beings are really outnumbered. It’s the same way in the city. You might think, “Oh, there are so many people in the city.” Actually, how many insects and other animals are there in the city? So again, when you think in terms of numbers and the number of beings born in each realm, it’s difficult to have the opportunity that we have.

Also among human beings it’s very difficult to have a precious human life because so many people were born before the Buddha lived and taught. Or they were born in a different place when the Buddha was alive. Or they are now born in a place where there’s no access to the Dharma. Or born in place where there’s access to the Dharma but you’d much rather play video games. So it is really very difficult to have the kind of opportunity that we have.

Meditating on the rarity of precious human life

We should do the analytic meditation on all these points. Meaning that we sit down and we have the outline of the points. So either what’s listed here, or you take notes while I’m teaching and you have the outline, or you refer to a lamrim book, or in Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path there’s the outline. You sit down and you reflect on each point; and as you’re reflecting on each point you really make it very personal. Like, I’m sitting here and contemplating: How many living beings are there just around me who don’t have the opportunity to practice because they’re in the lower realms—or they’re even living beings around us. Then think about and go through the eight freedoms and ten fortunes. Go through the three ways of making our life meaningful. Then think about these three ways of why the precious human life is difficult to attain—that being, according to causes, according to analogy, and according to numbers. Make these examples and contemplate it so that you come out at the end of your meditation with this feeling of, “Wow! I am unbelievably fortunate! The opportunity I have is so meaningful. It’s kind of miraculous that I even have this opportunity to make my life meaningful in this way.”

Especially if we look right now, are we creating the cause to have a precious human life in the future? Or are we goofing off most of the time? And then you see, “Am I really creating the cause to have this in the future?” Maybe not—and then that makes it even more miraculous that we have the opportunity this lifetime. Really appreciate it and at the end of the meditation have a very strong sense of, “I’ve really got to take the essence of this life because I may not have another opportunity to do it. And my life has great purpose and meaning. I have all the conditions. If I just kind of lie around, or waste my time, or piddle around just doing fun things—because I have nothing better to do—what will I have to show at the end of my life? What will I go out of this life with aside from a computer with all the pictures of all the far out places I’ve been and far out things I’ve done (which nobody is going to be interested in watching)?”

Do you think anybody is going to go through your five thousand pictures and tell the story of your life? Somebody’s going to have to go through all this: all your souvenirs that you’ve saved, all the letters that you’ve saved from this that and the other, boxes of things. You think somebody’s going to sit there and spend their precious human life reading the story of your precious human life—that you spent in just seeking the happiness of this life? No. They’re going to go in there and like, toss, toss, toss, toss, shred. Every once in while shred something, mostly—recycle, recycle, recycle, burn, shred—right?

Just to spend our life in that kind of way is really a tragedy. It’s funny what we think are tragedies in life. I remember before I ordained I was going down in Dharmasala [India] to the fabric store to get the material for my [monastic] robes. There was an old Indian man working in there so I was talking to him, telling him that I was going to ordain. He said, “What a waste. You’re so pretty. You should get married.” Because, that’s what you are supposed to do, and what use is a woman? So [thinking that] he says, “You’re good looking—get married. But like, what a waste that you’re going to be a nun!” That’s the way people look at it. Also with many family members, it’s like, “You could have this great career and make a lot of money. What are you doing going off to live in Nepal? You’re absolutely crazy.”

We have a precious opportunity. We have to be aware of that and use it. What we think is a precious opportunity other people will think is wasting your life. And what we think is wasting your life, they think is a precious opportunity. Like, “Wow, you have the opportunity to have kids and carry on the family lineage and do all of this.” Well, maybe not—there’s already plenty of human beings on this planet—actually too many human beings on this planet already.

It reminds me of once at a conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Western Buddhist teachers we were discussing birth control. His Holiness asked this one Theravada monk, “Do you believe in birth control?” You know, just kind of a societal question; and he answers, “I practice rebirth control!” [Laughter]

So then, as we continue along in the text: “The way to conclude the meditation session is as before, dedicating the merit.” And then again in “between meditation sessions (it’s like) as before, (so to read the sutras), read canonical and exegetic works that explain the topic of freedom and fortune” and so forth. So study whatever you’re meditating on.

How to take full advantage of this precious human life

Then we come to the next outline in the text which is “How to Take Full Advantage of This Precious Human Life.” So here’s where we get the division into the three levels of practitioner. First is: Training the mind in the stages of the path shared with lesser beings, or initial beings. (I think it’s nicer to say initial beings.) Then: Training the mind in the stages of the path share with intermediate beings. And: Training the mind on the stages of the path shared with great beings. Why’d it say “shared with” for the great beings? It should just be: Training the mind on the stages of the path of great beings.

The reason that the first two levels have “shared with” is because the initial level—somebody can be an initial level being and not have aspirations to be an intermediate or advanced level being. What we want to do is to have the motivation of an advanced level being, but, of course to actually get there we have to practice the paths in common with the initial level and the intermediate level beings. So it’s said “in common with’” [or “shared with”] because we don’t have exactly the same—”in common with” or “shared with”—because we don’t have exactly the same motivation as the people on the initial level and the people on the intermediate level.

Just to give you a little brief outline of these three levels of beings. First of all, one person can start out at one level and the idea is to progress through all three levels. But, like I said, some people just kind of stay at one level for a while. Each of these levels has a motivation and it has a series of meditations that you meditate on before in order to generate that motivation. And then it has a series of meditations you meditate on after generating that motivation in order to achieve the goal of that motivation.

Three motivations and practices for the three levels of beings

For the initial level practitioner, there are two types—and I’ll explain the higher type. The higher type’s goal is to attain a precious human life. What do they meditate on beforehand to generate that motivation? It’s death and impermanence, and the possibility of being reborn in the lower realms. Having generated the motivation by meditating on those two, then how to actually fulfill that purpose and get an upper rebirth? They take refuge in the Three Jewels and observe the law of karma and its effects.

The intermediate level being—their motivation is they want to get out of samsara and attain liberation. So what they meditate on in order to generate that motivation is the first two noble truths—true dukkha and the true origin of dukkha. By that they generate that motivation—the determination to be free. To achieve the purpose of that motivation (to attain liberation), then they meditate on the last two noble truths—true cessations and true paths, as well as what the afflictions are and how they arise and all sorts of other material like that.

Then, for the advanced level, or the great level practitioner, their goal is to attain full awakening for the benefit of all beings. To generate that motivation they generate bodhicitta—through first practicing equanimity and then practicing one of the two ways to generate bodhicitta. These are either the seven-point cause-and-effect instruction, or equalizing and exchanging self for others. And then, having generated the bodhicitta, the way they attain that goal is by practicing the six paramitas—six perfections or far reaching practices—and then entering the tantric vehicle.

So what we want to do is to have the aspiration of a great level being—at least fabricated bodhicitta, or at least some admiration for bodhicitta. But in actual fact, to generate spontaneous bodhicitta it’s going to take a lot of mental transformation. So we have to start off at the beginning of the path. That’s why we first meditated on relying on a spiritual teacher, on the three meditations for precious human life, and now we’re going to begin the meditations on the path in common with the initial level practitioner.

Don’t look down upon these initial level motivations. They’re actually not so easy to attain realization of. I mean, do you have realization of precious human life? All day do you walk around feeling, “My life is so incredibly meaningful and important and I’m so astounded I have this opportunity”—is that what you think all day? No. Well, then you don’t have a realization of that meditation. So let’s start with where we’re at—especially as we’re moving into these meditations now. The first meditation that we’re going to be focusing on is the one on death and impermanence. It’s said this meditation is helpful at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the path—so it’s not just the beginning of the path.

Training the mind on the stages of the path shared with initial beings

The first outline: “Training the mind on the stages of the path shared with initial beings” is divided into two: what to do in the actual meditation session, what to do in between sessions. And then what to do in the actual meditation session is divided into three: the preliminaries, the actual meditation, and the conclusion.

The preliminaries are as before: doing the visualization of the Buddha, all the recitations, then saying the mantra and so forth. And then, it says to reflect:

The fact that I and all other sentient beings have been born in samsara and are endlessly subjected to intense dukkha is due to our having failed to contemplate death and impermanence, to take refuge from the depths of our hearts in the Three Jewels. Refuge is generated due to fear of suffering in the lower realms, to having faith based on conviction in karma and its effects, to correctly reject destructive actions and do constructive ones.

Here it has, “fear of suffering in the lower realms.” I guess you could say that: Fear, or dread, or concern of suffering in the lower realms.

Guru-deity, please inspire me and all sentient beings so the awareness of death and impermanence may arise in us, we may take refuge from the depths of our hearts in the Three Jewels out of fear of the suffering of the lower realms, and having generated faith based conviction in karma and its effects, that we may correctly reject negativities and practice virtue.

(You can tell that the [original] Tibetan of this was one sentence that was about this long.)

In response to your requesting the guru-deity, five-colored light and nectar stream from all parts of his body into you through the crown of your head. It absorbs into your mind and body and those of all sentient beings, purifying all negativities, and obscurations accumulated since beginningless time, and especially purifying all illnesses, spirit interferences, negativities, and obscurations that interfere with attaining a superior realization of the stages of the path shared with lesser beings.

When it says guru-deity it means the Buddha—seeing your spiritual mentor in the form of the Buddha. So you really meditate on that and visualize that and have some feeling for that. It’s like the Buddha is on your side—trying to help you purify, trying to inspire your mind with the understanding of these meditations.

Your body becomes translucent, the nature of light. All your good qualities, lifespan, merit, and so forth expand and increase. Think in particular that a superior realization of the stages of the path shared with lesser beings has arisen in your mindstream and in the mindstreams of others—of all the other sentient beings that you visualized around you. Are you visualizing that as I’m reading it?

Next comes the actual meditation. So here there are four: contemplating death and impermanence, contemplating the sufferings of the lower realms (or the dukkha of the lower realms), training in taking refuge in the Three Jewels, and cultivating faith in the form of conviction in karma and its effects.

The meditation on death

And so the text continues:

While meditating with the Guru Buddha on your head, reflect in the following manner: Here’s the meditation on death—in a nutshell. We’ll expand it. Here’s the nutshell:

This life with freedom and fortune, so difficult to attain and once attained so meaningful, will soon be destroyed; death is certain to occur. Furthermore, no inner or outer circumstances can prevent it. I cannot add to my lifespan, which in fact shortens unceasingly. I am sure to die without having had the time to practice the teaching while alive.

Does that scare you? That scares me.

Not only do I have to die, the time of my death is uncertain. Because the lifespan of sentient beings of Jambudvipa [Jampudvipa—our world, our continent] is uncertain, the causes of death numerous and those of life few, and our bodies are as fragile as water bubbles, the time of our death is uncertain. At the time of death everything but the teaching is useless. No matter how great the affection that my circle of loved ones has for me, I cannot take a single one of them with me. No matter how large a collection of lovely belongings I have, I cannot bring the tiniest portion of it with me. I must even be separated from the very flesh and bones I was born with. Therefore what purpose does attachment to the good things of this life serve? The lord of death is sure to come but it is unsure when that will occur. Since I run the risk of dying this very day, truly I must do something to prepare for death. By way of preparation, may I practice the teaching purely, free of attachment to any of this life’s excellence! Guru-deity, please inspire me to be able to do so.

Can you get a sense that if you really had a realization of what this is talking about, how you might actually feel inside when you say, “Guru Buddha please inspire me to be able to do so”?

If you really understood death and impermanence, what would that feel like to really have that understanding? And if you did, would you just say, [expresses with flippancy] “Guru Deity, Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so”? Would you do that? No. What would it feel like to actually have that awareness? So from the depth of your heart you’re just like, “I really want to gain this realization. I can see how important it is, how meaningful it is—and my mind’s so full of clutter. So Buddha, please help me.”

I won’t read it, but here too again in response, the visualization is as before with the five-colored light and nectar coming and purifying the negativities and the obstacles to understanding—in this case death and impermanence; purifying things like illnesses and spirit interferences; our body becoming translucent; and then gaining the realization of this meditation.

In the meditation of impermanence and death first we contemplate the six disadvantages of not remembering death and then the six advantages of remembering death. But I’m thinking, maybe I should pause here and see if there are some questions before our time is over.

Audience: I’m always curious when I read these that in the causes for refuge they have the one about fear of lower rebirth and the confidence in the Three Jewels, but we always have that third one about seeing other sentient beings as being in the same situation as us and developing compassion. How come it’s not in the gradual path as like the bodhicitta motivation. It’s something extra.

VTC: Yes, right. This is because there’s just taking regular refuge and then taking Mahayana refuge. Here it’s in the initial level being. So the initial level being has not necessarily generated bodhicitta so their taking of refuge is going to be the initial motivation. But, what we do is we often sneak the bodhicitta, the Mahayana motivation, in there and say, “Oh, I’m taking refuge also because I have an awareness of other living beings that are in the same predicament that I’m in.”

Audience: I’ve always found the eight worldly concerns to be really powerful motivations, but yet, once again in our lamrim outlines they’re there, but in this one they’re not. They would be in this initial scope.

VTC: Yes. You’re saying that meditation on the eight worldly concerns is always very powerful, but you’re not seeing it in, like this verse that we just read, yes? There was something a little bit earlier on about not wasting our time in meaningless activities. That’s referring to the eight worldly concerns. But when we expand this, it’ll be in there because it comes under the disadvantages of not remembering death—and one of them is that our life is just given over to the eight worldly concerns. So even though it’s not specifically said in the verse that we just read, it’s definitely in the meditation. Yes. They’re not going to let us get away with that.

I’m always rather surprised. Sometimes I meet people who’ve been practicing for a while and they’ve never heard of the eight worldly concerns. My teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaches it again and again: “The evil thought of the eight worldly concerns being: having attachment for only the happiness of this life,”—again and again. I mean a whole meditation course for a month on this. So I’m always rather shocked when I meet people who have never heard of the eight worldly concerns in their practice.

I’m really grateful to Lama Zopa for teaching that because these eight worldly concerns are the things that prevent us from practicing the Dharma. I say this because what’s the demarcation line between Dharma practice and worldly practice? It’s whether our mind is attached to only the happiness of this life—in other words, the eight worldly concerns. If our mind is attached to that, if we’re acting motivated by the eight worldly concerns, it’s not Dharma practice. No matter how much we look externally like we’re practicing the Dharma, it’s not Dharma practice. Whereas, if our mind is free of the eight worldly concerns then whatever we’re doing is actual Dharma practice.

Audience: So much of acknowledging the preciousness of human life relies on kind of an understanding of reincarnation and rebirth, something I struggle with. Sometimes intellectually it makes sense but you know how hard it is…when I hear those numbers, you know, the story of the turtle does register. Yes, it’s rare. But it doesn’t feel like it’s contextualized. So how can I deepen my understanding of rebirth….

VTC: Okay, so how to deepen your understanding of rebirth because you see that understanding, like the example of the turtle or the rarity of the precious human life, you can get much more of an experience of that if you have an understanding of rebirth. I gave a talk on rebirth not last week but the week before. So listen to that. Also there’s a chapter in Open Heart, Clear Mind about rebirth and also on there are some talks and so on about rebirth.

Having said that, I think one of the greatest hindrances we have to understanding rebirth is the strength of our present self-grasping—that when we say “I” right now it feels so solid and so real and it’s “me” in this body. We can’t imagine ever begin anything else—even a baby. Can you imagine having been a baby? Do you really think that you were ever a baby? I mean we know that because we see our baby pictures, but you think about a baby’s state of mind—the lack of conceptual thought, the lack of knowledge of the world, the inability to express oneself, the inability to understand what’s going on around you. Can we even think that we were once like that as a baby? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? And yet we know for sure we were once like that. So if it’s hard to imagine being a baby, which we know we’ve been, then it’s even going to be harder to imagine being in another body also with a different state of mind.

Audience: About self-grasping and when you ask, “Please Buddha help me…help me to liberate myself,” because I have so much stuff in there, the feeling. There’s a fear, or something very uncomfortable, that it’s like letting go of what I know. That’s the self-grasping, right? That uncomfortable feeling that you feel…

VTC: So you’re saying that when you request the Buddha for inspiration to overcome different hindrances and to gain different realizations, one part of your mind is really uncomfortable…

Audience: It’s in my guts. I feel it in my guts.

VTC: Yes, your gut is uncomfortable because you’re aware that it means giving up an ego identity that you’ve spent a long time cultivating and manicuring and protecting. So the way to get around this is to understand that that ego identity makes me miserable. Instead of feeling nervous or uncomfortable about giving it up we need to say, “Yes! I want to get rid of this! Because I want to be happy and I deserve to be happy.”

Audience: But that yes is not strong. Even if in the mind is like, “Yes I’m miserable,” and “Yes, I want to get out of there.” It’s how to nourish that.

VTC: How to nourish that “Yes.” Repetition—again and again thinking about this.

Audience: And the doubt?

VTC: Yes. So you just recognize, “Okay, there’s doubt there, but I don’t have to buy into that doubt.” Also what is very important along this line which helps is doing a lot of purification and collection of merit practices. This is because when we’re stuck in our meditation—like sometimes you do this meditation and there’s not so much feeling. Then it can be good to really focus more on purification. Do more Vajrasattva. Do more prostrations. Create merit through mandala offerings, or taking refuge, or offering water bowls, or being charitable, or offering service at the Abbey with a good motivation. This is because if we really purify and create merit then it helps a lot to get rid of the mental weakness or the resistance that we feel.

Audience: When I do tonglen meditation do I generate bodhicitta?

VTC: When you do tonglen, the taking and giving meditation, are you generating bodhicitta? You’re generating very strong love and very strong compassion which are the causes of bodhicitta.

Audience: I want to have this realization of precious human rebirth, but it’s still very much intellectual. But does being in that place, knowing that at my present level requires fortitude.

But it’s not, as you know, not easy. And it’s sometimes very frustrating just to be sort of seeing that you can’t just make it happen. We can’t wish it.

VTC: So even with the meditation on the precious human life—you can look at it and you can see, “Wow, it would be incredible to really have a realization of that, but I don’t really have one. And I wish I could will myself to have one.” You know like, “If I could squeeze myself or push myself or beat myself up so I see how precious my life is…” Those techniques are not found in the lamrim as how to generate realizations. [Laughter]

Audience: But it’s also having the patience to wait for the causes and conditions to come together.

VTC: Yes, okay, so having the patience. I mean if you wanted to earn a million dollars you would be very patient. You would go to school and you would take all these tests and you would go to graduate school and you would start at the bottom of the ladder and you would work overtime—for years and years. And you would save your money and give up your pleasure. And you would do all sorts of things if you really strongly wanted to have a million dollars. Yet, for Dharma we don’t want to give up anything or have the slightest inconvenience. We want push-button Dharma: “I want the realization to come to me.” Right?

Audience: That’s not really what I’m trying to express. No, I’m not expecting a push button.

VTC: But it’s frustrating to sit there and say, “But I want that realization and I can’t get it!” Yes? And to realize that it’s not like wanting something on the outside, like “I want a hot fudge sundae. I’m going to go get it!” This is not something that you go and get like that. It’s something you have to create the causes for and it takes a lot of patience and fortitude. There’s no other way to do it—and our baby mind wants another way to do it.

Audience: There are a lot of stories that we hear of people, like, in their life they try so hard. They try and try and try and the day they gave up…poof!

VTC: Yes.

Audience: There’s like there’s a tightness that it doesn’t allow to come.

VTC: Exactly. When we’re tight like that, and pushing ourselves there’s no space in the mind.

Audience: But we think we’re doing good—because I’m working hard and I do my best. But there’s a tightness that will not allow it.

VTC: Yes. Push push push push. I’m a high achiever. I’ve got to high achieve this one, too!

Audience #2: And I’m not a high achiever which bugs me! [Laughter]

Audience: Why is there a growing population when rebirth for human life is difficult?

VTC: Look in my book; it’s answered in Open Heart Clear Mind and in Buddhism for Beginners. I want you to get used to looking up things—and you also might learn something interesting in the book too.

Audience: If we have complete faith in the emptiness of inherent existence does it help us in any way to avoid rebirth in samsara, or do we have to have a direct realization of emptiness?

VTC: So does having faith in emptiness help in avoiding a rebirth in samsara or do we have to have a direct realization to get out of samsara? Having faith in emptiness will help us—hopefully if we’ve also created merit—to have a good rebirth, but that alone will not get us out of samsara. Only a direct realization cultivated over a long period of time will get us out of samsara.

Audience: Does the knowledge of the lack of an inherently existent self help in the detachment from worldly concerns? How do you meditate on that?

VTC: Does the knowledge of the lack of an inherently existent self help in detaching from worldly concerns? Yes. Definitely, because that wisdom is what cuts of the root of samsara which is ignorance. How do we do that? Stay tuned! Keep attending. Keep listening to this and when we get to that we will get to it. Basically, in short, meditating that the object that you’re attached to has no inherent existence; and that your attachment has no inherent existence; and that you as the person who is attached also has no inherent existence. But how to do that is going to come later in the lamrim.

Audience: I’m not sure what you mean when you talk about a realization and a direct realization.

VTC: Her question was, “What’s a realization and what’s a direct perception?” A realization is a very deep understanding. There are different kinds of realizations. Put it this way: In some of the meditations we’re trying to understand a certain object. In some of the meditations we’re trying to transform our mind into the nature of that experience. When we’re meditating on impermanence or emptiness we’re trying to understand them. So there we want direct perceptions that actually clearly see them and that would be a certain level of realization.

But when we’re meditating on love and compassion it’s not that love and compassion are out there and we’re understanding them. We’re generating them inside ourselves. We’re transforming our mind. So it’s a different kind of realization. We’re not going to have a direct perception at that point.

Audience: I feel like a central piece of this meditation is a bit discomforting—pushing a button or pulling the rug out from underneath me. And there’s this mistake I can make where I can look at, “Okay, how can I control this? How can I put the rug back under me? How can I get a good rebirth?” Instead of going…

VTC: Right, okay. So you’re saying that you can sense that these meditations all are functioning to pull the rug out from underneath us. Definitely. Yes. And that we are trying to put the rug back there again so that it’s all nice and comfortable. It’s true. I mean the Dharma does pull the rug out from underneath us. It makes us very uncomfortable. Well, it makes our ego uncomfortable. Put it this way: It makes our self-grasping, our self-centered mind very uncomfortable because the truth of the Dharma is there; and of course self-grasping and self-centeredness don’t want to acknowledge it.

We want the Dharma, but we don’t want to change. We want to keep everything just as it was before. That shows that we don’t understand that the situation we’re in—the situation of dukkha—and that we really should want to change our situation. But we feel comfortable. We’re like a pig in a pig sty rolling around in the slop. We feel comfortable. The pig is just rolling around in all this foulness and it’s just, “Oh, this is so comfortable. This is everything, you know. This was how I was raised—all the slop I could possibly want.” And rolling around in it, “Oh, this is wonderful”—without realizing that there’s any alternative. Then when faced with the possibility of getting the alternative, the pig says, “But then I won’t have the slop to roll around in anymore. And freedom from living in this pig sty might make me miserable. The Buddha’s saying that freedom from the pig sty is happiness but I don’t get that. I just want to make my pig sty more plentiful with more rubbish and more fermented food and more maggots; because then I’ll have the best pig sty.” That’s what we’re like. Anything that threatens to take our pig sty away from us—and we go, “Ah! Give it back to me. I want happiness!” Not realizing that the Buddha’s trying to show us the way to actual happiness.

When we get some idea, “Well, maybe the Buddha’s showing me the way to happiness.” Then we think, “Well, I want it quickly. I don’t want it to take a long time to get all these realizations. I’m a busy person. I have places to go and things to do and I’m impatient. I don’t like waiting around. I don’t like doing this meditation over and over again. It’s like watching the same video again and again. Of course, if it’s my “poor me” video, I will watch that one again and again ad nauseum. But the video of the precious human life—I want the realization already.” This is what they call ignorance. [Laughter]

Audience: How does one get beyond just an intellectual understanding?

VTC: How do you get beyond an intellectual understanding? You get beyond this by repetition of the meditation, doing purification, doing collection of merit.

Audience: How do you make your life more meaningful when you’re busy at work?

VTC: How to gain these understandings when you’re busy at work? Think about your precious human life and what is valuable in it. Also think about how to transform neutral activities into virtuous ones. Think about how to abandon non-virtue and how to practice virtue. Think about: Are all the things that you think you have to do at work really things you have to do? Are all the things that you’re telling yourself in life that ‘I have to do these’ really things that you have to do? Or are you choosing to do them? And if you’re choosing to do them, you know, why are you choosing to do those things instead of the Dharma practice? Or, if you need to do both, how can you make a balance between providing for yourself in a worldly way and also practicing the Dharma.

Then make sure that you try as best as you can, to do some Dharma practice in the morning and the evening. Wake up, generate your motivation, take refuge, do a little bit of meditation or read some Dharma books so you’re putting that imprint on your mindstream. Try and live in an ethical way—abandoning nonvirtue, practicing the ten virtues. At the end of the day, review what you’ve done and learn from your mistakes. Set your determination for the next day to continue practicing and to learn to restrain your mind from negativities. Go to retreats whenever you can. Generate a good motivation before you go to work. Try to be kind to the people that you work with. And also work on generosity. So yes, you can still make your life very meaningful practicing at work.

Audience: You spoke about the causes and then practicing generosity as part of it. Tonight it was the first time for me that I had a good feeling of the three kinds of generosity. Since I’m a monastic and so I have no income anymore that I used to give and I love to give; and now it’s turning more and more that I offer my practice, or it’s giving through my offering service and so on. And that’s turning into the direction of perceiving a precious human life more and more if I’m able to give more and more in the form of Dharma practice which is the highest form of giving.

VTC: Right. Monastics and lay people practice generosity in different ways. Lay people have more material wealth so they give more material wealth. Monastics don’t have so much material wealth so they give their service and they give their Dharma practice.

Audience: And that’s supporting the precious human life…

VTC: Yes. It’s the practice of generosity—for sure.

Audience: Growing up in Singapore often the purpose of your life is to help your family or to serve society—that’s a good life. Then sometimes too much Dharma practice is seen as extreme or taking you away from this cause. What would you say to that?

VTC: Okay. So growing up in Singapore, or America, it’s seen that your goals are to take care of your family and to serve society—and if you get too into Dharma practice you’re seen as extreme. Yes, serving your family and serving society are very good. But usually the underlying motivation is the happiness of this life, isn’t it? Yes, and obligation. So if you can do those things really with a bodhicitta motivation, then that is completely wonderful and becomes very virtuous. Most of the time people do those things with a sense of obligation and with attachment to the happiness of this life because, “If I do that then people look at me and I’m accepted in society, I get the things that I want, etc.” Serving society in Singapore is a polite way of saying making money. Isn’t it? Is the goal really to serve society or is the goal to make money—or to make money by serving society?

Audience: And to have a very good reputation.

VTC: It’s to have a very good reputation and make a lot of money by serving society. I mean, if you just serve society, you can do that as a Dharma practitioner. So then why are people saying you’re too extreme practicing the Dharma if serving society is very much what we’re about as Dharma practitioners. It’s because of the underlying or the code meaning for serving society—which is money and reputation.

Audience: But it might also be a misunderstanding of not knowing what Buddhist practitioners are doing actually.

VTC: Yes. A lot of people say this because they don’t understand what Buddhist practitioners are doing. Yes. But also many people think if you don’t care so much for the happiness of this life, many people think you’re just crazy. You’re out of your mind. You’re denying life. You’re denying pleasure. You’re suppressing your sexuality. You’re out of it. That’s what they think. That’s okay. They can think that. It doesn’t mean it’s true. We know it’s not. But that’s what some ordinary people think. Like the man in the cloth shop—what he told me. Or what my parents said, “You’re wasting your life. You have good education. You could go out and do this and this. Why are you wasting all of that?” It’s because they don’t have the same way of looking at life that Dharma practitioners do. This is why it’s important to hang around other Dharma practitioners, because they understand us. When we’re around people with other values for a long time, very easily our minds start shifting. Then we start doubting our own Dharma practice, like, “Yes, I really am extreme. I should practice the middle way. The middle way means doing what my friends and relatives want me to do.” Actually that’s an extreme.

Dedication of merit

Note: Excerpts from Easy Path used with permission: Translated from the Tibetan under Ven. Dagpo Rinpoche’s guidance by Rosemary Patton; published by Edition Guépèle, Chemin de la passerelle, 77250 Veneux-Les-Sablons, France.

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.

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