The Four Contemplations

His Holiness Sakya Trizin

Ordinary Mind Spring 2000

Born in 1945, His Holiness Sakya Trizin has been the head of the Sakya School in Tibetan Buddhism since he was seven. He has received intensive training in the philosophical and spiritual practices of all the Tibetan traditions. The title Sakya Trizin means ‘throne-holder of the Sakya’, and is second in protocol to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has made several tours and given Tantric teachings in Europe, America and Southeast Asia since 1974.

This public talk was given in February 1988 at Melbourne University

As it is said in the sutras, even wanting to listen to the Dharma has great merit. The great Bodhisattvas would go through many difficulties and a lot of pain, just for four lines of teachings. They sought the teachings like a thirsty man searching for water. In such a way, people should search for teachings. It is therefore a great pleasure for me to share what little knowledge I have with those of you here tonight.

As you all know, everybody wishes to be free from suffering and to have happiness. Whether we are in the East or West, from different religions and different traditions, whether one is a religious person or does not believe in religion, we have this one thing in common – we all wish to be free from suffering and to have happiness. However, the method we use to achieve this goal differs. Those methods make up many different types, many different things.

We must go to the very depths of the suffering that we have and the problems that we face. We will not solve suffering by running away or ignoring them. Only knowing and understanding more about these things will solve suffering. We will not solve suffering by using any other method. We make a lot of effort — every individual makes an effort — in order to be free from suffering and in order to have happiness. Nevertheless, unless and until we develop our inner wisdom we will not be able to solve our outside problems. There are many different teachings, many different traditions, which can help us develop inner wisdom. Each has its own way to show the path and each has its own beauty.

The Lord Buddha attained enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. He accumulated enormous merit and wisdom and finally got fully enlightened, parting from all faults and all types of obscurations. He possessed infinite wisdom and compassion and taught an enormous amount of teachings to suit every level of mentality, every level of propensities and every type of defilement through his skilful means. These teachings are deep and wide. Even one line of teaching has many different meanings, so ordinary people like us who are lacking in wisdom will not be able to understand them straight away. The later masters, the masters who have attained great realisation, have explained these very deep teachings.

There are many ways of explaining the different teachings — some in a wider way, some in a more profound way, some in a deeper way and so forth.

What we need today is something that is concrete, something that ordinary individuals can practise straight away without going through long studies. One never knows how long one is going to live. While we are still alive, while we have this great opportunity, we must gain whatever knowledge we can quickly. We must also utilise and practise this quickly so that we will be able to gain something while the opportunity exists. Although everybody knows there is a lot of suffering and everybody knows that the spiritual way is a way to attain higher realisation, unless we study and meditate we will not be able to gain the real inner feeling. 

1 Precious Human Birth

The first thing we need to do to practise the Dharma is wish to follow the spiritual path. We start this by meditating on the difficulties of obtaining a precious human birth, because we need human life in order to practise Dharma: it is like a vehicle; in order to cross the ocean one needs a boat. Similarly, in order to cross the suffering of worldly existence, we need to depend on the precious human birth that we have now. 

The first thing is to realise that this precious human birth is very important and very precious. It is something very difficult to obtain. When we know the value of this precious birth, we will have a real inner urge to practise the Dharma and not want to waste time. This precious human birth is very difficult to obtain from many points of view. 

First, it is difficult to obtain from a causal point of view. Every experience that we have now is actually the product of what we have done in the past, so to be born as a human being that has all the right conditions to practise the teachings is very difficult. When we think of today’s world, very, very few people are really practising virtuous deeds. Even those who are practising virtue are mostly pretending to practise. The real practitioner, the pure practitioner with a good motivation, is very rare. For example, if we examine ourselves, how many non-virtuous deeds have we done since we were born? Even if we examine how many non-virtuous deeds we have done just for one day – from morning until night – they far outnumber the virtuous deeds that we do.

The cause of being born a human being is that we have accumulated an enormous amount of virtuous deeds, such as good moral conduct and good discipline. Although people may be kind-hearted, very few people practise good discipline and good moral conduct. Since fulfilling these causal requirements is rare, the resultant precious human birth is also going to be very rare. From the causal point of view, it is very, very rare.

Secondly, from a statistical point of view it is also rare. Although there seems to be a lot of people, if you compare the amount of people with the amount of other living beings, human beings are very much in the minority. It is easy to count the number of people in a house, but it is almost impossible to count the number of insects and worms, etcetera. Even one human body can contain many, many worms and other living beings.

Therefore, compared with other living beings, human beings are very, very rare.  As it is said in the sutras, the number of sentient beings going from the higher realm to the lower realm are as numerous as the dust motes in the air. The number of sentient beings who are born from the lower realm to the higher realm are as little as the dust in your fingernails. 

Then there are also a lot of sentient beings who have not been able to obtain a birth and who are roaming around in the intermediate (bardo) state. This is the state in-between our dying in this life and being born in the next life. There is an enormous number of sentient beings that have not got the chance to be born elsewhere. This can be proven. For example, if an animal’s dead body is not buried during the summer, the whole body is covered with countless worms after a few days, worms that could not have been born if that animal had been buried. Even one dead body can contain numerous sentient beings that come to be born from the intermediate state. There are enormous numbers of other living beings waiting to be reborn again.  That means there are enormous amounts of sentient beings. When we compare this potential number of sentient beings to the actual number of human beings, we see that there are very few human beings by comparison.

From its own natural point of view also, a human life which is free from the Eight Unrestful Places and which has the Ten Right Conditions, is extremely difficult to obtain. There are especially few human beings that are free from unrestful places, from places where there is no possibility to practise Dharma. Human beings who have all the right conditions to practise the teachings are very, very rare. There are said to be eight unrestful places. If one is born in any of these unrestful places there is no opportunity to practise Dharma. Of these Eight Unrestful Places, four are in human states and four are in non-human states. 

The Eight Unrestful Places

The four non-human unrestful places are as follows: the first unrestful place is the hell realm. There is an enormous amount of physical and mental suffering in this realm. Sentient beings who are born here have such a heavy karma that they do not have any chance to practise Dharma. Even if one is sick in this life, for example, one cannot practise meditation. If one cannot practise even in the ordinary world, how much more impossible would it be to do so in the state of suffering of the hell realm? 

The second unrestful place is the hungry ghost realm. If one is born in the hungry ghost realm, there is much hunger and thirst. Beings have to spend hundreds of years without even one grain of food or one drop of water. In such a place, of course, there is no possibility to practise Dharma. 

The third unrestful place is the animal realm. If one is born in the animal kingdom, one is generally very ignorant. It is just like putting a big rock on top of your head. There is no way to learn what is right and what is wrong. There is no way to learn to perform virtuous deeds and to discard non-virtuous deeds.

The fourth unrestful place is the heavenly ‘god’ (deva) realm. The heavenly beings have actually three different types of states – the desire realm, the form realm and the formless realm. If one is born as a god in the desire realm, there is so much luxury that one spends all one’s time in such enjoyment that one never even feels like practising the Dharma. Gods in the realm of form and the formless realm have very high worldly meditation states. But still, since they are not free from the realm of existence, their nature is also not free from suffering. In the formless realms, beings exist in a meditative trance. It is only when they are born and only when they die that they experience any concepts at all. Otherwise, they do not have any thought; all mental activities have ceased. These are called the long-lived gods. Since all their mental activities have ceased, they do not have any chance to practise Dharma. So, generally speaking, all the beings in the god realms have less opportunity to practise Dharma.

Then there are four unrestful places within the human state. The first is that of the barbarians — people who live in deep jungles and so forth. They do not have any way of receiving the teachings. They have no belief in what is right and what is wrong and generally just live like animals.

The second unrestful place relates to people who have wrong views. These are people who do not follow the teachings, who do not believe that by performing virtuous deeds one gets happiness and by performing non-virtuous deeds one gets suffering. These people do not believe in any such cause and effect. 

The third unrestful place within the human realm concerns people who are born in a state where no Buddhas have come. No Buddha has come into this world during the time when they were born and so there are no teachings. The Buddha gives the teachings, so if there is no Buddha, then there are no teachings to practise and there is no chance to practise Dharma.

The fourth unrestful place is when people have a defect of the senses — people who are deaf and dumb and especially people who are mentally dumb. There is also no way of learning what is right and what is wrong for these people.

These are the Eight Unrestful Places where there is no possibility to practise Dharma. We are very fortunate, not only to be born as human beings, but to be born free from all these unrestful places.

The Ten Right Conditions

In addition to this free and well-favoured birth, Ten Right Conditions are required to practise Dharma. Five of these conditions must be obtained from one’s own side and five conditions must be obtained from others.  The five to be obtained from one’s own side are as follows: 

First, one has to be a human being. We all have that; we are born as a human being. 

Secondly, we have to be born human in a centrally located place. A centrally located place means centrally located geographically, as well as centrally located in a Dharma sense. Geographically, a centrally located place means a place actually like India, where the Lord Buddha was born, got enlightenment, turned the wheel of Dharma and attained mahaparinirvana. Dharma-wise, centrally located place means places where there are four types of followers of the Lord Buddha — where monks and nuns and male and female lay followers exist.

The third condition is that one has to have sound organs so that one can hear and receive the instructions of the teachings.

The fourth condition is that one has not committed any of the major sins. In one has committed any major sins, it is not possible, or at least it is very difficult, to enter the path in general Mahayana. However, in Mantrayana it is different. The major sins are limitless sins like killing one’s own father, killing one’s own mother and killing an Arhant (those who have already attained a great spiritual realisation). They also include injuring the body of an enlightened one and creating disharmony in the sangha, between the groups of monks. These are considered very major sins. When one of them has been committed it is difficult to start the path.

The fifth condition is sincere faith in the teachings. One must have a great, sincere faith in the teachings, particularly the vinaya teachings that explain good moral conduct. It is only through moral conduct that one subdues one’s wild mind, one’s physical characteristics, one’s voice and one’s behaviour.

All this is very rare: to be born as a human being, to be born in a centrally located place, to have sound organs, to have not committed the major sins and to have real, sincere faith in the teachings, particularly the vinaya teachings that explain good moral conduct. If we really examine today’s world, we can see that it is very rare to have all the right conditions that are obtained from one’s own side.

To obtain the right conditions from the other side is also very difficult. First, one has to be born at a time when the Buddhas have come into this world. Generally speaking, an aeon that a Buddha has come into is called ‘a light aeon’ and the aeon that a Buddha has not come is called ‘a dark aeon’. In total, there are actually many thousands of dark aeons and very few light aeons. This is a light aeon – not only a light aeon but also a very fortunate aeon – because many Buddhas will come into this world during this time period.  So the time to be born is at a time when a Buddha has come into this world. 

Secondly, it is also crucial that the Buddha has not only come, but has turned the wheel of Dharma, or given the teachings. For even if a Buddha comes, he may see that the right onditions do not exist, that people are not worthy of receiving the teachings, and he will not give the teachings. 

Thirdly, the teachings not only have to be given; they have to have formed part of a living tradition. Buddhas have also come in the past, but their teachings have disappeared. There are long gaps between when one Buddha’s teachings are completely gone, and before the next Buddha comes. We need to be born at a time that the teachings are still living. 

The fourth right condition from the other side, is that not only are the teachings living, but there are practitioners, like monks and nuns, and male and female lay followers, who are practising those teachings. They can set us an example; they can demonstrate the path and maintain the tradition.

The fifth condition is that in order to practise the Dharma, we need to be engaged in right livelihood to keep us alive. In other words, we need to depend on food, clothing, shelter etcetera — the necessities that are readily available and that are not mixed with non-virtuous deeds. It is difficult to obtain that also.

These are the five right conditions that come from the other side: to be born at a time when the Buddha has come, when the Buddha has turned the wheel of Dharma, when the teachings are still living, when there are still followers who can show us an example and when right livelihood is readily available.

The human birth which is free from the Eight Unrestful Places and the human birth which has the Ten Right Conditions is called ‘the precious human birth with the eighteen prerequisites’. This is very rare to obtain.  It is far greater than obtaining a wish-fulfilling jewel. The most precious jewel known to humankind is the wish-fulfilling jewel. This jewel will grant you all your worldly wishes, such as food, clothing, medicine and whatever else you need, but it will not give you insight-wisdom. The insight-wisdom of enlightenment has to be obtained from our own side. We can do many things through this human birth; we can even gain the most precious, and highest, ultimate enlightenment through this human life with all the right conditions, with all the eighteen prerequisites. Therefore it is not only rare but also very, very precious. We need to meditate on this precious opportunity which is very difficult to obtain from every point of view, so that one can see how valuable it is. When we know the value we will have a real inner urge to practise the Dharma.

Part 2 will be available in follow up editions of the newsletter