I remember when I first met my root lama. It was at a teaching upon the Four Thoughts (Ngondo). He had asked us to give him examples of analogies of precious human birth.
The explanation he had used was that of a blind turtle in a planetary ocean (no land) who only surfaced every 1,000 years…. and the presence of a single lifesaver, floating upon that endless ocean… and the possibility that the blind, surfacing turtle would manage to put his head through the lifesaver.
The reason precious human birth is considered ‘precious’ is due to its rarity. Using the analogy above, it is beyond rare and thus, truly, truly precious.
The idea is simple — there is a profound need to practice and work towards enlightenment while you’re here. How much more benefit might one bring to all sentient beings if one put the opportunity of this precious human birth to fruitful use through practice?
So, there he was, asking us for analogies to express the rarity of this. The first thing that struck me (as usual) was the hesitation on the part of everyone in responding to him.
(I’ve never quite understood the hesitancy with which others come to the notion of sharing their thoughts and ideas.
I mean, I get that many have an indoctrinated fear of authority, or being wrong, or looking stupid… but all of that posits that someone else is better than you or doesn’t have the same thoughts running through their head. Kind of part of being human, right? So why pretend you’re the only one? Well, ok, ego loves that part. Even if it is a deep down secret that one must never admit, think of, or allow to see the light of day…. oops… oh my… busted again!)
Naturally, my hand went up like toast from a toaster. New girl, sitting off to the side, somewhat alone, obviously not yet ‘part of the tribe’ and utterly fearless anyway. (Oooh, the snooty looks I got!) But the lama just smiled and it was one of those genuine, warm, ‘hey… happy to see you’ things that feels like when someone you love smiles at you.
Actually, that’s one of the things that has impressed me most about Buddhism. The utterly guilelessness, innocence, and at the same time, insight and wisdom of its teachers and priests (Drupon, Khenpo, Lopon). You just never see anyone with these titles be other than genuinely happy, open, and balanced in relation to others.
One of the reasons I determined to do more than talk about Buddhism was in relation to this apparently singular consistency in the system. I have yet to find another system, religious or otherwise, in which this level of consistency has been present.
Anyway… he turned to me with a smile and nodded to indicate that he wanted to hear my thoughts. I told him that the best analogy I could think of to demonstrate the reality of precious human birth was the odds of conception; the probability of any one spermatozoa reaching the ovum.
His translator translated and he got the oddest look on his face. I thought perhaps he didn’t understand so I repeated, using ‘sperm’ and ‘egg’. The translator dutifully translated and the odd look just got more intense upon his face. I began to feel a bit worried that maybe I wasn’t being clear enough… so I resorted to hand gestures… which, in hindsight, were not the most appropriate… but, in hindsight, were also rather humorous (or would be if you were an outsider).
When the lama saw me making the “universal” and rather rude ‘fucking’ gesture, he could not possibly miss what I was trying to say and his face lit up and he laughed and laughed and laughed.
The rest of the group kind of nervously tittered… I mean, here I was, making a rather crass hand gesture to someone considered to be either an emanation of a past lama or, at the very least, a highly, highly realized individual.
On the one hand, he obviously had no concern for it, so why should I? But on the other, how many people there were disenchanted or disillusioned with HIM as a result of my actions (and their witnessing him doing or being something that ‘turned them off’ from practice)? [Aside: It’s pretty easy to get lost and trapped in that kind of thinking.]
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The things that we do or perceive are our inner being expressed or projected from ourselves, or discovered within someone else. Regardless, they’re all pieces of us and indicators of our place and being within the moment.
I don’t really see “you” — I see myself IN you and that is what I react to… the things I see of me that I like make you my friend. The things I see that I do not like, or I fear, or I am angry for, these things when seen in “you” make “you” my enemy. But it’s really always and only “me” I’m seeing.
(All of which is very telling and revealing once you’re really grasping the notion… if people realized how what they do and say tells the world what’s inside them, I am betting they would be more mindful in their actions and they damn sure wouldn’t talk so much!)
This is why Buddhism teaches that those who anger, offend, or hurt you are precious treasures of learning… they all give you the chance to face something of yourself that will cause you to learn and change in positive ways. How many things in life are so kind?
Meh. I am getting off track. The point of this bit was to talk about precious human birth… what it is, the concept behind it, and why it matters to Buddhists. I’ve written about the definition, and I’ve given examples of how and why Buddhists think it’s a pretty important concept, but the explanation of this latter goes a little deeper and, I think, has applicability for everyone on a general level.
It is easy to understand that concept matters to Buddhist lamas because it brings one to realize that true opportunity in which to improve oneself in this life is never something that should be put off.
On a more general level, our perspective of life is always shifting and the realization that the span of this life is so perilously short is easily overlooked. Most of us fear death to the point that we will not look at all. Or if we do, it is only rarely — when we hear of someone dying, when we see someone injured, when we visit someone aging — the thought is unavoidable (and our culture reflects this in our avoidance of these things).
The reality is, life is like a blink. Not only this, it could end in any moment, unexpectedly. Look around you. Watch how the world works. Have you ever seen a bird take a bug from a plant? The rapid snap of one life in hunger ending another… did the bug get eaten for thinking of next year’s vacation?
Life is short. The rarity of this precious human birth is real. The point of this ‘thought that turns the mind (toward dharma)’ is that, knowing this to be true, why would anyone want to wait to do as much as they can to shift themselves, improve themselves, and do what they can to improve the lives of others during this short period of being here?
If these things are not enough, then consider the reality that is the rarity of this precious human birth and think as well of the notion that if this is your belief, it may be as long as it takes that blind turtle to put his head through the life saver before you get another chance.
For that matter, if this is NOT your belief — then for you, this life may be your only chance.
Either way, the reality of your precious life is. This thought is intended to help you realize it and that you should WASTE NO TIME.