The Essence of a Meaningful Life

An Excerpt from

The Foundation of Buddhist Practice

The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron

The following is an excerpt from The Foundation of Buddhist Practice by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Ven. Thubten Chodron, the newest volume in the Library of Wisdom and Compassion series.

Visualizing the Buddha during the preparatory practices prompts us to reflect on his ultimate attainment—full awakening with its magnificent physical, verbal, and mental qualities. This, in turn, causes us to contemplate the path leading to that state, a path that Śākyamuni Buddha taught from his own experience. Since attaining the awakened state is our ultimate purpose, we want to learn and practice the same path the Buddha did. Cultivating bodhicitta is an essential element of this process.

Within the three levels of being—initial, intermediate, and advanced—the method to cultivate bodhicitta and the bodhisattva’s deeds is contained in the advanced level. To make ourselves capable of engaging in these more advanced practices, we must first train in the preceding practices. Of these, the most important center around ceasing our obsession with the pleasures of cyclic existence and aspiring for liberation, which are contained in the intermediate level. But to relinquish attachment to all of cyclic existence, we must first stop attachment to the pleasures of this present life and aspire to have a good rebirth in the future. To do this, we engage in the initial-level practices.

Although liberation and awakening are our ultimate purposes, attaining them in one life is extremely difficult, although not impossible. Certain tantric practices, when done by well-prepared and qualified practitioners, can bring awakening in this life. But generally speaking, completing the path requires many lifetimes. For our spiritual development to proceed smoothly, we need to ensure that we have a series of successive precious human lives in order to practice the Dharma continuously over many lifetimes. For this to occur, we must create the causes, which are included in the practices of the initial practitioner. For this reason, too, the initial practices are extremely important to obtain our ultimate goal.

Precious Human Life

Whatever activity—mundane or spiritual—we do in life, self-confidence is a crucial internal factor to accomplish it. We must have conviction and trust ourselves, believing that we can successfully complete that work. Developing self-confidence and appreciation of our potential are the chief purposes of contemplating our precious human life. As we do this meditation, the conviction that we can definitely transform our mind and gain spiritual realizations will grow.

Recognizing the potential of our precious human life is essential; without it we may spend a lot of time complaining about upsetting events around us, from personal problems to environmental destruction and war. Consistently focusing on misfortune prevents us from seeing the good in the world, and this narrow and unrealistic vision hinders our well-being as well as our enthusiasm for Dharma practice.

Not every human life is a precious human life. A variety of conditions must be present in order to have a precious human life that can be used in a meaningful way. When the Buddha was alive in India, people had access to an awakened teacher, but not everyone was interested in hearing his teachings, and among those who were, some had previous commitments or health conditions that impeded them from doing so. Sadly, these people had human lives, but not precious human lives.

A precious human life is free from eight impediments and endowed with ten fortunes. Of the eight unfavorable states, four are rebirth in nonhuman states. Although these rebirths are temporary, the person is impeded from practicing for their duration.

      1. Facing intense physical torment, hell beings (nāraka) are unable to direct their minds to spiritual practice.
      2. Hungry ghosts (preta) are distracted from spiritual practice by extreme hunger and thirst, as well as by their constant search for food and drink and the frustration of not being able to procure them.
      3. Animals are eaten by other animals higher on the food chain, often mistreated by humans, and are mentally incapable of understanding Dharma teachings.
      4. Those born as discriminationless asaṃjñika gods—a type of god in the fourth dhyāna of the form realm—have almost no mental activity during that life. Born there because of having cultivated the meditative absorption without discrimination in the previous life, their only moments of clear discrimination occur at the time of their birth and death.

A precious human life is also free from four disadvantageous human conditions:

      1. Living in a barbaric, uncivilized society or in a country where religion is outlawed.
      2. Living where the Buddha’s teachings are not available or during a time when the Dharma has not been taught.
      3. Being severely mentally or physically impaired, so that our ability to learn and practice the teachings is extremely restricted.
      4. Instinctively holding wrong views, making our mind unreceptive to examining new explanations of duḥkha, its causes, cessation, and the path leading to that cessation.

When meditating on the eight unfavorable conditions, do not simply think of other people born in those states, but imagine living in those circumstances yourself. Then recall your current freedom from those limitations and appreciate the excellent conditions you now have.

Then reflect on the ten fortunes you presently have. Five of these are personal and five come from society. The five personal fortunes are:

  1. Being a human being with human intelligence that enables you to learn, reflect, and meditate on the Buddhadharma.
  2. Living in a central Buddhist region, one where the four types of Buddhist disciples are found—male and female fully ordained monastics and male and female lay followers with the five precepts. In terms of Vinaya, a central country is one where a saṅgha of four or more fully ordained monks or nuns lives and performs the three major Vinaya ceremonies: fortnightly confession, rains retreat, and the invitation for feedback at the conclusion of the retreat.
  3. Having a healthy body and mind.
  4. Not having committed five actions of immediate retribution (ānantaryakarma): killing one’s father, mother, or an arhat, drawing blood from a buddha, or causing a schism in the saṅgha.
  5. Having belief in things worthy of respect, such as the Vinaya as the basis of Dharma practice, and the Three Baskets of teachings on ethical conduct, concentration, and wisdom.

The five fortunate factors coming from society are living at a place and time when:

  1. A buddha is present in the world.
  2. The Buddha has taught and is still teaching the Dharma. Although these two conditions are not strictly fulfilled now, there are presently qualified spiritual mentors who give the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, and this suffices for fulfilling these two conditions.
  3. Those teachings still exist and are flourishing. The transmitted Dharma of the Three Baskets exists and is propagated, and the realized Dharma of true cessation and true paths exists in the mindstreams of living practitioners. There is a living tradition of spiritual mentors who can impart the teachings orally and through their example.
  4. There are spiritual mentors, monastics, and other like-minded people who follow the Buddha’s teachings and inspire us by showing that the Buddhadharma is a living tradition.
  5. There are benefactors who offer the four requisites for life: food, shelter, clothing, and medicine.

Reflect individually on each of these points and see that you have an advantageous situation and all the necessary conditions for serious practice. Allow this to gladden your mind and give you great enthusiasm and self-confidence.

People who have not thought about rebirth very much may not be able to clearly ascertain the freedoms and fortunes of a precious human life. Nevertheless, there are common points on which everyone can agree. We know that Śākyamuni Buddha lived and taught in ancient India and that many Buddhist sages such as Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, and Śāntideva gained extraordinary qualities by following in his footsteps. Their pure ethical conduct, meditative experience, wisdom, and great humility are evident in their life stories and the treatises they authored. These and many other Buddhist sages did not become renowned by becoming war heroes or financial tycoons. Rather, they observed a life of restraint and humility and benefited others. Through this, without seeking fame, they became well-known role models for subsequent generations of practitioners.

If we reflect on the nature of their precious human lives and our own, we do not find much difference. Everyone has the same human potential. As human beings, we have unique intelligence compared with other life forms, regardless of our nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, religion, and so on. Everyone has the same Buddha nature. Siddhārtha Gautama was an ordinary person just like us. By tapping into and using his human potential in the right way, he became a buddha and was able to greatly benefit sentient beings living at that time as well as those in many centuries to come. Even today, we hear of and encounter people who offer great service and benefit to humankind. We have the ability to do the same.

I have found in my discussions with people that many suffer from low self-esteem and self-hatred. When we reflect on our spectacular good fortune in having a precious human life, these distorted conceptions vanish. We have all eighteen factors of a precious human life, so obviously we are a worthwhile and adequate person. We created tremendous constructive karma in previous lives to have our present opportunity, so we are capable of Dharma practice. We have all necessary conditions to progress on the path and accomplish our spiritual aims in this life, so seeing the future as bleak is unrealistic. Consistent meditation on precious human life prevents us from such self-defeating and inaccurate ways of viewing ourselves. To the contrary, it generates great enthusiasm for Dharma practice.

"Developing self-confidence and appreciation of our potential are the chief purposes of contemplating our precious human life."

Rare and Difficult to Attain

The Buddha did not exaggerate when he said that receiving all the conditions necessary for a precious human life is not easy. Looking at the current world population, we may think a human life is easy to come by. However, not all human beings have the eighteen qualities of a precious human life that give them the best opportunity to practice the Dharma. Some people lack interest in spiritual matters, others cannot meet qualified teachers and teachings. Some people live without religious freedom, others face hindrances, such as starvation, war, illness, and injury, that make practice extremely difficult. Contemplating that lacking even one of the eighteen conditions interferes with all others bearing fruit helps us to see that we are extremely fortunate and must not take this opportunity for granted, but use it to create the causes for full awakening. Array of Stalks Sūtra speaks of the difficulties of attaining each condition of a precious human life.

It is hard to avoid unfavorable conditions. It is hard to find a human birth. It is hard to remove error and doubt about the right opportunity. It is hard also to find a buddha in the world. It is hard also to have all our sense faculties in order. It is hard also to hear the Dharma teaching of a buddha. It is hard also to meet people of truth (holy beings). It is hard also to find authentic spiritual masters. It is hard also to receive genuine guidance and instruction. It is hard also to live right in the human world (have right livelihood). It is hard also to carry out the Dharma in all respects.

We must look inside and ask ourselves, “Do we have all the factors that guarantee having a similar precious human life in the future?” Firm ethical conduct, training in the six perfections, and sincere dedication prayers are needed, as are cultivation of stable faith and correct wisdom. Ethical conduct is the cause for a human rebirth. Training in the six perfections results in having the conducive circumstances to practice the Dharma—generosity in this life results in receiving food, shelter, clothing, and medicine in future lives, and joyous effort in this life enables us to accomplish our goals in future lives. Sincere dedication prayers to have a series of precious human lives so that we can attain full awakening direct our merit so that it will ripen accordingly.

In this context, living in pure ethical conduct refers chiefly to abandoning the ten destructive pathways of actions—killing, stealing, unwise sexual behavior, lying, creating disharmony, harsh words, idle talk, coveting, maliciousness, and wrong views. It also involves taking and keeping any of the prātimokṣa ethical codes—those for monastics or lay followers. Doing this requires some conviction in the infallibility of the law of karma and its results.

We know that every conditioned phenomenon arises due to its preceding causes and conditions. This is the general interdependent nature of causes and effects. Within that exists one type of cause and effect—karma and its results. Karma—sentient beings’ volitional physical, verbal, and mental actions—depends on our virtuous and nonvirtuous motivations and produces our experience of happiness and suffering.

All sentient beings—except those in the formless realm—have a body. While the body itself is produced by external causes, such as the sperm and egg of our parents, which body our mindstream is born into depends on the quality of our mind and the kinds of karmic seeds left on our mindstream in the past. By acting constructively in this life, we create beneficial mental habits and leave many seeds of virtuous actions on our mindstream. When we die, some of these will ripen, enabling us to take a precious human life for many lifetimes to come, enabling us to continue our spiritual development with minimum interruption. For this reason, spiritual practice, which concerns working with our mind and its intentions, is important. We are responsible for accumulating sufficient causes to produce future precious human lives like the one we have now.

Reflecting in detail on the specific causes for a specific rebirth leads us to the very subtle and profound functioning of karma and its effects—the specific action an individual did in a certain lifetime that is now ripening in a particular event. This is an extremely obscure topic, one only omniscient buddhas know clearly and perfectly. At present, we must depend on scriptural authority to understand it.

Nevertheless, we can understand the general functioning of karma and its results. We know that constructive acts bring happy results and destructive acts bring suffering results. Reflecting on the actions we’ve done throughout our lives and the various intentions that motivated them, can we say with conviction, “I definitely have created all the causes and conditions for a precious human life and have purified all opposing ones?” Most of us find it difficult to say this with complete conviction because we have done actions we now regret. Transforming our mind by practicing the Dharma affords us the opportunity to change this situation by accumulating merit, purifying negativities, and gaining realizations. Understanding the potential and preciousness of human life to do this and the difficulty of receiving this opportunity in the future, we should avoid wasting our life in frivolous pursuits and engage in Dharma practice now.

"We are responsible for accumulating sufficient causes to produce future precious human lives like the one we have now."

Taking the Essence of Our Precious Human Life

If something is true but does not have much to do with our daily experience, knowing it is not important, and our lack of understanding does not bring great problems. But knowing the great value of our precious human life is crucial to this and future lives. Unaware of this fact, we will not see our present lives as significant and filled with opportunity, and risk wasting the chance to create the cause of happiness for a long time to come. Instead, we will mindlessly follow our self-centered thoughts, which will lead us to unfortunate rebirths. But once aware of the rarity of a precious human life, the difficulty of attaining it, and the amazing things we can do with it, we will no longer think our lives are meaningless.

All living beings seek happiness and peace, and I believe attaining this is the purpose of human life. Happiness and peace depend on hope. People lose hope when their lives do not go smoothly or they fail to actualize their expectations. Some people become depressed and some look to suicide for relief, which doesn’t stop their pain. But when we understand that creating the causes for peace and happiness are within our ability, despondency cannot take root.

There are two types of happiness: temporary and long-lasting. Experienced while we are in cyclic existence, temporary happiness includes the attainment of higher rebirth as a human being or god. Long-lasting happiness is liberation and awakening, which are attained through spiritual practice. The way to make our life meaningful and to attain these two kinds of happiness is by engaging in sincere spiritual practice, specifically the practices of beings of initial, middle, and advanced levels; that is to say, we must aspire to attain liberation, generate bodhicitta, and ascertain the correct view of emptiness. If we have learned the Dharma and are skillful, no matter our situation in life, where we are, or what time it is, the potential to enrich ourselves through Dharma practice is always present.

Spiritual practice involves some form of renunciation. Misidentifying what to renounce, some people think they must give up happiness and undergo hardship and suffering by accepting extra problems and miseries that they did not have before. If this were so, no sensible person would want to practice the Dharma.

The Buddha does not direct us toward suffering; rather, he shows us the path to be free from misery. He does this by explaining that the roots of suffering—ignorance, animosity, and attachment—are to be renounced, and the causes of happiness—generosity, fortitude, compassion, and so on—are to be adopted. He teaches a gradual path so that we can practice according to our capability at any particular moment. In this way, his followers embrace a way of life in which they eliminate all suffering and its causes step by step, beginning with gross ones and proceeding to subtle ones. In addition, they cultivate happiness, starting with temporary happiness and progressing up to the ultimate happiness of buddhahood.

From this, we see that the purpose of spiritual practice is to bring a sense of internal peace, well-being, and fulfillment. Although our ultimate goal is full awakening, the most urgent and immediate happiness to work for is that of future lives, and for that reason practitioners endeavor to create the causes and conditions to have precious human lives and abandon causes that create the contrary.

"All living beings seek happiness and peace, and I believe attaining this is the purpose of human life."

The Foundation of Buddhist Practice contains the important teachings that will help us establish a flourishing Dharma practice, beginning with the four seals shared by all Buddhist philosophies, and moves on to an explanation of the reliable cognition that allows us to evaluate the veracity of the Buddha’s teachings.

The book provides many other essential Buddhist teachings, including the relationship of a spiritual mentor and student, clarifying misunderstandings about this topic and showing how to properly rely on a spiritual mentor in a healthy, appropriate, and beneficial manner; how to structure a meditation session; dying and rebirth, unpacking the often difficult-to-understand topic of multiple lives and explaining how to prepare for death and aid someone who is dying; and a fruitful explanation of karma and its results.

His Holiness’s illumination of key Buddhist ideas will support Western and contemporary Asian students in engaging with this rich tradition.

The Library of Wisdom and Compassion is a special multivolume series in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama shares the Buddha’s teachings on the complete path to full awakening that he himself has practiced his entire life. The topics are arranged especially for people seeking practical spiritual advice and are peppered with the Dalai Lama’s own unique outlook. Assisted by his long-term disciple, the American nun Thubten Chodron, the Dalai Lama sets the context for practicing the Buddha’s teachings in modern times and then unveils the path of wisdom and compassion that leads to a meaningful life and sense of personal fulfillment. This series is an important bridge from introductory to profound topics for those seeking an in-depth explanation from a contemporary perspective.

The Library of Wisdom and Compassion is a special multivolume series in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama shares the Buddha’s teachings on the complete path to full awakening that he himself has practiced his entire life. The topics are arranged especially for people seeking practical spiritual advice and are peppered with the Dalai Lama’s own unique outlook. Assisted by his long-term disciple, the American nun Thubten Chodron, the Dalai Lama sets the context for practicing the Buddha’s teachings in modern times and then unveils the path of wisdom and compassion that leads to a meaningful life and sense of personal fulfillment. This series is an important bridge from introductory to profound topics for those seeking an in-depth explanation from a contemporary perspective.

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