Four days after returning from retreat I sat down to write this blog entry on our precious human birth. After googling quotes from the Samyutta Nikaya, I felt a strong impulse to look at the NY Times online, where I saw that the President was about to make an announcement. So I waited, knowing the rarity of a President addressing the nation at such a late hour.
When Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been found and killed, I experienced an intense rush of conflicting emotions. The New Yorker in me, the daughter in me, was elated. I felt waves of relief knowing that my 79-year-old mother, still residing on the Upper East Side, would awaken to news that might help her feel more safe than she had in the last 10 years since 9/11. The dogmatic Buddhist in me felt ashamed of my joy at the killing of another human being. The Buddhist psychotherapist in me searched for a way to hold the tension of these two opposing streams of emotion by honoring my basic humanness through compassionate recognition of my own imperfection. I realized that in that moment I was experiencing why the Buddha felt it so necessary to remind us of the preciousness of receiving the gift of being born in a human body. We so easily forget who we truly are and the purpose of this life.
The next morning I awoke to the flood of media commentary about Bin Laden’s demise. The videos of Americans, especially young Americans, gathering at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and in Times Square, chanting feverishly of America’s might, as though they were in a sports arena. I felt horrified and empathetic. They were an externalization of my own inner cheerleader who rushed into my awareness, pom-poms and all, when I heard the news. Then came the inevitable rush of comments on Facebook, most of which reflected the mood of elation and retribution against Al Qaida and Bin Laden.
But by noon, a profound quote from Martin Luther King began making its rounds through cyberspace, “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." I felt deeply met by these words of wisdom from a man who epitomized Christ’s insistence that when faced with injustice we should eschew retaliation and turn the other cheek.
Yet I remained quiet, my blog unwritten (until today,) holding the tension of my conflicting emotions and my strong desire to communicate the Buddha’s teaching that even one who causes so much suffering and ignorance in the world, is still the bearer of a precious human life, and is therefore, deserving of respect, compassion, kindness, and generosity.
Remembering our precious human birth can be a great inspiration for practicing especially when conditions are difficult. At Savatthi, the Buddha taught about the preciousness of this human life by placing some soil in his fingernail and asking the monks, “Which is more: the soil in my fingernail or all the soil on the earth?” The monks replied, “Surely all the soil on the earth.” The Buddha agreed and reminded them that, “Those beings who are reborn among human beings are few. More numerous are those who are reborn elsewhere than among human beings. Therefore, you should train yourselves by dwelling diligently.” (Samyutta Nikaya, The Fingernail.)
Knowing that a precious human birth is rare provides an opening for the practice of compassionate holding of distressful emotions like anger, hatred, and fear. Mindfulness allows us to know when the mind/heart are gripped in anger, hatred, or fear, without fighting against or trying to stop these difficult feelings from arising. These emotions deserve our tender care, regardless of whether their arising occurs within our own mind or in the minds of others. Knowing directly gives us the opportunity to hold these feelings with compassion and kindness.
Thich Nhat Hahn says, “To grow the tree of enlightenment, we must make good use of our afflictions, our suffering…. Embrace your anger with a lot of tenderness. Your anger is not your enemy, it is your baby.”
The same practice can be applied toward our perceived enemies. When people create harm for us or speak harshly to us, we suffer. When we react in kind toward them and make them suffer, it only leads to further escalation of suffering on all sides. When hatred or anger arises, look within and care for your hatred and anger by compassionately holding yourself as a precious being that is suffering. Our feelings of fear, hatred and anger deserve our kind attention; not our reactive clinging to their harshness. This is the path to liberate ourselves from causing additional internal or external harm.
Then gaze with compassion upon the other: a precious human being who also suffers. Who’s actions arise from their own suffering. Seeing with compassion opens our heart even more to the ubiquitousness of human suffering and can inspire the Bodhisattvic intent to free all beings from suffering. This is the path of being with suffering as a motivation for ending suffering, rather than falling into creating more suffering when suffering is aroused.
And ultimately, practitioners can look with the eyes of mindfulness and see the ultimate reality—our own luminous, cognizant, empty nature—which exposes the relative reality of two or more minds mired in the shared delusion of their own separateness, attachment, aversion, or fearfulness. This true knowing liberates the mind from experiencing any further suffering.
So it is our path as Buddhists to embrace every moment (especially those of great suffering) as an invitation to recognize the preciousness of each human life, knowing that no matter how much pain a being may cause or experience, they are—due to their precious human birth—ultimately fully capable of awakening and ending their own suffering.