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Valuing our intelligence

Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • How we need some Dharma understanding before we can really appreciate our precious human life
  • Some belief in other realms of existence helps us understand the preciousness of this life
  • Thinking about the experience of other life forms
  • Considering how we are a product of causes and conditions
  • The difficulties of practicing in other situations

The Essence of a Human Life: Valuing our intelligence (download)

We’ll continue with Verse 3:

You of fine features, you have gained
This opportune and leisured human form.
If you follow me who speaks to help others,
Listen well, I have something to say.

What he is first saying here is, he’s addressing Palden, the person who requested, and saying, “You have an opportune and leisured human form.” Which means you have the freedoms and fortunes of a precious human life.

That’s one of the first things we have to understand on the path. And although it comes at the beginning—to appreciate our life and its meaning and the rarity and difficulty of attaining it—we can’t really experience those until we have some idea of the rest of the path. Because unless we know something about the Dharma, and have some idea of where we want to go spiritually, without that then we can’t see the value of this life. Because if our mind is only focused on the eight worldly concerns, and that’s the goal of our life, then somebody says “you have freedom and fortune,” and you say, “So what, other people have more. I don’t have enough. The world isn’t good enough to me.”

True or not true? Yes? We react with jealousy or whatever.

But when we really appreciate the Dharma and what the Dharma can do for us, then we appreciate our lives.

Also what I’m seeing is that when we have some belief that there are other realms of existence, that really helps us understand the preciousness of our human life. Because when we don’t think of other realms, or the only other realm of existence we think of is the animals, then you say, “well, okay, I could be born as a cat at the Abbey. Ignorance is bliss, they say, and I can sleep all day, and nobody bosses me around—except Pipsqueak who chases me all the time….” But there’s no feeling of just the preciousness of having human intelligence, and the possibilities we have as a human being.

But when we really think about the fact that we could be born in other life forms, and what it would be like to have the experience of somebody in that life form…. For our mind to be trapped in a body of other life forms…. Then we really appreciate our precious human life.

Now, if it’s difficult for us to think of other life forms, start with thinking of your whole life being 90 years old and senile. Imagine that; that your whole life were like that. And then compare it to the possibility you have now. Or imagine your whole life being as a one-year-old or a two-year-old, and you’re thinking never being able to evolve past that. That’s still human. But would you want to stay in a baby’s body for several decades? Or stay in an elder’s body for several decades and have that be the entirety of your life? Difficult. If we really aspire for liberation, we see that when we’re stuck in certain bodies then the mind is very, very limited. What the mind can do is so (narrow, confined).

It’s quite helpful to think like this, because otherwise we take our present experience for granted, and we think that we always have had the intelligence and ability we now have, and will always have it. But even when you think of a time when you’ve been very sick….. Have you ever had a fever and been kind of delirious and you can’t think straight? Then what would that be like, having your whole life be that mental state?

What I’m saying is that part of our problem with not having an experience of the precious human life and its meaning is that the appearance of the present moment is so strong that we think it’s permanent, that it’s going to last forever. And that’s a big problem in our mind. Because then we just take everything for granted and complain that it’s not better. And we also get involved in all of our petty problems because we don’t think that there’s any long-term meaning of our lives.

That’s one difficulty that we have. And I think also, not having some kind of feeling for rebirth, again, makes us not appreciate our life. Because if we have this feeling for rebirth, and that we can be reborn in other life forms…. That I’m not always me—this is the big thing, I’m not always me…. Which is getting into the whole thing of emptiness, isn’t it? Whereas when we have the feeling “I’m always going to be who I am now,” boy, isn’t that grasping at inherent existence? Grasping at permanence. The mind completely absorbed in the root of samsara. And then getting angry at other people who talk about rebirth, and telling them that they’re completely nuts.

I think even if people cannot initially gain a feeling for rebirth, keep it on the back burner. Keep an open mind. See if the idea of rebirth can help you understand some things about your life.

I know, for me, even way before I became a Buddhist, when I was a little kid, I was asking, “why was I born me?” Because it was very clear to me that I had a fortune in life growing up in middle class America that most other people in the world did not have. This was long before I learned Buddhism. And I thought, “why was I born with this fortune? It’s certainly not fair.” So why are we born…. Why am I born me? And then later when you turn out to be an adult that wasn’t the adult your parents had planned on you being, then you also ask, “How did this come about?” Because if it was only nature and nurture, we all should have grown up to be the exact adults that our parents wanted us to be.

Are any of you exactly what your parents wanted you to be? Come on. We have our own personalities, don’t we? We have our own thoughts. We have our own values and goals. How come that happens? There has got to be some other factor besides just genes and conditioning in this life. There has got to be.

Thinking about rebirth helps us understand, maybe, how come we are the way we are, and helps us think, “Okay, if I am the way I am because I created certain causes in the past (because the system of cause and effect functions), then the causes I’m creating now are going to influence what I become in the future.”

We all understand that in terms of our initial upbringing. That’s why our parents wanted us to get a good education. If you get a good education then you get a good career, then you make a lot of money, then you’re happy. That’s their way of seeing things. So we grew up with some faith in causes and conditions.

But our faith in causes and conditions is only in this life. It’s quite narrow. What about future lives? What about previous lives? Can we expand our mind to include a larger system of cause and effect?

When we think along those lines and then look at our precious human life…. That we have human intelligence, and how spectacular that is if we direct it in a valuable way. If we don’t direct our human intelligence in an ethical way then we become worse than animals. Because animals will only kill and harm others if they’re threatened. Human beings do it for fun, for sport, for power, for no good reason at all. Or some political blah blah. Animals would never harm others the way human beings do.

If we really value our human intelligence then we have to look at how we’re using it. What causes am I creating? Hmmm? And what would happen if I didn’t have this human intelligence? What could I do then? What would happen if I were physically or mentally severely impaired, such that I couldn’t understand the Dharma? Big problems. Or what would happen if my mind were so rigid in my own preconceptions that whenever I heard Dharma teachings I just rejected them out of hand because they didn’t agree with my opinions? And I was very proud of my own opinions. Then, again, big problems.

Or what would happen if we had the deep spiritual yearning that we all have, but we lived in a world where the Buddha had not appeared, and there were no teachings? Or there was no sangha community. Or there were no scriptures or no teachers. So you had this very fervent spiritual longing, but you couldn’t meet a path that made sense to you. You had all the other conditions for a good life, but you couldn’t meet a path that made sense. Or what would happen if we were born as a person who had no spiritual interest at all? Just completely focused on making money, being famous, having a good sex life. What happens if those were the goals of our life and we spent our whole life searching for that without any thought of the happiness of others, or of our own future lives, for that matter.

When we really look at how we could have been, at the circumstances of our lives, they so easily could have been something different. If I had been born as my parents I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Because my parents had a whole different way of thinking, whole different goals in life. If I had been born one of the candidates for the upcoming presidential election I would not be sitting here right now. Who knows what kind of rubbish I would be talking.

I think it’s important to understand at some level that we are conditioned phenomena. That I am not always the person that I appear to be right now; that who I appear to be right now is conditioned by previous things. And that conditioning means impermanence and transience. And that I don’t know what I’m going to become. And so while I have the good conditions I have right now it’s really of extreme importance that I use those conditions and not just waste my life doing stupidaggios. And by stupidaggios I mean things that don’t lead us to have a good rebirth, or don’t lead us towards liberation and enlightenment, but things that just keep us stuck in our petty little mind of, “I like this, but I don’t like that. And how come they get to do it and I don’t?” You know that mind? Such a waste of time. And yet we have it so often.

Some awareness of our precious human life and the meaning that can be derived in terms of Dharma from our life completely revolutionizes how we feel about being alive. And if we understand it well, we will never, ever get depressed again. Because if you look, when we get depressed, what are we thinking about? Ourselves and our own present condition. Thinking about precious human life, and the meaning of our life, pulls us out of that. (Here I’m not talking about clinical depression, I’m talking about the other kinds of depression.) If we really have some feeling for the meaning of our lives it’s like, you wake up every day feeling: “Wow. This is amazing. And I’m so fortunate, and I can do so much.”

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.