The Qualities of a Precious Human Rebirth

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The Bodhipathapradipa text was originally composed in Sanskrit. It was translated into Tibetan with the title Jangchub lamkyi dronma, which in English is Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. It starts:

I prostrate to the Bodhisattva Youthful Manjushri.

The text begins with Atisha’s prostration to the Three Jewels of Refuge. He sets out to write a text to act as a lamp for those following the path to enlightenment, and states that the text was requested by the young king, Jangchub Ö.  

Promise to Compose

(1) Having prostrated most respectfully to all the Triumphant of the three times, to their Dharma and to the Sangha community, I shall light a lamp for the path to enlightenment, having been urged by my excellent disciple, Jangchub Ö.

As stated in the following verse, the lam-rim teachings are for people of three different scopes or levels of motivation: the initial or minimum, intermediate, and advanced or supreme. 

(2) Since (practitioners) come to have small, intermediate and supreme (scopes), they are known as the three types of spiritual persons. I shall therefore write about these specific divisions, clarifying their defining features.

The next verse summarizes the teachings for someone of initial or minimum scope:

(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.

A Precious Human Rebirth

First, let’s consider what Dharma is in actuality. The Dharma includes spiritual teachings with methods for improving future lifetimes. 

This verse (3) describes someone of the initial scope as being interested in attaining a future human rebirth. In their present life, this aspirant may be prosperous and wealthy, or in a very good position, and might be striving to be reborn in a divine realm as a being such as Indra, the king of divine beings. A person interested in benefiting future lifetimes falls within the initial scope. However, if a person desires to be reborn in a position of wealth and prosperity, and spends their present life conducting business affairs, farming, or tailoring in order to amass a great deal of wealth, they will not benefit future lives or rebirths in the slightest. 

What will bring about a favorable future rebirth? It is safeguarding against committing any of the ten destructive actions. A fortunate rebirth also requires strict ethical self-discipline. Someone adhering to strict ethics and abandoning the ten destructive actions with the intention of being reborn as a human or divine being is known as a person of the initial scope, the basic level of motivation. The relevant teachings at this level are known as “the teachings of the initial scope.”

If strict ethics concerning the abandonment of the ten destructive actions are not upheld, and a life is spent trying to amass as much material wealth as possible through trickery and deception, then a big mistake is being made. There is much fault in spending this lifetime ignoring activities that will improve future rebirths and prevent rebirths in the lower realms. It is a meaningless use of a human life to be completely swept up in trying to do things to accumulate wealth. 

Death and Impermanence

For example, consider how enormous wealth and masses of possessions, precious gems and pearls, were amassed at the beginning of this eon when people lived for countless years. Consider how these were of no actual value. Today, this lack of value is evidenced in museums and old fortresses throughout the Western world, where precious objects of great value from hundreds of even thousands of years ago are kept on display. What use are these objects now? Today, they are just things in a museum. If we looked for the owners of these great objects, not one person could be found alive. Nobody is left. There is not one person alive today who lived in those great castles and palaces many centuries ago. There is no one still sitting in and enjoying those great palaces. They are all dead. There is not even one very, very old person sitting and living in a palace who has been there since the ancient past. Everyone who is born is only ever fated to die. There is nobody who remains forever, evading death. 

This is something that we need to think seriously about. If we collect objects, in the end the only thing that can happen is that one day, the objects will again be dispersed. There is nothing that can be collected that will remain forever. Take for instance the group of people gathered the other day for teachings. We were gathered together for one purpose and, afterwards, we went our separate ways. Today, there is a different group of people, some from the weekend, some not, and again, at the end of our discussion, we will separate and go our own ways. Most likely, after 50 or 60 years, not one of us will still be alive. This is useful for us to consider.

If we think about this very seriously, it can be very beneficial. If we don’t think about these types of things, we will continue to accumulate a lot of negative deeds and, as a direct result, negative karmic forces. We are impermanent and cannot stay alive forever. If we spend our lives engaged in destructive actions, at the end of our lives, when we are dying and thinking over all the negative things we have done, we will have a lot of regret. Even though we will be in a very miserable state, there will be nothing that can be done, except die. 

Dying without Regrets

If we die having committed many destructive actions, we will be in a state of great fear and suffering and experience a great deal of regret. The moment of death will be a very horrible experience. So, we need to consider if we really want to die in a state of great fear. Is there a method for eliminating fear at the time of death? Yes, there is.

The whole point of thinking about this is that it motivates us to prevent a miserable state of great fear at the moment of death. If there were no way to eliminate the fear and the awful things that could happen at the time of death, then it would be better not to think at all about it. However, since there is a method to eliminate the fear that results from dying miserably, it is very useful to consider our own death. This can actually motivate us to prevent our death from being an awful, fearful experience. 

If we spend our entire life engaged in worldly activities and commit a large number of destructive actions, our life will have been spent consumed by negative things relating to this lifetime only. At the time of death, it will be too late to avoid the great regret and fear associated with an awful experience of death. On the other hand, if we lead a pure and ethical life in which we refrain from the ten destructive actions, then death will be a pleasant experience, like going on vacation to another country, and we will die with a very happy state of mind. 

We need to reflect upon these two different ways of dying, and realize that the method for being able to die happily is to follow what is taught in the Dharma teachings.

The great Jetsun Milarepa wrote this song: 

I went to practice Dharma because I was very afraid of death, but now that I have completely trained myself and completed all the practices of Dharma, I can rest with my mind at ease.

There are many people in Tibet who have practiced Dharma and, when they grow very old, feel that they are just going to leave behind this old body, which is now very difficult to live with, and be reborn with the beautiful, youthful body of a celestial being or a prince, or something like that. They are able to die with a great deal of happiness. 

Respites and Enrichments

We will all die, but the impermanence of death allows for no certainty as to when that will actually occur. There is no certainty about the actual time of our death. To be reborn with such an excellent working basis as this human body is something that is extremely hard to come by. This is because we haven’t been simply born as human beings, but rather as human beings with what are known as “respites and enrichments,” or sometimes called “freedoms and endowments.” 

The Eight Respites

Now, we have a human body fully endowed with all the positive features enriching it and temporary respite or freedom from worse situations. One way of putting into practice the understanding of the respites being discussed here is to feel very happy that we have awakened in the morning still alive and have not died during the night. We have a temporary respite from dying in our sleep. If we had died, having previously built up a great deal of negative karmic force, there would be no place to be reborn except in one of the lower realms. Instead, we have awakened in the morning with this body. We haven’t found ourselves trapped as a being in one of the hell realms. Even if the Dharma were to be taught in one of the joyless hell realms, we would not be able to listen due to a preoccupation with the pain and suffering inflicted upon us from severe heat and cold.

Second, we also have not found ourselves as a hungry ghost, unable to obtain any food or drink, existing in a state of constant suffering from hunger and thirst. The third point is that we have not awakened and found that we are animals. Instead, we have a basis of existence that is not that of an animal. What kind of Dharma practice could we do if we were, for example, a dog? 

The fourth and last point is that we also have the respite of not having been born as a divine being in a celestial realm. Divine beings are not interested in practicing any Dharma because their lives are so pleasant and nice. They become lazy and complacent. However, the time of death for divine beings is really awful. They realize they are going to die and that it is too late for them to do anything positive, and they suffer tremendously from this. So, we are very fortunate that we have the respite of having not been born as a divine being.

Therefore, we are temporarily free from these four undesirable non-human states: hell realm, hungry ghost, animal and divine being. We have a human basis that is free from being one of these four non-human states. Having been born with a human body with these four respites, we should be very happy, and meditate and rejoice at this fact.

In general, there are far more animals than human beings in this world. We can, for instance, look at all the animals, all the creatures of the entire animal world, including insects, and think how fortunate we are that we were born as human beings and not as one of them. We should feel very happy about this. 

Furthermore, we have not been born severely disabled, such as those who have a severe intellectual or physical disability. We have a respite from this. Having a severe disability is an extremely difficult situation, even if we are born into a very wealthy and prosperous family. If we are born without eyes or the faculties of hearing and speaking, being from a wealthy family is not much help, in that we would still not have the opportunity to fully practice the Dharma. 

Even if we have not been born in a dark era, as a savage, uncivilized person, or with a severe intellectual or physical disability, it is still possible that while we might be born into a family where our parents are very spiritually inclined, as a child we might completely hate all spiritual things, hate the Dharma and have an aversion to anything like that. This would also be very difficult. Nonetheless, we find that right now we do have a respite from all that. We haven’t been born as someone who instinctively despises Dharma practice and all spiritual things. 

In short, the working basis of our current human body is something that has eight states of respite from situations, in which there is no leisure to be able to practice the Dharma. There are four non-human states, which involve being born as one of the four types of non-human beings, in which we would not have the leisure to study the Dharma. Likewise, there are four states of being reborn as a human, in which we would also not have the leisure to practice the Dharma. Examples are being reborn in a dark age and so on. 

The Ten Enrichments

The five favorable circumstance that enriches our precious human life is that we have sincere interest in the Dharma. If we look at the hundreds of millions of people in this part of the world, we see that it is very rare for anybody to really take an interest in the Dharma. We see very few people coming here to actually study Dharma or looking for methods to improve future lifetimes. Somebody who is actually working to seek methods for improving their future lifetimes is a human being in the fullest sense of the word. 

Other people who might just be given the name “human being” are in fact living the type of lives that are similar to that of an animal. They are working just for this lifetime to collect food, drink and shelter for themselves. In this way, they are not making any better use of their life than an animal does. Even though one can be given the name “human being,” it is only when someone is really working for a future lifetime that they have differentiated themselves from animals and are really human beings in the fullest sense of the word. An animal is quite well-equipped at accomplishing purposes for this lifetime alone, whereas a real human being can actually work to benefit their future lifetimes.

In addition to all of this, we have been born in what is known as “a central area,” where we have been able to come into contact with the teachings of the Dharma. Also, we have all of our physical and mental faculties. We have complete senses, are of sound mind, and have the fortune of meeting with teachers who teach the Dharma. We have the mental faculties to be able to understand what they say. Likewise, in general, the teachings are flourishing in this world and they are available to us. Lastly, we have faith and interest in preserving the teachings. We are endowed these five personal enrichments of things that we have going for us. 

The next set of enrichments are general social enrichments. First, we have met with a teacher who is teaching the Dharma. We have encountered a teacher who is like a Buddha and have met with gurus who can give teachings. The next point is that they are actually giving teachings. Furthermore, the teachings are present and enduring in the world at this time. Also, there are many people from the Sangha, the spiritual community, who are practicing and putting the teachings into practice in their lives. Lastly, we are in a place where spiritual or religious practice is not forbidden, prohibited or outlawed. We are in a place where it is allowed to practice whatever you want to practice.

This makes five general social enrichments: first, Buddhas have come, such as for instance, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is in fact Avalokiteshvara. Second, it is possible to meet him and receive teachings. Third, the teachings endure and are available. Fourth, there is the monastic community and the community of realized beings who actually put the teachings into practice. Fifth, spiritual or religious practice is not outlawed, but rather there are many favorable, conducive circumstances that can help our practice. There are patrons who are willing to support Dharma practice and things like this, so that all the favorable conditions can come together. 

These are the five enrichments on the basis of society, and the previous group of five is the set of enrichments that we have ourselves. That makes ten enrichments. Likewise, there are the eight respites or temporary freedoms from the states of no leisure. This makes eighteen factors that we have. We have these ten enrichments and eight respites. We are fortunately to have such a perfect human basis. 

A perfect human rebirth is a working basis in which we have not been reborn in one of the lower realms or unfortunate states. On this basis, we can stop ourselves from having to be reborn at all in the situation known as “samsara” or “uncontrollably recurring existence.” Likewise, we can attain the full enlightenment of Buddhahood on this human basis, as was done by the great Jetsun Milarepa. He accomplished Buddhahood on the same type of human working basis that all of us have. 

Therefore, we can meditate with great happiness on the fact that we have been born with all of this good fortune, these enrichments and respites. Think about the eight respites and ten enrichments, about how we have all of these, and feel great happiness at this fact. Rejoice in all of this. This is something that is a subject matter for meditation, and we all need to meditate on it.

Furthermore, we need to think that having attained such a precious human rebirth, we shouldn’t waste it, because it is extremely difficult to obtain. It has been difficult to attain it now and it will be extremely difficult to attain another one in the future. Therefore, we need to make the best use we can of this precious human basis. We are just going to get older and older and, eventually, we are going to die. We don’t want to die in a horrible state, in a state of great fear and great regret. 

What we want to do is try to make the best use of this human rebirth that we have. With it we can accomplish any of these three goals, these great purposes just mentioned. We need to think, “I shall try to accomplish at least one of these goals with this precious human rebirth that I have now.” Let this be the subject matter for your meditation.