Some Reflections on Human Life: “Nothing Short of a Miracle”

Some Reflections on Human Life: “Nothing Short of a Miracle”
Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing

Though our lifetimes are fleeting on a cosmic scale, we experience them as long and adventurous. Focus on this and you will be naturally motivated to make the most of life.

By Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa KarmapaMAY 16, 2022

These leisures and endowments, which are so difficult to obtain, have been acquired, and they bring about the welfare of all. If one fails to take this favorable opportunity into consideration, how could this occasion occur again?

Just as lightning illuminates the darkness of a cloudy night for an instant, in the same way, by the power of the Buddhas, occasionally people’s minds are momentarily inclined toward merit.” — From A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) by Shantideva.

The imagery of Shantideva is always captivating. His analogy of lightning in the second shloka [or verse] is something that we can all relate to from our own experience. He’s evoking the image of a pitch-black, stormy night, so dark that there is no way of finding your path, no way of even seeing your palm in front of your eyes. And then suddenly, a flash of lightning illuminates this dark night, and just for a fraction of a second you can see your surroundings as clearly as if it were a bright day.

Shantideva uses this analogy here to describe the tiny moments of virtuous, meritorious notions that come up in our mind, and he portrays them as being extremely rare and hard to come by. Why? Well, there are so many distractions in our lives; so many seemingly important things, occurring day after day, moment after moment, and, along with them, disturbing emotions constantly arise.

Due to this endless agitation, there is hardly any instant where there is space in our mind for even the tiniest glimpse of a virtuous thought to arise; the chances of such a moment occurring are one in a million! But if, against all odds, such a moment does occur, Shantideva tells us that this is due to the aspirations, the kindness, and the blessings of the Buddhas.

So this is the obvious meaning here, but when reading and contemplating these two shlokas this morning I thought, “What if we took Shantideva’s analogy further, into another dimension, onto another scale? What if we applied it to our entire human existence?”

I don’t mean to imply that Shantideva doesn’t talk about the preciousness of this human existence—in fact, the first of the two shlokas in the introduction talks about the unique opportunity such a rebirth represents, and how important it is to make good use of it.

Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my own reflections on how we might relate the image of the flash of lightning to our human life, in the hope that it might be meaningful to some of you.

If we consider our human existence by comparing it to other timescales and dimensions, we can’t help being struck by just how short and temporary it is.

Let’s take the example of a galaxy and its lifespan: how impressive, how amazing, how enormous it is!

By comparison, how insignificant are the lives of human beings, even if we look at all of humanity as a collective? And what need then to even talk about one individual’s life, of his or her achievements? Seen on a cosmic scale they mean nothing at all; there is nothing significant about them. So short and insignificant are they that it’s as if they never even happened. Whatever their achievements—whether they climbed Mount Everest, put an end to hunger, or became a universal monarch—none of them mean anything.

From that perspective, the entire lifespan of a human being is nothing but a fleeting moment; actually, not even a moment, not even a nanosecond—it’s so brief that we can’t even declare it to have occurred at all.

Having talked about that perspective of human existence, let’s go back to Shantideva’s flash of lightning for a moment: it is true that due to our human condition—the limitations of the capacity of our eye faculty and the state of our consciousness that goes with it—the experience that we have of a flash of lightning is very momentary. But if our eye faculties were somewhat different, if we were able to slow down the flash, like a super slow-motion camera, we might be able to divide up that one split second into millions of frames. We could film that moment of lightning and play it back for a whole minute or even for a whole hour (in case we had the required super-gadgets for it), and still get the sense that what we are seeing is not a still photograph but a moving image…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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