Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Value of Life

In Buddhism, all life is extremely precious. The reason for this is simple. All living beings have within them an inestimable potential to achieve the perfection of Enlightenment, the state of Buddha, in their present or a future existence. This potential can of course be hidden, buried in ignorance, stifled by egocentricity, hemmed in by the flames of hatred and other mental poisons, but it is present in every being, just as the smallest sesame seed is impregnated with oil.

Ignorance simply means not being aware of that fact. We are like a beggar who does not realize that he has a pot of gold buried under his shack. To take the Buddhist path is to regain possession of this forgotten treasure, for our own good and the good of others.

But even if it is hidden in this way, the mere existence of that potential waiting to be realized gives life an incomparable value. Without it we would struggle in vain to attain perfection. If you work hard, you can extract a nugget of pure gold from a stone, but you would strive in vain for a hundred years to wash a piece of coal clean. It can never be restored to whiteness because that is not its natural color.

The obstacles to be overcome vary a great deal from one person to another, one type of living being to another. Take animals, for example. Their ignorance (in the sense used above) is so impenetrable and any means of communication that might enable them to escape it so limited that they will only be able to realize their potential for Enlightenment in a future life.If we think of all the different living species in the universe, we understand how rare and precious the human condition is. Human beings are in a unique situation: a feast, a banquet held only one day in a hundred, a privilege only to be enjoyed in one life amongst innumerable others.

As the great Tibetan teacher Khyentse Rinpoche explains, "If we do not take the opportunities that are offered to us, we will be like a beggar who picks up a jewel, clasps it in his hand for a moment and then throws it down in the dust, mistaking it for a piece of glass." But more seriously stil, the master goes on to say, "If we are fully aware of the value of human life, then to squander it in distractions and the pursuit of vain ambitions is the height of confusion. If a traveller returns from the treasure island empty-handed, then the incredible efforts he has made to cross the seas are all for nothing."

To be aware of the price of human life is to be like a beggar who suddenly realizes that what he is holding in his hand is not a piece of glass but a diamond, and decides straight away to use if for noble purposes. Although, through the force of intelligence, human beings are capable of perpetrating an immense amount of evil, they are also the only beings able to achieve an immense amount of good. Thus the jewel that is human life can fulfill all our aspirations. All we need to do is aspire to Enlightenment, to knowledge, love and compassion, rather than to selfishness, hatred and confusion.

(From The Rime Center for Tibetan Buddhism; originally from Buddhist Himalayas by Olivier, Follmi & Ricard).

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