Listening about the Precious Human Life before Meditating on It
When we are trying to practice meditation, we don’t just sit down and start to do some practice if we are not calm and our minds are really agitated and running all over the place. If we don’t try to calm down a little bit before we start to meditate, the whole meditation session is usually spent in mental wandering about whatever is worrying or occupying us, or thinking about things that we have to do: “Let’s get through this session quickly because I have an appointment. I have to get the kids to school. They’re going to wake up any minute,” or whatever type of tension might be there. So first, we need to quiet down and the usual method is to focus on the breath. Then, the actual process of meditating is going to depend on having done some work beforehand as preparation: we first need to have listened to the teachings on what we want to meditate on and have thought about them first.
There are many different types of meditation. What meditation means is to habituate or accustom our minds to something constructive – to a certain beneficial way of thinking, feeling, understanding, and so on. To build up a positive realization as a habit, we first need to hear about it; we need to listen to a correct explanation of it, take in the information, as it were, and learn it. From doing this, we gain what is called the discriminating awareness that arises from listening. With it, we are able to discriminate that what we have heard is the correct information and that we have heard it correctly.
Let’s take as an example something very basic from the Buddhist teachings of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. Let’s take as our example the precious human life.
What Is a Precious Human Life?
To meditate on our precious human life, we first need to learn the defining characteristics of one. What is the definition of a precious human life? It is one filled with, what I call, respites from really difficult situations that we could be in, but are not, and many opportunities that enrich it. There is a list of eighteen of them. This is the defining characteristic of a precious human life.
A respite is a temporary freedom from something terrible, a sort of time-out from it. It’s not that we are free of difficult situations forever. But now we have a respite from being in some of the most terrible situations in which we would have no leisure for study and practice. Such situations are described by the various realms of samsara, like the hell realms. Whether we take them literally or not is another issue, but to illustrate these states we can imagine, for instance, being in Baghdad during this current Iraqi war and how fortunate it is that Baghdad is not our hometown or where we presently are.
I live in Berlin and I have some older students who were kids during the Second World War and who have told me what it was like to be a kid down in the bomb shelters under the house, sleeping in a wet damp cellar with twenty or thirty other people, not really sleeping, but being absolutely terrified and then hearing these bombs and airplanes going overhead. They also remember what it was like after the war. If you’ve seen pictures of these cities, they look like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. They were completely burned and bombed out. One student of mine, a woman, told me how for years as a little girl her family had to live in one of these displaced person’s camps in a crowded room with about twenty other people. People stole food from each other, the toilet didn’t work, and the water was cut off. It’s hard to imagine how horrible such lack of practicalities is like.
People in Baghdad are experiencing something like that; people in Bosnia and Rwanda experienced something similar. It happens periodically, unfortunately, in our world and, at some point it is going to be our turn. How wonderful it is that we have a temporary respite from that. We experienced maybe a little bit of that during 9/11, but it was nothing compared to WWII. We didn’t experience our hometown being bombed and burned out. That’s a respite that we have. It’s great that we have this respite. We have the freedom to pursue whatever it is that we want to pursue and, for studying and practicing the Dharma, there are so many opportunities available to us.
Contemplating the Definition of a Precious Human Life
Even if we hear about the defining characteristics of a precious human life, we might not really know what they mean. This brings in the topic of ways of knowing. From listening, we get an idea of the words, but we don’t necessarily associate any deep meaning to them. We might presume that the defining characteristics of a precious human life that we heard are correct and that a human life with them really is precious, but we don’t really understand why. We presume it’s true because our teacher said so. We have respect for our teacher, so that makes us believe what they say, but we can’t rely on presumption; we need correct and firm understanding. Getting correct information, then, is only the first step.
The second step is that we have to think about what we have heard. We have to contemplate or ponder the meaning. This means to think in a logical way about the definition of a precious human life and the line of reasoning of why it is precious. Like, for instance, I am born as a human being and I am living in a peaceful environment and not in a war zone. The assertion about it is that this is something precious. The reason why it is precious is because it gives me a respite or freedom or leisure for practicing and realizing the Dharma. If I were in a war zone, I would be terrified, living in a bomb shelter or in some sort of refugee camp, where everybody is stealing from each other and it is filthy. How would I be able to learn about the Dharma and start to practice then?
We need, then, to become convinced and understand why being free of such situations is precious. It is precious for being able to study, learn and practice. We have to really become convinced that that line of reasoning logically proves our thesis: being free of horrible situations and having many opportunities for study and practice proves that our human life is precious.
We have to really think about this. This is the whole process of pondering, contemplating. What would it be like if we were in one of these war zones? What would it be like if we knew that some enemy force was going to bomb our city sometime in the next few days and probably the water is going to be cut off, and we live in the desert, and it is really hot, and who knows when there will be any more water? Then, we start to fill the bathtub – forget about washing from now on. We fill all of our pots and pans as much as we can because there may not be any more water. Also, forget about going out and buying bottled water. We might get shot.
Try to imagine what that would be like. How many candles would we need to buy? Because for sure the electricity is going to be cut off. Now, the candles are twenty times the price that they were before, maybe a hundred times the price. There is only a limited amount. Imagine the lines and the fighting in the lines. Some rich person comes in and wants to buy all the candles. How would we feel in that situation? We imagine experiencing all this as if it were really happening to us.
I find this example I’m using very moving. I have a lot of material on my website about the Buddhist-Islamic dialogue that I have been engaged in. I got an email from somebody who said that he is from a Muslim country and has become a Buddhist, and that he was probably the only Buddhist in his country. He said that this was very dangerous because religious conversion is not accepted in his society. However, he found this material on my website very inspiring and wonderful – particularly about how to explain Buddhism from an Islamic point of view. He offered to help translate these website articles into Arabic. I was delighted and asked him where he was living and he wrote back, “Baghdad!”
This was about maybe two or three weeks before the Iraq war began. I was in email contact with him and he wrote to me like two hours before the bombs started to fall, before the war was declared, just saying, “Don’t worry; we are used to this type of thing.” I mean this was in the middle of the night his time. He must have been up all night, with everybody being absolutely terrorized, wondering, “When are the bombs going to start to fall?”
Can you imagine trying to fall asleep knowing that at any minute the sirens are going to go off and you probably don’t even have a bomb shelter in your house? What are you going to do, hide under the bed? I mean what are you going to do? Is the bathtub really full, maybe there is another pot that I can fill up with water? Horrible! For me, it made it much more real because now I knew somebody who was there, who was actually going through this horrible experience. He was just a poor innocent guy, a student, actually. Is he going to take his exams, finish his degree, and get on with life?
We need to think like this about an actual situation like this in our contemplation so that it becomes a bit real to us. We think how fortunate we are to be free of that kind of situation, to have a respite from that, to not have it now. Who knows what might happen in the future but we don’t have it now – thank goodness! That’s a burden off our backs that we are free of this type of situation. Then, we think: “If I were in that situation, what type of opportunities would I have to be able to study and practice?” Sure, if we were a super-advanced practitioner, maybe we would be able to practice, but not as a beginner – and certainly not with twenty people crowded in a room and everybody being terrified and so on. There would be no opportunity.
We rely on this line of reasoning: our human life is precious because of being free of such horrible situations as this. In this way, we gain an inferential understanding of the preciousness of a human life based on a line of reasoning. It’s not just thinking that a human life is precious, but we understand that it is precious because it’s free of these horrible types of situations. Based on thinking with reason, we now have an accurate and decisive idea of what a human life being precious means. Being accurate and decisive makes our understanding a valid way of knowing.
The conclusion, then, of this step of contemplating or thinking about the precious human life is that we both understand correctly and are convinced that such a life is precious. We have reached this conclusion based on inference through a valid line of reasoning.
Discerning and Stabilizing Meditation
The next step is what we actually call “meditation.” Here, we digest and familiarize ourselves with our understanding and integrate it into our lives. There are two types of meditation involved. The first is usually called “analytical meditation”; however, I don’t find that an adequate translation. This is because the step of thinking is also, in a sense, analytical. What I prefer is discerning meditation; we try to actively discern something that we have understood correctly and are convinced is true. The second type of meditation I call “stabilizing meditation,” although previously I translated it as formal or fixating meditation. Here we stabilize what we discern by focusing single-mindedly on it.
With discerning meditation, we use two major mental factors: gross detection and subtle discernment. In some contexts, we can translate them as investigating and scrutinizing. An example of gross detection is, when proofreading a page, quickly skimming through and investigating whether there are any mistakes. If we detect that there are some mistakes, then with subtle discernment we scrutinize the page, going through, point by point, to correct it. In discerning meditation we follow the same twofold procedure.
When we contemplated and thought about the precious human life, we tried to understand what it means for it to be precious and why it’s so precious. Now, having learned the definition and understood it, we investigate roughly and scrutinize in detail: “Do I really have this precious human life?” “How do I have it?” “What are the aspects?” “Does this really apply to me?” We investigate roughly and scrutinize in detail our freedom from being in a war zone, being completely overwhelmed with fear, hunger, pain, and these sorts of horrible things. Although we may at times experience pain and fear, where does that stand on the scale of how bad it could be? At the end of this process, we discern that we are indeed free of the most terrible types of situations. We discern that we really do have this freedom.
That’s the first step. The next step is to go through the line of reasoning again, not in order to gain understanding, but now to be able to generate a valid inferential understanding once more. We’ve discerned that we do have freedom from being in a war zone and so now we go through the line of reasoning: “If one is free from being in a war zone, one’s human life is precious. I am free from being in a war zone; therefore, my human life is precious.” This would be a verbal process in our minds. Nonetheless, that’s only part of it.
What we are aiming for in our discerning meditation is non-verbal. We want to actively discern our human life as being precious. We discern, understand and discriminate this fact. This is the discriminating awareness that arises from meditation.
Once we have actively discerned like that, then with stabilizing meditation we focus on our human life with the understanding and conviction that it is precious, but without actively discerning the reasons and details why it is precious. It’s sort of like just feeling that our human life is precious and letting that feeling really sink in and feel it with single-minded concentration. That’s stabilizing meditation. Of course, it’s going to take quite a while for this realization to sink in, and quite a while for it to be able to make a difference in our lives.
What I always point out to people is that progress is nonlinear; it’s not that it’s going to get better each time we meditate. Samsara is characterized as going up and down. It’s going to continue to go up and down until we achieve liberation from it and become an arhat, a liberated being. That’s a long ways away. But before we achieve that, everything in life is going to go up and down. Sometimes we feel like meditating, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t.
As the young Serkong Rinpoche would say: “Nothing special.” There’s nothing special about that; it’s no surprise. There is no reason to get upset. Today we don’t feel like meditating or it doesn’t go so well today. That’s only natural. Some days it will go better and some days worse. What do we expect? This is samsara. We try to apply what is called armor-like perseverance: we meditate anyway; we just do it.
Conceptual and Non-Conceptual Understanding
Now note that when we are talking here about discerning and stabilizing meditation, at this stage both are conceptual, both are done through an idea of what a precious human life means – something that represents it in our thoughts. Either we represent it with words: “A precious human life,” or we represent it with a feeling of it. In simple language, then, knowing something conceptually means knowing it through an idea of it – either a verbal idea, a feeling, a mental picture or something like that. Technically, it is knowing something through a category that we fit that something into.
Now we may ask, “How does this explanation of conceptual and non-conceptual understandings fit in with our Western notions of intellectual and intuitive understandings? Actually, it does fit. What we would call an intellectual understanding would be to focus on something through a verbal idea. An intuitive understanding would be to focus on something through a feeling or an image that represents it, not a verbal idea of it. Nevertheless, the point is that both of those are conceptual and can be either accurate or inaccurate. An intellectual understanding could be correct or incorrect. A feeling of something could be an accurate feeling or it could be a completely strange and weird one.
What is essential is that both of these types of conceptual cognition need to be accompanied by a correct and decisive understanding of what the words mean or a correct understanding of what the feeling or image means. In addition, to be able to digest that understanding, we need to believe it and focus on it with conviction. If we are able to focus on it with absolute conviction that this is true, then we would call that a visceral understanding, a gut understanding in our Western terminology. When that visceral understanding is accompanied by constructive emotions – such as appreciation of this precious human life – then we would say we are emotionally moved by our understanding. Only that brings about transformation.
There are two stages of conceptual understanding of something. First, we need to build up to focusing on the preciousness of our human life by relying on a line of reasoning. But then, we become so familiar with this understanding that we no longer need to rely on reasoning to generate it. We can just immediately bring to mind our verbal or feeling idea and focus on it. Our meditation, however, is still conceptual.
If we want to go from a conceptual understanding to a non-conceptual one, we need to know what non-conceptual means, because a lot of people just equate conceptual with intellectual, which is not at all the case. We can have, as I said, a feeling that represents something. Just because an understanding is nonverbal doesn’t mean it is non-conceptual. A non-conceptual understanding is one that focuses on something but not through the medium of an idea of it. It’s just straightforward.
How do we know that it is straightforward? The difference is how vivid our understanding is. How vivid is this feeling and discernment of the preciousness of our human life? In order to distinguish that, we need to know what it means to be vivid, and what it means to not be vivid. We need to be able to recognize that in our experience. Because of that, the study of mental factors and ways of knowing is very relevant for our progress on the path and also for understanding our everyday experience of life. Thank you.