On Friday, June 14, my granddaughter, Allegra Rose Howard, arrived in the world, weighing eight pounds and twelve ounces. As I reflect on that glad event, I am reminded of a phrase from Tibetan Buddhist teachings.
The phrase is this precious human birth. Its source is the Chiggala Sutra, where the Buddha speaks of the chances of being born a human being. Those chances, he observes, are infinitesimally small. They are analogous to those of a blind tortoise swimming in an ocean as large as the planet, where an ox’s yoke is afloat on the waves. Every one hundred years, the tortoise surfaces. The chances of being born human are no better than those of the tortoise surfacing with his head in the yoke. Human birth is extremely rare and therefore most precious.
In the lojong system of mind training practiced by Tibetan Buddhists, phrases such as this precious human birth are known as “slogans.” Contemplated and absorbed during sitting meditation, they are subsequently applied to everyday life. As the Zen teacher Norman Fischer explains, the best way to work with a lojong slogan is to develop it “as an almost physical object, a feeling in your belly or heart.” Once the slogan has embedded itself, you can work with it throughout the day, until it becomes “part of your mind—your own thought, a theme for daily living.”*
This precious human birth is one of four “preliminaries,” or cornerstones, of the lojong system, and in my experience, it is one of the most potent. Whether consciously invoked during the course of a day, or allowed to arise of its own accord, this phrase can provide three illuminating perspectives on whatever we might be doing, thinking, and feeling at the time.
To begin with, this resonant phrase broadens one’s general outlook. It encourages the long view. When compared to the immense good fortune of being born human, the frustrations and setbacks of everyday life, however real or urgent, look smaller and less substantial. Likewise our petty complaints and hoarded grudges, our habitual gripes and deep-seated grievances. They too look minute when contrasted with the immense gift of living a human life, speaking a human tongue, and experiencing human love. By regularly reminding ourselves of that contrast, we can engender a reordering of our emotional priorities and a renewed appreciation of our everyday lives.
At the same time, this precious human birth can prompt us to reexamine the purpose and direction of our thoughts and actions. “Tell me,” demands the poet Mary Oliver in her poem “The Summer Day,” “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” In its own way, this precious human birth poses the same question. And to be confronted, periodically and sometimes unexpectedly, with that question can cause us to reconsider the motives and the deeper meaning of whatever activity we might be engaged in, be it pulling weeds or driving in heavy traffic or listening impatiently to a garrulous friend. In Abraham Lincoln’s famous formulation, the phrase can summon us to inquire where we are and whither we are tending.
Beyond these personal benefits, this ancient slogan can awaken us to the mystery of birth itself. Those of us who have never given birth (and never will) can only imagine the pain of labor, which for the mother may temporarily banish any thought of the mystery of birth. But any one of us can honor that mystery, which transcends the boundaries of ordinary thought. Taking stock of the human condition, poets and dramatists from Aeschylus to the present have discerned in human existence an abiding sadness and a tragic coloration. With Virgil they have perceived the “tears of things.” And as the anthropologist Loren Eiseley once remarked in conversation, apropos of my son’s impending birth, thoughtful people of every generation have questioned the wisdom and the morality of bringing a child into a troubled world. To all such grave reflections, however, the birth of a child offers a joyous, thundering rejoinder. For as the Tibetan slogan eloquently reminds us, that event is as momentous as it is unlikely and as precious as it is rare.
* Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (Shambhala, 2012), xvi-xvii.
Photo by Alexander Howard.