Precious Human Existence
Excerpted from the 'Mountain Dharma' teachings, given by Khenpo Damcho Dawa in Samye Ling in May 2011
Translated by Ken Holmes
The main point of this chapter is to tell us about what is called the most precious or most useful existence. Quite how that is defined is very well explained in the Sutras. It’s explained through certain sets of factors that need to be present before you can say ‘that’s a precious human existence’. Those factors are to be free of eight unfavourable states, to be endowed with ten assets or very positive features in ones life and then to have faith, exemplified through three very famous examples of how rare and precious it is and so on.
So if we are Buddhist, Dharma followers, then we are probably certainly dedicated to Dharma practice, we want to practice Dharma. But the problem is that this idea of Dharma practice is a very long idea because definitely we are going to practice the Dharma – later. We certainly are committed to it but it’s something that we don’t have enough sense of urgency about. What’s wrong with that? Well, thinking ‘I really will practice that later’ - later means tomorrow. So today we think, ‘I’m really going to get down to the essential practice tomorrow but then when tomorrow comes it’s the new today and we’re thinking, I’ll do that tomorrow. And then on that next tomorrow that becomes today and I really will do that tomorrow. So Rinpoche was taking some pages. He says one goes by and I’m going to do that tomorrow but then that becomes today and then that goes by and then the next. The days go by and then the months go by, the years go by and always we’re going to do the essential work later. And then death comes and that’s it, finished. It might be alright if then after death we get another equally precious human existence – but you won’t. If you didn’t use this life properly you won’t, because that precious human existence is so, so amazingly rare. It’s so hard to get it. It’s such a rare thing that unless we fully utilise this life then there won’t be the next life where we can really do what we want to do.
Putting it off has that fault but not only that. If we’re putting off the essential, the true Dharma until tomorrow, then we have to ask why we are doing that. What is it that we want to do today that we are putting off the essential Dharma until tomorrow? Then, when we look at what we’re doing today, very often the reason we’re putting it off is that we are involved in worldly things and these so often involve the harm that makes the Karma. That means that what we’re doing today, not only are we not practicing the essential Dharma, we’re actually stacking up the reasons for rebirth in lower states.
So when we have this really long idea of precious human existence, somehow we have this mentality of my life, where we have a lot of time and a lot of space. That wide idea of a precious human existence, that concept, is one thing. But really when we talk about precious human existence it means this living moment, it’s this actual moment of now, living moment of now, when we have this precious opportunity. It’s that one that we need to use. So, when it says precious human existence, which gives this broad band concept, it means this living moment. Those are the ones that we need to use for the Dharma. If not, then as was said before, it will be virtually impossible to get another such opportunity because it is so rare. Just how rare it is, is given in the Bodhicharyavatara and in ‘Letter to a Friend’ by this very famous example of a huge ocean on which there is a wooden yoke floating on the surface and there’s a blind turtle that comes up once every thousand years. It talks about the odds of that turtle putting its neck through that yoke. How rare it is that would happen is how rare it would be to get another precious human existence. Or if one very, very tiny thing is thrown into a great space, how rare it would be to come across it. It’s incredibly rare, not just a bit rare.
A precious human existence is very, very hard to get in a future life. In one way we don’t know about the future life or our past lives. But actually, if we want to know about our past lives and about the future, we can learn a lot from just knowing ourselves as we are now. The fact that we’ve got the human existence we’ve got, we’ve met the Dharma, we have whatever faith and dharma qualities we have, are certainly the results of the wonderful work we have done in our past life and past lives. We can appreciate that. But at the same time, how much we see that by how quickly we can assimilate the ideas of Dharma, How quickly and how well we can meditate and gain the results of meditation. Sometimes those things are difficult. So in one way we have very good Karma from the past, we can understand what we must have done in past lives to have got this but on the other hand it’s only so much. Not only that, in our minds when we look, we find that we still have lots of clinging, craving self centeredness, anger and all the mind poisons. So we have this mixture of all those things and they’re the fruition of what we did in the past and the way we acted in the past. We can understand a lot of our past through that.
Just now, if we want to know what the future life will be like, we need to appreciate what we’re doing with the assets and the capital we’ve got from the past. We see it’s all a habit of habituation. For instance, if somebody is very much involved in art, it becomes a habit. They really appreciate art and as soon as they see a work of art then their mind is there and they understand and appreciate it. You can see that this is just an example that the mind is a creative habit. So if we look in this life then we can see that if we are really nurturing the Dharma habits, really in the present doing our very best, then this is what will lead our habits in a positive direction and help ensure a future human existence. But, if we are still pursuing the negative habits, and in fact feeding them more than the positive ones, then that’s very indicative of where we’re going in the future. All those negative things are very powerful and they pull you down and down.
It’s a very rare thing to be reborn human and we might have the feeling that maybe for all the good things we’ve done in the past lives we have a few precious human existences to go. We’ve got a sort of a good capital. We have this one now but through what happened in the past then we’ve probably already got the next one as a human life and then the next one after that. We have some stored up. If that were the case, because there are some very pure beings who do have such a wealth of virtue from the past that they have this huge capital, if that were the case then it would show in our present mind. We would have the ability to very pure conduct; we would have a renunciation of Samsara that’s spontaneous. We would have a glowing love and compassion in our hearts for all beings at all times. Those very strong signs of natural Dharma-ness would be there. So if that’s not the case then we don’t have the causes from the past that are going to guarantee a future of the next life being a precious human life.
So then we have to look at what we’re doing now in this life. What do we need to do in order to get the next life as a precious human existence? That’s very clearly known. What we need is to live in a very pure and ethical way, right conduct. What we need to do is observe the vows, what we need to do is develop compassion, practice the Six Paramitas and so on. Those are all of the causes that bring about rebirth as a human being. So, if we don’t have that capital from the past and if we were not really doing the huge work it takes now, then where is this hypothetical future human existence going to come from? Where? It’s for that reason that we need to make our human life a very meaningful one. Make it accomplish what it needs to accomplish. As mentioned earlier, that means doing it now, not having this idea of having a lot of time to live to spare. Nobody knows when they’ll go. We don’t have a fixed lifespan; we can’t plan out even the rest of our days. I’ll do this first and then that afterwards. Rinpoche was picking up his pages and saying that if you know there are sixty pages then you know that this is your life. You don’t. You don’t know when you’re going to die and then we have to look at how the life has been used already. What’s been done with it.
As was explained in the teachings on motivation that we should have when we attend a teaching, the way to see ourselves is as somebody who is the patient, somebody who is sick and who needs the medicine and advice of the doctor. In fact, when we look into who we are and what we are we find still a lot of darkness and negativity in there. So it really means that making our lives meaningful means making today meaningful, making this present moment meaningful. This precious human existence doesn’t just mean a human existence, any old human existence. Being born human doesn’t mean we have the opportunity of Dharma practice and so on. There are many, many worlds and times where there are no Buddhas or Dharma. So they’re human, but it’s not what we mean by this precious human opportunity. This is something to be very happy about, this precious human existence, something really to be overjoyed about. There are many, many human existences in times were there are no Buddhas or no Buddhas have taught. They’re humans but we’re almost non-humans because we are human beings with something very special inside us. So special it’s like a wish fulfilling gem. That wish fulfilling gem that we carry within the physicality of our human body that makes us a precious human being. It’s precious because it has that precious gem. We’re here in a world where a Buddha has come, where not only he came but he taught the entirety of Dharma. Not only did he teach the Dharma, it has stayed very alive and true and fresh to the present day. Not only is the Dharma alive but it’s present in our own reality. There are Dharma centres, the friends, the teachers that make the Dharma opportunity perfectly there in our own lives and moreover we have the inclination towards it and we have the connection and the three aspects of faith. We have an intellectual trust in it, we aspire to it and we have some experience of its truth. When you consider that fact then within us as human beings there is something very special that other human beings don’t have at all. It is this very precious jewel, like a wish fulfilling jewel of Dharma and that is what can make our lives and this present moment meaningful.
What really makes it precious is that we have the opportunity for practice, to actually put it into practice, to make it work. That’s a possibility because we have all the faculties we need for that. Sometimes someone can have an ear but it can’t hear, sometimes people have eyes but they can’t see. Sometimes you can have a brain but there is something wrong with it and it can’t really think and so on. For us it’s not like that. We have our faculties and we can take the teachings on board and we have this opportunity of actually putting them very effectively into practice. That’s the most precious aspect of the precious human existence.
When we consider that is the case, all of those things: we’re human, we’re alive in the time of Dharma, we have the inclination towards it, we have all our faculties, we have that possibility. Then all of that is like a Golden Pot. If you have such a container, so precious, then you have to put something very valuable into it. We need to put the nectar of Dharma in there. But, if instead, in this possibility that we are this golden container, then if we put rubbish and waste and excrement and just dirty, poisonous things then that is a terrible shame.
So the key point today is about this preciousness NOW of our human existence. We don’t know what we have left of this life so it’s about the preciousness of the present moment and making the very best of that opportunity, never wasting whatever is yet to come of our precious life.