Meditation on the Precious Human Life


The topic for this evening is analytical meditation. Now, working on ourselves in terms of going in a safe, positive direction in life and bodhichitta entails a three-step process:

  • We need to listen to the teachings.
  • Then we need to ponder or think about them.
  • And then we need to meditate on them.

Everybody agrees on that. This is very standard Buddhist teaching.

Calming Down

Focusing on the breath to quiet down – which some people believe is the full extent of shamatha – is just a preliminary to all three. We need to calm down before listening to the teachings; we need to calm down before thinking about them; we need to calm down before meditating, so focusing on the breath can do that. Just calming down doesn’t bring us to a state of single-minded concentration, and it certainly doesn’t eliminate the causes of our problems (although it could make us more clear-minded to deal with these obstacles).

Of course focusing on the breath could be taken as an object for developing full concentration, but just using that focus to calm down doesn’t bring us all the way to that state of concentration. And in fact if we look a little bit more closely, it’s only in the Theravada teachings that it says that we can attain full concentration by focusing on the breath. Focusing on the breath is sense perception – it’s perceiving a physical sensation – and according to the Mahayana teachings, which is what the Tibetan tradition follows, to gain full concentration you need to use mental cognition, not sense cognition.

So when we look at meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we need to look beyond just calming down by focusing on the breath. That’s a preliminary.


Okay, so we need to listen to the teachings, think about them, and meditate. From each of these three steps, we gain a type of discriminating awareness (that’s usually translated as wisdom, but wisdom is much too vague a word). First we have to distinguish something. That’s usually called “recognition.” Like in the visual sense field – in order to deal with it at all and have any sort of depth perception, you need to be able to distinguish the shape and color of somebody’s face from the wall. So that’s the first step, distinguishing. And what discriminating awareness does is it adds a decisiveness to that: “It’s definitely this and not that.” That’s what discriminating awareness means (as I say, it’s usually translated as wisdom, but wisdom doesn’t really convey the flavor of what we’re talking about here).

From listening, hearing some teachings, what we gain is the discriminating awareness that arises from hearing, which means to discriminate the words of Buddhist teachings. What that means is that we distinguish the Buddhist statement from other statements (let’s say non-Buddhist statements), and we’re decisive about that: “This is the Buddha’s teaching.” In order to get anywhere with the teachings, we have to be decisive that these are Buddhist teachings, don’t we?

So here what we get at this stage is an idea of the words of the Dharma, but we don’t have an idea of what they mean. For example, I have a precious human life. Well, we are able to discriminate that from non-Buddhist statements. So we have a precious human life, and we presume that it’s true because of respect for the Buddhas, but at this stage we don’t really understand what it means. We know that the Buddhist teaching doesn’t say this human life is meaningless, has no purpose, and life has no purpose. We’ve discriminated: “Okay, the Buddhist statement is that we have a precious human life.”


Now we have to go the next step, which is to think about it in order to understand the meaning of it. That means thinking about the definition of a precious human life – what does that mean – and the line of reasoning of why is it precious. If we understand that, then we understand the teaching, don’t we? So we have to work with this. We have to think about it. We have to understand what the eighteen features are of a precious human life. For example, I’m not an animal. We’re not speaking in a biological sense – that we’re not a plant; we’re an animal. We’re not speaking in that sense. A human being is someone who is a being that is able to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful and in the long term is able to understand, communicate, and so on.

So we have to understand what it means – I’m not an animal – and we have to understand the line of reasoning and be convinced that it proves the thesis. Here the thesis is that being born as a human, not as an animal, is precious for practicing and realizing the Dharma. Thesis means what we’re trying to prove. Being born as a human, not as an animal, is precious for practicing and realizing the Dharma. And the line of reasoning is that as an animal, I would be under the strong overwhelming influence of animal instincts. What are animal instincts? To hunt and kill. To protect my territory, like a dog that barks if anybody comes into the yard. And to have sex with any other animal at any time when the urge just comes upon us. As an animal we’d have very weak powers to distinguish between what’s helpful and what’s harmful in the long run. Obviously in the short term they can distinguish – you run away from the lion because that’s helpful. But in the long term they’re not able to distinguish what’s helpful from what’s harmful. So if I were like this, it would be very difficult to practice the Dharma.

You have to think about that and try to imagine what it’s talking about. We try to imagine what it would be like to be an animal to convince ourselves of the disadvantages of that. If I constantly had this instinct, this very strong instinct to hunt… I mean, just look at the way that a cat goes after an insect or a mouse – it’s not even going to eat it – just to torture it and try to catch it. If this was my first instinct, the strong impulse, when I see something little moving on the floor… How could I really work on myself if that’s my automatic instinct, if that’s so overwhelming?

Actually it’s very interesting to observe our behavior. We notice a fly or a cockroach or a mosquito in the room, and it’s as if we put on our pith helmet, get our rifle out, and we’re off on the hunt, and we’re not able to meditate – we’re not able to do anything – until we catch and kill our prey. We’re not able to meditate, we’re not able to study – we’re not able to do anything – until we kill this thing. As I say, it’s very helpful to take things to their absurd conclusion. If when we catch ourselves doing that, we think in terms of putting on the pith helmet and going on the African safari, then we see how ridiculous our behavior is. And even if we continue to try to expel the mosquito from the room, at least our attitude has changed a little bit about what we’re doing. We’re not just an animal on the hunt.

Also if we’re an animal and we’re constantly being hunted by other creatures that could attack us at any time – so we always have to be on the lookout – that also wouldn’t give us a conducive situation to calm down, gain concentration, and so on, for study.

So, like this, we go through other characteristics of the animal – the type of sexual behavior of an animal, the territoriality of the animal, and so on – and see how if this were our dominant instinct, strong instinct, again it would be very difficult to make any progress.

Or if we constantly had to draw a very heavy load – like in India, an ox that has to draw a very heavy load (and always being whipped and so on) – that also would make it very difficult to do any practice. So, like this, when we think of this example, this particular point of being born as an animal, we need to relate it to the context of ancient India. We’re not thinking of Bambi or somebody’s poodle in a rich home. We’re thinking of a cockroach. We’re thinking of a street dog. We’re thinking of a work animal.

So we get the defining characteristic correct here, and we understand that we’re not like this. And so I’m free from this. Because I’m free from this, I have the opportunity and freedom to be able to practice the Dharma. Therefore I have a precious human life.

Let’s spend a few moments just doing this step. We recognize what we’re talking about when we’re talking about animals, and we understand that we’re free from that, and because we’re free from that, we have the opportunity to practice. Actually what we’re doing here is… Well, let’s do it first, then I’ll explain.

Okay. We see that we’re not completely under the power of animal instincts:

  • I don’t have to run over and pounce on any little thing that moves on the floor.
  • I don’t have to bark when all the other animals bark and do what they do.
  • I don’t have to jump on another animal – like whenever I see one that attracts me, I just have to jump on it.

Even though I may have a little bit of these animal instincts, I don’t have to act them out. I’m a human being. I have the ability to discriminate between what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. Therefore for this reason I have a precious human life and a precious human life for a purpose. The purpose is to be able to study and practice the Dharma, not just precious to make a lot of money.

So at this stage what are we doing? Thinking and pondering on the Dharma. We’re not just relying on words. That was the first step. But by relying on the characteristic marks or defining features of a precious human life and our own situation, our own specific circumstance, and by relying on a line of reasoning, we get an inferential understanding. Inference means relying on a line of reasoning – because of this, then I know that. And we get the discriminating awareness that arises from thinking, and it focuses on an idea that has meaning with it, not just an idea of meaningless words. So here the idea that has meaning with it is “I have a precious human life because I am free of being an animal.” And it’s decisive about that. It discriminates this. It discriminates this from other reasons and from imprecise definitions, and so on, and is decisive about it.

Let’s try to focus on that discriminating awareness: “I have a precious human life because I’m free of being an animal.” We focus on that understanding. Actually the order should be the other way around: “I am free of being an animal. Therefore I have a precious human life.” In other words, we rely on a line of reasoning and then come to the conclusion, and over and again we have to rely on that line of reasoning.

Okay. So you see there’s a big difference between these first two steps, the hearing and the thinking. The discriminating awareness that we get from each is quite different.

  • The first one: “I have a precious human life.” You know that that’s the Buddhist teachings – there’s no doubt about that – but we only presume that it’s true. We don’t really know why. We don’t understand really what it means.
  • But with the second, we know what a precious human life means, we know why we have it (the reason for it), and we know the purpose for what makes it precious (precious to be able to practice the Dharma). And so instead of presuming it to be true without understanding, we’re able to come to this conclusion and know it validly through inference. That means by relying on a line of reasoning. And we have a discriminating awareness of it. That means we’re decisive about that. We have firm conviction that “I really do have a precious human life for this and that reason and to be used for this and that purpose.”


Now, here debate is a very helpful way to gain this firm conviction, because what debate does is it helps us to eliminate any indecisive wavering or just having an imprecise idea of the meaning. We won’t be indecisive. We won’t waver: Do I have it? Do I not have it? Does it mean this? Does it mean that? Because others will find more loopholes in our thinking than we could ever do by ourselves. If you’re just sitting by yourself and checking off your understanding, it’s very easy to just get “Oh, well, enough already.” Other people will be able to find faults and loopholes in our thinking much more effectively, and they’re going to persevere at it much longer and with much more enthusiasm than we would ever do with ourselves. Sometimes in the debate, you reach the emotional point where you say, “Enough already. Leave me alone.” If you were just doing it by yourself in meditation, of course you would have stopped long ago. So for this reason the Tibetan tradition emphasizes very much the method of debating. It’s intended to help us to get firm conviction with no indecisiveness about our understanding.

Analytical Meditation

So that’s thinking or pondering about the teachings. Then we need to meditate on them. I mean, often people think that the second stage is meditating, but actually it’s thinking about – pondering – the teachings. Meditating is something beyond that. But of course we can’t meditate unless we’ve done this second step. Unless you understand the teaching and are convinced that it’s correct, you can’t really meditate on it. You can understand something and be convinced that it’s wrong, but we’re talking about understanding and being convinced that it’s true. Because meditation is the step to integrate this, this understanding and this conviction, into our way of being in our daily lives.

So first we do analytical meditation, which I prefer to call "discerning meditation," and then stabilizing meditation. These two are for integrating and digesting the teachings. Now, for discerning meditation we use primarily two mental factors (the emphasis is on this; there are many other mental factors, of course, that we have to use – concentration and so on). The way that I like to translate them is gross detection (rtog-pa) and subtle discernment (dpyod-pa). In some contexts these two terms mean “investigating” and “scrutinizing.”

How do we understand these two mental factors? Let’s use an example of editing a text, looking through something that you wrote or somebody else wrote to see if there are any mistakes. First we would investigate roughly, and we would detect that there are mistakes on this printed page. You look roughly, and you can detect. Then you would scrutinize finely and discern the specific details. Do you see the difference? So that’s investigating, which is a gross detection of what’s going on, and then scrutinizing very carefully, which is a subtle discernment of what’s going on.

So for analytical or discerning meditation on our having a precious human life, what do we do? We focus on ourselves, and we investigate and scrutinize whether we have the defining characteristics of not being an animal. So we investigate roughly, and we detect our freedom of being like that. Well, what do we detect when we investigate? We detect that we can learn, we can communicate, we can act on a much more sophisticated level than an animal. Correct? So do that. And you look personally, not just in words. We’ve done step two. These words have meaning, remember? We detect things like:

  • I can learn.
  • I can communicate.
  • I can act on a level much more sophisticated than an animal.

Okay, so we detect that freedom from being an animal. Then we scrutinize very carefully, and we discern that although we may act like an animal sometimes – for instance, in our sexual behavior of going to discos, sniffing the rear ends of potential partners, and having one-night affairs – we’re not compelled to be like that. We’re not compelled to be like that. We can discriminate and we can change our behavior. So we concentrate on that discernment of ourselves as not being an animal. These are the fine details in terms of our behavior.

Whether we’re looking in terms of our roaming around for a partner or we look in terms of our hunting down mosquitoes and cockroaches in our house, or whatever it is, we try to discern that “Well, I may act like that, but I’m really not compelled. I could make a choice. I don’t have to be like that. I am a human being. I’m not an animal after all. I don’t have to just bark like all the other dogs. If somebody declares that you have to wear clothes that are this length rather than that length, you have to have your hair like this and not like that, or you have to sing this song and not that song, we don’t have to do that. We’re not an animal that, you know, others bark and then we bark.” Let’s use a more relevant, topical point. When everybody’s shouting “War, war, war,” we don’t have to shout “War, war” as well, do we? We’re not an animal that has to bark when the others bark.

So we discern in this subtle detail that “I really am not an animal.” Do that. We’re not the animal that has to sit there like a dog waiting for the master to say, “Go fetch the bone.” We can think.

Maintaining that detection and discernment, specifically the discernment that we’re not an animal, we go through the line of reasoning again:

  • If we were animals, we could not practice the Dharma fully.
  • We have the freedom of not being animals.
  • Therefore we have precious human lives to practice the Dharma.

Then we focus on that inferential understanding and concentrate on discerning ourselves as having a precious human life.

So do that, please:

  • If we were animals, we could not practice the Dharma fully.
  • We have the freedom of not being animals. I can discern that.
  • Therefore we have precious human lives to practice the Dharma.
  • And now discern ourselves as having a precious human life with that inferential understanding of why.

Okay. Because it has this discernment, it’s called discerning meditation. As I said, it’s usually translated analytical meditation, but analytical doesn’t quite convey the meaning, does it? And here we have the discriminating awareness that arises from meditating. It’s very decisive because we can discern that we have this precious human life for this and that reason. And we scrutinize carefully. We discern that we definitely do have it for this and that reason.

Stabilizing Meditation

There are two steps to the meditation, a discerning and a stabilizing. With stabilizing meditation, we just focus on having a precious human life without actively discerning it in its details – the important word here is actively – without discerning that “It’s because I’m not an animal” and “If I were an animal, I couldn’t meditate,” etc. Thus what we’re doing is we’re focusing on the feeling that we have a precious human life. Feeling here means the firm conviction – we truly believe it. That’s what you focus on. It’s not discerning the details. It’s the firm conviction and feeling of having this precious human life. Of course it’s based on understanding what it is and having discerned it.

Let’s do that for a moment.

It’s with this type of meditation that we get rid of our shortcomings and problems such as wasting our time, and it’s with this type of meditation that we develop our good qualities by realizing our precious human life and therefore using it constructively for the Dharma. Because we understand something about us, we try to integrate it; we feel it. This brings about change because it eliminates a cause of problems and develops a good quality.

We can contrast this with just focusing on the breath with no understanding accompanying it. It may calm us down, but so will going to sleep and taking a tranquilizer. It doesn’t bring about a cessation of the causes of our problems. If on the other hand we focus on the breath with understanding and discerning – discerning and understanding things like impermanence, momentary changes, no solid me as the controller of the breathing or the removed observer of the process – then it can start to act as a cause for getting rid of the causes of our problems.

This discerning is very, very important for being able to actually bring about the aim of the Dharma: It’s getting rid of the causes of our problems and realizing our potentials, positive potentials.

Intellectual, Intuitive, Visceral, and Emotionally-Felt Understandings

Now, note here that both discerning and fixating meditation are conceptual. Both of them are conceptual cognitions in what we’ve described here. They’re both conceptual. They are both through the medium of an idea of what a precious human life means. That’s what conceptual means – it’s through the medium of an idea. The discerning meditation relied on a line of reasoning, the stabilizing one didn’t rely on a line of reasoning, but still both of them are focusing on our precious human life through an idea of what a precious human life means. So the idea is a representation. I mean, what is an idea? An idea is a representation of a precious human life. Either we’re representing it with words or with an image or with a feeling, but there’s a meaning associated with this representation. There’s a meaning associated either with the word or the image or the feeling.

I’m bringing this up because very often we have a lot of confusion about understanding the Buddhist process of meditation because we bring in terminology from the West that really is from a completely different system. Often in Western jargon we differentiate between an intellectual process and an intuitive process. So what would that correspond to here in our Buddhist analysis?

  • If we represent something with words – an idea consisting of words – and focus on something through the medium of words, we would call that an intellectual process.
  • While representing something through a feeling or an image – an idea that is based on a feeling or an image – and focusing on that, we would call it an intuitive process.

But please note that whether we’re representing something with words or with an image and feeling, in either case this representation could be either an accurate representation or an inaccurate representation. And both are conceptual, both this intellectual process and intuitive process are conceptual, and both need to be accompanied with a correct understanding of what the words mean or what the feeling or image signifies. Do you follow that?

Moreover, to be able to digest this understanding we need to believe it, and we need to focus on it with firm conviction. A firm conviction. This is what I think in the West we would call a visceral understanding. And when this visceral understanding is accompanied by constructive emotions such as appreciation – we appreciate the value and rarity of a precious human life – then in the West we would say that we’re emotionally moved by our understanding.

This is why there are the two facets of a healthy relationship to a spiritual teacher, the meditations on that. One is firm conviction in the good qualities of the teacher, and the other is appreciation of their kindness. So we have the firm conviction, and also we’re emotionally moved. When we have the two of these, whether the understanding has come through representing it with words or a feeling doesn’t matter; it makes no difference. So it doesn’t matter whether we’re following an intellectual or intuitive type of approach from our Western analysis. As long as we have firm conviction and understanding in that and appreciation, then we can really bring about transformation. But always remember: So long as we’re in samsara, transformation is nonlinear. It goes up and down. It’s not going to get better every day. The long-term trend may be improvement, but day to day, hour to hour, it goes up and down.

Remember that when we try to identify an intuitive approach and so on, still we need to rely on a line of reasoning in order to have understanding and conviction. Otherwise if we just have a feeling of something, it can be very imprecise and vague and we have no understanding of what it means. But if we’ve used a line of reasoning, if we’ve discerned various things within ourselves, and we understand it, we’re convinced of it, we know the definitions, we’re able to recognize it within ourselves, and so on, then if we’re an intellectual type we can represent this and focus on it with words, or if we’re a more intuitive type we can represent it and focus on it in terms of an image or a feeling. It doesn’t matter. Both can be valid and both are conceptual. But for our cognition to be non-conceptual – that’s very, very difficult to have. That’s just perceiving something – perceiving that we have a precious human life – not through an idea of it, not through a feeling of it, and so on, but just straightforwardly. That’s very difficult.

So if we have this clear, then we can see that whether we are an intellectual type or whether we are an intuitive type, still to make any progress we need to go through these valid ways of knowing: You hear something; you presume it’s true. Then you have to understand, discern and understand; you have to get an inferential understanding. And then you focus on it. Okay, so that’s the process of how we make progress on the path. It’s through hearing, thinking, and meditating. That’s what analytical meditation is about.

It will take a while. Now you’ve just heard of this, perhaps. Then you have to think about it and chew on it. Before maybe you had just a very rough understanding of what we meant by analytical meditation, so now you’ve heard a little bit more of a refined discussion. So you have to think about it. Go over it slowly.


I understand the importance of this analytical meditation and also how it is related to the relationship with the teachers. What I do not understand is why we’re told we mustn’t question teachers, that we must take what they say and the way they behave, etc., quietly and without any doubts or questions.

Well, that’s not the actual teachings that we find in the Dharma. From the point of view of particularly vinaya, ethical discipline: If the teacher is acting against the ethical discipline, against the vows, then we point that out. We don’t go along with it. If the teacher asks us to do something against the ethical teachings, it says very clearly that you say no.

And if we go deeper in the sutra and tantra teachings: If the teacher says something that doesn’t fit in with the teachings, then we ask. “I don’t understand that. This contradicts what you said before. Could you explain more deeply?” “This contradicts this text. Could you explain more deeply?” and so on. Because teachers make slips of the tongue, just like anybody else.

Like the classic example from a previous life of the Buddha: When the teacher told the Buddha and the other students to go out and steal, the Buddha didn’t go out and do that. And so the teacher questioned him, and Buddha said, “How could stealing help anybody?” The teacher said, “Aha, you understood the point of the lesson. You’re the only one.”

From the highest tantra point of view: If we see contradictions in the teacher and the teacher acting against the Dharma, and so on, and when we question the teacher and so on, the teacher doesn’t admit this, the teacher doesn’t change, and so on – if we see all these faults, even if we’ve received a tantric initiation from the teacher, what we’re told to do is to just keep a distance. There’s no need to study with that teacher anymore or be with that teacher anymore. But keep your mouth shut. Keep a respectful distance. Don’t spread stories. And don’t think “Oh, how horrible this teacher is.” One appreciates what one learned, appreciates the good qualities of what we’ve learned, and then with the rest you just keep equanimity.

What does it mean when you say we don’t question? You don’t question that the teacher has Buddha-nature – that you don’t question (everybody has Buddha-nature) – but it’s in terms of not questioning the instructions of the teacher. When we look at examples like Tilopa telling Naropa to jump off a cliff and he does: As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, well, examine. Tilopa was a teacher that reached the state where he could eat a live fish and then put the bones down on the ground, snap his fingers, and the fish would come back to life. And Naropa was the most learned abbot of his day. So if our teacher is on the level of Tilopa and we’re on the level of Naropa, then that example from the biography of Naropa is relevant. If we’re not at that level and our teacher is not at the level – which is talking about almost everybody – then it’s a completely different case. So we always have to check up. What is the teacher doing, and is it in accordance with the Dharma? And what is the teacher teaching, and is that in accordance with the Dharma? We always check up. If we don’t know, we check.

I’m a student of the first level. I’m a newcomer to the center, to the teachings. And of course I know it’s because of my shortcomings and lack of understanding that I have this difficulty, but I find it very, very difficult to understand and to accept the idea of rebirth and successive lifetimes, and I understand that this is something very important in the Buddhist teachings. So for example when I meditate on my precious human life – which I have done, as deep as I want to go on that – and see it as a gift, as a possibility, as an opportunity to change, I know that I have to take future lifetimes into account, which is very, very difficult for me. So I have the feeling that it doesn’t matter how deeply and how frequently I meditate on my precious human life because without the understanding of future lifetimes, the full appreciation of my precious human life will always remain incomplete. So this is my dilemma. How can I go through it?

Your observation is a very good observation. One of the tantra vows is to never be satisfied with our understanding of anything until we achieve enlightenment. And so that means our understanding of everything, including the precious human life, is going to get deeper and deeper as we progress along the path. So even if we now understand rebirth, still you can go much, much deeper than that in terms of understanding the precious human life. That doesn’t mean that an earlier stage of understanding is not beneficial. Each stage is beneficial along the way, especially if we always have in mind that the level of understanding we have now is a stepping-stone on the way to deeper and deeper understandings. With that humility, then, that’s perfect.

It’s very clear in the teachings: Don’t ever feel that you have understood it deeply enough. “Oh, now I’ve got it. I don’t have to think about precious human life anymore.” That’s a big mistake. You can always go deeper and deeper.

As you explained, we as human beings have the discernment ability. We can choose not to bark or not do all the things that you said. But then if we have this discernment capacity, that means we have some potential, let’s say. So how is it that if we are reborn as animals, we lose those potentials? I mean, it sounds to me illogical and incongruent that we can lose those potentials, the potential for discernment that we already have now if we are reborn as an animal. What happened there?

You have to distinguish between a potential and an actual manifest ability. A child has a lot of potentials. It has the potential to be able to drive a car, but it doesn’t have the actual ability. And when we’re sick, we still have the potentials to be able to think clearly, to work, and so on, but at that moment there’s a block, and so we don’t have the manifest ability. Likewise as an animal the potentials are still there – the potentials of Buddha-nature are still there – but the actual manifest abilities are not (or if they are, they’re on a very low level compared to a human).


Let’s end with a dedication. What’s important is that the positive force that is created by the actions that we’ve done here of listening and meditating, and so on – if we don’t dedicate them toward enlightenment, what will happen without doing anything, sort of the default setting, is that it acts as a cause for improving samsara. We’ll appreciate our human life to be able to make a lot of money, for example. Therefore in order for this to act as a cause for enlightenment, we have to actually dedicate it for that. So we do that very consciously. We say, “May this act as a cause for my being able to achieve the mind, body, speech, and so on, of a Buddha to be able to benefit everyone.” Then it will actually act as such a cause. And “May this understanding and appreciation go deeper and deeper so that all the way to enlightenment it starts to bring about results in my behavior for being able to benefit everyone.”