The Human Situation
The Third Dalai Lama
At this point the question may arise: “If one should try to rely upon a spiritual master who points out the path to enlightenment and should try to please the master by making the offering of practicing his or her teachings, what exactly is meant by ‘offering of practice?’”
Practice means taking upon yourself the responsibility of continually living in accordance with the holy Dharma, the teachings given to you by your spiritual master. Through working with the guru and with the laws of cause and effect, you can take advantage of your extremely valuable human life, a life-form hard to find and, once found, very meaningful; a treasure more precious than a wish-fulfilling gem. Other than doing this, there is no offering of practice. Brace your teeth, and do not let the once attained opportunity afforded by human life slip away. If you do not utilize this tremendous potentiality, is your heart not vain?
At the moment, we have attained a human form having the eight freedoms and ten endowments conducive to spiritual practice. Even though in a sense all humans are equal, from the viewpoint of Dharma practice someone having all eighteen is special among the equals.
Several of the eighteen qualities are shared by all humans in all ages, but the rest are exclusive to beings of strong merit.
The first four of the eight freedoms are common to all humans: being free from rebirth in (1) the hells, (2) the ghost realms, (3) the animal world, and (4) the heavens of the long-lived gods. The remaining four refer to freedom from four unfavorable human states: (1) and (2) being free from a birth in either a remote or a barbaric place where an enlightened being has never lived and taught, (3) not possessing all the faculties of body and mind, and (4) living under the blinding influence of grossly distorted attitudes and beliefs.
The first five of the ten endowments are called personal: (1) having a complete human body, (2) being born in a land with a strong spiritual culture, (3) having all the normal faculties, (4) being free from having committed any of the five inexpiable karmic deeds, and (5) having interest in the spiritual path. The remaining five endowments are environmental: being born in an era (1) when an enlightened being has manifested, (2) when that being has taught the way, (3) when the teachings are still flourishing, (4) when followers of the lineage still exist, and (5) having the compassionate assistance of others in one’s Dharma study and practice.
The first thing one must do is to recognize these qualities and identify which of them we have and which we lack. Having all eighteen is the ideal condition for Dharma practice.
We are all very fortunate to have been born in this present age. A human life in this era is extremely meaningful and powerful, being capable of achieving any goal including the exalted state of omniscient enlightenment. When we consider this fact, we realize that we have a most precious opportunity before us and that if we waste it we will suffer a great loss. The value of recognizing the freedoms and endowments is that one will spontaneously experience the wish to use one’s life in the pursuit of a meaningful existence.
To appreciate the significance of a human rebirth one only needs to contemplate the life of a hell being or ghost, or even an animal or insect. For example, a dog walking around the temple during a discourse can do little more than wag its tail and fall asleep in the sun. If we compare what it understands of the discourse and what a human understands, the contrast is obvious. This ability of humans to perceive and communicate deeper truths is spiritually very significant, because it gives us the power to look to achievements that transcend the limitations of this life alone.
Practice means taking upon yourself the responsibility of continually living in accordance with the holy Dharma, the teachings given to you by your spiritual master.
It is by a stroke of good karma that we have not been reborn in the lower realms or in a time or place where the teachings of an enlightened being cannot be found, or in a black eon when the practice of Dharma is not possible. It is also good fortune that we have not been reborn in a remote or barbaric place where the spiritual teachings have not reached. When we reflect upon these eighteen qualities from this point of view, we experience thoughts of appreciation for our auspicious situation and its rarity. What should one do when one has such a valuable opportunity? Practice Dharma and take the essence of life, the attainment of enlightenment. After the eighteen qualities have been identified, one should contemplate the meaningfulness of a precious human life. With a human body and mind one can meditate; gain an understanding of the karmic laws of cause and effect; generate a sense of the significance of the Three Jewels; cultivate the three higher trainings of discipline, meditative concentration, and the wisdom of emptiness; develop Mahayana qualities such as great compassion, love, and the bodhimind; engage in the six perfections and four ways of benefiting trainees; and practice the yogas of Highest Tantra, including the yogas of the coarse and subtle generation stage and the five steps of the completion stage. In brief, any man or woman of this southern continent who has a complete human form with the six elements and the energy channels in normal working order can engage in the practice of Highest Tantra and attain full and perfect enlightenment in this very lifetime. Of course one must also have the karmic causes that encourage successful spiritual practice, but this is another matter.
If by relying on this rare and precious human basis we can produce the highest achievement, we should take advantage of our situation and cultivate the range of spiritual practices, which are the causes of higher attainments. Through meditation upon the eighteen qualities and their meaningful nature, the confidence that one can practice Dharma and personally attain higher states of being is born. Persistence in this meditation causes this confidence to gain in strength, thus creating a solid mental basis able to support a Dharma practice.
The precious human rebirth is not only noble, but also very powerful, being able to effectively accomplish both material and spiritual goals. As this is the case, it is worthwhile to lift our vision above the lower forms of life such as the animals who know only how to satisfy material needs, and to cultivate the achievement of higher aims—the spiritual goals of higher rebirth, liberation from samsara, and omniscient illumination. However, if we do not use this human birth for meaningful purposes now, we should understand that there is little possibility of our attaining a human form again in the future. To think that one will not practice Dharma in this life but will leave it for a future incarnation is a vain hope. Just as the human form is very noble and powerful, it requires noble and powerful karmic causes.
Three principal karmic causes must be cultivated if one hopes to regain human rebirth after death: pure ethical discipline, the practice of the six perfections, and strong spiritual aspirations. One can only expect to gain a human form again in the future if throughout one’s life one is mindful of these causes. Moreover, the potencies of these karmic causes must be nourished and sustained without degeneration. There is little chance of acquiring a human rebirth if one lives the usual samsaric life. Even if one creates a few positive karmic forces, these quickly lose their potency when not protected and cultivated through spiritual practice. The small virtues one performs, which are generated at great effort, are quickly counteracted by the effects of negative activities which seem to arise at the slightest provocation. Goodness overcomes evil only by great exertion and persistence, whereas once the terrible force of negativity enters the mind it can quickly counteract and destroy what little goodness has been acquired, particularly in this degenerate age when most people’s practice is feeble and built on weak foundations. Positive karma is generated but rarely and with little strength in our lives, whereas negative actions occur almost continually and with great strength. Even now, when we are experiencing the fruit of positive karma and as humans have met with spiritual masters and the teachings on the path to enlightenment, we nonetheless continue more in negative than positive ways because of the strength of delusion and the agitating conditions around us. This being the case even when we have excellent conditions, one can imagine the unbroken stream of negative karmic forces that one has generated in the countless previous lives during which one had no teacher, teachings, or Dharma wisdom. The imprints of these forces still live on within us and, if not purified during this life, could easily influence us during death and cause us to take a lower rebirth. The three psychic poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion have been with us since beginningless time and no doubt have given rise to countless negative actions of body, speech, and mind. That this is so can be known only by looking at our present imperfect state of being. Even now when we have the protection of our Dharma practice, the three delusions still dominate us. How much more would they have influenced us when we had no such self-discipline? When we meditate on this fact, we experience a strong spontaneous interest in cultivating spiritual attainment and eliminating the psychic poisons and the karmic patterns created by them. Such is the teaching that causes trainees of good fortune to decide to make the most of their human life.
To think that one will not practice Dharma in this life but will leave it for a future incarnation is a vain hope. Just as the human form is very noble and powerful, it requires noble and powerful karmic causes.
If we ask how we can take the essence of human life, the Third Dalai Lama gives the answer in the following lines of the text.
The Third Dalai Lama
However, it is of borderline value to listen or to practice Dharma with a motivation mixed with white, black, or gray aspects of the eight worldly dharmas, i.e., the motivation to outdo enemies and protect friends, which is praised by worldly people but actually is shallow; the motivation to selfishly hoard material benefit, a universally condemned motivation; and the motivation of impressing others, which some think good and some despise. If one does not meditate upon impermanence, death, and so forth, and thus pass beyond mundane thought patterns, one runs the great risk of having negative motivations dominate one’s mind. On the other hand, if one practices the pure Dharma well and with no pretenses, the foundations of lasting happiness are quickly and firmly laid.
Discard as the husk of a grain all the essenceless, worldly pursuits—works of no positive consequence and spiritually of great peril. Take up the essence of Dharma, so that at the time this pithless human body is left behind, one will not depart from life with regret. Furthermore, think to practice immediately. Drink the waters of meditation now and relieve the thirst of wishing to hold life’s essence. As Jey Rinpoche said.
Human life, found but this one time,
More precious than the wish-fulfilling gem,
So hard to regain and so easily lost,
Is brief as a flash of lightning.
Seeing this, discard worldly activity like the husk of a grain
And strive day and night to take life’s essence.
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is considered the foremost Buddhist leader of our time. The exiled spiritual head of the Tibetan people, he is a Nobel Peace Laureate, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, and a remarkable teacher and scholar who has authored over one hundred books. Learn More.