Being Born Human
The Buddha’s teaching is focused on the path to liberate ourselves from suffering (dukkha) associated with the birth-death-rebirth cycle (samsara). The moment anyone develops liberating wisdom by learning, understanding and practicing the Dhamma, he/she will end suffering and reach a state of peace and true happiness (Nibbana). There are three necessities to achieving liberating wisdom, and they are: (1) being a human, (2) having a reasonable intellectual capacity and (3) being born at a time when exposure to a Buddha or His teachings is possible. The existence of all three conditions at the same time is regarded as an extremely rare occurrence. Please consider how fortunate you are, as you are blessed today with this rare combination to learn the Dhamma, and it is not certain where you will be born again and whether you will have this same opportunity. If you feel that learning, understanding and practicing the Dhamma NOW is beneficial to you, please do so, as this is the best time to use this golden opportunity to get onto the path to end suffering.
The Buddha taught that being born as a human being is the most fortunate thing that can happen to anyone and that it is an extremely rare occurrence, but since we see so many human beings in the world we do not tend to consider it a special achievement. According to Buddhist cosmology, besides those beings on the earth that we can perceive, there are also many other beings living in different realms of existence with various physical forms and mental states. Although in the present life we are born human due to certain causes and conditions, after death only few of us may become human again. The others will be born in some form in this planet or in any other planet or in some other realm.
In this journey of birth and death we may become any being back and forth without ever being able to get out this process that is called samsara. What determines our destination is our own mental state that we maintain at the moment of leaving our current physical body and physical place.
Every being fears this endless process and all the dangers or problems that come along with birth in each different life; old age, sickness and death are inescapable. In Buddhism this is referred to as “suffering,” and no being, including celestial beings, can avoid this continuous birth and death cycle or its related suffering. The Buddha pointed out that out of all forms of various beings, only humans possess the advantage of potentially overcoming this suffering and ending the cycle of birth and death.
Of course, human birth alone is not enough to guarantee that one will escape suffering. In our world, although there are millions of human beings, only a handful of them experience the proper conditions to overcome all suffering, because there are two other major conditions which must be met in order to end suffering: one is that a being must possess some intellectual capacity, and the other is that they must be born at a time when they could be exposed to a Buddha or His teachings. The combination of all three of these conditions is regarded as extremely rare. Unlike in the past, in modern times people are fortunate to have access to the Buddha’s teachings through various means, such as personally meeting a disciple of the Buddha or seeing the teachings in written form in books and magazines or on the internet. This means that for most people alive today, the second major condition has been met; in this sense, people in the modern world are much more fortunate than those who lived in the past.
The arising of a Buddha or the availability of a Buddha’s teaching in the world is an extremely rare occurrence. A Buddha can exist only through a human life span, which is normally less than a hundred years. Also, after His passing away His teachings can continue to exist in the world for only a very short period, perhaps five thousand years, which is like a flash of lightning compared to the lifespan of the earth. Other than the small percentage of people born in this window of opportunity, no others who are born in the human world have any chance of escaping the suffering that comes with birth, due to the absence of the Buddha’s teachings from the world during their lifetimes.
A Buddha, a truly unique being, arises among human beings only once every millions of Kalpas (a very long period of many years). He is a human being who has fully mastered all the intricate facts unknown to anyone else regarding the overcoming of suffering. He develops his understanding completely by himself, using his own direct knowledge, without any help from any superior being. His purpose of coming to this world is to share with others the techniques of overcoming suffering and becoming free from all frustrations and fears in life. He also has mastered how to teach or otherwise communicate this knowledge effectively to almost anyone who has a reasonable level of intellectual capacity. Not only does a Buddha complete His search for knowledge about how life works (Dhamma), he naturally becomes superhuman when he gains this unique knowledge about life. He also acquires various other Divine Powers, but He remains mainly human, sharing his knowledge with others, both human and Divine. However, only humans, and not the Divine or celestial beings, have the capacity to fully comprehend His teachings regarding overcoming suffering.
Some people who are born as humans during the time of a Buddha’s existence are fortunate enough to learn from Him directly how to overcome suffering. A common practice of a Buddha is to travel to various communities in a society and make himself available for people to learn from.
The Buddha of our time is Gotama, the Buddha who taught the Dhamma (the knowledge of how life works and how each individual can fix the shortcomings in their lives) in India about twenty-six centuries ago. He taught for 45 years and a large number of people were able to overcome suffering by developing the wisdom that they gained through the practice of the Dhamma. After the Buddha passed away, His well-learned disciples passed on His teachings to successive generations. Gradually his teachings were passed down through many generations of people in Asian countries, and in the last century many people in the West have been exposed to them. Receiving the wisdom of the Buddha correctly from any disciple of the Buddha is the same as directly learning it from the Buddha himself, and the writing down of the Buddha’s teaching in book form in Sri Lanka in the 1st Century B.C. (about 2100 years ago) was one of the greatest services done for humankind by our ancestors, since preserving the Dhamma in writing helped make it available to modern people all around the world.
Today the teachings of the Buddha are still in their pure, original form and continue to survive as a result of the relentless efforts of many generations of the Buddha’s followers. However, because they have been passed down from hand to hand for so many generations, and due to teachers’ diminishing ability to teach this highly technical knowledge, after twenty five centuries people may not receive the full benefits of the Dhamma unless one tries very seriously to follow the teachings. The era in which we live, with its strong emphasis on pursuing materialism, is not the best time to practice the Buddha’s teachings. Still, even though we are far away from the time when the Buddha was alive, His teachings are still solid enough for some of us whose intellectual capacity is high. All others today should be connecting with the Buddha’s teachings and developing an interest in the Dhamma so they can gradually pave their own way towards comprehending the true nature of life and perfect their knowledge of it in the future.
When we pay attention to the teachings of the Buddha, we quickly come to understand that it is not a dogma that we are expected to follow blindly, but rather a process of coming to understand and improving oneself. It is a step by step practice, and once you follow the first easy step then the second step becomes easier still. Every step of the way one’s simple intellect continues to grow into full-fledged Wisdom that makes one’s life easier and better.
Those who are reading this article already know or have heard about the Buddha and His teachings, while millions of others today have almost no knowledge of the Dhamma. Even if they have heard of it, they may have no interest in investigating it or pursuing it. Some others may even dislike the Dhamma, mistakenly believing it to be a rival religion which contradicts the teachings of the religion they follow. Even as Buddhists today we can easily miss the chance to be exposed to the Dhamma for various reasons. With our death we could easily lose this great opportunity of having all the three requirements (being human, having a reasonable intellectual capacity and living during the availability of the Dhamma). Our life is so short, and compared to the very long cycle of our repeating births and deaths, present life is just as short as a flash of lightning. Therefore, as human beings we must understand and accept that our time is running out and that now is the time to connect ourselves to the teachings of the Buddha. Unless we plan well now, there is no guarantee where we will be born after this life, and we’ll have no idea what we are going to be or how long we will be stuck in that form.
Today the most fortunate are the ones who are born in Buddhist families throughout the world, in traditional Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Korea, Japan and China. They have been exposed to the Dhamma for many generations and Buddhist practice is part of their culture. Even the non-Buddhists in these countries might be lucky enough to randomly hear about the Buddha and His teachings. Now those in Western societies have become so fortunate as to be slowly gaining exposure to the Dhamma. During this time when the Dhamma is so easily available, we should never miss this rare opportunity to at least enter the path of learning and practicing of the Dhamma, which will develop the affinity for us to come across the Buddha or His teachings in a later time.