I have recently started another set of preliminaries—and I say another because I am a graduate student working on my “preliminary exams.” These preliminaries, while they are a test, are a different kind of test: I am talking about the Mahamudra (“great seal”) ngöndro.
The Mahamudra preliminaries are shared by a variety of “new translation” Tibetan Buddhist schools, such as the Kagyü, Sakya, and Gelug schools. The texts that form the basis of these preliminaries were translated from Sanskrit in the 11th century, forming the basis of the “new translation,” while the “old translation” school (the Nyingmapas) has its various preliminaries based on texts translated in the 8th or 9th century. For the Kagyü school, these translations were done by Marpa Lotsawa (lotsawa meaning “translator”) when he travelled to India from Tibet to study the Buddhist dharma.
These preliminaries, like all ngöndro practices really, focus on what are called the “Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma”:
- Precious Human Rebirth
- Death and Impermanence
- Karma as Cause and Effect
- Defects of Samsara
These are the four thoughts that one is meant to meditate on as one practices the preliminaries, which are made up of taking refuge and doing prostrations, reciting prayers, making mandalas, and performing guru yoga at least 111,111 times. Where the these four thoughts are the theory beyond the preliminaries, the four stages (refuge & prostrations, reciting the “hundred syllable mantra,” mandala-making, and guru yoga) are the preliminaries’ praxis.
I have been focusing on the first of these thoughts, the preciousness of this human life in particular, a lot recently. Caring for a loved one who is depressed, even suicidal, can help bring into focus how valuable human life is, as it has for me. There are of course the desires—that one does not want to lose a loved one, that one wants to prolong the life of someone whom we love as long as possible. But then, when one sits and meditates on depression, there are also the feelings of compassion. How incapacitatingly difficult, how profound a struggle it must be—to think that death is a solace for one’s problems, for one’s lack of will, or desire for non-existence.
Once in my life, I was there, as I grappled then with a history of abuse and exploitation—just as I do now. What has changed for me is the dharma, philosophy, and the ardent and revolutionary feeling Sandus has represented and crafted for me. This is Sandus’s resilience, I suppose, and I know I am not alone in feeling it. It is a calling to ease my suffering and that of other sentient beings (as we Buddhists say).
The voluntary taking of one’s life is now no longer an individual’s problem, however, as the world grapples with the effects of the novel coronavirus. Now meditating on the preciousness of human life is no longer a concern for just the loved ones of those who are depressed and suicidal, but it is now the concern of everyone who knows someone who has downplayed the pandemic we face or who has trivialised and contravened either mandatory or recommended bans and restrictions.
News, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook abound with stories and with one’s own testaments that they value their lives, and even unconsciously the lives of others, when they skirt around these rules. I just watched an interview involving spring break goers in South Florida, who complained that the virus is inconveniencing them while they are on vacation because public officials are closing bars and beaches to restrict the gatherings of people. Others downplayed the effects the virus has on the body, though the dead around the world include healthy young people. Survivors have also spoken of the discomfort, fatigue, and near-death anxiety they faced—and no one, survivors to researchers, yet knows the long-term effects of the virus. This is all not to mention the lives of others, whom could be negatively affected by the carelessness of others.
It seems clear to me, and I am sure clear to anyone who takes a moment to think, meditate, and think of themselves and others, how reckless and careless this attitude. Clearly, I think, we need to meditate on the preciousness of this human birth.
First, meditate on this precious human body,
So difficult to gain, so easy to lose.
This time, I shall make it meaningful!
Mahamudra commentaries (I am using one from the Karmapa Kagyü lineage) begin with this root text translated into Tibetan from Sanskrit by Marpa Lotsawa, and again into English by modern translators. Then, they suggest, contemplate the reasons why this life is so easy to gain and the many leisures it has. The commentaries refer here to concepts from Buddhist cosmology. This human life is superior to the lives of narakas (hell-beings), pretas (hungry-ghosts), and animals, whose lives are always in flux, who are dull and ignorant, and who will never hear the Dharma being taught. Gods, including devas (gods) and asuras (jealous demigods), are deluded by desire, form, and sensory pleasures—so, while they may be superior to humans in the hierarchy of beings, they will not rid themselves of suffering.
But they also include real facts from the human world. The countries that have received the Dharma’s teachings are few; those who are extreme and who dislike the Dharma hold wrong views that increase their suffering; and then there are those who are incapable to turn their minds toward the Dharma.
Even still, there are also other reasons why one might be led away from practicing the Dharma: they might have bad friends, have uninformed views, be lazy, lack of self-awareness, be under another’s control (through enslavement or abuse), act out of a need for fame or basic needs. And then there are other mental barriers too: attachment to one’s body or possessions, behaving badly, not fearing the miseries of samsara (of suffering), lacking conviction, inattention or carelessness, breaking one’s vows.
So, the commentary recommends thinking that:
- You have obtained this precious human body, opposite from other bodies that lack leisure altogether
- You have been born in a country where there is philosophy and where the Dharma has come
- Your senses are intact and you can understand when you are taught
- Since you have not encountered wrong views that lack evidence, you may not have a wrong livelihood
- You have faith and conviction and have this philosophy as your refuge
- The philosophic tradition has remained until now
- There are many other students along with you, and many who can teach you
- There are people around you who will encourage you and will help you
These thoughts, according to Buddhist philosophy and teachings, are meant to humble us—but also to think seriously about our suffering and that of others. This is the meaning of bodhicitta, or the “enlightened mind,” that can be both relative (in showing compassion for others and ourselves) and absolute (in recognising the inherent emptiness of all phenomena). Absolute bodhicitta, however, does not mean an absolute rejection of the world. It does not suggest nihilism—this is a typically “wrong view”—but rather it suggests that we strive to accept and to understand why these phenomena matter. That is, it is meant to drive us to study karma, or our relationships of cause and effect, and to study the causes and the effects of our own suffering.
This pandemic is ample time to begin thinking about the preciousness of this human birth. Each of us who is currently self-quarantining likely understands it in some small way. Today, now that spring-breakers are home and regretting their decisions, more and more are starting to see and to appreciate this life’s preciousness. It is in this small way that I hope this short exegesis, or, well, eisegesis, is helpful for you and for others.
Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye and Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje, The Torch of True Meaning: Instructions and the Practice Text for the Mahamudra Preliminaries, with a foreword by H.H. the 17th Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje (Woodstock, NY: KTD Publications, 2014).