OPL5: Chapter 2: The support: a precious human existence

So now we have a compelling reason to want to wake up, AND our first prerequisite is checked off! The first prerequisite, buddha nature, is pretty much all good news: this simple and powerful potential to purify all our obscurations and to fully develop wisdom and compassion is naturally possessed by all beings without exception. If there’s any bad news, it’s temporary and doesn’t apply to everyone: it’s that some beings are much closer to realizing buddha nature than others, per the five degrees or stages described by Gampopa — but if you’re reading this, there’s no bad news for you. You’re almost certainly in the mahayana stage, the best jumping off point for the path.

Next among Gampopa’s six topics on the path: we need a framework or support for realizing our full potential, and this time there’s definitely good news and bad news.

Bad news first: not all beings possess in this lifetime the support for traveling the path; in fact it’s notoriously rare, difficult to attain, and easy to lose. For all those reasons, it’s considered precious. The good news is that if you’re reading this, you can check off the second prerequisite, and your only worry is to make sure you don’t waste it.

It’s worth reviewing the more detailed explanations in OPL/JOL and Path to Buddhahood, but here is a quick summary of what is required to have a precious human existence, in metrical form for easy memorization, if you are so inclined:

You must possess the freedoms, i.e., not be caught in one of the eight unfree states summarized below:

Hell beings, ghosts, and animals; uncivilized; long-living gods;

Wrong views; buddha-empty world; impaired: these eight, the unfree states.

You must possess the resources, of which there are ten, the first five internal, and the second five external:

Born as human; dharma country; no impairment;

No worst karma; faith and refuge / in the three jewels.

A buddha came; the Buddha taught; teachings remain,

with followers; our needs are met / to practice them.

The four reminders: The importance of the precious human existence and why we should not waste it are summed up in the first of the four reminders or thoughts that redirect our minds from habitually digging ourselves deeper into samsara toward the dharma practice that can free us (chantable to the standard ngondro/Chenrezig tune):

First, the freedoms and resources, / hard to gain, easy to lose.

Starting from this present moment, / I will put my life to use.

What to do with a precious human existence once you have it: This is summed up in our old friend, verse 1 of the 37 practices of a bodhisattva: to study, contemplate and meditate without distraction.

Gampopa has more to say about this under the heading of the three levels of motivation and practice. The most rudimentary level is to strive for a better life in samsara and avoid the worst types of suffering that are traditionally associated with the hell, hungry ghost, and animal realms. At this level we are just aiming for the relative freedom and well-being of the human and gods’ realms, still within the confines of samsara as defined by Gampopa. But it’s a start!

Since all the realms of samsara, even the highest gods’ realms, are still subject to suffering of one kind or another (more on this in chapter 5), we need to further develop the second level of motivation: to become free from samsara altogether and attain a state of peace that transcends suffering.

But even personal liberation is not complete awakening, according to Gampopa, and in fact, we will see in chapter 4 that settling here can actually become an obstacle to full buddhahood. To attain that, we need the third level of motivation: to free all beings as well as ourself. That is the mahayana motivation, and that’s why Gampopa calls it the closest potential to awakening.

These three levels of motivation and practice are also summarized in verses 8-10 of the 37 practices.

But wait . . . our precious human existence is not quite fully assembled yet! At the end of chapter 2, Gampopa tells us that in addition to the freedoms and resources, which we are born into through the ripening of previous karma, we also need to develop three positive mental attributes, which are the three types, aspects, or stages of faith.

According to Gampopa, these are (using my preferred translations): the faith of certainty, the faith of aspiration, and the faith of inspiration. While he lists them as three qualities that need to be concurrently present in order to fully realize the precious human existence, other teachers, including Ringu Tulku and Kalu Rinpoche, present them in reverse order, where they also serve as stages in the gradual development of faith.

According to Kalu Rinpoche in Luminous Mind, the faith of inspiration is the awe we feel when we encounter or think about the dharma, the possibility of awakening, and the buddhas and bodhisattvas who have attained it. This awe inspires us to also develop the faith of aspiration, in which “we take enlightenment as the goal and the dharma as the path to realization,” and resolve to travel the path ourselves. Then, from our study, contemplation, and meditation on the path the faith of certainty arises: “We taste firsthand that [the teachings] are correct and authentic; their truth is directly validated.”

We will end, in case you need any further convincing, with a verse of advice from Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, chapter 7, verse 14, translated by Stephen Batchelor, which, like verse 1 of the 37 practices, uses a boat as a metaphor for our precious human life:

Relying upon the boat of a human body,

Free yourself from the great river of pain!

As it is hard to find this boat again,

This is no time for sleep, you fool!

Class recording 11.01.2018: click here or in blogroll at right

Next: Chapter 3, the condition: relying on an authentic teacher