Listening to a radio interview with escapees from the Amish community and a Hasidic Jewish community, I realised how fortunate I am to have the freedoms I have. The freedom to follow my own spiritual direction is a particularly important element of this: my parents left us free to follow a religious tradition or not, as we chose. I had no religion to reject, or to tar me with guilt, and nothing was said against religion.
Musing on this, I soon widened my appreciation as I thought of the countries whose citizens are not free in so many ways – and especially of women, whom it might be said, virtually never experience the same freedom as men in a society. Religion and culture are frequently inseparable in this restriction. But then there’s also economic freedom: much of the world is tied to the land in subsistence farming, and stuck there when droughts or climate extremes happen. Freedom of time is a great luxury. Freedom of knowledge benefits me too, access to books, culture, internet, all presaged by a standard of education.
Tibetan Buddhism points to eighteen freedoms which allow Dharma practice, and which therefore render a human life “precious”. I would not be writing this if I hadn’t enjoyed all of those. You can find a checklist of these easily enough.
what does all this depend upon?
Reflecting on my personal history, I noticed an obvious root to all this which I had not fully credited: my birth. I was born of white middle-class parents who were educated and reasonably well off, with no binding religious affiliations. With this start, I was well educated, brought up in a time of increasing wealth for the country, physically and mentally capable and I enjoyed as much independence from my family as I chose.
I took all this for granted (as you do!), and made my way in the world, apparently by my own effort: school exams, university, jobs, houses, following my interests and finding and committing to Dharma. Now as I look back it is completely obvious to me that all this striving took me no distance at all from what might be expected of one born into the circumstances I described. The apple, as Americans say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
This birth-situation is the root of my life experiences, and crucially, of my ability to follow a Dharma path. So, as I find myself at an age where people who die are said to have had “a good innings”, and where any new symptom may herald my final illness, it becomes important to know: how do I get a birth as good as this one? Will I ever have another “precious human life”?
If I asserted that there is no rebirth, then it wouldn’t even matter much what I did with this life, and I would hardly have acted as I have – even though that was not based upon a conviction of rebirth. So I must consider that there will be further lives – and I do not want to waste the connection I already have with Dharma. Naturally I would like my path to continue where it left off! (So a rebirth as a young adult then!)
I don’t have any direct evidence of the factors – if any – which led to my birth into this life, nor any direct experience which tells me how to influence the next one. My best assumption is that of momentum: by going firmly in this Dharma direction in my life now, I would be laying down a pattern which might persist through whatever bardos await.
I know this life is impermanent, I am well aware of its vulnerability to suffering, so this approximation to an assumption of karma is the logical outcome of what are traditionally the four thoughts which turn the mind to Dharma. I’m not using them because I lack enthusiasm for Dharma or fail to see its relevance, I just notice that my present human life is a lot more precious than I had credited, and it is within sight of ending. Like most people who die, I don’t want to stop now!