There is a traditional Buddhist story to explain how rare it is to obtain a precious human rebirth, one in which not only are you reborn as a human, but also in which you’re reborn at a time when the true Dharma is known and taught, that you make a connection with a genuine teacher who learned the true Dharma through an unbroken lineage, that you have the physical and mental ability to practice, and that you have the both the leisure and resources to practice. It is said that obtaining such a precious human rebirth is even more rare than it is for a blind turtle, who spends all its time swimming beneath the ocean, only surfacing once every hundred years, to surface with its head through a yoke (think of the collar used to harness oxen to a plow) that is floating on the storm-tossed waves.
In other words, it’s exceptionally rare. Far more likely would have been rebirth as an insect or animal without the intellectual ability to learn the Dharma, or as a human in some condition of poverty or war that would have deprived you of the opportunity to practice, even if you encountered the path, which is rare itself. To obtain a precious human rebirth requires huge accumulation of merit in past lives. The point of this story is, having obtained a precious human rebirth, do not squander it! Practice diligently. Faithfully carry out the instructions of your teacher, who is even more precious to you than the Buddha himself, because your teacher is the living embodiment of the Buddha, able to give you teachings here and now to guide your spiritual progress. As Patrul Rinpoche says in Words of My Perfect Teacher, which I am currently reading, we lacked the merit to be born in the presence of the Buddha. How grateful we must therefore be to the teacher we do encounter in this lifetime who shares the true Dharma with us.
Words of My Perfect Teacher contains very thorough explanations of the other sorts of rebirths that might be in our future if we’re not careful about avoiding nonvirtuous actions of body, speech, and mind. This is a traditional focus for meditation, which I’ve begun incorporating occasionally into my morning meditation period. I think that these reflections work whether or not you believe in reincarnation. In fact, I can easily see how my actions of body, speech, and mind lead to me experiencing the traditional six realms of existence right here and now in daily life.
My meditation goes something like this:
When I act out of hatred or anger, I secure for myself a place among hell beings, who are tormented by countless tortures that overwhelm their every sense. There are hells of unimaginable heat, hells of biting cold, and ephemeral hells, where illusions initially mask the torments so that beings are deceived into entering them willingly. I can see this in my own life when I become obsessed with anger towards someone; I feel flushed with hot anger, chilled with cold rage, or sucked into hatred under guise of righteousness or justice. Once in the grip of anger and hatred, I feel like I am being eaten up from the inside, unable to think of anything else except the object of my anger, which I blame for my distracted, tormented state. However, I realize now that my anger and hatred are to blame as they hurt me as much or more than the person or situation I am blaming.
I express regret for and repent all actions of body, speech, and mind that I have committed out of anger and hatred. I form the intention to cultivate patience and loving-kindness towards others and to remember that anger and hatred are weapons that harm me as well.
When I act out of greed and miserliness, I secure for myself a place among hungry ghosts, who drag their massive swollen bellies around on stick-thin limbs, unable to satisfy their terrible hunger and thirst because their necks are as thin as a blade of grass. I can see this in my own life when I am unwilling to share what I have or become obsessed with wanting things I don’t have. My every thought is overshadowed by my desire to obtain what I feel I lack. This terrible craving can never be satisfied; no sooner have I acquired the thing that I was convinced would make me happy but I realize that I am not and my focus switches to something else. My desires multiply exponentially even when I attain what I want, because greed does not arise from legitimate need but is a grasping to fill some hole of loneliness, fear, or doubt that I am refusing to face.
I express regret for and repent all actions of body, speech, and mind that I have committed out of greed and miserliness. I form the intention to cultivate generosity towards others and to look carefully at the true causes beneath any impulses of greed and miserliness.
When I act out of ignorance and fear, I secure for myself a place among animals, insects, and other creatures who are driven by blind instinct and base need, lacking the wisdom to change their predispositions and existing circumstances. I can see this in my own life when I act without consideration of my motivation for, or of the consequences likely to result from, my actions. I become buffeted by my passions, led not by my head or my heart, but instead by fear and impulse, thinking only of myself and those dear to me, while forgetting the myriad ways in which I depend on, and interconnect with, the rest of the universe.
I express regret for and repent all actions of body, speech, and mind that I have committed out of ignorance and fear. I form the intention to cultivate wisdom so that I am aware of my own motivations, of the likely consequences of my actions, and of my interdependence with all beings.
When I act out of attachment and passion, I secure for myself a place among humans, who separate the whole universe into who and what they like (and thus cling to) and who and what they dislike (and thus try to avoid). Unable to accept the truth of impermanence, humans suffer greatly as they are forced to face sickness, old age, and loss. Denying the inevitability of their own eventual death, they fail to prepare themselves for it. I can see this in my own life when I become attached to a particular outcome or a particular view of myself or another person. Wanting desperately for things to change in a certain way, or for things to stay exactly as they are, I suffer when faced with circumstances that do not accord with my desires.
I express regret for and repent all actions of body, speech, and mind that I have committed out of attachment and passion. I form the intention to cultivate equanimity and to fully accept the truths of impermanence and interconnectedness.
When I act out of envy, I secure for myself a place among the asuras, beings consumed with bitterness that the roots of a wish-fulfilling tree grow in their realm, while the fruit of the tree ripens in the realm of the gods, who enjoy it exclusively. Unable to see any of the other benefits they enjoy, they are consumed by conflict against the gods and among themselves. I can see this in my own life when I learn of the good fortune of someone else and instead of feeling joy for them, I become upset that I am not similarly favored. I feel longing for what I do not have and dislike the one who has it while being unable to appreciate or even see any of the advantages that I myself have. I am then embroiled in an internal war of desire, dislike, and shame.
I express regret for and repent all actions of body, speech, and mind that I have committed out of envy. I form the intention to cultivate sympathetic joy towards others, rejoicing in their good fortune and being grateful for my own.
When I act out of arrogance and disregard for others, I secure for myself a place among the gods, who live an initially enviable life of leisure and affluence but who are so removed from suffering that they fail to see the benefits of engaging in any virtuous activities. Thus they use up all of their positive karma in indolent pleasure. Shortly before their death, they see visions of their next rebirth in one of the hells and they are filled with remorse, but it is too late for them to do anything to benefit themselves. Their bodies begin to stink and they are avoided by their fellow gods, who do not want to be reminded that their own lives will inevitably come to the same end. I can see this in my own life when I act with self-righteous judgment towards others, unwilling to realize that others have started from different places and faced different challenges than I have. I become insufferable when I become conceited about in my own accomplishments as if I have achieved them in a vacuum, conveniently ignoring that they were are built on and supported by everything else.
I express regret for and repent all actions of body, speech, and mind that I have committed out of arrogance and disregard for others. I form the intention to cultivate compassion and understanding towards others and to diligently strive to purify my actions so that I may always be of benefit to others.
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings remain in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger.