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The Preciousness and Rarity of Human Life

by Dhammadinna

The Preciousness and Rarity of Human Life
by Dhammadinna

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM740
Talk given at Tiratanaloka Retreat Centre, 2005

What does it mean to be human? Our choices and possibilities; the balance of

karma and karma vipaka, pleasure and pain

Yesterday we looked at the four mind turnings collectively, and today we’re going to
start looking at each one individually, starting with the precious human birth. Yesterday I
said I thought this was a good place to start, because it’s such a positive take on human
life, human birth, human body. I said the reflections hopefully would lead us to
appreciation, gratitude, self confidence, faith and motivation to practise, and I get the
impression from many, many retreats that we Westerners often find it quite hard to value
our life and our experience. We’re quite conflicted sometimes. We’ve all sorts of
conditionings which affect the way we look at our lives and at ourselves. Hopefully this
very positive take might help us to begin to overcome that if we suffer from self doubt,
You could say this talk was subtitled, ‘What does it mean to be Human?’ I’m going to
explore it from a traditional Buddhist point of view; what a traditional Buddhist point of
view thinks it means to be born a human being, but I think it would be quite interesting
for us to look at that and think whether we think that is what a human being is, or a
human life is. We have a human consciousness obviously, but we come from very
different cultural contexts and so on from when these teachings were developed.
It’s not just what it means to be a human being in a human body. The ‘precious human
birth’ is a translation of a term in Tibetan which is used not just for someone with a
human form, but for someone with a human form or birth with the eight freedoms, the ten
endowments, and the three kinds of faith. So it’s a very highly endowed human existence.
It’s the human form, the eight freedoms, the ten endowments, and the three kinds of faith
that we’re going to explore today. They are listed on the accompanying sheet, and
comprise the traditional take on the precious human birth.
We’re also going to look (and this is traditional) at the human birth, the human realm in
comparison with beings in other realms. Implicit – and I’m making it more explicit in this
– are the six realms of the wheel of life. We’re looking at a particular realm, the human
realm. The other realms of course are the long-lived gods, the asuras, and then the lower
realms of the hungry ghosts, the hell beings and the animals.
Within the six realms the human beings or the human realm is not unique. It’s just one
manifestation of a kind of flow of psychophysical energy. Buddhism says that
consciousness is what is most important, consciousness or mind. That is what
precedes and determines being. Life-streams of psychophysical energy carrying
karma and karmavipāka determine your realm and your body, your birth and your
experience. The human realm is just one realm in the cycle of the six realms. The
universe from a traditional Buddhist point of view teems with consciousness. I think
it’s worth making the point when we’re looking at what a human being is that,
because we’re looking at this kind of model – whether we look at it cosmologically or
psychologically, the six realms – Buddhism does not think that the human being is
different in kind from other life forms. This is different from the Judeo-Christian
tradition, which holds that because human beings have a soul there is a difference in
kind between us and other life forms. I don’t know if people still think that.
So this model is that a human being is different in degree rather than in kind. It’s one
manifestation of consciousness which comes into being in dependence upon karma. In
the six realm model all beings have Buddha nature; all beings have the potential for
Enlightenment. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation starts by saying this and then says the
most conducive state of birth from which to realize Enlightenment is the precious human
body, with its freedoms, endowments and its faith.
The human body is like a precious vase, capable of containing the elixir of
That is a general point about the human body in relationship with the six realms.
We’re going to come and look at the six realms in a bit more depth in the talk on
Traditionally – and I think this is true of our human existence – the human realm has
distinctive features in comparison with the beings in the other realms. I think the
main thing we have as human beings is self-reflexive awareness: the ability to choose
and therefore change. That’s considered rare and priceless, one of the privileges of
human life, hard won, and it comes with responsibilities to choose well, and
possibilities for Enlightenment.
We can choose and change. We can affect our experience and channel our mind stream
along more and more skilful channels. Choice and karma are equivalent: choice, karma,
intention, motivation, volition, direction. We modify our karma and karma-vipāka
through choice. The distinctive feature of the human realm compared with the other
realms is that we have that ability. We have a balance of karma and karma-vipāka, so in
the gap we can choose a new direction, we can change a habit, we can get off the wheel
to some extent and onto the spiral. We have that ability: to create fresh karma-vipāka.
If we look at the other realms in comparison, they are realms purely of karma-vipāka. In
the lower realms, the animals, the hell realms and the hungry ghosts are reaping the
fruits of previous unskilful actions and they’re painful realms. I think you can include
the asuras in that. They’re not always mentioned – they’re sometimes left out. The god
realm is purely pleasurable. They are reaping the consequences of previous skilful

There’s a balance of karma and karma-vipāka in the human realm, and a balance of
pleasure and pain, and the other realms are imbalanced in both those ways. The way you
get out of one of the other realms, is that either your karma exhausts itself (and no-one is
in any realm for ever – it’s not that fatalistic), and other karmas come into fruition,
which may take you into another birth, perhaps a better one, or you need outside help.
That’s why you have the Buddha or Avalokiteśvara appearing in the six realms and
offering the help those beings in that realm need.

You can create fresh karma in those other realms, but unfortunately it’s usually along
the line that you’re already going, and we know this don’t we, psychologically! If you’re
already in a not very skilful mental state, you’re more likely to do something unskilful
and more likely to dig yourself in deeper! You’re on a sort of downward spiral,
hopefully not a path of no return, but more and more difficult to get out of.

Those are the two distinctive features of being in the human realm: we have the ability
to choose and change and we have a balance of karma and karma-vipāka – we can
change the direction of our lives – and we have a balance of pleasure and pain. We
experience both pleasure and pain, whereas in the other realms it’s either one or the
other. The pain in the human realm doesn’t overwhelm us. It isn’t too much, but it’s
enough pain to make us think about saṁsāra and the nature of life. Maybe we’re caught
up in a pleasure-pain cycle, and we’re attached to things that are pleasurable, which
don’t bring us lasting happiness. If so, the amount of discontent that we experience can
motivate us to practise.

There’s also pleasure, so we can enjoy things. That can open us up to the unconditioned
and so we respond to beauty, nature, friendship, people and eventually to the
transcendental. We’ve got that balance in the truly human realm.

I think the small amount of pain or misery also works against the human poison which is
pride. If we go into a god realm for a bit, and get too ‘up ourselves’ that we’re having a
great time, sooner or later it’ll end and that pride will be transformed to some extent.

The human realm is central to the six realms of the Wheel of Life
You could see the model of the six realms differently, and put the human realm in the
centre. This is something Bhante talks about in The Human Condition, in The Three
Jewels which you were asked to read. He goes a little bit further in his seminar
commenting on that chapter. If you imagine the five realms with the human realm in the
centre, he says it’s the central realm, it’s axial. Not only is it central in this new model,
it’s also slightly raised up, because that balance of pleasure and pain and of karma and
karma-vipāka give us a perspective on our experience, whereas if you’re in one of the
other realms either psychologically or cosmologically you don’t have a perspective.
You’ve lost your perspective on your experience.

I think that’s very, very interesting. It’s one of the marks of human ...

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