Using a good opportunity
At times we may become depressed because it seems our lives have no direction or there are many obstacles to making our lives meaningful. However, when we consider the freedom and opportunities we have, we’ll be amazed and filled with joy. We’ll understand that depression is in fact fueled by a narrow view. When we recognize our opportunities we’ll automatically feel happier.
As human beings, we have the intelligence to understand our world. In spite of the ways humans may sometimes misuse their intelligence, the potential to use it in beneficial ways exists. Technological and material progress aren’t the only ways to make use of our human potential. Although technology has solved many problems, it’s also created new ones. Some countries have high standards of living, yet their citizens aren’t perfectly happy. They still suffer from social and mental ills, worries and conflicts.
This occurs because the basic cause of our difficulties - our ignorance, anger and attachment - haven’t been removed. As long as we have these disturbing attitudes we won’t be content, no matter how luxurious our environment. Thus, from a Buddhist perspective, the most beneficial way to use our intelligence is to develop altruism and wisdom knowing our ultimate nature. When our minds are peaceful, we’ll be happy wherever we are. In addition, we’ll be able to create a more peaceful environment.
Unfortunately, most humans - ourselves included - aren’t aware of our potentials and consequently don’t develop them. We often take our human intelligence for granted. Sometimes we’re dismayed because some people misuse their intelligence. However, as we realize how our intelligence can make our lives and others’ happier, then we’ll be energetic, joyful and inspired to make use of our capabilities.
Not only are we human, but most of us have our senses intact. We’re able to see and hear, which gives us great access to information and enables us to learn easily about the gradual path to enlightenment. Moreover our brains function well, so we have a great capacity to learn, think and meditate. So often we take these qualities for granted, but if we considered what it would be like to have impaired hearing, sight or intelligence, we would realize how fortunate we are.
This isn’t to say that blind and deaf people can’t progress along the path to enlightenment. They certainly can, for they have the two kinds of Buddha nature. However, it’s easier to learn the Dharma when our senses are intact. Those of us who can see and hear well should appreciate our good fortune.
In addition, we live in a world where the Buddha’s teachings exist. Not only did the Buddha describe the path, but his teachings have been practiced and passed down for over 2,500 years in unbroken transmissions from teacher to student until the present day. If the Buddha’s teachings had been destroyed by political suppression or distorted by those seeking fame and wealth, we would no longer be able to practice them. However, that didn’t occur, and today we have access to many Buddhist traditions.
There have been and still are many great masters who have actualized the realizations of the path. Their experience proves that liberation and enlightenment can be achieved and that the path taught by Shakyamuni Buddha brings the results we desire. Also, many great spiritual teachers are alive today, and they can guide us and act as good examples.
We’re fortunate to live in a place where we can contact spiritual teachers and teachings. We have religious freedom, so we can learn and practice our faith. Imagine how terrible it would be to have an intense wish to develop ourselves, but to live in a country without religious freedom! Now we have the opportunity to go to Buddhist centers, learn meditation, listen to talks and do retreats. We have access to qualified teachers, as well as books, cassettes, videos and transcripts of Buddhist talks.
From our side, we’re interested in personal development and in making our lives meaningful for others. This openness is a positive quality we should appreciate about ourselves. Many people don’t have such inclinations and never examine what life and death are about. Even though what they seek is happiness, their lives are usually spent creating destructive actions, the causes of future unfortunate circumstances. Because they were never interested in eliminating their obscurations and developing their potentials, such people die with worry and regret. Although we can’t confidently say our lives are in order and our own minds peaceful, we can appreciate that we have the interest and inclination to grow in this direction.
Some people may have such inclinations, but lack the material and financial conditions to pursue their spiritual goals. If we were starving, homeless and destitute, it would be more difficult for us to practice, for we would have to see to our physical condition first. However, most of us have a relatively comfortable material situation in which we can learn and practice. Although we may feel we aren’t financially secure, if we compare our situation with that of others, we’ll realize that we’re very fortunate indeed.
We should realize that we live near others who have similar inclinations for self-development and service to others. These spiritual friends are a great support for our practice, for we can discuss what we learn and share experiences with them. This is both delightful and necessary, for sometimes we become discouraged or unclear, and our Dharma friends help to rekindle our energy. We are fortunate to have such friends, or to live in a place where we can meet them.
In addition, the Sangha communities of ordained monks and nuns give us good examples to follow. Although we may not want to have the same lifestyle they do, we can benefit from their example and their experience and knowledge of the path.
If we take a moment and evaluate the good circumstances we have in this lifetime, we’ll be amazed and joyful. It’s important to consider the advantages of our present situation, because then we’ll stop taking them for granted and will use them. If we only think about our obstacles and what we lack, we spiral into depression. Depression prevents us from using our good qualities, as we don’t recognize them and are too immersed in self-pity. This is a sad waste of human potential. It is counteracted by remembering our good qualities and opportunities.
Whether our gold-like Buddha potential stays embedded in the impurities of disturbing emotions and imprints of actions, whether the spacious nature of our minds remains invisible behind the clouds of our obscurations, is dependent on us. This is the beauty of our human life: we have the indestructible Buddha potentials which have been with us since beginningless time, and we have the perfect opportunity to realize and develop them in this lifetime. With great compassion, the Buddha taught the Dharma, the methods to actualize our potentials. We have the support and help of the Sangha to guide us. But we ourselves must act. Only then will we progress on the path to happiness.
Using our lives to follow the path
There are various ways to use our lives to progress along the path to happiness. Although we all want to be happy now, when we push and grasp for that happiness, it evades us. On the other hand, if we’re content with what we have and simultaneously prepare for the future, we’ll be happier now and in the future.
One way to progress along the path is to practice moment by moment in our daily activities. When we wake up, instead of thinking, “What do I have to do today?” or “I want a cup of coffee;” we can make our first thought of the day, “As much as possible, I’m not going to harm others today. As much as possible, I’m going to help them.” It’s a simple thought, but starting the day this way revolutionizes how we live. This thought to cherish others and refrain from harming them gives us a positive motivation and a clear direction in all the day’s activities. If we encounter a disturbing situation during the day, we can remember our morning motivation. That helps us to act beneficially and to avoid anger, pride and jealousy.
In addition, throughout the day, we can cultivate the motivation, “I’m going to act for the benefit of others. I aspire to diminish my limitations and develop my potentials completely in order to be able to help others most effectively.” In this way, we can transform otherwise insignificant actions into the path to enlightenment. An action can be done at different times with different motivations. According to our motivation, we’ll be happy or unhappy and our action will be worthwhile or not.
For example, we can reluctantly clean the house, all the time wishing this unpleasant work was done so we could do something enjoyable. In this case, we’re not very happy now, and our action of cleaning is neutral, neither constructive nor destructive.
On the other hand, if we think, “It would be nice to clean the house so my family can enjoy a pleasant environment,” then we’re happy to vacuum and sweep. In addition, if we imagine that we’re cleaning the dirt of the disturbing attitudes from the minds of all living beings, then mopping the floor can become a meditation! In this way our action becomes constructive, and a positive imprint is left on our mindstream.
By generating a good motivation in the morning and reflecting on it throughout the day, we’ll find our wish to help others and not harm them arises more easily and becomes more heartfelt. The path to enlightenment is a slow and gradual one that’s developed day by day. Each morning is a new opportunity to cultivate our good qualities, and each moment of the day is a chance to live them.
A second way to use our lives to follow the path is to prepare for death and our future lives. Although some people hesitate to think about death, it’s beneficial to do so, for then we can prepare for it. Thinking that someday we’ll die isn’t being morbid, it’s being realistic. Death is fearful only when we don’t have a method to relate to it properly. However, if we know how to prepare for death and what to do when it occurs, then it needn’t be frightening. In fact, it could be very blissful. If we make our lives beneficial now, we’ll have nothing to regret when they end. We’ll be able to die peacefully and happily.
The basic method to prepare for death and future lives is to avoid destructive actions and do constructive ones. This refers particularly to avoiding the ten negative actions (see the chapter on ethics), and living according to ethical values. It also includes cultivating loving kindness towards others and doing whatever we can to help them.
The third way to make our lives meaningful is more expansive. While initially we prepare for future lives, we’ll now aim for liberation from the cycle of uncontrolled rebirths and their constantly recurring problems. Beyond that, we can attain the full enlightenment of a Buddha, in which all obscurations have been eliminated and all good qualities fully developed. Liberation is attained by practicing ethical conduct, meditative concentration and wisdom (also called the three higher trainings). When these are combined with the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment in order to benefit all beings, then enlightenment is reached.
These may seem like lofty goals, but we have the opportunity to attain them. We sometimes underestimate what we can do and unnecessarily limit our goals. When we consider that all the past great masters and people whom we admire had precious human lives like ours, then we’ll acknowledge our own potential to accomplish what they did. It’s important that we recognize our potential and rejoice in it. As the Indian practitioner Aryadeva said:
“When we obtain a precious human rebirth, we gain the incredible ability not only to free ourselves from the suffering of cyclic existence forever, but also to gain the state of enlightenment, liberating countless beings from suffering. There is nothing to compare with this precious human rebirth. Who would waste such a rebirth?”
By taking advantage of our great opportunity, we’ll experience the blissful results of improving ourselves. We’ll attain a state completely free of all problems, in which we’ll be able to benefit all other beings by showing them the path to happiness through actualizing their own Buddha potentials.
Three ways to use our precious human rebirth to follow the pathGoal along the path /Method to accomplish
1. To make our lives meaningful moment by moment. / Develop an altruistic motivation each morning; be mindful of our actions during thee day; transform all events into opportunities for growth.
2. To die peacefully and attain good rebirth / Live ethically: avoid destructive actions and cultivate beneficial actions.
3. To attain lasting happiness
a. Liberation from cyclic existence / Practice the three higher trainings: ethics, concentration and wisdom.
b. Full enlightenment (Buddhahood) / Practice the three higher trainings and the six far-reaching attitudes - generosity, ethics, patience, joyous effort, meditative stabilization and wisdom - with an altruistic motivation.