No Permanent Identity of “Me” from Lifetime to Lifetime
Based on considering the previous points of analysis, and far more points that could be discussed, we gradually come to accept that we have had beginningless past lives and there will be endless future lives as well. Our mental continuums have had no beginning and will have no end. Therefore, to work on attaining any of the three lam-rim goals: better rebirth, liberation from rebirth, and enlightenment, we need to attain them by working on our mental continuums to remove forever the deluded side of the four noble truths and to cultivate the purifying side, even if this takes an enormous amount of time and an enormous number of rebirths.
On the gross level, the type of life form and life, and the types of abilities our mental activity will manifest in each rebirth are of course going to be different. For example, as a worm, our mental activity will obviously not be as strong as the activity and capabilities of a human brain. The various types of habits that are associated with various life forms, such as when we’re happy we wag our tail or something else, all of this is influenced by karma. In other words, it’s influenced by the types of behavior we’ve participated in and the karmic aftermath left after those actions. Therefore, there’s no permanent identity of “me.”
Identity in this case is in terms of identifying with a specific lifetime that we have. This is different from individuality. We always retain our individuality, no matter what life form we take: I don’t become you. But, there is no permanent identity as a Mexican, German, human being, chicken, male, female, or anything. Therefore, we could experience rebirth in any type of life form; it all depends on how we act. However, our individual subjective mental activity will continue.
Appreciating Our Precious Human Rebirth
Now we have this precious human rebirth. We’re not chickens. We’re not starving to death. Most of us aren’t severely handicapped. We’re not in a situation where no Buddhist teachings are available, or where it’s forbidden or against the law. On the initial scope, we have meditations on the precious human rebirth, which only makes sense if we consider that there’s an enormous amount of other possibilities of what we could have been or experienced in this lifetime. Given all the types of karmic potential that we have, then as one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to say, it’s best for us to consider ourselves on a brief vacation from the lower realms, and to think that our vacation time is almost over. So, while we’re on this short vacation, we shouldn’t just spend our time taking photos of the human realm and that’s it. We need to take full advantage of having this incredibly precious human rebirth.
What’s the biggest benefit we have of being human? It’s our intelligence. We have discriminating awareness that is able to tell between what is beneficial to practice and what is better to avoid. Only as a human being do we have this kind of discriminating awareness. Death is going to come at any moment, but if we don’t have conviction that there’s going to be a next life after death, then when we die, that’s the end. It’s okay, everything is finished. Then, it’s not so significant to have death awareness.
Awareness of Death and the Kind of Rebirth That Might Follow
We need to take very seriously the fact that we have this incredible opportunity of a precious human rebirth, and that it’s going to end for sure even if we have no idea when. After we die, it’s going to continue, and the question is, then what? If we think in terms of beginningless and endless mental continuums, the amount of time in this lifetime is very, very short. Although scientists might change their minds every few years, even if we think in terms of the lifetime of the universe from the time of the big bang until the universe ends, this lifetime is nothing. It’s so short. Rationally then, there’s far more time after this precious human rebirth than during it, and it makes sense then to have a bigger concern about that longer period of time after this life than just pay attention to this short life. Of course, the rest of this lifetime is part of what is yet to come, we have to pay some attention to it also. But the whole point of this initial scope is to have our major attention and interest be on future lives.
Now we’re starting to appreciate Real Thing Dharma. If we’re really convinced about rebirth, then we do need to take this stuff seriously. If we take it seriously, then the preciousness of this present human life stands out enormously. How incredible that we have this opportunity and the freedoms to actually work to improve our condition. If we really appreciate this precious human rebirth, then what will we want in the future? We’ll want to be able to have more of them.
Safe Direction as the Means to Attain Better Rebirths
If we go in the safe direction of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, we go in the direction of the true stoppings and true pathways of mind on our mental continuum that that we haven't attained yet. Nevertheless, if we take that direction then it will protect us from the worse rebirth states that we dread. We’ll realize that to actually go in that direction and achieve these aims of attaining true stoppings and true pathway minds, we need precious human rebirths again and again. The chances are that we’re not going to achieve the true stoppings and pathway minds in this lifetime, so we have to ensure that we continue having precious human lives. In this way, we can carry on further and further in this safe direction.
Attaining the State of an Arya
We read in the lam-rim that we aim for a better rebirth as either a human or as one of the gods. If the precious human life is so important, why is it stated this way? It ties into a very complex point from a text called Filigree of Realizations (Skt. Abhisamayalamkara) by Maitreya. In this, we have a list of 20 Sanghas, here Sangha referring to the arya Sangha. There are many levels of mind with which we can attain a true stopping with the true pathway minds, what we also call the “path of seeing.” A seeing pathway of mind is a mind that has non-conceptual cognition of the 16 aspects of the four noble truths. In other words, we can achieve the state of an arya with many different levels of concentrated mind, and thus the 20 Sanghas refer to 20 types of aryas differentiated according to the level of concentrated mind they had with their non-conceptual cognition.
Among these levels of concentration are various dhyanas, which are extremely advanced levels of mental stability. The different levels correspond to the different levels of god realms. If we become attached to any of these states of mental stability, we’ll be reborn in the god realm that corresponds to it, and we’ll have strong instincts to achieve that type of mental stability again. Therefore, if we’re reborn in one of these god realms, it will be theoretically possible within that realm to develop a level of mental stability that would enable us, if we’ve built up other instincts from a huge amount of other practices, to attain the state of an arya. Because of this, we speak in terms of aiming for a better rebirth as either a human or god. It’s not just because gods have a wonderful time and lots of pleasure!
The main point is that when we think of safe direction, we’re aiming for this arya state and beyond. We’re aiming for true stoppings and true pathway minds and because theoretically it’s possible to achieve that from a god rebirth, it’s included here. However, we’re really aiming for a precious human rebirth because that’s where it’s easiest and most conducive for achieving the arya state. The whole aim for a better rebirth is not at all the non-Buddhist aim of going to paradise or heaven. The Buddhist aim is that we’ll be able to continue to have a working basis with which we can achieve liberation and enlightenment.
Karma: Avoiding Destructive Behavior
The next step is to think, how exactly do we achieve a precious human rebirth in future lives? This brings us into a discussion of karma, because to really ensure precious human rebirths we need to refrain from acting destructively and start acting constructively instead. We might be really interested in getting precious human rebirths in the future, but don’t want to stop acting destructively! So, now we need to gain conviction in the fact that destructive behavior leads to unhappiness, whereas constructive behavior ripens into happiness.
Have you ever asked yourself why? I mean, if we were really convinced that acting destructively resulted in unhappiness, misery and suffering for ourselves, then we wouldn’t act destructively. So, we’re obviously not convinced. Once we are, then we also need to understand the mechanism that allows for the ripening of happiness and unhappiness over many lifetimes. There usually is a long interval between our destructive actions and the ripening effects, which goes back to the topic of endless mental continuum.
There is no doubt that we have freedoms and endowments during a precious human rebirth. We’re intelligent, have access to information, and can freely make our own choices. However, it really won’t last forever. This human life we have is like a short, pleasant vacation that can be cut short at any minute.
When we truly understand that we will die, and that our mental continuum will continue, we have no choice to but to think of our future lives. Most of us work so hard just for our future old age, so why wouldn’t we think of our future rebirths?