The following notes are based on excerpts from Preliminary Practices by Geshe Rabten Rinpoche (see reference at the end of these notes).
“In order to practise Dharma, we should learn about the different traditions and, after finding one which is best suited to ourselves, we should follow it sincerely.
The Buddha came to fulfil the wishes of sentient beings, to end suffering, and to attain temporary and permanent happiness.
All the various levels of teachings were delivered to individuals of different capacities by the Buddha Shakyamuni, and they are similar in the respect that their aim is one.” (Geshe Rabten)
Some readers may find that some of the information presented in these notes does not meet their understanding at this time – this, of course, is understandable. It is highly recommended that one work with a trusted Buddhist teacher to help in understanding the Buddhist Dharma at one’s level of spiritual development. Over time, our understanding of the Buddhist Dharma will grow.
THE ORDINARY PRELIMINARIES
The ordinary preliminaries have also been described in detail in other sections of this website.
The Perfect Human Rebirth
This has three aspects:
(1) Recognition of the perfect human rebirth
(2) Contemplation on its value
(3) Contemplation on its scarcity
The Eight Freedoms
1. Not to be born as a hell sentient being. In this realm there is continual and unbearable suffering. Not a word of the Dharma is ever heard. A man whose arm is on fire cannot think of meditation for even a second. Killing and other similar deeds are the main causes for rebirth in this realm.
2. Not to be born as a hungry ghost. The beings in this realm can never satisfy their hunger and thirst, and have no opportunity to practise the Dharma. If you were forced to go without food for even one day, you would find it very difficult to do anything. However, this is nothing compared to the miseries of the hungry ghosts. The main causes for rebirth in this realm are greed, avarice, and covetousness.
3. Not to be born as an animal. The misery of this realm is quite obvious. The ignorance and extreme stupidity of animals prevent them from ever coming close to the Dharma. The main causes for rebirth in this realm are sexual misconduct, calling others by animal names as a form of abuse, and reluctance to learn the Dharma.
4. Not to be born as a Deva. Devas of the form and formless worlds enjoy the bliss of Samadhi for a very long period of time, whereas Devas of the realm of desire are totally involved in sensual pleasures. The happiness they experience accounts for the lack of motivation amongst most Devas to practise the Dharma. Life in these spheres is like the enjoyment gained from living off a large sum of borrowed money. When the funds run out difficulties arise. The main causes for rebirth in this realm are practising skilful deeds without the motivation to attain enlightenment, or specifically wishing to be reborn as a Deva.
5. Not to be born in a place of no Dharma. From the point of view of the Dharma, the life of a human being who works, eats, sleeps, and wakes to work again for only the temporal gratifications of his life, is not different from that of an animal.
6. To be free from perverted views. Although a person may be born in a country where the Dharma flourishes and may be surrounded by many teachers, if he has erroneous beliefs, he will not be able to benefit from these favourable conditions. Perverted views are dangerous because they destroy the seeds of merit accumulated in former lives and close the door to further development.
7. To be free from deluded practices. Some people spend their energy on wrong practices. For instance, animal sacrifice, asceticism, and giving the name of the Dharma to paths which in fact produce opposite results.
8. To be free from stupidity. No matter how much a man who has no intelligence is taught, he will never retain the smallest glimpse of knowledge.
Repeated contemplations on your own lives would not fail to reveal that if death came at this moment, the non-virtuous actions you have committed since the beginning of your life would constitute sufficient cause for immediate rebirth in one of the three lower realms.
Contemplation on the causes for rebirth in these worlds should help to eliminate any remaining doubts concerning this certainty.
However, all human beings have the potential to possess the eight freedoms. You are alive and free from the obstacles of wrong views and stupidity, and by discrimination between right and wrong you are able to practise skilful deeds.
You should rejoice at this great opportunity presented by the precious rebirth and use it in the right way before it is lost once again.
A criminal who has escaped from a mob feels great joy at regaining his freedom, but at the same time fears his recapture.
In the same way, you will feel compelled by this realisation not to waste a single moment of your precious rebirth.
This in turn will establish in your mind the strong motivation necessary for the practice of higher meditations.
Five Personal Endowments
(1) To be born a human being.
(2) To be born in a central country. This means wherever the Dharma is flourishing.
(3) To be endowed with complete faculties. This means to have a body without defects and not deficient in any of the five senses.
(4) To respect and have faith in the Buddha, and not to have committed any of the five heinous crimes, namely killing one’s father or mother, killing an Arhat, shedding the blood of a Buddha or causing a schism in the Sangha or between a Buddha and the Sangha.
(5) To have faith in the Tripitaka and the desire to practise its teaching. Initially, for most people it is difficult to have faith in the Buddha and the Dharma, since such faith is the result of gradual spiritual development and growth.
Five Circumstantial Endowments
(1) To be born in a time when the Buddha has appeared. There are many dark aeons without Buddhas and only very few illuminated by their presence.
(2) To be born in a time when the Buddha has taught. In some circumstances Buddhas appear and pass away without teaching.
(3) To be born when the teaching of the Buddha is alive is to enjoy particular good fortune. At present there still are teachers propounding the Dharma.
(4) To be born where the Dharma is practised. The example of others who are practising is a great encouragement.
(5) To be born in a place where you find a means of support. Material necessities become available when all your energies are dedicated to the practice of Dharma: Luipa was living on the offal of a fish and Milarepa lived on nettle soup. How can you do this while you are so attached to pleasure?
It is very rare to be endowed with these eighteen conditions at one time.
When you recognise the true value of your precious rebirth you are like the man who realises that he has found gold. Brass, copper and other metals shine like gold, but gold has its own inimitable qualities.
At this moment you are midway between the higher and lower realms. If you fail to act virtuously, you will definitely lose this precious opportunity. To be convinced of this point brings about the decision to practise Dharma.
By means of this rebirth, through work and study, you can attain all worldly goals and happiness.
However, these are not important compared with the goal of the full enlightenment of Buddhahood.
Liberation is achieved by the correct use of the precious rebirth and is not automatically produced by the eighteen conditions.
Even if you possessed all the wealth of the universe, it would not help to attain liberation.
Until now you have been unable to raise your head above the misery of Samsara. By abandoning the unskilful Karma and by practising Bodhicitta, great compassion, great loving kindness and the various levels of the path, you can not only attain liberation, but also supreme enlightenment in this very life. At this stage you will realise that you have the ability to practice the Dharma.
In the Bodhisattvacharyavatara the Bodhisattva Shantideva said:
How rare is this precious life.
If a man who is endowed with it fails to benefit from it,
How difficult it will be for him to acquire it again!
With the boat of this precious life,
You can cross the waters of Samsara.
How rare to find this boat!
O ignorant one, do not fall asleep now!
The purpose of this teaching is not that it should be read through and kept in a book, but that it should be interiorised and used for contemplation.
Only if you do this at least three times a day can you hope to effect a definite change in your mind.
You may think that so far your life has been wasted, and form the intention to do better in your next rebirth. This is a false hope. You must realise the unlikelihood of ever finding such favourable conditions again. Contemplation on the scarcity of the human rebirth will help avoid the forming of such a hope.
Maintaining the Purity of Moral Discipline
A farmer who wishes to harvest a crop of wheat must first sow the seed. Similarly, to gain this precious rebirth requires a specific seed: maintaining the purity of moral discipline.
Among the different levels of moral commitment, we are mainly concerned with the abandonment of the ten non-virtuous deeds:
(1) Three actions of the body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
(2) Four of speech: lying, slander, abuse, and idle talk.
(3) Three of mind: covetousness, harmful thoughts, and wrong views.
Rare indeed are those endowed with a perfect rebirth, for it is hard to meet beings who keep pure morality.