This article was selected for publication in Lion’s Roar magazine. It’s about the Buddhist experience from a skeptical perspective. Please click on it and give it a read.
This is something we talk about in Buddhism sometimes. “This Precious Human Life.” We dwell in a vast ocean of suffering. The fires of greed, hatred, and delusion assail us throughout our lives. But when teachers talk about This Precious Human Life they’re saying that we are lucky to be here, that our presence in this world of suffering and delusion is a good thing, that we should be thankful.
It seems counterintuitive at first. One of the first things I ever wrote for the internet was an article about the Four Noble Truths. In that article I went on and on and on about the First Noble Truth, that Life is Suffering. I had evidence, examples, quotes, and charts. I really proved that Life is Suffering. But then when it came time to explain the way out of suffering I was spent. I had very little to say. I had difficulty putting any sense of positivity and hope in the Buddhist path and as a result my article was rejected and I was sort of insulted. I almost gave up writing.
(I did a rewrite and got it published almost a year later. I don’t have a copy of the rejected version, but here’s the one that got published: The Revolutionary Nature of the Four Noble Truths)
I had trouble because I wasn’t thinking in terms of This Precious Human Life. Yes, our lives are full of suffering and pain. But this human life is precious. We are lucky to be here because we have the Dharma. We are all fortunate to have been born into a time and place in which we can study and practice. People who are into teachings on rebirth will tell you that a human birth is very rare and it’s only in the human realm that enlightenment is possible. I’ll say something simpler than that and just say that we are lucky to be born in a time and place where Buddhist teachings are available and easy to find. Thousands of teachings are available to us now and for most of history they were not quite so accessible. We are lucky to live in this time. We are lucky that the path out of suffering is available.
Sometimes I wake up and I’m sad. My life hasn’t really gone the way I wanted it to and it’s not really going the way I want it to now. I suffer a lot and I think we all suffer. I can just be sad, sometimes that is what I do. I can also reflect on This Precious Human Life. That helps, knowing I’m lucky to be here now.
You should try it too.
I attend a local Rime (nonsectarian) Vajrayana Buddhist Temple and I love it. I go to as many events and retreats as I can and I volunteer for a few duties, including teaching classes. My community means a lot to me.
This means I’ve been on retreats with Vajrayana teachers multiple times (sometimes Theravada and Zen teachers visit too). I like Vajrayana teachers, I really do. I find the bowing and chanting and bells and drums to be interesting and entertaining.
I have to admit the big focus on rebirth is something I don’t connect with at all. I am, by nature, skeptical of such things in a way that most of the people in my community are not. And that’s okay. That’s definitely on the list of reasons I give when people ask why I have trouble thinking of myself as a Vajrayana Buddhist. But that’s not what I’m writing about now.
I’m writing about visualization practices. I’m confessing that I don’t really do them.
A point comes where the teacher says something along the lines of: “Imagine a glowing ball of clear light directly in front of you.” or “Picture a Buddha sitting up here in front of you, looking upon you with eyes of compassion.”
These sound like lovely practices and they are. But I have trouble. And I wonder if I’m the only one. I sit there trying to picture clear light for 20 minutes. Sometimes I do for a little bit, but I always end up giving up and going to following the breath or zazen instead. And I often wonder, “Are the other 40 or so people in this room doing this without difficulty? Am I the only one?” and “When people say they connect with Vajrayana practice, is this what they mean?”
I have friends who are deeply involved in Vajrayana practice. They are engaged in dedicated study with a good teacher. They do visualization practices and I don’t think they struggle with them at all.
On a final note I want to say something about Trungpa. I almost consider Chogyam Trungpa as one of my teachers. I consider him a patriarch of American Buddhism. I’ve meditated in his stupa. I’ve studied his teachings a great deal. But there’s only so far I seem to be able to go with the training he set up.
Visualization meditations are a huge roadblock for me and at the higher levels of his teachings, that’s really not something you can get around.
“Subhuti, in a previous life I met Dipankara Buddha, I had made many offerings and been very virtuous. If someone is able to receive, study, and practice this Sutra in a later, more distant age, then the happiness and merit brought about by this virtuous act would be much greater than that which I brought about by my previous virtue. In fact, such happiness and merit is incomparable. I know this might be hard to believe. Subhuti, you should know that the meaning of this Sutra is beyond understanding.”
It’s said that Siddhartha Gautama, the one we call the Buddha, wasn’t the first Buddha. They say that he studied with previous Buddhas from other ages in prior lives. That’s what this section is referencing. There are many stories about the Buddha doing good things in previous lives, sometimes as a human and sometimes as an animal. These are called Jataka tales and bear some similarity to fables in the western world. They are stories designed to teach children lessons about things like kindness, paying attention, etc. The Buddha in this section is saying that the merit of studying the Diamond Sutra is greater than merit that he generated in his previous lives.