Spacious Passion

Chapter 4 – Coming up for Air


The first of The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice is contemplation on the inestimable value of human rebirth. This is why it is called ‘precious human rebirth’. We cannot take it for granted that we are human – even though we have the outer appearance of a human being. There are particular qualities which we need to recognise and understand, in order to elevate the characteristics of our ‘gross human-ness’ to the qualities which designate the precious human rebirth.

In this teaching we discover that there are many inhuman ways in which we—as ostensible humans—think and behave. There are inhuman patterns to which humans can succumb whilst still retaining the outer physical human form.

Of the six realms of existence, the human realm is the most efficacious for developing practice and gaining realisation. Yet often, the human realm is not our native perceptual environment. The inhuman ways in which we might think and behave are found in the other five realms of existence. The six realms are: the god realm, jealous god realm, human realm, animal realm, hungry ghost realm, and the hell realm.

Ngak’chang Rinpoche describes them as follows, Gods live in an artificially idealised state where they endure distended existences. Jealous gods also live in affluent displeasure. They are envious of the gods and therefore aggressively competitive. The animal realm is characterised by perceptual limitation and absence of humour. Hungry ghosts continually crave in such a way as to negate the possibility of satisfaction. The hell realm is characterised by unremitting suffering.

The teachings on the precious human rebirth emphasise that to be human and have the opportunities of the human realm is rare and valuable, so we must not waste it. It is so rare and difficult to find, that our likelihood of achieving a precious human rebirth is compared to the experience of a turtle swimming in a vast ocean. The chance of us gaining a precious human rebirth is as likely as this turtle placing its head through a wooden yoke floating on the surface of the ocean as it comes up for air.

I first came across these teachings early in my interest in Dharma. I heard that I had probably spent æons in the lower suffering realms of physical existence prior to this life. I understood that it was unlikely that I would be born human again in my next life, or even in many, many lives to come.

I knew that the motivation of the teaching was to inspire me to start practising earnestly and immediately. I was to understand that I only had this one life and one chance to experience being human. After all, none of us know when we will die and lose this precious opportunity. Unfortunately however, the thought of one life and one chance created too much pressure for me and was the cause of despondency rather than inspiration. I felt that there was little I could achieve in one life, so was there any real point in trying? If æons of time, and many lives, were going to pass before I had this opportunity again, then surely whatever I might accomplish in this life was going to be lost?

This thought—that was intended to turn my mind to practice—threw me instead into dejection and apathy. Might I not as well just have fun before the inevitable suffering of the lower realms began again? I was also concerned that an archaic Indo-Tibetan view was being imposed upon me. It produced a similar emotional response of rejection in me to that which I had experienced when hearing that the Christian God created the world in six days.

Such was my initial misunderstanding of the teaching on the preciousness of the perfect human rebirth. Fortunately however, I found inspiration in other aspects of Dharma and continued to listen and practice. Eventually I came across the Dzogchen view of the realms of being. I came to realise that the issue was not whether I had the apparent physical form of a human being, but whether my moment-by-moment perception and experience was human.

The six realms of existence are often taught as separate physical realities – actual spheres of material existence. Rig’dzin Chenpo Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the first Tibetan Lama in the West to introduce the Dzogchen perspective of the six realms as perceptual contexts1.

The genius of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach lay in his recognition that the most appropriate means of teaching Dharma was to combine the basic practice of Silent Sitting with the views of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. The Dzogchen perspective on the six realms describes them as characteristics of particular mind-moments. We can look upon them as glimpses of the manner in which we exist in attitude and behaviour based upon our distorted view and emotional response2.


1. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Publications, 1973).

2. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche also related the realms to the elements and our emotions. This adds another depth of subtlety, and makes the teaching even more relevant to our human condition. This approach is presented in his book Transcending Madness (Shambhala Publications, 1992).