You may have seen them:
brilliantly painted thangkas of a wheel with a creature poised at the top with
open mouth. In every spoke of the wheel, a gathering of human and non-human animals
joins with a mix of celestial and hell-beings.
This is the Great Wheel. It is a visual depiction of the cycles of reincarnation as perceived in the great pearl of Tibetan Buddhism. The idea of reincarnation is crucial to this form of Buddhist understanding and Buddhism in general. Like many concepts born in the East, it has found its way into the western psyche. Recently I saw someone with a T-shirt that read: Life's A Bitch. Then You Die and then you Reincarnate!
That is precisely the idea of the Wheel. It is said by Tibetan Buddhists that we have all had innumerable lives. Most of them are spent in the subhuman worlds of animals. A few are spent, perhaps, in the Celestial Realms as gods or goddesses. But precious few are spent as humans. In the view of Buddhism, this human life is a most precious treasure, a jewel above price. Why would this be? Why would it not be better to be a god or goddess or some other kind of energy-being in the Celestial Realms?
Well, it has to do with the Path of Self-Perfection. This is the dharma, the way of Buddhism; for if Buddhism is anything, it is the path of self-realization. And what is this central realization of Buddhism that must be understood? It is that we are Mind, pure consciousness. Our bodily forms are temporary manifestations of Mind (consciousness). Our embodied experiences are like film images cast upon the screen of awareness. But we are not those images that we take ourselves to be. We are the luminous light inside the projector itself. We are transcendent to the phenomena of these images of embodiment. We are timeless, but our bodies are temporary. They are born. They live, and they die. They are like all the experiences of our lives: clouds. They arise from emptiness. They exist for awhile, and then they dissolve away.
This impermanence of being can be terrifying to one who is identified with the flickering images of one's existence on the screen. Life's experiences are fleeting. They pass by; and as one ages, they seem to pass by even more quickly. Friends and loved-ones disappear into the great emptiness. Nothing is secure.
We tend to live our lives ignoring this truth of impermanence. Perhaps it is simply too terrifying or painful. But Buddhism calls our attention to this very human condition, a situation we share with all sentient beings, even the gods and goddesses. We are all in the same boat so to speak. We are all cast into the ocean of samsara (the illusion of this world). Some of us have no idea that we are self-luminous beings transcendent to our embodied experience. Some have an inkling of it, but keep falling back into the delusion of believing that they are the images on the movie screen of their embodiment. A few have actually penetrated the veil of ignorance and glimpsed the realms of unbounded light and bliss. Fewer still, have found the middle way of letting the movie of embodiment continue on while residing in the light and bliss of transcendent awareness. This is enlightenment. And the ones who attain this are called Buddhas. A Buddha is simply one who is awake. Although Gautama Buddha was a man, there have been and will continue to be women Buddhas as well.
As one becomes increasingly clear that all beings suffer the ill effects of samsaric delusion, there is a spontaneous arising of compassion for oneself and others. This realization has vast implications for the Path of Self-Perfection (the way to Buddhahood).
For one, it helps to dispel many negative samsaric delusions. For example, if we are identified with the flickering images of our embodiment, there will be times when things are not "going so good." Fortunes come and go. Status rises and falls. One day we are vibrant and healthy, the next we are ill. All of the myriad experiences of life rise and fall like waves on an ocean. If we see another having greater fortune or good-luck than us in the moment, we might covet his or her experience. This could lead to wrongful acts, as in trying to steal from them or attempt to soil their name. At the very least it will create agitation in our minds since we are wanting something we can't have.
All sentient beings experience both pleasure and pain, good luck and bad luck as part of samsara. By accepting this very human condition, we might be able to more easily allow others their moments of glory and extend compassion to those who are in their moments of darkness. But all of this tumultuous experience is just the flickering of illusory images on the movie screen of our minds. Behind the plethora of our senses is the ever calm, ever transcendent, luminous light of our Being. The Path of Self-Perfection has one goal: to attain this direct experience of Buddha-mind (bodhicitta).
This brings us to why Buddhists consider human embodiment so precious. Of all the myriad forms of embodiment possible, the human form is unique in its inherent ability to penetrate the veils of delusion and make direct contact with bodhicitta (Buddha-mind). This ability, no doubt, has to do with the human nervous system and its capacity for self-awareness.
The task of Buddhist meditation practice is to do this very thing: make contact with our innate bodhicitta. This type of contact refines awareness, and over time leads to direct experience of our luminous transcendent natures. But while we are about the task of accessing our transcendent natures, the flickering sensory images of our movie (our embodiment) continue. How do we deal with this? How do we deal with the odd situation where we are making contact with our essential truth as transcendent beings while contending with life's myriad experiences and demands?
There is a wonderful Tibetan saying: When in the body of a donkey, enjoy the taste of grass. The Tibetan people are wonderfully pragmatic, and the message here is, I think, quite clear. Wherever you find yourself in the samsaric illusion (i.e., a prince or pauper) enjoy the experiences of your life.
Indeed the Path of Self-Perfection is about living life well. Those who undertake this path to enlightenment deal with life directly. There is no attempt to escape it. One does not use meditation as a means to insulate oneself from life or to avoid its demands.
In point of fact, how we deal with our embodiment (i.e., the real life choices that we make or don't make) will lay the foundation for our future embodiments. And our choices in life will either enhance our quest for bodhicitta or make it more difficult. The reason for this is that every choice we make, every interaction we have with other sentient beings, affects the quality of our consciousness. And these ways of thinking and acting will either help to dissolve our delusions or strengthen them. If, for instance, we gossip about someone, in an attempt to damage his or her reputation, this action will taint our capacity for clear awareness. We will have damaged our pathway to bodhicitta. On the contrary, every act of kindness or compassion helps to clear our impediments in meditation by bringing a beneficial influence into our minds.
It is said that one can (if possessing human embodiment) reach enlightenment in one life time. Tremendous effort is required, but it is possible. When one has awakened from the dream of life's movie, one is aware in ways that stagger the imagination. One is also poised to leave the Wheel.
At the moment of death, one who has awakened can step off the Wheel of re-incarnation. One can reside in the Celestial realms of being (the Samboghaya) or one can return to the source of all things, the Great Mind itself (the Dharmakaya). If one chooses, one can return to embodiment in the earth realm as a Bodhisattva. There is a difference, however, with this type of reincarnation. Instead of tumbling into embodiment through forces beyond one's control, one is able to affect the conditions of one's birth. One can be born into auspicious circumstances through the powers of Mind, and thus enter the Wheel in a more favorable position.
All of these advanced attainments are self-revealing once we reach the levels of awareness where they reside. But for those of us who choose the Path of Self-Perfection, the task is much more pragmatic. We must live life as fully aware as is possible. We must strive to remain harmless to ourselves and others. This is the great ethical constraint of Buddhism. And we must join this with regular meditation so we can transcend the illusions of our limitations in time and space.
By joining these two, an ethical/moral life with the regular practice of meditation, we have set ourselves fully upon the Path of Self-Perfection. We have joined the family of the Buddhas and have begun the journey of freeing ourselves from the Great Wheel.
Although it is a Taoist practice, the Celestial Gate Meditation (see article entitled
Taoist Stillness Practices) produces a state of mind that is sought after in Buddhist
practice. If you are unfamiliar with Buddhist forms of meditation, I suggest trying
the Taoist practice. After all,
"a rose is a rose by any other name." Entering into the Celestial Gate is an excellent way to begin the process of self-realization.