Now, as I said, there are three kinds of people. Like all other beings, the lowest person wants happiness and wants neither suffering nor rebirth in the lower realms of existence, so he practices Buddhism to create causes of rebirth in the human realm or in the heavenly realms of the gods. He does not have the power or the courage to leave worldly existence completely. He only wants the best parts of worldly existence, he wants to avoid the worst parts and that is why he practices the Buddhist religion: in order to get a higher rebirth.
Now the middling sort of person understands that the whole of worldly existence, no matter where one is born, is suffering by its nature, just as fire is hot by its nature. He wants to get out of it altogether and attain nirvana, the state which is entirely away from suffering.
The highest person realizes that, just as he himself does not want to suffer, and does want happiness, so also do all living beings have the same fears and wishes. He knows that, since we have been born again and again from beginningless time in worldly existence, there is not a single sentient being who has not been our mother and father at one time or another. Since we are that close to all sentient beings, the best person is the one who practices Buddhism in order to remove all these countless sentient beings from suffering.
Q. How should we practice?
A. At the beginning of all Buddhist practice come two very important things: meditation of the four recollections and taking refuge.
The four recollections are of the difficulty of getting human birth, of the impermanence of all samsaric things, of the suffering of worldly existence, and of the law of Karma which means the law of cause and result.
Generally speaking, it is very difficult to be born as a human being. We think that there are many human beings but if we compare our numbers to those of the other beings, we realize how few we are. For instance, in each of our bodies there are millions of germs, microbes, viruses and so on.
So statistically the chances of attaining human life are very poor. In any case, there are many places of rebirth which are of no use to beings, as there they will be unable to meet with the Buddha's teachings. There are eight unfavorable places of birth: the realms of hell, of hungry ghosts and of animals, of barbarians, places where religious teaching is incorrect, where there is no Buddha, certain god realms and the realm of dumb people. Yet even if we get a human rebirth, there are ten necessary pre-conditions: it is necessary to be born in a place to which the Buddha has come, a place in which the Buddha actually taught the religion, a place where the teaching is still alive, where the teachers are kind enough to teach, and where there are still Buddhist followers such as monks and lay followers. There are also five external circumstances required of oneself: one must not have committed any of the five limitless downfalls, as this would create a great obstruction.
This difficulty is explained in other ways, also. The cause of human birth is the performance of virtuous acts and keeping correct moral conduct, and since very few people are aware of this, human rebirth is rare by its cause. By nature, it is much easier to be born somewhere else. The difficulty is illustrated by an example: imagine a blind tortoise living in the ocean. Floating on the surface is a yoke. The tortoise come to the surface only once every century, yet he stands a better chance of putting his neck in that yoke than we do of being born in human form.
Concerning the recollection of impermanence: the Buddha said, “The three realms of existence are like a cloud in autumn: the birth and the death of beings is like a dancer's movement; a being's life is like a waterfall, like a flash of lightning in the sky; it never stops even for a single moment and once it starts, it goes inevitably to its conclusion.” Everything is changing: outside the seasons change; spring gives way to summer, to autumn and winter. Children grow into adults, adults become old; hair turns from black to white, life shrivels and fades. Isn't that so? Everything changes constantly. There is not one single place where one can escape impermanence. Since everything changes constantly, one never knows when the end will come. One may be in perfect health today and yet die tomorrow. We know two things of death: it is certain to come and we have no idea when it will come. It could come at any moment and there are many things, internal and external, that can cause it. Thus, if you want to practice Buddhism, you must realize that it is necessary to start immediately. You can never be sure of a tomorrow in which to do anything.
Q. How does this help us? The practice of Buddhism does not make us less impermanent.
A. It will not make us less impermanent, but it will give us the certainty that, in our coming lives, we will have less suffering. The practice of Dharma, of religion, means briefly speaking; avoid non-virtuous acts; and performing virtuous acts. When you behave in this way, it is obviously that you will be happier in the future.
Q. Does it mean that, since we expect less from this life, we will also suffer less?
A. Yes, that too, but more importantly, by thinking about impermanence we will be moved to practice Dharma quickly. The thought of impermanence helps us to speed up our path a great deal.
Q. What are the six realms and their sufferings?
A. As I said before, no matter where you are in worldly existence, you are suffering. Suffering is of three kinds: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and the suffering of conditioned existence. The suffering of suffering is when you have a headache or something like that. It is simply suffering which everyone accepts and thinks of as suffering. Then the suffering of change is the suffering undergone through perception of change. You are with friends today but you have to depart; when you go, you meet enemies. Nothing stays, and seeing this, we experience the suffering of change. The suffering of conditioned existence means the unsatisfactoriness of worldly activity. We do many things in the world but are never really satisfied. There are always more things to be done, which we cannot do and this is the frustration which is suffering.
The lowest of the six realms are the Hell-realms, of excessive heat and cold, and the 'neighboring hells' which are also states of great suffering, and which last for incredible periods of time. The cause of these states of suffering is hatred. Then there is the realm of hungry spirits who are tantalized by food and drink they cannot swallow. This is the result of desire and stinginess. The animal realm is well known to us and birth there is caused by ignorance. The human realm, too, we know. The fifth realm is of the demi-gods who are constantly engaged in war with the gods out of jealousy, and who will thus naturally suffer in their next lives. The gods seem very comfortable. They enjoy great pleasures and immensely long lives, but sooner or later experience old age and death. As they have done nothing but enjoy themselves, they will not have created the merit to achieve high rebirth and will fall into states of great suffering. The three lower realms' beings experience the suffering of suffering exclusively; humans experience all three, but chiefly the first two, while the gods mainly suffer the last two.
The last of the four recollections is of karma, the law of cause and effect. In the Buddhist view, everything we have today and everything we do has a cause in the past. In fact it is said that if you want to know what you did in the past, you should look at your present situation; whether you are rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, this is the result of past actions, as the future, whether happy or otherwise depends on what you do today. Everything you do will produce a result in the future. If a tree's root is medicinal, the flowers, the leaves, the bark, and everything that grows on the tree will be medicinal, and like this, an act that grows out of the opposite of desire, aversion and ignorance will produce happiness. If the root of the tree is poisonous, then everything that grows on the tree will be poison, just as the acts of desire, aversion and ignorance produce suffering.
Q. Is there a practice based on the law of cause and effect?
A. The law of cause and effect, karma, is one of the main teachings of Buddhism. It means that you should always practice virtuous things, since non-virtuous acts will always bring suffering in this life as well as next. If you don't want suffering you should avoid its cause; if there is no cause there will be no result, just as, if the root of the tree is removed, there will be no fruit. If you want happiness you must be very careful about the cause of happiness, just as if you want the tree to grow you must take care of its root. If the root is defective, the tree will not grow.
So before you begin any meditation you should contemplate these four recollections very carefully and then you should take refuge. Taking refuge marks the difference between Buddhists and non-Buddhists: it means you have surrendered, you have taken refuge.
Q. In what way do we surrender?
A. You surrender yourself. As I said, worldly existence is full of sufferings. There are many obvious sufferings and also many which are less obvious and which common people do not notice. We wish to be free from these sufferings but at present we don't have full knowledge or full power to do so, so there is nothing much that we ourselves can do about it for the present. Now, when you undertake an important act you seek help from a powerful person: if you are sick, you consult a doctor and if you have trouble with the law, you go to a lawyer. So, when you want to be saved from the sufferings of worldly existence, you have to take refuge in the Triple Gem, which is the real helper in this undertaking. The Triple Gem consists of the Buddha who is the guide, the Dharma (or religion) which is one's own path and the Sangha, which means one's own spiritual companions. However, the final refuge is only the Buddha: the Dharma or teaching has two parts: the teaching and the realization. The teaching is the Tripitaka (Sutras, Abhidharma, and Vinaya Discourses), but this is like a boat you use to cross a river: when you get to the other side, you simply leave it behind. The realization has also two parts, the truth of cessation and the truth of the path. The first of these is void, shunyata, so it cannot be a final refuge, while the path, being itself impermanent, also cannot be the final refuge. As for the Sangha, even its highest members are still on the path so they cannot be final refuge. So really, the refuge is in the Buddha only, but we always take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Q. Does that mean that Buddha is permanent?
A. Yes, yes. The Buddha is of course permanent. The dharmakaya 'the Truth Body' is beyond permanence and impermanence and the sambhogakaya, the 'Bliss-Body', always exists. The nirmanakaya, the 'apparent-body' is the form the Buddha takes on this earth, and it does have the appearance of impermanence, though it is always present somewhere, if not here.
Q. What is the actual practice of taking refuge?
A. Taking refuge is preformed differently according to the intentions of the three types of persons who perform it, although the three causes fear, faith and compassion are the same. The actual practice is the recitation of the prayer of refuge. The simplest prayer says, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.” A more elaborate prayer says, “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha until I get enlightenment; by the merit of this doing may all beings attain Buddha's stage.”
But mere recitation of the prater with your voice is not sufficient; it must be recited from the heart. If you want to take refuge from the rain, it won't help you to say “house, house” or “umbrella, umbrella”. You have to find a house, you have to go and get an umbrella, and if you do this, you will be saved from the rain without any doubt. So it is necessary to take Refuge very seriously, with full belief and, moreover, you must think that, no matter what happens, you will seek refuge only in the Triple Gem, and that you will always remain under it. Reciting the prayer in this way and with this intention is the first practice of Buddhism and one of the foundations of all practice. Taking refuge like this distinguishes Buddhists from non-Buddhists.
Although recitation like this is sufficient to make you a Buddhist, it is common for a short ceremony to be performed in front of the spiritual guide. He will say the words of the prayer, which the disciple will repeat after him. The disciple also promises to uphold the basic moral teachings of Buddhism. From that time onwards, you should continue to recite the prayer daily with great devotion.
Q. Is animal rebirth really possible for humans?
A. Yes, definitely. There are many stories of animals being reborn as humans as a result of good actions and of humans being reborn as animals, too, as a result of bad actions. Some animals are extremely kind, especially to their offspring, and by working very hard, they can create enough causes to achieve human birth.
Q. Why is human birth so important?
A. Human birth is extremely precious because, through human life, one can achieve not only higher rebirth and nirvana, but also one can practice Dharma and get enlightenment.
Q. Does it really help us to think a great deal about impermanence? We always know we are impermanent, and thinking about it too much might make us miserable.
A. Yes, it does help. Tsongkhapa said, “A prisoner has only one thought: When can I get out of this prison? This thought arises constantly in his mind. Your thought of impermanence should be like this; meditate on impermanence until this state of mind arises.”
Q. Are we really in the position of prisoners? We often do find things pleasant in worldly existence.
A. But that pleasure isn't permanent, is it? That very pleasure can lead to disaster, can't it? So we are happy now, but we never know what might happen in the next hour. There may be a complete disaster. Since pleasure is impermanent, since it is very uncertain, you are not actually happy because your pleasure is colored with anxiety. In fact, you are never happy because you don't know what will come and thus anxiety is inevitable.
Q. Are the hells metaphors for states or amounts of suffering or do they really exist as described in the Buddhist Sutras?
A. Something really exists, I think. Actually it says in the sutras that they really exist even much more terribly than they are described because, it says, the Buddha didn't fully describe them. If he had full described them, people would have fainted.
Q. How real are they?
A. They are as real as the life we have today. Yes, many people think that they are not real, they are like a dream. But actually, we are happy and unhappy in dreams, just as real as we are when we are awake. This present experience also is not real, but we think everything around us is real. Hell is as real as this. Of course hell, also, in reality, is not real. This is also not real. What is this, then?
Q. Do the Buddhas suffer?
A. No, they never suffer. They are absolutely free from suffering.
Q. Do they see suffering?
A. They don't see suffering, either.
Q. Then how can they help people who are suffering?
A. They don't suffer. This answer is one of the differences between the Sakya and Gelugpa orders; the Gelugpas say that the Buddhas do see suffering and we say that they do not. The man who has awakened from sleep doesn't have dreams. This impure samsaric scene of suffering is like a dream, it's like an illusion. So the man who has awakened from this illusion can never dream again. But, due to his Bodhicitta, (enlightenmentmind) and his compassion, help for others spontaneously arises. But the Buddha himself never sees suffering. For him, all things are transformed into pure appearance.
Q. Is the Buddha involved in karma?
A. He has achieved the final karmic result, the highest and best possible results of karma.
Q. Can anything happen to us which is not the result of our own actions?
A. No, never.
Q. Can the Buddha perceive the results of his or others’ acts?
A. Yes, for instance, there have been many prophecies, but I don't think the Buddha sees or perceives these results. Where there is a need for a prophecy, it just arises spontaneously.
Q. Can we modify the results of past acts?
A. Certainly. The Vajrasattva meditation can purify many of our past bad actions, but in any case, the creation of good causes and merits is very helpful and necessary.