Practice Like Your Hair’s on Fire

by Gelek Rinpoche

All sentient beings, including myself, have gone through continuous ups and downs, life after life, experiencing the sufferings of samsara. The reason we keep having all of these problems is because we haven’t managed to fulfill our life’s mission.

What is our mission? In the most basic sense, we all have a desire for peace and happiness, and we all wish to be free from pain and suffering. But though we may experience happiness here and there, it is not the kind of happiness that has never known suffering. In fact, for most of us it is the kind of happiness that is based on suffering.

We put a lot of effort into having material comforts, and on top of that we want mental and spiritual comfort. But even when we think we are working for spiritual benefit, if we dig deeply we may find that it is simply attachment — the attachment of bringing ourselves to a state of material or spiritual or emotional comfort.

The kind of comfort most of us seek is a kind of stopgap comfort. We haven’t really addressed the root of suffering or developed the true cause of happiness. Once we realise that, and reflect and meditate on it, we can begin to see the true nature of suffering and the cessation of suffering. From there, one can make the decision to seek true peace, nirvana, which means freeing ourselves and others once and for all from suffering and its causes.

Why haven’t we been able to achieve that yet? Why haven’t we fulfilled our mission? Because we don’t yet realise how important this life is. We don’t realise the limitless capacity of our human body and mind, and how difficult it is to find. We don’t have a sense of urgency because we don’t realise how easily this human life can be lost. Instead, we keep ourselves busy chasing after happiness and running away from suffering, life after life.

Many of us complain, “I have no time.” I like to call that a good, fancy, stylish excuse. Everybody likes to say, “I’m too busy,” because everybody would like to seem important. It is a great excuse that offers several benefits: you can avoid what you don’t want to do; it gives you a showbiz idea of being important; and all the important people do it, so you can include yourself with them.

I refer to that as busy laziness. We experience this kind of laziness because we have a problem recognising our real priorities. Even if we have time, we put the most important thing in our life — our spiritual development — on the back burner. Our laziness is well suited to these upside-down priorities. The sense of urgency becomes a monetary issue for us, because we live in an age where we have to pay our bills for every little thing we need. If we don’t pay our bills then not only will the bill collectors chase us, but even our electricity and water will eventually be shut off.

As spiritual practitioners, we need to balance our priorities. This means being able to balance the needs of this particular life with our long-term spiritual goals. Of course we have to manage our bills and make sure we have a place to live and food to eat. And we have to meet our responsibilities to our friends and family. But we also need to make our spiritual work a priority. If we can balance that, we are intelligent and capable. If we cannot, we are just the opposite.

But to do that, we have to convince ourselves that this life is important. It shouldn’t take too much convincing, since we already have some sense that our life is precious. We recognise this when our life is threatened, but on a day-to-day basis we tend to take our precious human life for granted. For the most part, we keep ourselves busy meeting one urgent requirement after another, and that makes us think we’re managing. But the truth is, we don’t want to think about changing our priorities. We think we’ll squeak by with some spiritual development at the last minute. For those who do have a regular practice, how many leave it until the very last thing at night or rush through it like some chore you have to finish? That’s what most people do. But the Buddha told us that unless we reflect on the rarity of this human life and how easily it can be lost, and also think about how capable we can be if we apply ourselves, we will never be able to utilise the richness of this life.

By richness, I’m not speaking about wealth but about opportunity. Our most important opportunity is that we are human beings. We may think the samsaric gods and spirits are able to do much more than us. Forget it. They are equally miserable, even more than us sometimes.

In old Tibet, we had to keep reminding ourselves that human beings can do anything. These days we don’t have to, because science clearly shows us what human beings are capable of. Human beings alone are responsible for tremendous scientific achievements, not the ghosts and samsaric gods. Those achievements are because of the extraordinary capabilities of our human minds. We really have brilliant minds. As human beings, we all have tremendous capacity. But if we don’t utilise it, then it remains weak.

If you have a car and you leave it sitting outside for two years, it won’t work when you try to start it. You can push it and bang it, but nothing works. Then you have to tow it to a garage and pay a mechanic a fortune to fix it, if you’re lucky. Otherwise you have to send it to the junkyard, and it’s wasted. If we don’t use the capacity of our minds, that’s what we can expect. If we make the effort to develop ourselves, our capacity will be limitless. That is the example that the Buddha and all the other enlightened beings have provided for us.

In short, our human life, with the limitless capacity of our minds, is capable of producing any result we wish. If your goal is to get rich, your human life is capable of producing it. If you want to become famous, your life is capable of doing it. Hollywood is full of such people. It’s the same with anything else you choose to do. Whether you are satisfied with the results or not is a different story, but human life is capable of delivering the goods. If you want to be fully enlightened, if your ultimate spiritual goal is to achieve enlightenment, then this life is capable of delivering that as well. From our point of view we may fail, but it won’t be because our human life lacked the capacity for total enlightenment. It’ll be because we didn’t take advantage of it.

Consider the Buddha, who had a human life just like ours. There was nothing extraordinary in his life, except that he happened to be an Indian prince. From the point of view of the capability of human life, his opportunity was no different than ours is now. Everyone has the same potential. Not only that, but we are fortunate enough in this life to have access to the teachings and the shared experience of the Buddha. It is a message that has survived in a living tradition. And we also have many other non-Buddhist traditions that teach us the value and potential of our human lives and what we can achieve if we put our minds to it. As well, we have a sangha that is with us on this journey, and we have spiritual teachers who can give us the teachings and also offer their own example. In fact, within this life we have everything we need to achieve freedom and perfection.

Once we realise the importance of life, we begin to let go of our attachment to wasting time. Things we once viewed with great urgency gradually seem less important. We begin to make choices that help our spiritual development rather than hinder it. We rearrange our priorities, and the push and pull of busyness begins to lose its hold on us. We no longer want to waste time. That is the sign that we have begun to understand the value of our lives.

A few people might take this the wrong way. They can become very rigid about it and say, “Well, that’s it. I’m not going to waste time. I’m not even going to waste a second with useless activities like paying my bills or visiting the doctor.” That can become a neurosis; it is a form of nervousness and fear, rather than a realisation of the importance of this life. When you have a realisation of life’s importance, you actually become much gentler and calmer and sweeter and develop a better personality, instead of a rigid and twisted one. Realising the rare and precious opportunity of human life helps make us better human beings.

When you realise the importance of this life, you become motivated to find the right balance. Right now, most of our priorities are on one side — the material side. That’s what I mean by unbalanced. Sometimes people throw everything on the spiritual side and completely neglect their responsibilities as family members, citizens, students, or whatever their roles might be. That’s not so good either, unless you happen to live in a cave.

I also want to touch on another aspect of appreciating human life, one that has to do with realising the difficulty of finding this human life. The Buddha used an example to describe just how rare it is to obtain this human life. He was asked by a king, “How many human beings from the lower suffering realms will be able to come up to the wonderful human life that you talk about?” The Buddha looked around and saw a big mirror. He picked up a handful of peas and threw them at the mirror, and all the peas fell down. Buddha said that the chances of getting a precious human life are even less than the chance of any peas sticking to the mirror.

And then there is a very famous example in which the Buddha said that if this whole continent became a huge ocean, and within that ocean you had a yoke floating on the waves and a blind tortoise that popped up once every five hundred years, the chances of obtaining precious human birth would be equal to the chances of that blind tortoise emerging with his head poking through the yoke.

Actually, the life we have is not just a gift; it didn’t just happen to you. You have earned this life — this opportunity, this capability and potential for the ultimate achievement of enlightenment. You have earned it because of the great karma you have accumulated. According to the teachings, the basis of that karma is a pure morality.

Sometimes we ignore the issue of morality, and we just enjoy whatever we are doing. But morality is very important. Even our normal human understanding can tell you how important morality really is. I cannot emphasise this enough. Would you like to be an immoral person? Nobody will say yes, right? Common sense tells us how important morality is. It is morality, with the help of the other six activities — generosity, patience, enthusiasm, concentration, and wisdom — that enabled us to achieve the karma of this wonderful human body and mind. These virtues are the support for the basic morality that has brought us this life.

We need to recognise the rarity of this life. We need to realise how difficult it is to obtain, and we need to understand that it is unlikely to come again unless we lay the groundwork of perfect morality and the other virtues right now. It is almost too late already.

But understanding and realising the preciousness and opportunity of human life won’t come from just hearing about it. We have to meditate on it so that it becomes part of our lives and our way of thinking, influencing our actions and shaping our personality. If we don’t meditate, it remains merely as information. If we meditate and incorporate this knowledge into our lives, then it becomes a quality within us. That is what makes a difference. We need to fulfill our mission while we still have the time and ability. The way to do this is to have a continuous relationship with the enlightened ones and a connection to the teachings that the enlightened ones have shared. By practicing that every day, we should be able to reach enlightenment in a short time. If it takes three minutes, let it be three minutes; if takes three years, let it be three years. But let it not be three lifetimes.

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