We begin the process of developing a spiritual perspective by contemplating the precious opportunity of having a fully endowed human birth as a working basis for spiritual development.

Our body can be compared to a boat, our mind to its captain. If we use them well, we can cross the treacherous currents of cyclic existence to the shores of absolute truth.

To have this precious opportunity and not use it represents a great waste—as if we had traveled to an island of wish-fulfilling jewels and brought none back with us. What regret we would feel! Such a birth represents the culmination of great virtue and fervent aspiration to pursue spiritual practice.

This does not mean that it lacks difficulties or frustration. We must endure birth, sickness, old age, and death, and we often (1) cannot get what we want, or (2) avoid what we do not want, or (3) keep what we have.

Nevertheless, we do enjoy eighteen freedoms and favorable conditions, summed up by the Tibetan term dal jor—dal referring to freedom from eight unfavorable conditions, jor to endowment with ten favorable conditions.

Being endowed with the eight freedoms means being free of circumstances that make it almost impossible to connect with the dharma. These include freedom from rebirth as (1) a hell being, (2) deprived spirit, or (3) animal, which entails overwhelming suffering; (4) rebirth among the long-lived gods, which seduces us with irresistible sense pleasures (in the lower god realms) and pleasurable states of consciousness (in the upper god realms); (5) rebirth in a vicious culture that sanctions violence and evil and cuts us off from the sacred dharma; (6) rebirth with wrong views that cause us to demean what is sacred and wholesome and relish what is detrimental; (7) rebirth in a dark aeon when no buddha manifests, leaving us bereft of a spiritual path; and finally, (8) rebirth with physical and mental disabilities so severe that we cannot hear or comprehend the teachings.

The ten favorable conditions fall into two categories.

The first includes conditions that correspond to one’s personal situation: (1) being born as a human being, (2) living in a place where the dharma can be found, (3) having all one’s faculties, (4) having refrained from heinous crimes (such as wounding a buddha, killing a parent, or causing a major schism in the sangha), and (5) having confidence in the moral doctrine of the Buddha as the foundation of all positive qualities.

The second category includes conditions that define the general context in which spiritual development can occur: (1) the appearance of a buddha in the world, (2) the teaching of the doctrine, (3) the enduring quality of the doctrine, (4) the opportunity to practice the teachings, and (5) the presence of teachers whose altruistic compassion and love support one’s spiritual endeavors.

The extreme difficulty of finding rebirth in the human realm, fully endowed with all freedoms and favorable conditions, is indicated by certain metaphors.

For example, the number of hell beings in proportion to human beings is said to be like the number of particles of dirt on this earth compared with the particles of dirt under a fingernail.

The number of human beings indifferent to spirituality in proportion to those who seek it is compared to the multiplicity of night stars contrasted with the rarity of daytime stars, and among spiritual seekers, those who practice seriously are that much rarer still.

Another way of thinking about the difficulty of finding human rebirth involves the image of the entire universe as one vast ocean. On the surface of that ocean floats a yoke tossed by the winds and currents, and in the depths of that ocean swims a blind sea turtle who surfaces only once in a century. The chance of one’s finding human rebirth equals the probability that the blind sea turtle surfacing after a hundred years will poke its head through the yoke in the universal ocean.

Westerners often believe that one takes rebirth after rebirth as a human being, and they tend to regard their past lives as a fascinating series of adventures just beyond the reach of memory.

Really, though, we all have had endless varieties of rebirths from the beginningless beginning of existence, each of them an exact reflection of our karma and few of them as human beings.

Our body represents a composite entity that disintegrates into dust at death. Mind is substanceless, but has powerful continuity. Both its immutable nature and its karmic tendencies continue through cycles of death and rebirth.

We need only survey the thoughts that arise in our mind to see that just a fraction of them are of the sort that create the fortunate karma to obtain a fully endowed human birth. Most thoughts are tainted with attachment and aversion. Even subtle mental poisons can undercut an auspicious rebirth, but the worst thoughts, those filled with violent hatred, may propel us toward rebirth in hell.

Patrul Rinpoche clearly understood the subtle connection between thoughts, karma, and rebirth. He lived a simple, ascetic life, often traveling about, never taking much with him, listening to teachings from many lamas. Sometimes these lamas had no idea that the humble monk who listened so intently to their discourses was the renowned scholar Patrul Rinpoche, because he did not announce his name or display his status as one of the most revered lamas of his generation.

One day he stopped in a meadow. As he rested, enjoying the blue sky overhead and the carpet of flowers that covered the land, he thought, “How beautiful it is.” In the next instant he added, “May I not be reborn here.” He later explained that attachment to its beauty might have led to rebirth in that place, possibly as an animal, perhaps even as an insect, since there were no human inhabitants.

If we deeply contemplate its preciousness, we will be inspired to make good use of our human birth with its unsurpassed potential for enlightenment.

Taking it for granted will be a cause for immeasurable sorrow. We must train our mind in the time remaining and clear away untamed thoughts before they proliferate into the countless forms of samsara.

Source: Tromge, Jane. Ngondro Commentary: Instructions for the Concise Preliminary Practices of the New Treasure of Dudjom. Compiled from the teachings of H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche by Jane Tromge. Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 1995.