Contemplation on the Rare Precious Human Life, Certainty of Death and Necessity of Dharma
We’ve been talking about the precious human rebirth that we have all achieved. This precious human rebirth has the eight respites and ten enrichments necessary for Dharma practice. We need to meditate upon this precious human rebirth, and upon how difficult it is to attain one, thinking of all the causes necessary to do so.
Think about some of the examples previously explained of how difficult it is to attain such a human rebirth. So, think about the difficulty of attaining it from the point of view of the sheer numbers involved: there are far more creatures in the lower realms, and far more animals, than human beings. Think also about the rarity of attaining a precious human rebirth. If it were the case that having attained a human rebirth now means we are automatically going to attain one in the future, then everything would be alright. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Think deeply about this and do not take this human rebirth we have for granted.
Furthermore, think about the fact that whoever has attained a human rebirth has not lived forever. There is no one who has been born that hasn’t died. Thus, we should make good use of this opportunity, with the working basis of a precious human rebirth, to accomplish great purposes. It is even possible to attain the enlightenment of Buddhahood with this working basis we have now. We need to meditate upon death, and the fact that the working basis for a precious human life isn’t going to last forever. It is impermanent.
We should think seriously about the lack of certainty as to the time of death. We can die at any time. The only thing of use to us when we die is the positive force of our constructive actions in the past taken along with the consciousness on the mental continuum. Aside from that, there is nothing else that can help us when we die. We should think of accumulating as many constructive actions and as much positive force as possible by practicing the Dharma. We can die at any time, and we don’t know when. Therefore, we should make a very firm decision to practice right now and from now on. We should not think that we can wait until tomorrow or the next day to practice. The conclusion that we must reach with great certainty is: “I am going to practice and fully engage myself in the Dharma.”
No matter how many friends, relatives or material possessions we have, we can’t take even a small needle and thread with us when we die. The only thing that is going to be of any help is having practiced the Dharma. Therefore, the third point to contemplate and the decision that we should make is to resolve to practice and focus on the Dharma.
Protection from Fear and Suffering through Refuge
If we don’t build up a great deal of positive potential by practicing the Dharma during our lifetime, then, at the time of death, great fear can arise within us. It can be a very frightful experience. If there were no future life, it would be okay; however, in fact, there are future lives. If, by the end of our life, we’ve built up a great deal of negative energy, we’ll have to face the fearsome experience of being reborn in one of the lower realms. We can imagine how terrifying rebirth as an animal would be just by looking at the fear and suffering that animals in the wild experience in their lives.
If there were no refuge or protection possible, then to think about all these things would just cause depression. This is not the point. Rather, the purpose of thinking about this possible suffering and fear is because there is refuge and protection to be found. If we ask what types of refuge and protection are available, the answer is the Three Jewels. These are the Jewel of Refuge in the Buddha; the Jewel of Refuge in the Dharma, the teachings; and the Jewel of Refuge in the Sangha, the community of realized ones. Taking refuge is the attitude of mind in which we place all our hopes and completely turn our mind and entrust ourselves in the power of the Three Jewels of Refuge to give us the methods that will protect us from fear and suffering.
The Power of Refuge
After generating this attitude in our minds, we should think about all of the good qualities of the body, speech and mind of the Buddhas. If we were to begin to describe all the qualities of the Buddhas, there would be no end. It is best to learn about the qualities of the Buddhas from studying various texts. There are many great advantages in taking refuge, being mindful of the qualities of the Buddhas as the reliable source of the Dharma teachings. With a strong mind of refuge, we have protection from both invisible things and visible things; ghosts and spirits will not be able to harm us, nor will things such as tigers and leopards.
In Tibet, in the district of Gambo, there was a man who was attacked and bitten by a yeti. In case you don’t know, a yeti is an abominable snow man. A lama saw the man and asked, “Where did you get that terrible wound on your head?” He replied, “I was bitten by a yeti.” Upon hearing this, the lama taught the man refuge, and the man took refuge. Afterwards, when the man was out working and a yeti again approached him, this time it only sniffed around without attacking.
In another district in Tibet, there was an ancient custom of taking serious criminals and leaving them in places where there were many wild, ferocious animals. One such criminal took refuge resolutely and, because he had very strong confident belief, he survived the ordeal.
The following example illustrates the protective power of the words of taking refuge and concerns a person who didn’t really take refuge from his heart or with his mind. There was a retreat house in the mountains, and a thief tried to break in by digging and then crawling under the door. The Dharma practitioner inside noticed a hand reaching under the door and smacked it with a large stick saying, “I take refuge in the Buddha!” Beating the hand again, he said, “I take refuge in the Dharma!” Lastly, a third time, while striking at the thief, he said, “I take refuge in the Sangha.” The thief managed to withdraw his hand and ran away to hide beneath a bridge. He lay down, recounting the day and his experiences, while repeating the words, “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha.” Usually, that bridge was a main thoroughfare for ghosts and spirits, but because the thief had simply recited the words of refuge in the Three Jewels, the ghosts were prevented from passing. The next day the thief met up with his friends, other thieves, and said, “It is a good thing that there are only three jewels of refuge, because if there were any more, I probably would have been killed by the beating!”
Suffering of the Realms of Divine Beings
In one of the realms of the divine beings, the gods, there was man called was Lodro Tenpa. In the divine-being realms, everybody is generally happy and nice, although they never think of doing anything constructive or positive. They wear flower garlands around their necks, which never fade or wither, and they always smell nice. However, as the divine being approaches the time of death, certain signs appear. The flower garlands begin to fade, wither away, and start to smell bad. There are various other signs like this. Except for certain friends that are loyal, nobody associates with these divine beings once these signs of death start to appear. Everybody ignores them and keeps a distance, wanting nothing to do with them.
These divine beings on the verge of death experience a tremendous amount of mental suffering because they see that they are about to lose the great deal of pleasure that they have enjoyed. They can also see that they are going to be reborn in a lower realm, because the karmic force that brought them this divine life has finished, and the negative karmic potential they have created in the past is going to ripen and bring them the suffering of a lower realm. It is said that the mental suffering that divine beings experience when they are about to die is of much greater intensity than the physical suffering that hell-creatures have in the hell realms. Generally, this is the situation with divine beings.
So, this divine being named Lodro Tenpa foresaw his own rebirth, as a pig, and was terrified. He went to Indra, the King of Divine Beings, and asked for help. Indra replied, “I am sorry, I don’t know any method to prevent you from this fate, but I’ll ask the Buddha.” Indra did so and received from the Buddha a very effective ritual ceremony of the deity Namgyalma, or Ushnishavijaya in Sanskrit. This ritual purifies and eliminates negative karmic forces. Lodro Tenpa performed the rituals and recited the mantra of the deity Namgyalma. When he died, he was reborn in an even higher divine being realm than before.
Although Indra has the extrasensory perception of being able to see into realms lower than his own, he can’t see into higher realms. Therefore, Indra asked the Buddha where Lodro Tenpa had been reborn, and the Buddha told him he was in a divine being realm higher than and above Indra’s divine being realm.
The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
The Buddha taught refuge as the way to purify negative karmic forces. However, the actual method which gives protection is the practice of the Dharma. For example, Lodro Tenpa’s protection came from performing the practices and rituals of the deity Namgyalma and from the teachings the Buddha provided. So, the actual refuge is the teachings, the Jewel of Refuge of the Dharma. Indra is an example of the Jewel of Refuge of the Sangha, the community, helping in the process of deriving protection. Therefore, we should be mindful of the good qualities of the Jewels of Refuge and take refuge three times in the morning and three times in the evening.
The fact that we have attained a precious human rebirth is due to our past practice of Dharma and is dependent on the kindness of the Buddha to have given us teachings in the past. Therefore, taking refuge is also an act of remembering the kindness of all the Buddhas. In remembrance of the kindness of the Buddhas, we should make offerings three times daily as a show of our appreciation. Generally, we eat three times a day and so, prior to eating, the first portion should be offered to the Buddhas.
Having taken refuge in the Buddha, we should no longer take refuge in any other worldly deities or things. For instance, some people take refuge in the sun, the moon, water or fire. This is neither proper nor correct. It is alright to offer incense and so on to Brahma or other types of divine beings, but we shouldn’t totally entrust ourselves with, or take ultimate, deep refuge in these deities. It is fine to honor and show them veneration, but we shouldn’t take ultimate refuge in them because they don’t have the power to be able to provide ultimate refuge.
For instance, if we are sitting and behind us is hanging some cloth, and we were to lean back thinking it was a solid wall that we could trust to support us, we would fall down. Likewise, we shouldn’t take ultimate refuge in anyone who doesn’t have the power to provide ultimate refuge.
When we take refuge in the Sangha, the community of those who realize and practice the teachings, we should not stay for long with anyone who holds distorted views, such as those who say there is no such thing as future rebirths or past lives, or cause and effect, in other words, those who don’t accept karma. Spending a lot of time with them may easily weaken our confident belief and dishearten us from our Dharma practice.
When we take refuge in the Dharma, we should not harm any other living creature or kill even the smallest insect. Nor should we disrespect books or anything with writing on it. We shouldn’t use paper with writing on it to wrap garbage, to stand on, to clean with, to wrap flowers, or wipe our hands. Furthermore, we shouldn’t lick our fingers to turn pages. Also, we shouldn’t sell or pawn Dharma books. This is a great negative act. If we sell Dharma texts for the purpose of being able to carry on publishing more Dharma texts, then that is alright. It is not acceptable to sell books merely to be able to eat.
When we take refuge in the Buddha, we shouldn’t become involved in the business of selling or pawning Buddha statues or paintings. Nor should we put wastepaper, garbage, or any object on top of a statue of the Buddha. Furthermore, while we can criticize the way an artist renders an image of the Buddha, we should never criticize the image of the Buddha himself.
When we take refuge in the Sangha, the monastic community, we shouldn’t criticize or say bad things about monks or nuns. In China, there once was an educated man who criticized a monk in a book, saying that the actions of this monk were like those of a snake. In the same lifetime, this learned man suffered a great deal of itching on his head. He scratched and scratched and eventually his skin shed, and he transformed into a snake. In another instance, a lay person said to a monk, “Your voice is like a dog’s.” The man was subsequently reborn as a dog for five hundred lifetimes.
At one time there was a very learned man, who had a son, Shebu Serkya. The man died and Shebu Serkya became educated and went to debate with many monks. Unable to defeat them, he returned to his mother, and she advised him, “Tomorrow when you debate with the monks, you should call each of them a bad name. Say, ‘You have the head of a crow’ or ‘You have the head of a dog’.” The next day, following his mother’s advice, Shebu Serkya called eighteen different monks eighteen different bad names during the debates. The monks, realizing Shebu Serkya was accumulating a lot of negative karma by name-calling, remained silent. Shebu Serkya thought that meant he had won the debate with each one of them.
Later, during the time of the Buddha, there were some fishermen who caught a very large fish with eighteen heads. Everybody in the village including the Buddha came to see it. In order to teach the people who had gathered around the Buddha blessed the fish and it was able to speak. “Are you Shebu Serkya?” the Buddha asked. “Yes,” the many-headed fish relied. The Buddha then asked, “What did you do in order to suffer this type of rebirth?” The fish replied, “I called eighteen monks the names of eighteen animals and as a result I was born with eighteen heads.” This was very helpful to all the people gathered, who then resolved not to call people bad names. If we take refuge in the Sangha, then we shouldn’t call others bad names.
The Actual Buddha, Dharma and Sangha Jewel
A Sangha member does not necessarily wear the robes of an ordained monk. Anybody who is a sincere Dharma practitioner is considered a member of the Sangha. The actual Sangha Jewel refers to an arya or noble one, someone who has nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Four monks gathered together would also constitute a Sangha or a monastic community. Any less would be addressed individually as a monk or bhikshu.
To represent the Buddha Jewel, we have paintings of the Buddha; however, Buddhas with all the major and minor signs, or a living Buddha, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, constitute the actual Buddha Refuge. For practice, it is permissible to have painted representations of the Buddha Jewels of Refuge to help us. The Dharma Jewel of Refuge refers to all the true stoppings and all the good qualities on the mental continuums of such Buddhas. In terms of our practice, the Dharma texts that teach about this can also serve as the Dharma Jewel of Refuge.
The Laws of Karma
We should try to train ourselves in all of these different pieces of advice given in connection with taking refuge. The main piece of advice and training within all the teachings of refuge is that of following karma, the law of cause and effect. This is, namely, to do what is proper and leave aside what is not by practicing the ten constructive actions and avoiding the ten destructive ones. The main advice and commitments we accept when taking refuge are to honor, follow, respect, and have confident belief in the law of cause and effect.
Let’s discuss a little bit about karma, the laws of cause and effect:
- Firstly, there is the certainty of karma. If a cause is created, it is certain that an effect will follow. Thus, if we act positively or constructively, the result will be happiness.
- Secondly, if a cause is rooted in a destructive action, the result will definitely be suffering. If we haven’t committed a destructive action, we can’t meet with suffering. If there is no cause, there is no reason for a result to be experienced. Thus, if we don’t want to experience suffering in the future, we should not commit destructive actions.
- The third point is that when we perform an action, we should know that it is not in vain or a waste. At some time in the future, it is definitely going to ripen.
- Finally, karma increases exponentially. From a small cause, we can get a very large result.
Explaining these four extremely important points would take a great deal of time. However, we can begin to understand with a few examples.
In the past, there was a queen called Lozang Lhamo, who went on a picnic with her attendant and discovered a small quail’s nest underneath a bush. The queen began to play around and for amusement lit a fire and burned the nest. The attendant wasn’t involved in setting the fire because she had gone off to the stream to fetch water.
Later, at the time of a Buddha, the queen was reborn as a nun who practiced very hard, attained the state of an arhat, and developed the powers of being able to fly and do all sorts of things. Likewise, at the same time, her attendant was reborn as a nun, but hadn’t attained the state of an arhat. They lived together as before. One day, the house they shared caught fire and even though the queen had miraculous powers, such as being able to fly, she wasn’t able to use them because of the negative karmic potential she had created long ago when she had burned the nest of quails. As a result, the queen burned to death, whereas her attendant, who hadn’t contributed to the act of burning the nest of quails, was able to escape from the house through a drain in the wall where the water went outside.
The nun experienced such a death, even though she was an arhat, as a result of having committed the previous destructive action when she was a queen. The queen’s attendant didn’t commit the destructive action in the past, and therefore she didn’t meet with the result of being burned to death by the fire.
An example that illustrates the increase of karma is the previously given story of someone who, with just the words, “Oh, you speak just like a dog,” was reborn five hundred times as a dog.
In ancient India there lived a great Dharma King, Ashoka, who had once been born at the time of the Buddha. As a small child, he offered the Buddha a handful of sand, thinking he was making a great offering of gold. As a result, he was later reborn as Ashoka and was able to build millions of stupas throughout his empire. We understand that if we plant a seed it might grow into a huge tree bearing much fruit. If we plant one kernel of corn, we could yield a corn plant bearing many ears of corn. This illustrates how from a small seed we can get a very significant result.
It is definite that if we commit a certain destructive action, we will meet with the result of suffering. Conversely, if we don’t commit a destructive action, we won’t meet with the result of suffering. Therefore, we should resolve not to commit any destructive actions. And conversely, we should resolve to do as many constructive actions as possible. No matter what type of constructive action it is, from making offerings to the Three Jewels of Refuge to helping the monastic community – any type of constructive action – we should be mindful that from a small cause can come great results. Therefore, we should try to act with awareness of the increase of the results that will follow.
Five Points for Meditation on the Initial Level Motivation
A person at the initial level of motivation should meditate in the following order:
- First, upon precious human rebirth
- Second, upon death and impermanence
- Third, upon the sufferings of the lower states of rebirth that we might go to after death
- Fourth, upon the Three Jewels of Refuge and the beings who have the power to give protection and refuge
- Fifth, upon taking refuge.
The fifth point is the essence of refuge, in which we follow the teachings of cause and effect, practicing constructive actions and giving up destructive ones. Furthermore, we should think about how there are four different types of results that come from each of the ten constructive and ten destructive actions.
The text called the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish, Do Dzang Lun in Tibetan and Damamukonamasutra in Sanskrit, is very good for us to study because it provides a full presentation of cause and effect. We can also read the collected oral teachings of the Buddha in the Kangyur. The hundred volumes of the Kangyur are arranged in the order of the Tibetan alphabet. The volumes labeled Sha, Sa and Ha include the teachings on cause and effect. There are also twelve volumes of texts on the vinaya, or monastic rules, called Dulway Lung about karma.
Even if we can’t read all the volumes of these various scriptures, we should still think about the examples discussed here today. We should resolve to engage ourselves in the various constructive actions that result in happiness and resolve not to commit the various destructive actions that cause suffering. This is the main point that we should think about.
Purification of Negative Karmic Forces
If we have built up a lot of negative karmic forces from destructive actions that we committed in the past, it is possible to purify them and eliminate having to experience their results. How can we do this? We can first start with feeling deep regret about any destructive actions we have committed in the past.
Look at the animals around us and see their suffering. Seriously consider how horrible rebirth as an animal would be. Think that they are in that state because of the destructive actions that they have done in the past. Realizing that we have done the same type of destructive actions and could just as easily end up like them will help to cultivate strong and sincere regret for all the negativities that we have done in the past. To feel sincere regret is the main method for being able to purify ourselves of negative karmic forces.
The next step is to visualize nectars from the Buddha or objects of refuge flowing into and purifying us. After we have done these visualizations of purification, we imagine our body being perfectly cleansed, clear and perfect. We should actually feel that we are perfectly cleansed and perfect.
Power of the Basis
The next point is to do this purification practice with a mind of great compassion, thinking of all other limited beings and of purifying everybody of their entire negative karmic forces. This makes the purification practice much stronger. This is known as the power of the basis. It is the thing that we rely upon. For instance, we rely upon the visualization of the Buddha for receiving the purifying nectars and on the basis of the inner feeling of compassion. These two aspects are both involved in the power of the basis that we rely upon.
Four Opponent Forces
Next, there are four forces involved in the method for being able to purify the negative karmic forces caused by destructive actions:
- First, we need very strong resolve. We promise not to commit any further negativities in the future.
- Second, we should put up representations of the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha.
- Third, we make offerings of prostrations.
- Fourth, we recite mantras, such as Om Mani Padme Hum, or even sweep the floor and make a clear path for people to come to a teaching.
If we apply these four opponent forces properly, they do work. If we recite the refuge prayer and the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum a great number of times, we will receive indications of purification in the form of signs, such as recurring dreams in which we are washing ourselves, putting on new white clothes, or flying.
We have this working basis of a perfect human rebirth now and we need to ensure that we have it again in the future. To have a perfect human rebirth in the future, it is important to practice the ethical self-discipline of refraining from committing the ten destructive actions. In the past, we have done a great deal of hard work and undergone a lot of difficulties in order to obtain the precious human rebirth that we have now. Likewise, we should continue working hard to improve and get even better human rebirths in the future. On the basis of continued rebirth as human beings, it is possible to eventually attain enlightenment.
If we open up and admit all the wrongs that we have done in the past, purify ourselves of them, and practice the ten constructive actions, then at the time of death there will be nothing to fear. We won’t have to experience the results of a lower rebirth, because we will not have built up the causes, the destructive actions. There is no way that we are going to be reborn in one of the lower realms. We can be sure of this, and so can die in a happy state of mind.
Regardless of what destructive actions we have done in the past, we should feel regret and purify our past actions. From now on in this life, we need to make a great deal of effort and work as hard as possible to build up a store of constructive actions so that at the time of death we won’t have any regrets. It is very sensible for us to exert ourselves in this way. In fact, if we still live for quite a few years and practice very hard, it is even possible to avoid being reborn anywhere at all in uncontrollably recurring existence: we can gain freedom or liberation from samsara.
It is very positive, very good, if we are young and are engaging ourselves in Dharma practice. If we are busy with lots of busywork, try to finish this as soon as possible. If we are old, we shouldn’t feel discouraged. At the time of the Buddha, there was a householder by the name of Pelgye, who, at the age of eighty, turned to Dharma practice. He became a monk and, through his practice, was able to attain the state of liberation as an arhat. There is no fault in being old. It wasn’t until Jetsun Milarepa was forty years old that he went to study with Marpa, and he was able to attain enlightenment in his lifetime.
Great Compassion for Others
It is not sufficient to think only in terms of protecting ourselves from having to be reborn in one of the lower realms. Rather, we should have great compassion for others and do all of our practices with a wish for everybody not to have to suffer a horrible rebirth in the future. It is important to have a more extensive mindset with great compassion for others. We are training, starting with the initial motivation and building on this. Therefore, from the very beginning, we should think in terms of doing our practices for the benefit of all limited beings.
We should think that we are very fortunate to have a precious human rebirth now and that we don’t want to lose this and be reborn in a lower realm. On this basis, resolve to make full use of this rebirth by doing various constructive actions and not doing destructive ones. This is the full and proper use of this precious human rebirth, and these are the basic teachings of the initial level of motivation, the initial scope.