The beings of the three lower realms are unaware of others’ unhappiness and suffering because they are too involved with their own, or they view it as a threat. In the human realm however, we can see the unhappiness of others – we can care about it because we have the capacity to discriminate. We can say, ‘I am better off than they are. I could help them.’ Compassion can sparkle through. Our problem is that human realm beings turn discrimination into a philosophy, gathering together in groups of people who like to do the same thing or who share the same opinion. We tend to dislike or feel threatened by people who do not appreciate our occupation or opinion. But there is also the capacity for tolerance and interest in others’ likes and dislikes, opinions and occupations.
This ability to be curious and discriminating gives rise to humour. When our habits and opinions are noticed or pointed out to us, we are able to laugh at ourselves.
I may suddenly realise the hilarity of hundreds of people sitting in confined metal boxes in long lines waiting with increasing annoyance for the metal box in front of me to move. I may laugh out loud at the sheer madness of cycling with all my strength into a head-on wind of sleet and hardly moving an inch. I may be amused watching myself buy yet another domestic appliance that I believe will make my life easier and more comfortable.
The physicality of being born human is not unusual. It is being human—in the sense of a precious human rebirth—that is rare. Even though we look human, we spend little of our time manifesting the potential of the precious human realm. We dwell more often in mind-moments which exhibit the characteristics of the other realms, especially the lower realms. Anger is a powerful and primitive emotion, so we may actually exist in hell realm states of mind for much of our time.
Other factors which may hinder my ability to take advantage of the precious human rebirth—to embrace Dharma and become a practitioner—lie in the need to find myself in a location where Dharma can be encountered. I require the capacity of intellect to grasp the content of the teachings, and the time and opportunity to hear them.
If I live in conditions of such abject poverty that gathering food or water and eking out a living on the land entirely consumes my time and energy, then I am unlikely to engage in spiritual practice. If I am unduly constrained through class, gender, or social position, I may be prevented from hearing teachings. If I live in a place that is torn with warfare or conflict, the teachings may be totally unavailable and there may be no opportunity for spiritual practice.
Alternatively, it may be that through my upbringing I have no interest at all in spiritual practice and development, and feel the only purpose of life is socially-sanctioned self-advancement.
In circumstances such as these, the opportunity of being human is not available. I may be human in form, but I am not able to potentiate the capacity of human rebirth.
It is not the birth into a human body that is so excruciatingly rare. This is not the wooden yoke the turtle is seeking. The rarity is arising as a being who is willing and able to take advantage of the opportunities and endowments offered by a human rebirth, by engaging in spiritual practice. To live with wholesome dedication to a path which develops wisdom and compassion is not so common. Dedicated and engaged practitioners of any spiritual path are greatly out-numbered by those who do not follow any religious discipline or who simply pay lip-service to one. Our desire to be part of the crowd and make our lives docile, so easily undermines honour and sincerity. We continually compromise sparkling, present vibrancy for the mediocrity of ‘good enough’. To activate our potential as human, we must live our lives as warriors: fearless, without need of reward or recognition, honourably upholding the cause of kindness and awareness. This is the rarity and preciousness of human rebirth.
To be reading any book about Dharma is part of a success story. For interest to arise in looking with a discriminating mind at the nature of our condition, and the patterns of our perception, means that we are dwelling in the human realm.
Every time I put aside: churning over the argument with my neighbour; my belief that the next fad, household appliance or partner will be the source of everlasting happiness; my addiction to the soap opera on the television; the compulsive checking of my status at work; the lazy, cosy certainty that my life is perfect and has nothing to do with anyone else’s pain – every time I put these aside to pick up and read a book about spiritual practice… I am human.
Sincere and energetic interest in spiritual development is based on previous interest. Whether we believe this was practice in a previous life that has led us to wish to find teachings again in this life, or whether it is simply that we read a Dharma book before or attended a course and it changed us in some subtle way – how wonderful! This demonstrates that Dharma functions. It is of benefit. Interest leads us to connect to the source of spiritual view. Interest in spiritual practice leads us to look for connections with teachers, teachings, and practice – again and again in one life, or lifetime after lifetime.
There can be no doubt that practice is valuable if we hold the wonder of this discovery in our hearts – that moments of human realm spiritual awareness encourage more moments of human interest in spiritual development. An interest in Dharma occurs because we have discovered the human realm at other times, and let go of the realms of the gods, the jealous gods, animals, yidags and hell beings.
If spiritual teachings touch us, it is unlikely that we are starting from zero. We can assume—as our ground—that we have the capacity to engage in practice and that it is improbable that we are starting from the very beginning. We have been human before and had an interest in spiritual practice before. We are attracted to the symbolism and energy of Dharma because in some way we recognise it.
We can be inspired to practice, knowing that moments of being human are based on our previous successful discovery of being human. We need not fear death – of the moment or of this life. We need not fear the loss of our precious human rebirth, or worry that we will not be able to attain another one. Recognising the human realm, we can marvel at the wonder of who we are and what we can be. We can see that this life, this body, these life circumstances are an opportunity to become realised. There is no need to feel overwhelmed by how often we fall back into lower-realm perception, because there are endless opportunities to awaken.
We can be inspired to practise because we recognise honour and integrity and cultivate it in our lives. This is the result of engaging with the potential of the human realm. We can celebrate that we have the potential of a precious human rebirth, with the capacity, opportunity, and interest to engage in practice once more. This is truly something to exalt and appreciate, and to feed with more spiritual practice.
Being human means that we definitely have the capacity to realise non-duality, to understand the essence of Dharma – that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Recognising that we have a precious human rebirth if we wish, we can engage in activity that continually returns us to this realisation. This is the power of the first of The Four Thoughts. This is our inspiration.
When we recognise that our response has been instinctive and conditioned, rooted in fear or craving, then we are awake again – in that moment of recognition. When we see that we have hurt others and reacted from self-protection and justification, we have woken up – in that moment of recognition. Through recognition, awareness, the empty potential of Sky Mind, we can return to being human again and again. We are human.