The Reasons for the Difficulty of Gaining a Precious Human Rebirth

Review of the Importance of Working to Gain Precious Human Rebirths in the Future 

In the previous session, we spoke about the person of initial scope or initial motivation. The verse in the text stated:

(3) Anyone who takes keen interest in himself or herself (achieving), by some means, merely the happiness of uncontrollably recurring samsara is known as a person of minimum spiritual scope.

The aim of someone of the initial scope is to obtain higher status rebirths in future lives as a human being or as a celestial being, a god. Unless we have a precious human rebirth, there’s no possibility of attaining enlightenment. Merely keeping the ethical self-discipline of refraining from the ten destructive actions and working to attain a precious human rebirth is not enough. We need to follow this ethical self-discipline in order to achieve a precious human rebirth as a means to achieve enlightenment. Our motivation is not simply attainment of the precious human rebirth itself, but to attain it in order to attain enlightenment with it.  

Most of us, however, don’t even think of developing the motivation of working to get a human rebirth in the next lifetime, let alone the motivation of working to attain a precious human rebirth and doing so in order to attain enlightenment. 

Right now, we have a fully endowed human rebirth that can act as a working basis for us to be able to attain enlightenment. We must recognize that we have this basis with the eight leisures and ten endowments, as was explained in the previous session. We should also rejoice and be very happy and meditate on the happiness of having achieved such a precious working basis. The reason for rejoicing about our achievement is that, on the basis of it, we can fulfill three great aims:

  • The first is that we can ensure that we will not be reborn again in future lifetimes in any of the three unfortunate states of existence, the lower realms. 
  • We can also ensure, on the basis of our precious human rebirth, that we will not be reborn anywhere at all in samsaric existence again. 
  • Likewise, achieving enlightenment in our very lifetime is something that we can also attain on this working basis that we have. 

So, there are these three aims that we can fulfill on the basis of a precious human rebirth and, within this context, we can classify these aims as initial, intermediate and great. Still, even the smallest part of the initial scope is something that we cannot achieve yet. We don’t even know how to accomplish the smallest of the smallest aims. We have to think and consider what we are doing and what is beneficial. On the basis of the rebirth that we have now, is it better to work simply for this lifetime or to work for one of these three great aims? We should reflect on which is the better of these two. If we work simply for this lifetime, then it’s very much like children building up castles in the sand. In the end, we just have to leave everything behind. 

Compared to this lifetime, our future lifetimes are much more important and numerous. This is because we wish for happiness, a very long enduring type of happiness. Since that’s what we wish for, we should think in terms of accomplishing this over all our future lifetimes. If we don’t accomplish this now on the basis of the human rebirth that we presently have, how will we get another such basis in the future? It’s going to be very difficult to obtain one once more. It’s not the case that we have this precious human rebirth now and at the end of our life we give it up and automatically we get another one; and then we lose that and get yet another one automatically. If it were like that, we could put off working for the greatest aim until a future life. It’s not like that. It’s not that simple. 

Ethical Self-Discipline as a Cause for a Precious Human Life

The fact that we have a precious human rebirth in this lifetime is the result of a great deal of hard effort we made in previous lifetimes. As a result of all the efforts we made and the positive karmic potential from that, we have this precious human rebirth at present. To attain a perfect human rebirth such as we have now requires keeping very perfect and pure ethical self-discipline; without it, the attainment of one just won’t happen for no cause at all. 

The fact that it’s extremely difficult for us to attain such a precious human rebirth is something that we can understand by examining its cause. As just said, its cause is primarily maintaining extremely pure ethical self-discipline. More specifically, we can think, for instance, in terms of the ethical self-discipline of keeping the layperson’s vows to refrain from five specific types of destructive actions. If we think about how difficult it is to keep these vows, then we can understand how difficult it is to attain a precious human rebirth as a result. We can also realize that we’re not even aware of what these five specific destructive actions are that we need to give up, let alone have the ability to safeguard vows to stop committing them.

Likewise, another aspect of ethical self-discipline is to refrain from the ten destructive actions. There are three of body, four of speech and three of mind. These also are extremely difficult to keep. Rather than refraining from any of the ten destructive actions, it sometimes seems as if we actually try to refrain from the ten constructive ones instead! Since it’s very difficult to have the cause, it’s extremely difficult, of course, to have the result that would follow from it.  

If we look at this result, a precious human rebirth, and consider it something that we wish to attain, then, in order to achieve it, we have to build up the causes for it. To do that, we need to meditate on this precious human rebirth as we described in the last session and recognize it as something very difficult to attain from the point of view of its causes. 

Three Fundamental Causes for a Precious Human Life

The causes for attaining a precious human rebirth are not just keeping pure ethical self-discipline. Actually, there are three fundamental causes; we need to build up positive potential from three causal actions. These are the positive potentials that come from: 

  • Practicing generosity 
  • Keeping pure ethical self-discipline 
  • Meditating on and accustoming ourselves to patience and so forth. 

Included in this “and so forth” are perseverance, mental stability (concentration) and discriminating awareness (wisdom). In this context, discriminating awareness refers to the ability to differentiate between what is and is not reality. 

These are the basic causes; however, we also need all of these in connection with stainless prayers. Even if we make prayers, they usually aren’t stainless prayers. We pray simply for things for this lifetime like, “May I have enough to eat and drink. May I have no sickness or pain. May I live a long life.” We don’t have stainless prayers such as, “May I be able to have a precious human rebirth in future lifetimes, and may I be able to attain enlightenment, and may there be no epidemics or famine or things like that in the world.” We don’t have these types of stainless prayers.  

To repeat, we should consider these three causes for a precious human rebirth: 

  • Keeping pure ethical self-discipline
  • Building up these three types of positive potential
  • Making stainless prayers. 

We should consider the fact our having a precious human life now is due to our having built up and accumulated all three causes in previous lifetimes, and this is something extremely difficult to do. It didn’t come about from easy effort, just sort of like that; therefore, we should consider that it’s only this one time that we have this chance, and we should meditate on this unique opportunity that we have, the unique opportunity of having a precious human rebirth now. 

There are three points in terms of thinking about the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth, and now we’ve covered the first, the difficulty from the point of view of its causes. The second point is to think of the difficulty of obtaining it from the point of view of analogies or examples.  

The Difficulty of Obtaining a Precious Human Rebirth from the Point of View of Analogies 

In terms of the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth from the point of view of analogies, the first point is thinking about what exists and what does not exist, or what is feasible and what is not feasible. We can understand this dichotomy between what is feasible or possible and what is not in terms of asking if we can have a flower grow in thin air or out in space. We would say that it is not feasible; that it doesn’t exist. However, if we ask if a bright star can appear during the daytime, we can say that it is feasible, but it’s very, very rare. It’s with these types of dichotomous examples that we can understand the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth.  

“News Break” about the Three Causes for Listening Properly to the Teachings

In terms of an explanation of the lam-rim or the graded path, no matter who explains the graded path, we find that it’s very similar. We’re not going to find completely dissimilar ways of explaining it. On the basis of an explanation, we can understand what the teachings are. No matter who explains it, we’ll be able to understand it as referring to the same material. However, on the basis of having heard one explanation and feeling we know it all already, we shouldn’t think that the next time we hear an explanation of it, we can anticipate what is going to be explained – in other words, sitting there and assuming that the lama has explained this and now the next thing that he or she is going to say is that. To think that we can anticipate the way that it’s going to be explained is improper. 

Even if the words that are used in the explanation are exactly the same, if we hear them a hundred times, each time we should have a different level of understanding of what they mean. We can think of the example of both Rinpoche and me being told by several different people to take a drink of water. We could understand this in many different ways on many different levels at different times. I could understand it in the sense that drinking some water will quench my thirst. Rinpoche might understand it in terms of drinking some water will improve the blood and, in this way, improve his health. Either of us could also think that drinking some water will give us a clearer state of mind, or something like that. There are many different levels on which we can take the exact same statement to drink some water given by different people. Like this, we shouldn’t think that hearing one Dharma explanation is enough and that we have understood it at all. This is not a beneficial attitude. 

In order to listen to teachings properly, there are three perfect causes. We need to hear them:

  • Many times
  • From many different sources
  • Together with a large group. There’s a big difference between listening to teachings individually and listening to them in a large group.  

As a test of how well you’ve been listening, I’d like to see what notes you wrote down from what I just said about how to listen properly to these teachings. In any case, this has been just a short break from our main topic. Just as on the TV last night there was a news break, I was giving you a “news break” and now we can return to our main program. 

Further about the Difficulty of Obtaining a Precious Human Rebirth from the Point of View of Analogies 

To return to the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth, we’ve discussed the difficulty from the point of view of what is and what is not feasible. The next point is understanding how difficult it is to obtain a precious human rebirth from the point of view of analogies.

Since we traveled here on the boat from Holland the other day, we can think of the example of being on a great ocean. In this example, floating on the surface of this great ocean, there is a golden yoke for a plow. Shantideva gives this example in Engaging in Bodhisattva Conduct. Of course, he doesn’t give the example in terms of crossing the English Channel by boat! 

In this example, we can think of a sea turtle living at the bottom of the English Channel. The sea turtle is blind and only comes up to the surface once every hundred years and, somehow one time it manages to surface at the exact point where it actually sticks its head right through the hole in the center of this golden yoke. But really, the ocean that we’re thinking of should be an ocean that’s extremely wide and expansive and there’s only one golden yoke with only one hole in it. This sea turtle from the bottom of the ocean doesn’t even have eyes and doesn’t come to the surface all the time, but only once every hundred years. Also, the yoke isn’t anchored down, so it doesn’t stay in one place. It is floating all over on the surface of the water. We can clearly see that the chances are quite slim for the sea turtle to actually come up at the exact spot where it will be sticking its head right through the hole in the center of the yoke.  

What do these analogies refer to? First, we should think about how, from beginningless time, we’ve been wandering about, without any control, in recurring samsaric existence by the force of our disturbing emotions and karmic impulses. We are not in control of the process or the great ocean of uncontrollably recurring samsaric existence that we’ve been wandering within. It is like this extremely wide, expansive and deep ocean described above. It’s fathomless. We can’t describe the scope of it. 

The fact of the sea turtle being blind is symbolic of the fact that we are blinded by ignorance and, because we are unaware of reality, we wander aimlessly about in samsaric existence. The fact of the tortoise staying mostly at the bottom of the ocean and only coming up once every hundred years signifies the fact that, most of the time, we are in the unfortunate states of rebirth in the lower realms. It’s only very rarely and occasionally, once every hundred years symbolically, that we come up for breath – in other words, that we have a human rebirth, but not necessarily a precious one.  

Likewise, as was previously described, the Buddhist teachings are only available at certain times and extinct at many other times. It’s so rare that the Buddhist teachings are available, and this point is symbolized by there being only this one golden yoke. Also, it’s not enough simply for the Dharma teachings to exist, but we actually have to enter into them through the gateway of taking refuge in them. This is signified by the hole in the golden yoke. Therefore, we should think in terms of this analogy and understand how rare and difficult it is to come by a precious human rebirth and we should meditate on this.  

There’s also another nice example from Tibet. There is a type of fish in Tibet that is very delicious and there was boy who ate too much of it. He got sick and was about to throw up, so he immediately took the strap that’s used to tie up Tibetan boots and tied it around his neck to prevent himself from throwing up. This food was so delicious that he didn’t want to waste it by throwing it up. Likewise, if we have a precious human rebirth, it would be a shame to waste it in the same way of not wanting to waste the fish by vomiting.  

In another story about Tibet, in a district known as Penbo, there was a boy from a wealthy gold mining family. They mined gold from the mountain. However, this son didn’t want to work in the family’s gold mines, so he left to engage in trade and commerce. He traveled far away as a salesman selling various items. As he moved around, he learned that his family, the Lungding family, was actually quite famous, very well-known for being an extremely wealthy family. People didn’t recognize that he was the son of the Lungding family, and, on one occasion, he was doing business with another salesperson who mentioned that he wished he was from the Lungding family and then he wouldn’t have to travel around, selling things and working so hard. The son then realized how fortunate he was and went home to his family. 

Another example that we can think about is that of a man who had lost part of both legs. He was sitting on the edge of a small precipice and was nodding off to sleep. Down below, at the bottom of the precipice, there was a musk deer and, as the man nodded off, he fell and landed exactly on the back of this musk deer. The deer became very startled of course and ran off. This man held on closely. 

They came by an area where there were other people and, by then, the man was singing with joy at this ride. The people warned him to be very careful, saying, “You shouldn’t sing like that because you might fall off. You should hold on real tight.” The man replied, “It’s only this one time in my life that I’m ever going to get to ride on a musk deer, and if I don’t sing for joy now, when will I ever have this chance again?” Likewise, it’s only this one rare time that we have this precious human rebirth and, if we don’t use it now to do intensive Dharma practice, when are we going to get the chance again? 

To think of these various examples is the way to meditate on the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth from the point of view of analogies. We can also think of various examples ourselves from things in our daily lives that we can apply to understanding the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth. 

The Difficulty of Obtaining a Precious Human Rebirth from the Point of View of Its Nature

It’s not only from the point of view of analogies that a precious human rebirth is difficult to obtain. From the very nature of what’s involved here, it’s difficult to obtain. It’s much more difficult to obtain a precious human rebirth than it is to attain a rebirth in one the worse states.

But, to repeat, we need to have the causes for obtaining a precious human rebirth. If we have committed a great many constructive actions and we’ve never built up any negative karmic potential, then in fact it would not be so difficult to obtain a precious human rebirth. But, if we look at ourselves honestly, we’ll realize that all we’ve been engaging in are destructive actions and hardly anything constructive at all.  

For instance, take the example of some type of insect biting us on the arm and examine how we approach this. First, we look at this insect, a mosquito or something, and we think or say, “I’m going to get it. I’m going to kill it.” Then, we swipe it off of our arm, catch it between our fingers and really squeeze it, thinking, “Ah, I’ve got it now.” Afterwards, we think that we’ve really got it and are happy about it. From the point of view of the beginning, the actual action, and the thought that we have after squashing it, it’s completely negative.  

Let’s consider some positive action that we also might do. Let’s say that somebody is very hungry, a poor beggar, and he comes up to us and asks us for something to eat. In the beginning, we’re very unwilling to actually give him anything, but we sort of begrudgingly give it to him. During the actual act that’s involved, we don’t give it to him nicely or politely, we sort of just throw it at him, and finally, at the end we’re not happy about it and feel that it wasn’t really good to give him anything. From the beginning, the actual action, and the end of it we haven’t done it in a very positive way at all. 

We can see from this that our normal actions build up a lot of negative karmic potential. The result of the negative karmic potential from our destructive actions is that we’ll be reborn in one of the three lower realms as either a hell creature, a hungry ghost, or an animal. If we think about it, we have many causes for being reborn, for instance, as an animal. From an external perspective, we can see, for instance, even when sitting on a lawn, how many small insects there are in just one tiny piece of the lawn. If we look internally, then likewise we can understand that, in terms of the causes for being born as a human being or the causes for being reborn as an animal, we have far more causes for being reborn as an animal than as a human. And even more than the causes for being reborn as an animal, we have the causes for being reborn as a hungry ghost, and even more than that for being reborn in one of the hells. 

In the past, there were great spiritual masters who meditated according to various examples for this point. For instance, one master would meditate on the number of causes that he had built up to be reborn in one of the hells being as numerous as the number of snowflakes that fell in a huge area like a continent. The number of causes for being reborn as a hungry ghost would be the amount that would fall in one particular country or one particular area, let’s say like this part of England. The number of causes for being reborn as an animal would be the number of snowflakes that fell, for instance, on the roof of a person’s house.  

We should meditate in this way on the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth from the point of view of its causes, analogies and the nature of the types of rebirth that take place. If we think about this a lot, then we’ll develop an attitude similar to what we might develop if we were in a high paying job in which we were paid specifically for the amount of work that we did or the objects that we produced. If that were the case, with the incentive of earning a large amount of money, we would try to be as productive as possible. Likewise, thinking in this way about the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth, we will work very hard to take great advantage of the opportunity that we have to build up as much positive karmic potential as possible and not waste it.  

If we think of the three great aims, as previously described, that we could accomplish on the basis of our precious human rebirth, then we won’t just idle about meaninglessly and waste our time. If we have the possibility of making £10,000 every month, we wouldn’t just take a month off and do nothing. Accordingly, these are the meditations that are involved in terms of the precious human rebirth.