The first reminder—our precious human birth—makes us aware of the opportunities of this life and to develop an appreciation for and value our life. Most of us spend a lot time dwelling on the things that have gone wrong today or yesterday or what might go wrong tomorrow. We think very little of ourselves—as people we have a low opinion of ourselves. We have no idea about our true nature and about the possibility that this life affords us. This teaching is to help us rebalance how we’re looking at our life.
The classic teaching is to look at the eight freedoms to see that we have a fortunate birth. Four are freedoms from non-human states where there’s no chance to practice the Dharma, and four are freedoms from human states where there’s no chance to practice Dharma. Now, this teaching is about rebirth – that our streams of being have been born continuously in different places and times and bodies. But, it’s not necessary to believe in rebirth to have an understanding of how fortunate we are in this present moment of this life. Each of us has had different phases in our lives where maybe we’ll be able to relate to these states metaphorically.
The teaching looks at the four non-human states, which are a life in a “hell realm,” of continual torment and suffering. The realm of the “Hungry Ghost.” This is where beings experience continual craving, frustration and clinging—addiction is like that. The animal realm…these beings have more limitations because the consciousness is limited. The last non-human realm is the celestial realm. A celestial being is born into a realm where there is just complete pleasure all the time. Would anyone practice the Dharma if there was only pleasure? Too busy eating, drinking and sleeping around. So it’s really something to rejoice about, that we’re free from being reborn in that circumstance, because if our mind is really serious about attaining enlightenment, situations of extreme pleasure are just as much of a disadvantage as situations of extreme pain. In this ordinary life, we can’t cope with too much of either. We get totally overwhelmed.
Again, when we’re meditating on all these things, really remembering what it was like to live that way or what it might be like, we can cultivate deep gratitude for our lives and see—experience how precious they are. It’s something to rejoice about, that at this moment, we have heard the Dharma and developed an understanding of Buddha-nature, we realize Karma and the results of our actions, that we have a view that is based in the reality of life.
Shantideva wrote: “These human leisures, opportunities, and faculties are very rare to obtain and easily lost; If one squanders the chance to fulfill the aim of human life, How will such an opportunity arise again?”
And what is the aim of human life? What are we trying to fulfill? The Buddha taught that this human birth is a precious gift because it gives us the opportunity to realize our true nature—empty and luminous, Buddha-nature.
Sogyal Rinpoche writes: “Buddha-nature is simply the birthright of every sentient being. This is what the Buddha brought us from his enlightenment in Bodhgaya, and which many people find so inspiring. His message—that enlightenment is within the reach of all. Through practice, we too can all become awakened. If this were not true, countless individuals down to the present day would not have become enlightened. According to Buddhism, there is no being, human or otherwise, who doesn’t possess some wisdom and some compassion. However bad, however evil, every being has a minimal amount of love, kindness, or compassion, at least for themselves or for one other being.”