Making Best Use of a Precious Human Rebirth

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The Rarity of a Precious Human Life

In our first discussion, we spoke about how this precious human rebirth that we all have is a perfect working basis for our Dharma practice. This working basis is complete with all of the eighteen qualities: the respites and the enrichments. We can meditate with great happiness and joy that we have such a working basis. Normally, we don’t think much about this precious human rebirth, nor do we rejoice in our good fortune. On the other hand, we do rejoice and feel very happy if we accumulate a large amount of money, gold or possessions. However, much greater than these attainments is the attainment of a precious human body, and yet we don’t really take great joy or pleasure in it.

A precious human body is the result of many positive and constructive actions we’ve done in the past. Simply speaking, our body doesn’t come from just anything. We need to consider that it is one time, now, that we have attained a human rebirth endowed with a body, speech and mind without any faults or disabilities. Especially, we have the ability to bring about great purpose and accomplishment. This precious human rebirth is very difficult to attain and is the result of all the difficulties we’ve undergone in the past. We shouldn’t just assume that we are going to be able to achieve such a thing in the future. 

The causes for attaining a precious human rebirth are extremely difficult to come by. They include adhering to strict ethics for a long time and not harming other beings. To be reborn as a human being, we must have practiced generosity and charity to others and offered many prayers. These causes aren’t easy to come by. In this lifetime, if we want to amass a great deal of material wealth, we have to work very hard. Likewise, a great deal of work and difficulty in the past was required to gather all the causes that have brought about our current precious human rebirth.

The Buddha gave a famous example of a sea turtle and a yoke made of gold floating on the surface of the ocean to illustrate the difficulty of attaining a precious human rebirth. A precious human life is as rare as a blind sea turtle which, upon surfacing once every hundred years, happens to emerge with its head through the golden yoke. The ocean is symbolic of samsara, or uncontrollably recurring existence, and we are like the sea turtle. For countless time, the sea turtle has been in the ocean mostly at the bottom of uncontrollably recurring existence in the lower realms. We have also been at the bottom of uncontrollably recurring existence, on the bottom of the ocean of samsara because of all the destructive actions that we have done. 

The turtle’s blindness is symbolic of the fact that in the past we have been mostly ignorant of the various methods of Dharma. Occasionally, as a result of positive potentials that we have created, we rise to the surface of the ocean of samsara by the force of our previous positive potential and are reborn as a human being. The golden yoke floating on top of the ocean represents the not-easily-found and quite rare teachings of the Buddha. Happening to rise through the one and only golden yoke floating on the surface of this huge ocean represents the rarity of meeting with the Dharma. Even if we are born a human where the yoke is on the surface of the ocean and the teachings of the Buddha are present, we don’t always have faith and interest. That the turtle surfaces its head exactly through the hole in the yoke symbolizes having confident belief in the truth of the teachings and actually entering into their study and practice. 

All parts of this analogy symbolize our present attainment of a precious human body. By looking at this example, we can understand how difficult the rare opportunity of a precious human rebirth is to attain, and that it is not going to be easy to achieve again. 

By the nature of all the many life forms existing, we can see how rare it is to be born as a human being. If we consider the number of animals alone, or how many insects and small bugs there are in this one little place here, we realize that animals far outnumber human beings. Greater in number than animals are hungry ghosts, and even greater still in number are hell creatures. If we look within ourselves, not only are the number of these creatures greater than the total number of human beings, but the amount of karmic potential that we have to be born as any of these different types of lower realms creatures is likewise greater than the amount of karmic potential we have to be born as a human being. 

Therefore, we can meditate upon how difficult it is to attain a precious human rebirth in terms of causes, the rarity of the occurrence itself as in the example of the sea turtle, and the nature of the life form and karmic potential involved. We need to think that it is going to be extremely difficult to attain the amount of positive karmic force and conditions again. We can then meditate further, on the basis of this precious human life, that we shouldn’t waste the opportunity it affords to accomplish very great purposes. 

Three Purposes That Can Be Fulfilled

There are three purposes we can fulfill with the working basis of a precious human rebirth. First, we can ensure that we never have to be reborn again in one of the lower, worse realms. That is the first purpose we can focus on in this precious human life. Second, we can ensure that we never have to be reborn in uncontrollably recurring existence at all. Third, we can become a Buddha so that we ourselves will be able to work for the benefit of all limited beings. These are the three great purposes that can be fulfilled on this working basis. 

To accomplish great aims and purposes, we need to think how they can be realized on the basis of the human rebirth we ourselves have. We need to make great effort and likewise pray that we’ll be able to gain a rebirth in the future to be able to further the three purposes. If we aren’t able to accomplish any of these things in this lifetime, we shouldn’t put all our hopes in attaining a precious human life in the future. In other words, we need to think in terms of trying to do it right now. For instance, it would be slightly ridiculous if we threw a hundred thousand of whatever unit of money we have into a river and then chose only to pray for another hundred thousand. What we have needs to be made use of, not wasted. 

Mundane Activities Should Not Be Our Primary Concern

We need to meditate, think very carefully, and become convinced of the preciousness of this human body, the difficulty of attaining it, and the need to use it for great purposes and accomplishments. Our lives should not be totally preoccupied with mundane affairs. Rather, our main focus should be to accomplish one of the three great purposes, with the various mundane activities considered as secondary. The highest, most advanced level of thinking and practicing is the example of Jetsun Milarepa who completely turned his mind away from concerns about food, clothing and death and followed intensive Dharma practice instead. This is the most advanced way of practicing. Even if we can’t completely turn our minds away from and give up all mundane things or devote ourselves one hundred percent to practice, we need to try not to have a great deal of worldly attachment. In this detached state, allow worldly or mundane activities to become secondary to Dharma practice. 

If we think very carefully about the preciousness of and difficulty in attaining a human body then, rather than wasting time, speech or thought, we’ll use them in constructive ways such as by reciting mantras and studying the Dharma. Then, these goals will come about. For example, a mother whose child dies, even if she goes on a picnic or to a party and eats very nice food, inside in an indirect way she is sad about the death of her child. Likewise, if we have thought about the preciousness of the human body, no matter what activity we are involved in, internally we are going to have this feeling to not waste our time and rebirth. Therefore, we’ll try to use our speech and thoughts in a constructive way. 

The cause of gaining a precious human rebirth involves abandoning all types of ten destructive, negative actions. Specifically, we need to feel great regret at all the negative things we’ve done in the past and resolve very strongly to not become involved in or commit any negativities in the future. This is very important. 

In addition to considering the difficulty in attaining a precious human rebirth, we need to think about impermanence. This life is not going to last a very long time. Even beings that lived during the first eon, with a lifespan that was countless years long, are all dead now. If they died, surely we are going to die and with a much shorter lifespan. We should know that whoever is born is going to die. 

Suffering of Old Age, Sickness and Death

Nowadays, we try to find various methods to decrease suffering when we are old. We gather things and organize them so that when we are old, we will have food to eat and a place a stay. We have this type of social security, and while we can decrease the difficulties we might have when we get old, we can’t do anything to prevent old age and death.

Suffering comes as a result of negativities. Even though we can’t get rid of or change the fact that we are going to get old and die, we can get rid of the suffering of aging and dying by not building up a great deal of negative potential. If we have not committed any destructive actions, there will be no fear in aging and dying. We realize that in the next life we will gain a very fortunate type of rebirth because there have been no negative causes for an unfortunate one. In getting rid of all destructive types of behavior, we rid ourselves of the suffering that would result, as well as the cause of a great deal of fear and unhappiness at the time of growing old and dying. 

A criminal has a lot of fear of being caught by the police. But if we are walking around, having never committed any crime or done anything wrong, we do not have any fear of being caught. In this way, we can understand that if we have committed destructive actions there is fear, and if we haven’t there is no fear. 

It is a fact that we all grow old and die. This is something that is certain, and the time of our death is just a matter of being earlier or later; regardless, at some time it is going to come about. Everybody who has been born has also died. For our sakes, the Buddha manifested his enlightenment and also manifested passing away so that, to conventional appearance, we can see the place where his body was cremated. In this way, the Buddha demonstrated that everyone who was born must die. 

Most people get very depressed and don’t like to listen to or talk about death, but there is great purpose in talking about death. Thinking about the precious human birth and the fact that it is impermanent, and the fact that we will all die, motivates us to do something now with our life. There have been great tantric practitioners who had different implements made of human bone and skeleton. As examples, they had a skull cup made from a human skull, a human thighbone trumpet, rosaries made of pieces of bone, and animal skins. All these have great importance as a reminder of impermanence and the fact that death can come at any time, and to motivate us to practice more and not waste time. 


The first thing the Buddha taught was impermanence. Likewise, just before he passed away, he pointed to himself and taught people the fact of impermanence. Thus, this is something very important. There is nothing that is going to eliminate the suffering that comes at the time of death, except for having done a great deal of positive actions. Therefore, it is very important for us to exert a great deal of effort in positive and constructive actions. 

We hear teachings like this but don’t immediately put them into practice, thinking, “I’ll put it into practice later.” This won’t do at all because the time of death is completely uncertain. It can come suddenly at any time. We can die at any moment and our death can come unexpectedly. This shows us that this life that we have, this precious human rebirth, is something that can’t be counted on. It isn’t something definite and certain. 

This can also be understood in terms of thinking about the insides of our body. Our heart, lungs, intestines and nervous system aren’t strong. They are very fragile, and anything can cause complications leading to death. We should also think about how many possible sicknesses there are. We can die from just about any small thing, even a splinter or thorn in our finger. There are many examples that we can see from experiences in Tibet or our experiences here. We should convince ourselves to put the teachings into practice right now, immediately, and not put it off. Furthermore, we should think very carefully that when we die, except for the imprints of various karmic actions, we are not able to take even a small piece of material wealth or possessions with us, no matter how much we have.

We don’t have to understand death and impermanence from books alone. We can see directly with our own eyes by looking around in the world and watching movies and television. We might see a funeral on television and a dead body carried in a coffin. We should think that it is only a matter of time before this is going to happen to us too. Even though being aware of impermanence is one of the most crucial points in terms of the Dharma teachings, there are a lot of people who don’t even want to hear about it. They just don’t want to hear it. However, if they watch television, they will see it.  

Therefore, it is very good and a sign of Dharma understanding if we have some sort of insight into these points. If we think of these two things together, the preciousness and difficulty of obtaining this human rebirth, and the fact of impermanence and that this life is not going to last forever, we can gain insight into these points and become mindful all the time of making good use of this body and rebirth by practicing the Dharma. 

Suffering of the Lower Realms

If we were to die now having built up a great deal of negative energy from destructive or negative actions, the result would be rebirth in one of the unfortunate states of rebirth or lower realms. The suffering of creatures in the hell realms and those born as hungry ghosts is not very easy to talk about. People can’t see them and therefore it is difficult for people to believe they actually exist. However, it is an insufficient reason to say with certainty that these creatures don’t exist just because we can’t see them. Because something can’t be seen with the eyes is not a sufficient reason for proving a thing doesn’t exist.

We can see animals directly with our eyes. We can see the animal realm, so we can see directly the type of suffering that animals have. We should think about having built up karmic potential to be reborn as an animal. Just think what it would be like if we were actually born as an animal. 

The Buddha stated that the result of committing destructive or negative actions is rebirth in one of the three lower realms. If we have confidence and belief in the Buddha and what he said, then it is on the basis of our confidence that we believe. It is very difficult to establish this by logical proof. If we ask, is there any reason for us to have a confident belief in what the Buddha said? Yes, there is a reason for this. We can consider, for instance, what the Buddha said about voidness (emptiness) and how if we understand this, we can be liberated from suffering. Likewise, the Buddha taught four different levels of voidness with four different systems of philosophical tenets, in order to suit the levels of intelligence and understanding of various disciples. If we meditate according to these levels, it is quite possible to gain insight into voidness. When we think about these teachings with logic and analysis, we can see they are totally logical, and the results are attainable.

Likewise, the Buddha taught how to attain shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind of absorbed concentration. If we meditate according to all the methods and instructions given by the Buddha, we can realize shamatha within six months. 

The Buddha also talked about the disadvantages and detriments of anger, and taught methods for decreasing and putting an end to it. Likewise, as described by the Buddha, if we develop a kind and warm heart toward others and follow all the methods to increase and strengthen this quality, we can develop on our mental continuum an enlightening motivation of bodhichitta. It is not that any of these types of realization described are unattainable. Everything can be understood and experienced if we put into practice what the Buddha described.

If the Buddha taught all these things that we can understand and apply, and if we have confidence and belief in the validity of them, then we can also place our confidence in what he said about the fact that if we commit various destructive actions, the result will be rebirth in one of the lower realms. The Buddha directly observed that if we commit destructive actions, we will be reborn in one of the three lower realms. He taught this because he cared so strongly for all of us and couldn’t bear the amount of suffering caused in this way. 

Even though the Buddha has taught all of this, if we examine ourselves and see what we have been doing up until now, mostly we have been building up more destructive actions and potential. Just as we’ve been building up a large amount of money and possessions, we have likewise built up a large bank account of negativities. Therefore, what we should think about is, “If I were to die with this huge store of negativities, I am surely going to be reborn in a lower realm with a tremendous amount of suffering.” 

Thinking about this possibility, we should develop some dread or fear. We do not want this to happen. We should be terrified of this happening. It is very important to think now about the type of suffering that we could have at the time of our death and afterwards. If we don’t think about this suffering now, then at the time of our death when we are actually facing this suffering, it is going to be too late because we are just going to die. Likewise, if we wait until we’ve been reborn in one of the lower realms as a hell-creature or an animal, it will be too late to be afraid of all the negativities that we have done in the past because they are all finished. We have died already and there we are in a lower realm. Therefore, it is much better to think about these sufferings and be afraid now rather than at the time of death. 


If there were no way to get rid of this fear and suffering, then it would be much better not to think about it. However, there is a way to get rid of suffering; there is some sort of refuge or protection possible in these circumstances, a safe direction to go in to eliminate suffering and fear. This protection is afforded by the Buddhas, the Dharma teachings and the Sangha, the community of those who are highly realized. 

Refuge should be taken in something or someone who has the ability to actually protect us from falling to the lower realms, in the sense of being able to provide us the means for protecting ourselves from that. We shouldn’t take refuge in anything or anyone without this ability. To reflect on the qualifications of the Buddhas and how they are able to give us protection and refuge, we should consider the fact that the Buddha collected positive force from constructive actions over many, many eons. He gathered all possible positive qualities and eliminated all obstacles and negativities. In this way, the Buddha attained enlightenment for our sakes, and completely freed himself from all fears. Not only is the Buddha free from all fears, but he is also very skilled in methods to help us get rid of all of our own fears. 

We can understand this more clearly through examples. At the time of the Buddha, there was a householder who gave birth to a child who was completely hideous and grotesque to see, with large growths of goiters and all sorts of big horrible, deformed lumps covering his body. The child was also a dwarf, so very small. The family abandoned the child in the forest. Because he was so grotesque, they threw him away. The child became extremely depressed, thinking, “How horrible, I’ve been thrown away in the forest. Nobody wants me, and I am so horrible looking. There isn’t anyone in the world uglier than me.” Through his omniscience, the Buddha saw this child suffering and manifested in this forest as someone even uglier than the child. When the child saw this manifestation of the Buddha, someone even uglier than he was, walking toward him, he felt a little bit happy. “Well, at least I am not as ugly as that!” Because he wasn’t as ugly as the manifestation of the Buddha, he asserted himself as being better and took the Buddha as a servant. The Buddha waited on him and served him and, in the process, began to teach him the Dharma. Eventually, the child attained realizations; he gradually became more handsome, and his faults and deformities went away. 

In another instance, among Buddha’s entourage of shravakas – those who gathered to listen to the teachings – there was one very famous person named Maudgalyayana whose mother had died. Just as there is this world that we live in, likewise, because there is an infinite number of limited beings, there are many other inhabited world systems and planets very, very far away. Maudgalyayana’s mother had been reborn in a hell on some planet in another part of the universe. Even though the shravakas have many extraphysical powers and extrasensory perception, Maudgalyayana was unable to see such a faraway planet in a completely different part of the universe. He asked the Buddha where his mother was, and the Buddha replied that his mother was in a far-distant world. 

Maudgalyayana had certain extraphysical powers and was able to transport himself to the hell realm in this world system. He arrived to see his mother inside the innermost house in a hot hell. There were three iron houses with no doors or windows, one inside the other, burning red hot. There was nothing he could do to rescue her. He returned to the Buddha and asked what to do. The Buddha replied, “Take this staff,” handing him a long iron rod used by monks at that time. “Stamp it three times on the ground in front of the house. This will cause your mother to be released.” Maudgalyayana stamped the staff three times, the house collapsed, and he was able to rescue his mother. 

From these examples, we can understand the different types of powers and abilities the Buddha has to protect others from fear. There are many similar types of accounts like this. Not only does the Buddha have many abilities, but furthermore, the Buddha does not play favorites by helping those who are close to him while forgetting others. 

One of the Buddha’s cousins, Devadatta, even tried to kill the Buddha by throwing rocks at him. Since Devadatta was Buddha’s cousin, he always tried to compete with the Buddha. He believed himself to be just as talented. Once, when the Buddha was sick, a doctor gave him some extremely strong and powerful medicine. Because the Buddha had a strong physical constitution, his body could bear it. Devadatta said, “Well, my body is as strong as the Buddha’s, and I can take the same strength of medicine.” The doctor replied, “No, your constitution isn’t strong enough to take such powerful medicine; you are not as strong as the Buddha.” Devadatta would hear nothing of it and continued to bother the doctor and make demands. “You must give me the same strong medicine!” The doctor cut a pill in three and only gave him one third, but it was still too potent, and Devadatta became completely delirious, wandered around, collapsed and nearly died. 

Later, the Buddha went to visit Devadatta. Before the Buddha became a monk, he was married and had a son named Rahula. The Buddha said, “Here is my son Rahula, and here you are, my cousin Devadatta, always throwing rocks and trying to kill me. Nevertheless, to me there is no difference between you and my son. By the power of this, may you be cured.” He laid his hand on Devadatta’s head and by the power of the Buddha’s words of truth, Devadatta was cured. When Devadatta recovered, he yelled at the Buddha, “Why did you put your dirty hands on my head?”

These examples show that the Buddha has no favoritism and doesn’t feel close to some and far away from others. These aren’t just stories, either; they have been recounted from history. 

Confident Belief and Trust

Even though the Buddha has many abilities and can offer us protection and refuge, the Buddha is like a “hook and an eye” used in sewing to catch hold of something. If we don’t have this little ring, this eye, then even though the Buddha is like a hook there is no way for him to actually catch hold of us. We need confident belief and trust in the powers of refuge to receive such refuge. 

One time, in Nepal and Kalimpong, I saw two old women who were always reciting mantras and had a tremendous amount of faith in Avalokiteshvara. When they were dying, they both had visions of Avalokiteshvara, and they died in a very peaceful and happy state of mind. I have twice seen such things firsthand. Therefore, to have confident belief is extremely important. However, we shouldn’t think in terms of “how great I am” and have a great deal of pride or be very puffed up about ourselves. Conversely, we should always think in terms of how good other people are. 

There is the example in Tibet of a mother whose son was going to India. She requested him to bring back a tooth of the Buddha, a relic for her to keep on her altar. But the son, who was sort of sight-seeing around India and having a good time, completely forgot his mother’s request. He only remembered when he returned and caught sight of his mother’s house, “Oh no! I have to get a tooth for my mother!”

He looked around and saw that a dog had died on the other side of the road, He took a tooth from the dog’s mouth, wrapped it very nicely, and brought it home to his mother. The mother was completely overwhelmed with faith and devotion. She made offerings and put the tooth on her altar and somehow, out of the tooth, came a relic pill. To explain, there are little relic pills that come from very precious objects, and one came out of the tooth. This is from the power of the mother’s faith and devotion. If the mother didn’t have faith, then even if there was an actual tooth of the Buddha on the altar, no relic pill would have come out of it. 

Therefore, when we take refuge, we should be very mindful of the good qualities of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. All of these qualities can be learned by studying and reading the texts.

Mahayana Refuge

There are three causes or motivating factors for the Mahayana type of refuge. The first cause of taking refuge is having a state of fear of suffering. For the second, we need the confident belief that the Three Jewels of Refuge, especially the Buddha, have the power to protect us from all fear and suffering. We need to entrust and give ourselves over to the Three Jewels of Refuge for protection. In other words, we take our mind and everything and put it in the hands of the Three Jewels of Refuge with the full intention to put into practice whatever they teach us. This attitude of mind completely entrusting ourselves to the Three Jewels of Refuge for guidance is the actual taking of refuge. Furthermore, we need as a third cause a great compassion with which we think not only about ourselves, but all limited beings and wish for them refuge and a safe direction to take to protect themselves from suffering. 

For example, let’s say we have a house filled with a lot of wealth and valuable material possessions. First, if there were a lot of thieves around, we would be afraid that they might come and steal what we have. Everyone would be telling us about how many thieves and bandits there were in the neighborhood. This would cause us to be frightened of being robbed. We would therefore want to find someone or something to protect and guard our house. Of course, we wouldn’t take a small child from the street to guard our house. We would want to find somebody who actually had the ability to help us. If we found a strong guard with the ability to come and protect our house, and we put all our faith and confidence in this guard and in what they tell us to do to stay safe, then our mind would be at ease. We just need to follow the advice and we can relax.  

This illustrates what it means to take refuge. First, there is the fear of something and, next, we seek someone we are confident has the ability to protect us. Then, we place all our confidence and trust in that person. We entrust ourselves to that person and their instructions. By this example, we can begin to understand what it means to have the attitude of mind of taking refuge. 

The way to meditate when we take refuge is to visualize before us the objects of refuge and recite, “I take refuge in the gurus, I take refuge in the Buddhas,” and imagine that nectars come and fill us with all sorts of visualizations. This is the meditation on taking refuge. Based on the three causes, the actual thing involved is turning our mind toward and entrusting ourselves to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, because the main aspect of taking refuge is the attitude of mind. Just reciting “I take refuge” is secondary.

Meditation on Refuge

The way to visualize taking refuge is to imagine a small figure of a Buddha in front of us at the height of our mid-brow about a hand span away. This Buddha represents and incorporates all the different jewels of refuge. It shouldn’t be a two-dimensional, flat painting or something like that. Also, it shouldn’t be a statue or made of canvas. Rather it should be three-dimensional, alive, radiant and made of light, like a rainbow. 

First of all, we should completely entrust our mind, with confident belief in this as representing the Three Jewels of Refuge. We then take refuge in this visualized representation and recite either OM MANI PADME HUM, or “I take refuge in the gurus, the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha,” and so on. Imagine that nectar flows from this object and cleanses you.

These are the types of visualizations involved in taking refuge. One way of getting some sort of feeling for what it would look like for this image to be very vivid and alive would be to use two mirrors. If we were just to look at the reflection of a Buddha figure, for example the painting behind us, in one mirror, the image would be reversed, and we would get a backwards image. However, if we have another mirror as well, it reflects back and forth from a certain angle. If we try this, we will see that it takes on more of a three-dimensional quality and will no longer be backwards or a mere image reversed. If these visualizations are difficult for us to imagine straight away, by using mirrors like this, we can at least get a visual idea of what it looks like to be more three-dimensional and alive. 

When we do this visualization, we should remember that what we are doing is not visualizing with our eyes. It is not using the visual consciousness. It is just a process of imagination with our minds. We are imagining it in our mind and are not actually looking and seeing with our eyes. We should think that this Buddha-image has the nature of all the objects of refuge. Also, when we take refuge, we should visualize on our right side all male beings as represented first by our father, and on the left all females represented first by our mother. Behind us, we should imagine all our friends and relatives sitting and, in front, all our enemies and people with whom we have difficulties. 

In this way, we should envision that the surface of the earth is completely filled by a huge crowd of beings from the different realms and, even if they are hell creatures, we should imagine they are in human form but suffering the different types of suffering of their own realms. We should picture that everybody takes refuge together and that we are the chant leader, the person who starts and leads everybody in taking refuge. Then, we should visualize the Buddha in front of us, with nectars filling and purifying every limited being of their negativities and negative karmic forces. This is the way to meditate on refuge.