Having what we call a "precious human body" means that one has been born as a human and provided with certain freedoms and assets. Not only must one have the physical preconditions needed for Dharma practice, but also one must have a mind which includes the three different kinds of confidence.
"Freedoms" in this context means that one is not completely preoccupied by other things. If, for example, one is born in realms of existence which contain much suffering, one will be so thoroughly engrossed by those circumstances that there will not be the smallest chance to practice the Dharma or devote time to other positive things.
In this context, the Buddha explained about the eight different realms of existence without freedom for practice. He explained it in a way which corresponds to the way people were thinking at that time. Today, however, we should understand that these realms are not to be seen as specific places, but rather as sorts of experiences beings can have as a result of the ripening of their own karma.
The first three of the eight states of mind the Buddha explained are the three lower realms of existence: the paranoia realm, the ghost realm, and the animal realm.
Experiencing these kinds of existences, we either suffer so intensely that we are not able to do anything else, or our mind is simply not clear enough to work with the Dharma in any way.
In some sutras the Buddha describes these states of mind in a way that indicates they might be worlds similar to ours. These explanations corresponded to the idea people had about our world at the time and were given especially to the Shravaka practitioners - followers of the vehicle of the "listeners."
Yet, if we think about these paranoia states, we will see that they cannot possibly mean an actual place, since it is said that there is burning metal everywhere. If we question that - asking who is burning the metal and what material is being used for the fire etc. - we see that they cannot literally exist in the way they are described. Rather, it is that every individual being, having the karma for that kind of existence, experiences it as totally real. It is the special way the mind of those beings, being confused and deluded, makes them experience themselves in the middle of a hell.
Still, even if it is not a "real" world in that sense, as long as one has the karma to endure this state, the suffering experienced will not cease. Completely caught by the illusion, one is not able to just change it. One really thinks one is in a hell realm and suffers accordingly. Due to this severe suffering it is not possible to contemplate the meaning of Dharma let alone practice it. Even if one wanted to, it would be impossible.
On the other hand, there are states of mind where the experience of happiness and joy is so intense, that one does not come to think about practice. This is the god realm.
There are different levels of gods in the desire, the form, and the formless realm. Within the desire realm there are six different kinds of existence, one of which is called the god realm. A rebirth in this realm is the result of the accumulation of a huge amount of good karma. Due to this good karma, one experiences immense happiness and joy and is entirely distracted by it. One wants to take pleasure in all these states and suffers not the smallest discomfort. Not enduring any kind of distress, one does not consider trying to get out of this state. Being that happy, one thinks this is sufficient and has no motivation to practice the Dharma.
The form realm and the formless realm are the results of meditation. If one is attached to pleasant feelings while doing calm abiding meditation, one can end up being entirely caught by the enjoyment of these states. Remaining in this state of deep meditation one does not feel attracted by outer objects any more, but is completely distracted by inner joy. Not experiencing any unpleasant feelings, mind becomes very peaceful and has no motivation to change.
However, even in the human realm there are states without the opportunity for practicing the Dharma. For instance, being born at a place where people do not have the slightest idea about positive and negative actions, one cannot follow a good path and avoid a bad one. These are the cases of primitive societies, where barbarian types live who might be human beings, but do not always behave as such.
Other people might be born as humans, yet they are so completely caught in their wrong views (those opposing the Dharma) that they are also not able to practice. There are, for example, people who believe that animal sacrifices have to be performed because they are convinced that killing animals can lead to liberation. Wrong views are quite a serious problem, since they not only keep one from practicing the Dharma, but might even lead one to practice a negative path. It is therefore a big obstacle for practice to be caught in wrong views.
Others again are born mentally disabled. They do not have the ability to understand the meaning of Dharma by listening to teachings. Even if such a person gets advice about what should be done and what should be avoided, it does not make sense to him or her. He or she simply cannot understand it. The Tibetan word for such a person is "Kungpa." Even though the term is used for deaf and mute people as well, in this context it mainly means mental disability. The capacity for these people to understand is very limited and they cannot differentiate between good things to do and bad things to be avoided.
Finally, it is possible to be born in an era where no buddhas appear and where the Buddhist teachings are completely unknown.
There are different periods in the evolution of a universe we call "kalpas" or eons. In between the manifestations of historical Buddhas there are the so-called "dark eons" where no Buddha appears. To be born in such a period means that one cannot connect with the Dharma and has consequently no chance to practice. To have the "eight freedoms" means not to be born in one of these eight states.
Yet, there are more conditions needed to practice the Dharma. These are the ten kinds of richness or the ten assets. Here, we distinguish two groups of five assets. One depends on oneself, the second depends on others.
Besides these five conditions related to oneself, there are five more conditions related to others:
Since this kind of rebirth is the most favorable for practicing the Dharma, it is called the "precious human rebirth." The Tibetan term "rinpoche" means "precious" or "jewel." It is used here to describe the human body, since it is in fact very precious and very difficult to get. Once it is obtained, possessing so many qualities, it is of inestimable value.
This is why this kind of rebirth is called the "precious human rebirth" - having a human body which we can use in the right way to attain enlightenment. The reason for it being so difficult to obtain is that the main precondition is correct behavior. To be born as a human being, one has to have avoided the ten negative actions in past lives. Looking around however, we will see that there are actually not so many people who have abandoned negative actions. Compared to an ordinary human body, a "precious" human body is yet more difficult to obtain. Having the opportunity to practice the Dharma in this life is not the result of just good conduct, but comes from strong and consciously made wishes to be reborn in that way, which makes one able to develop and practice.
Examining how many humans there are compared to animals is easy. It is possible, for example, and not too difficult, to count the population of a country. If, on the contrary, one wants to count the vast amount of animals, it is impossible. They are innumerable. This gives us an idea of how few human beings there are compared to the number of animals.
Moreover, looking at how few people meet the eighteen conditions - the eight freedoms and ten assets to practice the Dharma, we see how rare this opportunity is. Taking a big city with five million inhabitants as an example, if only one thousand or ten thousand of them would practice the Dharma, it would be a lot. Yet this is probably nowhere near the case. This alone shows us how rare the precious human body is. Looking at the enormous world population and considering the number of people who stopped committing the ten negative actions, not only among Buddhists but among practitoners of all religions and those who do not follow any religion, they are few compared to the total number of people living in the world. If, then, we look at how many people know how to make wishes for the benefit of all beings, there are also not many.
Considering these facts, we become aware of how fortunate and lucky we are; being humans we are in a situation where we can practice the Dharma. So we can understand how extremely rare this chance is. This should encourage us to lead our lives in a sensible way and decide not to waste this opportunity, since it is, as mentioned before, extraordinarily difficult to obtain.
We should be aware how truly powerful our present existence is and try to use it to attain enlightenment in this life. If we do a good job, though not necessarily the best, we can become bodhisattvas in this life. If we do not so well we can become Pratyekabuddhas.1 If we are not able to do that, we might still practice the path of accumulation and junction.2 At least we should try not to waste this life, but instead use it in the best possible way. With this in mind, we can surely avoid stepping back in our development and be able to hold our level or develop even further. That shows how powerful our situation is. We should really appreciate that.
Shantideva explained this using the following example of a master and a servant. If the master pays fair wages and treats the servant well, the servant will be happy and do a good job. This in turn helps the master as well. On the contrary, if the master treats his servant poorly, the servant will naturally work less, and the master will not make a profit.
Similarly, we should treat ourselves well so later we will find ourselves in good physical condition and be able to develop our minds positively.
We should not waste any time. Instead, we should practice the Dharma now and do not postpone it, since we can at any time die and lose this opportunity. From the moment of birth we steadily approach death. There is no certainty about when we will die. Death can be caused by all kinds of conditions and we do not know when it will happen. Inevitably, death comes closer every single moment. Due to this fact, this very moment is so important and we should make the best use of our time here and now.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF CONFIDENCE
To be able to practice, we need the eighteen conditions defining the precious human body and have to develop the right kind of confidence. This sort of confidence - sometimes called faith or devotion, "dapa" in Tibetan - is again classified into three different kinds of confidence:
The basis of any kind of confidence is conviction. The first kind of confidence is the most important one, since it is developed through clear argumentation. One should not follow anything with blind faith, but there should be a convincing reason. As a proof to the contrary, one can look at Islam. The Muslims claim that Allah - living in a kind of paradise in a golden house with seven floors - proclaimed that the teachings have to be spread and therefore his followers have to fight a holy war. Everybody taking part in this holy war and killing other people will surely be reborn in paradise. Blindly believing this, without any convincing reason, millions of people can be misled.
The Buddha always gave the advice not to follow a teacher for his charisma but to check his teachings first. By scrutinizing the teachings, one will find out whether they are correct and, if this is the case, one can follow them. If for example, one buys gold, one would also check whether it is really gold. The Dharma has the quality that the more one analyzes it, the more one will be sure that it is right. Yet, the Buddha also stressed the importance of everybody finding this out for themselves.
As one is convinced by the teachings, the second kind of confidence follows automatically: one wishes to attain enlightenment oneself. One sees that it is the right thing and wants to get there.
The third kind of confidence requires the mastery of the pure view and the understanding of the qualities of enlightenment. If all these conditions come together, the eighteen conditions for the right kind of rebirth, the mental conditions as well as the three kinds of confidence, this is a perfect situation for truly successful Dharma practice. Hence, one can develop the right motivation, that is to say, to use the Dharma for the benefit of other beings, and encounter no obstacles on the way.
1Prathyekabuddhas, "Self Victorious," claim not to have a teacher and make wishes to become enlightened without a teacher.
2The fife paths: path of accumulation, path of junction, path of seeing, path of cultivation, path of no more learning - a description for the progressive spiritual development until enlightenment.