Precious Human Birth

Every life is precious, no matter what. First, what does precious mean? The word for precious in Sanskrit is ratna. In Tibetan sometimes ratna is translated as konchog and sometimes as rinpoche. This is sometimes shortened to rinchen. Other times it is translated as norbu, which means jewel. So the Tibetan language is rich in different spiritual terms. According to the Uttaratantra of Maitreya, one of the most important texts in Buddhism, precious human birth is explained five different ways. First it is difficult to achieve and therefore it is precious. Second, the true nature of mind is primordially pure, so it is also precious for this reason. Third, it has the profound capability that it can be used to achieve enlightenment and benefit human beings. Fourth, it is the greatest ornament and ordinary jewels cannot compare to it in worth. Fifth, it possesses the unchangeable buddha nature. So for these reasons it is called precious. The meditation on precious human birth is the first of the four common preliminaries. This meditation is on the eight leisures and ten endowments of precious human birth.

Precious human birth is important to understand not only for practitioners, but also for all people. I found that when I was teaching teenagers that it is important to explain about this. Unfortunately sometimes they commit suicide. So it is important to appreciate life's preciousness. So I tried to talk on this subject wherever I went. Everyone here has understood the preciousness of life. But I found in Montreal many young people committed suicide. This teaching is designed to encourage dharma students to practice and for others so they appreciate their lives. So it is a powerful teaching. When we have difficulties and hardships, we can use this teaching to give us strength and power. When we appreciate our lives and the lives of others, we will not harm ourselves or others. When I finished my studies, I did my ngondro practices. In the Drikung this starts with long life prayers to Amitayus. Then I meditated on the four common preliminaries, three weeks each. When I sat down to do this practice my mind was blank and I didn't know what to meditate on. So I went back to my texts. My texts described the cause of precious human birth, gave examples of it, explained its rarity, and its nature. After doing the four preliminaries I found the rest of the meditation came easy. So it's important to educate yourself on this teaching. The purpose of dharma education is to support practice. Vasubhandu said, "Whatever education we pursue must be for the sake of supporting meditation."

So what kind of life is a spiritual life? It is living to benefit other beings and completely eliminate afflictive emotions. Our form of practice is that of a lay yogi or yogini. We keep the five pratimoksha vows of a lay person. Their are seven categories of pratimoksha vows: the vows of fully ordained monk and nuns, novice monks and nuns, lay men and women, and the one day's vow. All vows are taken with the aim of benefiting sentient beings. As human beings we need food, clothing, and shelter. Traditionally, a fourth requisite was a horse. And to get all these we need a job. The purpose of life is happiness. Happiness does not only come from the outside. The happiness that comes from the outside is limited. Inner happiness is much greater. But the two are not in conflict with each other as long as our activities don't crowd out the time for meditation. Be simple, be gentle, be kind. That seems to include everything. For the practitioner we not only need to understand how precious life is, but that life is impermanent. Everything changes. The purpose of meditating on impermanence is to serve as an antidote for laziness. It also serves as an antidote to attachment. When we are free of attachment, our minds become strong and free. Our bodies may be in samsara, but our minds are free. The teaching on impermanence is the essence of the dharma. It frees us from attachment, anger, and hatred. Impermanence counters grasping. We grasp at conceptual thoughts because we do not see them as impermanent. Therefore our mind is bound by attachment. When a thought arises it goes away when you see it is impermanent. So there is a strong connection between appreciating impermanence and meditation.

We also have to think that other lives are important. Being a vegetarian is not easy, because you need to learn about nutrition. I spent a year learning to became a vegetarian because I had to learn all about this. Vegetarianism accumulates great merit and reduces the chance of disease. So it is beneficial for many reasons to be a vegetarian.

Q: I read that one of Medicine Buddha vows was to help women be reborn as men in their next life. Was that cultural?

A: It may be cultural. It may be this was an expedient teaching. I'm not familiar with that vow. Parents should give equal opportunity to all their children. I led a tour to India and the subject of nuns came up when we were in Dehra Dun and they noticed the nuns had to live in poorer conditions. When I went to Arizona I was invited to an Indian sweat lodge to say prayers. The women went first into the sweat lodge then the men. I thought this was great. My wife was telling me how many health problems women had in Tibet. Buddhism is clear in saying that both men and women have an equal chance for enlightenment. So all life is special.

Q: When you were a young boy and went into the monastery did you appreciate the value of being able to do this?

A: The majority of young students didn't appreciate this. For them it was a cultural thing. Only a minority were there for spiritual motives. In Tibet usually one child became a monk or nun. In my case, I was very interested in going into a monastery.

Q: I notice that many thoughts arise when I meditate. Could you explain how to let them go?

A: During meditation time anything can arise. But the true nature of mind is also there. Do not grasp or reject anything. You should free of doubts and expectations. Everything that arises is inseparable from the nature of mind. If you pray to your lama or yidam first, then that may help. Gampopa said, "Relate to appearances as a young child would." They are only an obstacle if you hold onto them or push them away. It is important to have perseverance Compassion is also important. And you must be patient. In post meditation you must practice mindfulness.

October 20, 2006
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