Are we really all that different? From one another; from other animals? Granted, human beings have since the beginning of time sought a higher standard of living than their counterparts and this expedition in space and time has brought us a long way, a very long way indeed. On a journey that is often worth exploring to understand ourselves as much as the world we live in.

One perspective on this subject has been thoroughly studied and researched for as long as recorded time itself – “humanity’s journey of civilization”. There are as many theories on this topic today as there was hair on my head when I was a layman not so long ago. Some believe in creation by a supernatural power while others struggle to believe in the mere existence of an omnipotent entity and seek safe harbor in the theory of Darwinian evolution. There are yet other schools of thought which believe that aliens are somehow responsible for planting our feet on planet Earth. Whatever you believe in there is ample information on this vast subject accessible in virtually every language via books, the Internet, renowned scientists who have dedicated their lives to this purpose and, if you like yours with a bit of spice, folklore.

Therefore it is not our aim to explore this perspective in any more detail but rather to look at our expedition through space and time from a different perspective; a perspective which, regardless of how we have ended up where we are today, is important because it holds the answer to a question crucial particularly to those who are as interested in how this journey might end as much as or perhaps even more than how it began.

Let’s be honest – there is not much we can do now about how it all began, however, how or even if there is an end to this journey is well worth pondering and Buddhist scholars have forever been studying this topic. Some for academic interest, others to follow in the footsteps of the greatest philosopher the world has seen in the last two and half millennia – Gautama Lord Buddha. Our perspective looks at “our journey in sansãra”. In fact, the principle aim of this series of articles is to explore this issue and address it from numerous facets; and to do that in the International language of communication – English, so that our readers worldwide may benefit.

This is because this issue is the fundamental problem that the Lord Buddha sought to tackle in His strenuous effort to become enlightened and with infinite compassion spent 45 years of His life propagating the solution to, so that all beings fortunate enough may seek refuge in His teaching.

So how does one become fortunate enough to receive the Lord Buddha’s teaching? The Awakened One teaches us about two types of worldly planes, each with a number of worlds in which beings are born based on their good or evil volitional thoughts (manõ karma ), speech (vachĩ karma ) and actions (kãya karma). These are the blissful planes (sugathi) and the woeful planes (dhugathi). Worlds in the woeful planes (apãyas) include the animal world (thirachchãna yõni), prétha world (prétha yõni), asura world (asura yõni) and hells (niraya). We will describe the state of beings’ existence in each of the planes in a future issue.

The remainder of this article is based on the assumption that our readers believe at least to some extent in rebirth. In a future issue we will promote this assumption to the status of a hypothesis and address it more fully.

On one occasion the Lord Buddha was with Ananda thero when He cast a subtle smile. Fully aware that a Buddha’s smile carries profound insight and is intended to convey a valuable message, Ven. Ananda does not let this moment pass without questioning the Lord Buddha’s intentions.

The Lord Buddha points at a herd of buffalos: “Ananda, do you see that herd of buffalos?” “Yes Banthe” replies Ananda thero. “Ananda, you should know that there is not a single buffalo there that has not been a Sakkra deva in a previous life. That being the case Ananda, do you see how perilous one’s journey in sansara is, particularly when one has not yet escaped birth in the four hells…?”

This message is quite powerful because it opens our eyes to a reality which most are often blind to. In a quest for a higher standard of living, most beings yearn a superior, more affluent existence. Humans desire to become dhévas or brahmas; dhévas desire to ascend the heavenly hierarchy in the six heavenly abodes (there are 6 heavenly abodes) or strive to set foot in the brahma abodes; and brahmas seek to outshine their fellow brahmas in the 20 brahma worlds. If each animal of a herd of buffalos having been born in the animal hell realm, had “enjoyed” life as a deva in a previous existence, with conviction in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha we can believe we may have experienced similar at some point in sansãra. From a very mundane point of view that is not so bad, as to be born in a superior realm is an “upgrade”. However when we consider the possibility and unfortunate reality that for every birth and all the time we have enjoyed in a blissful world, we have been born countless times in the woeful plane spending many eons at a time, we must seriously weigh up the pros and cons of continuing our journey in sansara with one question at the back of our minds – “is it worth it..?”

In a conversation, the Lord Buddha reminds us how incredibly difficult it is to be born human. “Imagine that a man were to throw a yoke with a hole in it into the ocean. Blown by the wind, that yoke would drift north, south, east and west. Now suppose that once every hundred years a turtle blind in one eye were to rise to the surface. What would be the chances of that turtle seeing the full moon by looking through the hole in the yoke as it rose to the surface?”

“It would be very unlikely, Lord.”

Well, it is just as unlikely that one will be born as a human being. It is just as unlikely that a Thathãgatha, a Noble One, a fully enlightened Buddha should appear in the world. And it is just as unlikely that the Dhamma and Discipline (Vinaya) of the Thathãgatha should be proclaimed. But now you have been born as a human being, a Thathãgatha has appeared and the Dhamma and Discipline has been proclaimed. Therefore, strive to realize the Four Noble Truths.

The Perfect One uses the perfect metaphor to explain the rarity of this occurrence. Let’s dissect this metaphor so we can fully appreciate it. In agricultural farming, cattleyolk is used to pair two bulls up to plough the field. The yolk has a hole in the middle through which rope is drawn. Imagine this yolk somehow splits in half and each half now has a semi-hole which made up the hole when the two pieces were together. The farmer having no further use for them decides to throw the two pieces away, indiscreetly in opposite directions. Helped by rain and floods the pieces drift in to streams, from streams into rivers and eventually end up in the vast ocean. At this point it is very unlikely they are in proximity to each other. Helped by winds and waves the pieces drift further into the sea without specific direction. Over an indefinite period of time the two pieces drift towards each other and remarkably line up against each
other in such a way that the two semi-holes align exactly and a hole is formed for a brief moment before they drift apart again. Exactly below this point where the two pieces meet, at the bottom of the sea lives a turtle, blind in one eye. The turtle surfaces for air once every hundred years. The meeting coincides with the turtle’s re-surfacing anniversary. Now consider the probability of the turtle’s “good” eye lining up with the hole and the turtle seeing a clear full moon, on a cloudy night! It takes little convincing to appreciate that the chances are next to none. Lord Buddha claims the chance of being born as a human being is even rarer! He then goes on to claim that the appearance of a Thathãgatha is just as rare as is the proclamation of the Dhamma and Discipline. Naturally the combined probability of all three of these occurrences coinciding is a third of each taking place individually. Quite simply all odds are against us.

You and I have been born human, we have been born in an era that is blessed by the appearance of a Thathãgatha and we are fortunate enough to have received His Dhamma. Now ask yourself these questions on a personal level – what is the probability? What are the chances? Knowing what you know now, how do you feel about how you have lived your life so far? Would you consider making any changes to how you might live the rest of your life?

Knowing what you know now, how would you compare yourself to others around you? To your family, who perhaps unlike you may not be so interested in the discectomy of the Four Noble Truths? To some of your friends who may have no desire or perhaps the opportunity to inject superior meaning to their worldly existence? To animals who survive by instinct – the need to feed, sleep, protect themselves and their offspring, for shelter and reproduce? Are we really all that different…?

If you were to distill everything you have ever done in your lifetime, all your thoughts, speech and actions and categorise them in to the most basic categories, would they not fall into one of the above? If we question the purpose of doing all of these things at the most basic level, what is it that we hope to achieve? Is it not to fulfill the basic survival needs? If so how are we different to dogs, cats, cattle and other animals?

Sometimes we are not satisfied with merely fulfilling these needs. Fueled by ego we feel the need to outdo others and so we humans think big, we produce, we go forth and conquer, we invent, we create, we compete, we destroy; so we can stand above the rest and continue to sustain the processes and systems that keeps us bound to this existence. On one occasion the Buddha pushes His thumb into the ground and picks up some soil on to his thumbnail and asks his chief attendant Ven. Ananda; “Ananda, what do you think? In comparison to all the soil on this Earth, what would you say about the amount of soil on my thumbnail?”

“Banthe, the two are beyond comparison. The amount of soil on the Tathagatha’s thumbnail is miniscule, negligible, incomparable to the all the soil on Earth.”

That being the case Ananda, let it be known of all beings that are born, that if the number of beings born in the blissful planes is as much as the amount of soil on my thumbnail, the number of beings born in the woeful planes is as much as the soil on this Earth.

This delivers a shocking eyeopener to anyone who might feel that to have been born one of the seven billion human beings on this planet was a simple feat. What value have we given to our human existence – something as we discussed above is virtually impossible to achieve yet we have been so incredibly fortunate to have done so.

Invariably we humans like to think we have minds far superior to animals. However while some people dedicate every moment of their working life for the betterment of themselves and others, on the other hand when we see how some people behave in the face of adversity and vicissitudes of life, it begs the question how is it we claim that humans are always superior in mind to animals. Lying, back-stabbing, foul speech, stealing and killing for personal gain have become all too common occurrences in society. Some sins humans commit are too heinous to mention in popular media and yet a mere cow does not break any of the five precepts – ever!

We believe our power to think elevates us to the level of universal overlord and sets us above par to other beings. This appears true on the surface, however is it not the application of intelligent thought which ought to be the true metric? Application of intelligent thought, also known as wisdom (paṅṅã) enables one to make the right choices between good and bad. However wisdom in this context refers to a mental faculty which unlocks a perspective on oneself and the world around them so that they may understand the Buddha’s teaching. It helps one reflect on the Dhamma and apply its principles to challenge their own misguided views (michchã dhitti) on almost anything and in particular views which contribute to their misguided thoughts (michchã sankappa), misguided speech (michchã vãchã) and misguided actions (michchã kammantha). It is wisdom which mainly sets us apart from animals and other beings born in the woeful planes. Animals and other beings born in the woeful planes do not have wisdom as the location of this faculty is dependent on good karma accumulated in a previous birth which does not give effect (vipãka) to beings born in the woeful planes.

Wholesome deeds (kusala karma) – thoughts, speech and actions are conditioned by the three wholesome roots non-greed (alõbha), non-aversion (adhõsa) and non-delusion (amõha). However wholesome deeds are not always rooted in all three of them. We can easily relate to this from personal experience. Take for instance an example where one offers flowers to the Buddha. This is no doubt a wholesome deed. In the process of the ritual, this person is clearly giving away something as an offer of respect, gratitude, invariably out of non-greed. They have feelings of joy, goodwill and utmost reverence rooted in non-aversion. However let us assume on this occasion this person wishes that the merits of this deed help them be born adorned with beauty in their next birth. This wish is based on the wrong view (michchã dhitti) that an existence, albeit adorned with beauty, is one worth having. Therefore this wish is rooted in delusion and as such is only rooted in two of the three wholesome roots. If this karma happens to come forth at the time of death (chuthi), in the form of the death consciousness (chuthi chiththa), the resultant rebirth consciousness (patisandhi chiththa) will be lacking in wisdom. This is an example of a double-rooted rebirth (dvihethuka patisandhi).

However if in the above example, instead of wishing for birth adorned with beauty, one reflects insightfully on the reality that just as the flowers I lay down on the altar are subject to decay and death, so is my body and all material things that I am attached to, this deed is now also rooted in non-delusion. They have not wished for something that is material and subject to disease, decay and death but rather have reflected on the futile nature of such possessions and how attachment to them is in fact the cause for suffering. Now if this karma happens to come forth at the time of death, in the form of the death consciousness, the resultant rebirth will be in a blissful plane and the human, dheva or brahma is likely to possess the wisdom faculty. It is very important to note here that wholesome vipãka is not a gift, but the fruit of one’s wholesome karma; a fine example of cause and effect. We will discuss cause and effect in much more detail in a future issue.

The wisdom faculty (paṅṅã indriya) only appears in beings born in the blissful planes and that also if the wholesome karma which resulted in their rebirth was rooted in non-delusion.

What is clear from the above is that this adds yet another level of uncertainty to the probability we discussed above. Being born human is unimaginably hard enough and while one can accumulate merits (piṅ) as a human so that they may acquire material happiness in this or future births, to understand the ultimate reality contained in the Four Noble Truths and therefore attain the supreme bliss that is Nibbana requires the power of wisdom.

Wisdom helps penetrate delusion (mõhaya) which is the veil that blinds us to the true nature of all conditioned objects and occurrences (sankatha) in the world. As with all faculties such as the eye, in some people wisdom is present but not always open and active and in some cases may not be used to its full potential throughout their lifetime. However by associating people, who themselves have by associating yet others, activated this faculty, one may be able to achieve the same result; be able to view themselves, analyse the purpose of their lives, their existence and the world around them from a new perspective. This new realisation happens while they are actively listening to the Dhamma. In this context, active listening involves not only understanding what is being said, but comprehending its meaning and actively applying the principles to their lives by reflecting on their past experiences, present moment and future goals. This practice gradually helps penetrate the veil of delusion by hammering away at its roots based in ignorance (avidhyá) – ignorance of the Four Noble Truths.

An associate who help us in this way is, in the Buddha Shasanaya, referred to as a Noble friend (kalyãna miththa). There is a much deeper meaning to this word, however this and a step by step account of how by associating a kalyãna miththa one is able to achieve this profound understanding we will cover in a future issue.

We invite you to think for a few moments about how you currently spend your life. Do you view being alive, having being born a human being as a right or privilege? Do you realise how rare and fortunate it is for a being stuck in the intricate web of sansara to be born in a blissful plane? And that in an era in which the Buddha’s Dhamma prevails (budhdhōthpádha kãlaya)? Do you truly appreciate the value of what you have worked so incredibly hard to achieve? If so are you content with how you intend to live the rest of your life? Is it time to take stock of what you have achieved to date and what goals you have set for the future. What do we hope to take with us one day when we leave this world? Whether we like it or not that day will surely come. If we haven’t already, now is the time to apply the power of intelligent thought and make some choices, because if we don’t, are we really all that different…?

Written by Ven. Battaramulle Amadassana Thero