Thursday, August 10, 2017

1. Preciousness of human birth



Original Photo by nsyll available on Flickr.com
"This free and well-favoured human form is difficult to obtain.
Now that you have the chance to realize the full human potential,
If you don’t make good use of this opportunity,
How could you possibly expect to have such a chance again?"[1]

The first thought that turns the mind toward the Buddha Dharma is the preciousness of human birth and the importance of using it well for escaping samsara.
But what is so special about birth in human form? There are a few elements here. First, the human birth is extremely rare. Second, human birth is a favorable balance between pain and pleasure which makes listening and devoting to the Dharma easier.
To make us realize how rare is birth in human form Shakyamuni Buddha told the following parable from the Chiggala Sutra (Samyuta Nikaya):

"'Monks, suppose that this great earth were totally covered with water, and a man were to toss a yoke with a single hole there. A wind from the east would push it west, a wind from the west would push it east. A wind from the north would push it south, a wind from the south would push it north. And suppose a blind sea-turtle were there. It would come to the surface once every one hundred years. Now what do you think: would that blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole?'

'It would be a sheer coincidence, lord, that the blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, would stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole.'
'And just so, it is very, very rare that one attains the human state.'”[2]

Here is another suggestive parable:

"Then the Blessed One, picking up a little bit of dust with the tip of his fingernail, said to the monks, 'What do you think, monks? Which is greater: the little bit of dust I have picked up with the tip of my fingernail, or the great earth?'
'The great earth is far greater, lord. The little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up with the tip of His fingernail is next to nothing. It doesn't even count. It's no comparison. It's not even a fraction, this little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up with the tip of His fingernail, when compared with the great earth.'
'In the same way, monks, few are the beings who, on passing away from the human realm, are reborn among human beings. Far more are the beings who, on passing away from the human realm, are reborn in hell.' [...]

Then the Blessed One, picking up a little bit of dust with the tip of his fingernail, said to the monks, 'What do you think, monks? Which is greater: the little bit of dust I have picked up with the tip of my fingernail, or the great earth?'
'The great earth is far greater, lord. The little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up with the tip of His fingernail is next to nothing. It doesn't even count. It's no comparison. It's not even a fraction, this little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up with the tip of His fingernail, when compared with the great earth.'
'In the same way, monks, few are the beings who, on passing away from the human realm, are reborn among human beings. Far more are the beings who, on passing away from the human realm, are reborn in the animal womb... in the domain of the hungry ghosts.'

... 'In the same way, monks, few are the beings who, on passing away from the human realm, are reborn among devas. Far more are the beings who, on passing away from the human realm, are reborn in hell... in the animal womb... in the domain of the hungry ghosts.'

... 'In the same way, monks, few are the beings who, on passing away from the deva realm, are reborn among devas. Far more are the beings who, on passing away from the deva realm, are reborn in hell... in the animal womb... in the domain of the hungry ghosts.'

... 'In the same way, monks, few are the beings who, on passing away from the deva realm, are reborn among human beings. Far more are the beings who, on passing away from the deva realm, are reborn in hell... in the animal womb... in the domain of the hungry ghosts'".[3]

As we have seen in the above two quotes, very few beings can be reborn again in human form after they died, and the number of non-human beings is far more numerous than humans. We can easily realise this by comparing the insects on this planet with the humans. Even if we are now more than seven bilion people, insects will always be more numerous than us. Also, the lower states of existence (hells, the realm of hungry spirits and animals) receive more beings than our human plane. When people focus on hate motivated activities they easily plant a karmic connection with the hell realm, thus being born after death in one of the hells. In the same way, its easier to let onself dominated by greed or avarice and open the gate to the hungry spirits or to become dominated by instincts and be reborn in animal form, than to plant the good karmic seeds of human rebirth.

Some people wrongly assert that once born a human one will stay a human or continue to evolve until Nirvana or Enlightenment is attained. Thus, they think that spiritual evolution is a straight line from which one cannot retrogress. However, that is a grave delusion. What they do in fact, is lying themselves by projecting their own wishes for security, and creating a "safety zone" for their fearing minds. In truth, when we look to many of our human beings, and even to ourselves, we see that very often feelings of hate, pride, jealousy, avarice, and so on, are surfacing the waves of our minds. Some human beings behave like animals when it comes to lust, forgeting everything for some hours of pleasure, even sacrificing large amounts of money for this or for eating and drinking. Their minds are focused almost entirely on sex, food and drink, so how do these people resemble human beings? Some are constantly engaged in cruel behavior, killing or torturing other beings, while others work only to amass wealth without giving a single coin to those in need. How do all these people with such perverted conscience can be considered humans anymore? While their bodies are still in the human realm, their mind-stream already started to resemble those of animals, hell dwellers or hungry spirits, so when their karmic cause for being in the human realm is exhausted, their conscience will naturaly and automatically enter a form (body) and world with which they resonate. Its not wrong to say that a human behaving like a pig will one day become a pig and live among pigs.

Also, the pain which exist in the lower realms, especially in the hells or preta (hungry spirits) realm is too great, while in the asura (demi-gods) and gods realms the pleasure is too high and intoxicating. In both cases is very hard or even impossible to think to the Dharma. 

Just imagine you have very high fever and diarrhea every day, and I call you to the temple. Could you really come? Could you come here to sit normaly and listen with a clear mind? Now imagine that pain multiplied bilions of times, with your body being pierced by extreme pain, burnt constantly, boiled, freezed in antarctic cold or feeling excruciating hunger and thirst like beings born in the hells or preta states. Also imagine yourself an animal, being hunted or raised for your meat, constantly living in fear of being killed or always pressured to hunt others to eat. Imagine you are under the total control of your instincts and with the conscience of a mere child. How can you really focus on understanding and practicing the Dharma in that state?

Now imagine that after many years of destitution you are spending one week with the most beautiful woman in the world, eating the best food, drinking the best wine and staying in an expansive resort made just for you, where everything your heart desires is provided. Think that I call you to the temple to hear the Dharma in the middle of that week. Will you really be able come? Now imagine that pleasure multiplied bilions of time and lasting for thousands of thousands of years, intoxicating your body and mind. How easy is to forget the Dharma in such a godly condition, and how painful will be when that god will approach his life's end, as the karmic energy which propeled him into that state is exhausted and he will fall again in the lower states fo existence.

We know from the sacred texts that there are some gods or even powerful spirits who practice the Dharma, acting as mundane protectors of the teaching and disciples, but those who fall prey to the immense pleasures of their state of existence are far more numerous, and so, the Dharma remains mainly unpracticed in the higher realms.  
Contrary to the lower or higher states of existence, in the human realm pain and happiness is balanced. Here there is not so much suffering like in the hells, pretas and animal realms, and not so much intoxicating happiness and pleasure like in the realms of asuras and gods.

But why is human life so hard to obtain? It is because one needs a good karmic cause for that. Birth in human form comes as the effect of a great amount of merit accumulated in past lives through effort at observing the precepts and altruistic attitude of mind to benefit others. So, it means that some times in our former existences we cultivated such merits, and due to a combination of those causes and favorable conditions we were now born as humans. However, we also planted and are now planting many other types of karma, some being evil or ego-centric, which also needs to manifest and generate next rebirths. Thus, karma is not of a single colour or type, but many, and combines itself in endless variations of good, evil or neutral causes, and so we never know what might manifest at the end of this present life or during it. Not being certain of our future rebirth we must do our best with this human life to enter the stage of non-retrogression[4], that is, of those assured of birth in the Pure Land through faith in Amida Buddha.

We use the words "preciousness of human birth", but this does not mean that any life in human form is auspicious from the Buddhist point of view. To be born in a human body but spending your entire life focused only on eating, drinking, satisfiying your sensual desires, or looking for fame and wealth without giving any thought to the Dharma cannot be considered an auspicious or precious human life. On the contrary, its a waste of the rare opportunity to be born in human form. Also, being physically or mentaly incapacitated (incomplete faculties) so that one cannot hear and understand the Dharma, living in a place without the conditions of meeting the Dharma or embracing wrong views and non-Buddhist religions cannot be considered an auspicious or precious human life.

It is said that there are eight freedoms and ten advantages of a really precious human life, that is, of a human life dedicated to the Dharma. The eight freedoms are the freedom from the eight states where there is no opportunity to practise the Dharma: 1) the state of hell, 2) preta, 3) animals, 4) long-living gods, 5) lands or countries where there is no Dharma, 6) incomplete faculties, 7) freedom from wrong views and 8) freedom from a state of existence or universe where the Buddha has not come.

As I explained earlier, if you were born in the lower realms (hells, preta, animals) the suffering would be unbearable and you would suffer from intense heat, cold, hunger, thirst, or being hunted down and killed for meat, and if you were born in he higher realms of existence (asuras and gods) your would be too much intoxicated with pleasures and enjoyable distractions. Incomplete faculties means to be physically or mentaly incapacitated, and so understanding the Dharma would be very much limited or even impossible. Also being sane but embracing wrong views like nihilism, eternalism - belief in a supreme god or in other divine figures outside Buddhism, denying the actual and literal existence of Amida Buddha and His Pure Land, are insurmontable obstacles in your Dharma practice and in fulfilling your life in human form. Last but not least, to be born a human in a universe or world where the Buddha has not come is futile because you could not meet the Dharma to make your life meaningful. Its the same with living in a country where there is no opportunity to meet the Dharma.

The ten advantages are: 1) a Buddha has come in the world and 2) He has taught the Dharma, 3) the Dharma teachings have survived, 4) there are followers of the Dharma, 5) there are favourable conditions for listening the Dharma, 6) being born as a human, 7) being born in a place where the Dharma is available, 8) being born with the physical and mental faculties intact, 9) having a karmic predisposition to search for the meaning of life and spiritual fulfilement, 10) to have faith in the sutras or words of the Buddha.

In our case, Shakyamuni Buddha has come to this world and taught many Dharma gates, among which  the teaching of Amida's unconditional salvation (Amida Dharma) of all sentient beings stands foremost. This Amida Dharma has been transmited by many masters, teachers and lay followers of past and present and we ourselves are now accepting it in faith. Also, even if there are many places where wrong views are taught, one can still find some temples or dojos where the true Amida Dharma is present. Enjoying our human life in a place where Amida Dharma is taught, we can listen to it with our hearing organs, understand it through our intelect, ask questions or discuss our doubts with others and eventually receive faith in our hearts.

Also, without feeling the need for spiritual search and fulfilement, we could not reach the most important moment of our life when we met Amida Dharma and entrusted ourselves to it. Even if some of us tried one or many religious paths until we discovered the Dharma and entrusted ourselves to it, the fact that we were serious in our search created more karmic causes which took us closer and closer to the true teaching about Amida Buddha.

One of the most important features of human life is that it lasts very little in comparison with the lifetime of gods, asuras and even some beings in the lower realms, and is not fixed. For example, Master Genshin described in his Ojoyoshu that, for example, “a hundred years of human life are equal in length to one day and night in the Heaven of the Thirty-three, and in this heaven life lasts a thousand years” or that "a hundred years of human life are equal in length to one day and night in  the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods, and in this heaven life lasts a thousand years, but the length of life in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three gods is equivalent to only one day and night in this hell and here life lasts one thousand years.” Also, in other hells or gods realms life can last even a whole kalpa! In comparison with such beings who enjoy immense pleasure or excruciating pain, human life is extremely short and unpredictable, so we should do our best with what we have and focus on listening the Dharma and receive faith (shinjin), thus entering the stage of non-retrogression and being sure this is our last life as samsaric beings.

"It is rare to obtain human life,
And diffcult to encounter a Buddha in this world;
Hard it is to attain the wisdom of faith;
Once you have heard the Dharma, pursue it with diligence".[5]
(Shinran Shonin)




[1] Bodhicharyavatara.
[2] Adaptation after "Chiggala Sutta: The Hole" (SN 56.48), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 1 July  2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.048.than.html 
[3] "Pansu Suttas: Dust" (SN 56.102-113), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 10 December 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.102-113.than.html
[4] In the exact moment we entrust to Amida, we enter the stage of non-retrogression, that is, no matter what happens to us, we are assured of birth in the Pure Land. Just like all rivers flow to the ocean, all beings who entrust to Amida will inevitably be born in his Pure Land after death. Once we put our faith in Amida, nothing constitutes an obstacle to birth there, not even our evil karma. This is why the stage is called, "non-retrogression." 
[5] Shinran Shonin, Kyogyoshinsho – On Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Enlightenment, translated by Hisao Inagaki, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p. 13

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