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The Preciousness and Rarity of Human Life

by Dhammadinna

... existence, that we
have a perspective on our experience, a total all-round view, and that can lead to
equanimity. What he says is that that perspective from a human point of view is the
beginning or the precursor of wisdom, of total panoramic awareness. For example, if
we’re in a reasonably good mental state, we may have mental states that are more
associated with a hungry ghost realm – we may have an extremely neurotic craving for a
chocolate biscuit or whatever! - or we may be unhappy, and we may have mental states
that pertain to those other states, but if we don’t identify with those mental states, we
won’t go and live in that realm. If we can keep a perspective, the mental states come and
go, and we stay aware of those mental states, we’ll stay in the human realm. That’s what
we’re trying to do in any awareness practice and in meditation. All kinds of mental
states come and go, and we’re trying to see them for what they are. We see them come
and go, and we maintain a perspective. So that’s a quality of the human realm which the
other realms lack.
If we can maintain a perspective on our experience, we won’t illegitimately generalise
from our present experience. It’s that tendency that takes us off into another
psychological realm. In the seminar on this, Bhante uses a couple of very mundane
examples. He says, say you’ve got toothache; duḥkha duḥkha. You’ve got pain, and that
pain can be quite overwhelming, toothache. So you could just sit with the pain, but what
we do so quickly is that we load on top of that all kinds of mental attitudes. We ‘always’
and ‘never’. We never should ‘never’! We never should ‘always’! We think things like,
“I always get toothache before I go on holiday... it always happens to me... it’s
completely ruined my life…” You’ve made it into a whole thing. You get very angry, for
example. You’ve over identified and over generalised from this present experience. That
is going to take you into a more and more painful mental state.
The other example he uses which is quite funny is that you have to write something and
you break the lead in your pencil. Maybe that’s a bit more everyday. Maybe it’s at your
computer, and your lovely new computer doesn’t work. Instead of thinking, “Oh dear, the
technology’s not quite up to it,” you go into a completely frenetic, hysterical, frenetic
mental state which carries you off into another realm.
It’s interesting to reflect on that quality of human existence, that we have those balances
of karma and karma-vipāka, and pleasure and pain. That gives us a sense of perspective
on our mental states, and that ‘s a precursor to wisdom. He says that on this axis, where
the human realm is in the centre, you’re on an axis to Buddhahood. ‘Outside living
beings, no Buddhas. This very body the Buddha.’
Human birth is not accidental but due to past skilful karma; affinity between
ourselves and Enlightenment
That’s a general look at some of the qualities of a precious human birth. Traditionally it’s
also said that we don’t have a precious human birth just by chance. In exploring this mind
turning and the other mind turnings we are looking at experience within a perspective,
not just of karma and karma-vipāka, but also of karma and rebirth. I don’t know if you
believe in the cycle of karma and rebirth, but maybe for the present try to take it
provisionally. This is one of the frameworks we’re looking at, and we’ll explore it in
more depth later. Traditionally we have a model of different realms in which we’re born.
We are not just born in the human realm out of chance, we are born there because of
previous skilful actions. If we continue to practise ethically we can become more and
more truly human and then enlightened.
That’s interesting in terms of the nature of Buddhist ethics. Bhante makes a couple of
points – I can’t remember which seminar it’s in – in which he is talking about both ethics
and the ideal of human Enlightenment as natural. He says that in Buddhism, ethics isn’t
something that is imposed from the outside artificially, it’s something which is implicit in
our self-reflexive awareness, in our consciousness. Ethics is a natural expression of our
humanity. If we were truly human we would act in an ethical way. If we were happy, if
we were aware, if we were sensitive, why would we choose to harm other beings? Surely
we would choose to respect other life forms and understand that they suffer, just as we
do. You can follow that through all the precepts. You can take the precepts as rules of
training and guidelines, but essentially they’re a natural expression of our human nature.
He goes on to say in the same way in what is sometimes called ‘the ideal of
Enlightenment’, this precious human birth is the crucial realm or birth from which
to attain Enlightenment. From that point of view again, it’s as though the ideal of
Enlightenment is a natural ideal.
We can do odd things with ideals. We can be naively idealistic, as we know, and we can
make ideals as a sort of whip to beat ourselves with. We can alienate them from our
natural experience. So he’s trying to point out that although we may do that, it’s not
really like that. It’s a natural ideal, it’s not imposed from the outside. It takes the person
into account. It goes back to that statement at the beginning of The Jewel Ornament of
Liberation that all beings have Buddha nature. We have the potential for Enlightenment,
so the ideal of Enlightenment is to activate our potential. We can grow towards that
potential; we have a natural affinity with Enlightenment. It may be from some points of
view a long way away, or deep within, depending on how you look at it, but there is an
affinity. If there wasn’t that affinity and we didn’t have Buddha nature and some sort of
potential within us, we couldn’t resonate with the Dharma.
So there’s a very, very positive focus in traditional Buddhism on the precious human
birth, on the human realm, on the precious human body. It may be surprising if you
haven’t come across these teachings before, because there are also other teachings in
Buddhism that say that the body is a heap of filth, for example Śāntideva, in the
Bodhicaryavaara (however he also says the body is the elixir of immortality). I think if
you’ve come across that and think it’s horrible, it’s important to try to see it in
perspective. The asubha-bhavana methods of looking at the body and analysing it into its
component parts is a method for breaking our attachment to the body in a particular way,
for example if we think we need lots of pleasures for the body and that’s going to make
us ultimately happy. It isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t look after our bodies, but that
we’re trying to break an attachment to the body so that it doesn’t lead to suffering.
These two things are usually held in balance. You have those kind of methods, but at
the same time you value your body and your life as your basis for Enlightenment,
because you haven’t got anything else! If you haven’t got a body, you can’t sit and
meditate. A disembodied mind doesn’t seem to work that well if you think about the
bardo. So we value the body as the basis for Enlightenment and treat it as precious, so
the body is not to be despised, punished or treated badly in Buddhism.
In terms of the method for analysing the human body, that same method is applied to
the mind as well in Buddhism. We look at our mind analytically, and see what mental
states we’re made up of. So it’s a method to see that there isn’t enduring self or soul.
That is what leads us to suffering.
We’re going to look at the eight freedoms, ten endowments, and the three kinds of faith
which traditionally make up this precious human birth.

The meanings of 'precious'; what can we make of our lives in this rich consumer
I’ll just give you some different ways in which ‘precious’ is glossed in some of the
traditional texts, because I think it gives a very, very positive impression of these
teachings. Sometimes ‘precious’ is glossed as lucky, auspicious, wonderful, of
immense benefit, with great resources and requisites, with the potential for
Buddhahood. It’s a human life or a human being with time, energy, freedom, a certain
amount of leisure, motivation, opportunity, ability, capacity, good circumstances, faith,
energy, intelligence, confidence, diligence, wisdom. Those are things we’re going to be
reflecting upon, whether we have them or do not have them, and see whether we have
got these freedoms and advantages.
In the modern West we do have so much going for us. I know we’ve got psychological
stuff that undermines all that, but we do have so much going for us. I think the
challenge for us in the West is to know what to do with the resources we have available
to us. Can we make something of it? Can we make our life meaningful in the midst of
our rich, consumer society?

Eight Freedoms - from the other realms; from barbarian lands; from wrong views;
from impaired senses; from a place or time without a Buddha ...

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