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Home > eBooks > Unpublished Manuscripts > Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra > Session Five: The Best Qualities of a Precious Human Rebirth, Meditation and the Question of Past Lives

Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
Barnet, Vermont, USA, August 1982
Translated by Alexander Berzin
Edited by Lucy Costa and Alexander Berzin

Part I: The Lam-rim Graded Stages as Preparation Shared in Common by Sutra and Tantra Mahamudra

Session Five: The Best Qualities of a Precious Human Rebirth, Meditation and the Question of Past Lives

The Eight Good Qualities and Their Causes

Yesterday we spoke about taking refuge, putting a positive, safe and sound direction in your life. Taking a safe direction in life, a safe and sound direction, is a very important practice and a very important point, because it is on this basis that you will be able to attain enlightenment quickly. Therefore, it is extremely worthwhile to exert effort in this direction. At present we have the excellent working basis of a precious human form and if we have one that has the eight great or eight good qualities that can ripen from past positive actions, then we’ll have the best opportunities to make progress. What are these eight ripened qualities that make practice most effective?

  • To have a long life,
  • To have an excellent physique and be good looking,
  • To be born in an excellent social setting, family and so forth,
  • To be a very powerful person with a lot of resources that you can use,
  • To have an excellent type of speech, in other words, to be someone who says very little but what you say is extremely meaningful and honest, and is not harsh, and everybody finds it appropriate and helpful,
  • To be an extremely influential type of person who can exert a positive influence on others,
  • To be someone who has a great deal of physical strength, great stamina,
  • To have a great deal of mental strength or willpower.

How can you use these qualities?

  • If you have a long life, then you can see out your practices to the end. You’ll have a full period of time to be able to develop yourself and benefit others.
  • If you’re good looking and have good physical bearing and presentation, others will naturally be attracted to you and you’ll be able to have a large circle of people around you that you can help and teach.
  • If you have come from an excellent family and social background, this is something very helpful in the sense that others will automatically pay more attention to you and listen more seriously to what you have to say.
  • If you have a great deal of power and influence, then you will have resources that you can use to help others.
  • If you are very honest of speech, others will take what you say seriously and will listen to you.
  • Next, if you have power and a strong influence, you can use that to influence others in a positive way more easily.
  • If you have a great deal of stamina and willpower, you’ll be able to use them, for instance, to gain the various types of extrasensory perception and other types of attainments more easily. You’ll be able to apply yourself fully, both physically and mentally.

The cause that will allow you to have long life, the first of these, is to stop killing any living creatures. Also saving the life of creatures that are about to be eaten, for instance, saving a field mouse or small creature that’s about to be taken off by a hawk, something that’s being hunted by larger animals in the forest, or little mice that are going to be eaten by cats. Saving the life of creatures also brings about as its result the extension of your life; you’ll have a long life. Helping the sick and the needy, that is also something very positive and has a good result. All of these are causes for having a long life.

The cause that ripens in having a good physical appearance and physique, being good looking, is making offerings of butter lamps, likewise making gifts of clothing and various types of jewelry, and so forth. Also, not being jealous and angry – all of these result in being very good looking.

The causes for being born in a good family and with a good social background is being very respectful to your spiritual masters, to the various teachers that you have even for worldly subjects like reading and writing, and being respectful to your parents.

The cause for having a great deal of resources that you can use for helping others is being very generous and giving to the needy, giving to charity and so forth when people ask and even when people don’t ask, and making gifts to others. All of this results in having a wealth of resources that you can use to help others.

Once in a far-away land there were an old man and woman who had only one piece of cloth that they shared between them as a piece of clothing to wrap around themselves. There was a liberated pratyekabuddha, that’s a self-evolved being, who came by their house begging for alms. They didn’t have any food or anything to give to this great person, but they had a great deal of faith in him and so they offered him the only piece of clothing, this piece of cloth that they had. As a result, since this being that they made the offering to was such a precious and holy person, immediately there was a rain of clothing and food and all sorts of resources on their home. Furthermore, in their future lives they were born wearing a white cloth.

The cause for having a great deal of influence, for being able to influence others positively, is training yourself and learning many different skills, and offering prayers to be able to help others; in addition, making offerings to the Three Gems to the best of your ability. It’s not necessary to make huge offerings if you don’t have the resources, but whatever offering you make, even a very tiny offering, do it purely, without any miserliness and with the thought “by this offering may I be able to benefit everyone.”

There are many accounts of the different ways in which Shakyamuni Buddha dedicated his heart to others and enlightenment in his previous lifetimes. He made many offerings. He didn’t have a great amount of wealth and objects to make these offerings with, but because he did so with such a pure heart and with such sincere deep feeling for others, the results were very great. So when you make offerings, it can be just a piece of white cloth or a flower or anything like that. There’s the account at the time of the Buddha Dipamkara that an offering was made by just throwing some utpala lily flowers up in the air, and the point is that if you make an offering with a very sincere and pure heart, the results will be very great. There’s an account of someone who made an offering of just a bowl of sand to the Buddha, making a prayer that he wished that what he was offering were a bowl of gold dust, and he did so with such a pure heart and sincere wish that the results were monumental.

Whatever type of positive activities you may be doing, such as listening and hearing teachings and then contemplating them, thinking about them and trying to build them up as beneficial habits of your mind, meditating, circumambulating, whatever type of practice you do, if you say “May the positive potential built up from this ripen in my ability to help all beings, in my attainment of enlightenment so that I can actually do that,” then this is both an aspiration prayer with which you wish for something and, likewise, a dedication prayer.

If you have a particular object of an action and you say “By the positive potential of this, may such-and-such happen, may I achieve enlightenment,” and so forth, then that is both types of prayers, it’s both a wishing prayer, in other words an aspiration, and a dedication prayer. Whereas if you are simply wishing for something to happen, “May I get precious human rebirths in my future lives,” or “May I achieve enlightenment,” if it’s merely a wish like that without something specific that you are dedicating, then that’s simply a wishing prayer. There’s a difference between these two, if it’s a dedicating prayer then it’s also a wishing prayer, but if it’s a wishing prayer it’s not necessarily also a dedicating prayer. The difference being in terms of a wish, a wishing prayer is merely a wish for something to happen, whereas a dedication prayer is directing some positive potential that you’ve built up, or just your kind heart, or something, for your wishes to come true.

If you dedicate the potential of whatever positive things you’ve done to enlightenment as in, “May it all go toward my achieving enlightenment,” then that potential won’t exhaust until you have actually achieved enlightenment. If you are dedicating it for such a huge accomplishment, it will not run out until that accomplishment has been attained, so it will last for a long, long time. Whereas if you don’t dedicate the potential for some great thing like this, then the potential from a positive action will just ripen into one thing and it will then be finished, it will be much more short-lived. If you dedicate it properly, then the potential will last all the way until you’ve achieved enlightenment.

If you haven’t dedicated the positive potentials that you’ve built up, you can completely devastate this potential by getting angry, so it’s very important not to get angry because the results can be quite disastrous in terms of destroying the positive potentials that you’ve built up but haven’t dedicated. It’s like, for instance, walking through the x-ray detector at the airport. If you are carrying exposed film, all the pictures that you have taken will be erased by the x-ray. By a similar type of process, anger erases all the positive potential that you have built up. Therefore, since anger has such terrible drawbacks and shortcomings, and so many disadvantages follow from it, you should try as much as possible to lessen your anger to the best of your ability. Anger can draw you to a rebirth in one of the hells. It is, therefore, extremely important to temper your anger and try to get rid of it.

To get back to this list that we were discussing, the causes for having great strength of body and mind is giving nourishing food and so forth to others, and also, accomplishing all sorts of tasks that others cannot even conceive of being able to do.

You should make prayers to have the best possible type of working basis, a human body with all the qualities that will allow you to be most effective in helping others. When you have such a working basis, a human body with all these qualities, you will be able to follow a spiritual path most efficiently and effectively, and you’ll have all the abilities to do this. However, if you are not following any spiritual path, you could easily misuse these qualities and have them become causes for building up a great deal of negative potentials. Therefore, it is important when you pray to have such qualities in the future, that you pray to have these qualities to use them for beneficial spiritual purposes.

The initial level of insight on the spiritual paths of Dharma – out of the initial, middle and advanced level of insights – is reached when you see that to devote your life simply to things of this life, for getting things like food, drink, clothing and so forth, for just this life, has no essence at all. In this way you have the insight that working for this life has no point to it and, therefore, resolve, “I shall work to benefit my future lives.” Consequently, you place your primary emphasis on working to improve your future lifetimes and direct your energies in spiritual pursuits to benefit the future, to improve your future lives.


To gain this level of insight, the points that you meditate on to try to build these good habits of mind, are, first, thinking of the precious human life that you have with all its respites and rich opportunities. Next, meditating on death and that the present situation will not remain static, that all of this is impermanent. The third thing is, to take a safe and sound direction in your life by taking refuge. Fourth is to think of the laws of karma, of behavior and their results.

When you meditate on these and try to build them up as a good habit of mind, the way that you do this is first with a discerning type of mediation, sometimes called analytical meditation, and then a stabilizing type of meditation with which you fix on a point, or fixating meditation. In the first of these, the analytical or discerning type of meditation, you think of all these points, analyze, investigate and try to discern things in that light. Then, when you have come to a firm decision that this is the way that things are, you fix your mind on that, and that is called a fixating meditation or stabilizing meditation. You alternate between these two, trying to discern a certain fact in an analytic manner, and then fixating upon the certainty that this fact is true.

Now I’ll ask you some questions. First of all how do you start meditating, what’s the starting point? What’s the starting point that allows you to get into meditation?

Participant: To think how you are meditating for the sake of benefiting all sentient beings.

Alex: That’s true in terms of the motivation, but Rinpoche asks again, what is the actual starting point for getting into it? I mean it’s true you need the motivation, but what’s the starting point?

Participant: Focusing on the breath to quiet down the mind.

Alex: Rinpoche asks is there anything other than that?

Participant: Awareness of the dissatisfactoriness of cyclic existence that would motivate you to go beyond it?

Serkong Rinpoche: For all of you, that again falls in the category of the motivation for meditating and all three answers that have been given are more general answers in terms of the procedures for meditating. The question is, what is the gateway that distinguishes between a Dharma practitioner and one who is not actually practicing the Dharma, or between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist. So the question is more in terms of what is the demarcation point that defines meditation?


Alex: If you were meditating on voidness what actually – probably the word gateway or door is not translating it correctly. I don’t actually get the point either of what exactly is being asked. So it’s not communicating very well.

Participant: Do you mean the foundation for meditation?

Alex: It was more “what’s the gateway with which you start meditating,” that was more the question that was being asked. Rinpoche was explaining that when you are starting to learn to write, for instance, what is the starting point, what is the first thing that you do? That’s more the question that was being asked. What’s the first thing that you do to start out? When you start to write, the first thing you do is learn the alphabet. Likewise, when you start to meditate the first thing that you do is examine what your motivation is for doing the meditation. This is more general than the specific answers that you were giving. You examine what the motivation is and then, if your motivation is not good, you do what you said, which is focusing on the breathing. In order to settle the mind if you are in a very hostile frame of mind or whatever when you sit down, you do the breathing techniques.

So, after you’ve swept the room, cleaned the meditation place and sat in the proper posture, the starting point for any meditation is to examine what is your motivation for sitting down there. That first thing that you do is this examination and it doesn’t mean you start off sitting, closing your eyes tightly and just proceed from there. The point is first to look at what your motivation is for doing this. Rinpoche will tell you a nice story about establishing the motivation for meditation.

Serkong Rinpoche: There was in Tibet a notorious bandit by the name of Bengungyel. He had a forty acres farm and tried to eke out a living from this, but that wasn’t sufficient and so he was also a bandit and went out plundering as well as fishing and hunting. Once he was up on a mountain pass when a traveler came by on horseback. The traveler didn’t recognize Bengungyel and asked him, “Have you heard or seen this notorious bandit Bengungyel around here?” And so he roared back to him, “I’m Bengungyel,” and the traveler was so scared out that he fell off his horse and down the mountain. Bengungyel was quite disturbed seeing someone fall off a mountain simply at the sound of his name and he decided that this was really wrong, his being a bandit and all the things that he had done. He admitted his wrongdoings honestly to himself, regretting his actions, and he made up his mind to try to mend his ways, take up Dharma practice and live an honest life from then on.

To that end, he kept a particularly close watch on all the destructive and constructive actions and thoughts that he had in the course of a day, keeping an account of them. Every day he kept a tally. For every destructive thing that he did or thought, he would put down a black mark, and for each positive and constructive one, he would write down a white mark. At the beginning, he had mostly black marks and hardly any white marks at all. As he meditated and built up beneficial habits, the black marks at the end of each day eventually became less and less, and he got more and more white marks. Later on he realized that he had many, many white marks each day. He then took on the spiritual name, the religious name of “The Victor over Ethical Self-discipline.”

As he kept on training in this way, if at the end of the day he saw that he had more black marks, he would take his right hand with the left and shake it very severely, and would say, “Bengungyel, you’re really rotten! You are trying to practice Dharma but all you are doing is really messing up,” and he would give himself a severe scolding. If he had more white marks, then he would take his left hand in the right and shake it, and he would congratulate himself saying, “Yes, you’re really doing a fine job, you are really being this one who is victorious over ethical self-discipline,” and he would praise himself, encourage himself.

Later he became very famous as the good mentor or geshe Bengungyel, the one who was victorious over ethical discipline, and many people came to visit and see him, and many patrons came to support him. One day, a lady who was one of his patrons invited him down to her house for a meal. While he was there, she stepped outside, and from all the instincts that he had from having been a thief, he saw this large basket where she kept tea and stuck his hand in the basket to steal some tea leaves. But then, realizing what he was doing, he grabbed his hand with the other hand and shouted out to the woman, “Hey mother, come quickly I’ve caught a thief!”

Another time, someone who was also helping him out as a patron sent a message saying he was going to come up to his little hut and visit him. So Bengungyel got up very, very early that morning and he worked very hard to clean his hut immaculately, setting up beautiful offerings, making butter lamps and lighting very fragrant incense. Then he sat down to do some meditation and the first thing he did was examine what his motivation was for what he had done that morning. He realized that he had done all these preparations because his patron was coming and he wanted to impress this patron and gain more from him. He realized that this was a pretty terrible motivation. So he got up and went over to the fireplace where, in Tibet, they’d have these little containers where all the ashes were kept, and he picked them up and went around the hut pouring ashes over everything, and made a complete mess of his house.

This illustrates the point that you start off any meditation by examining your motivation for what you are doing. When you examine, if you find that you have a great deal of hostility, anger, desire or whatever, if you find that you have a lot of mental disturbance, then it is at that point that you do the breathing exercises. For instance, you breathe out slowly and then breathe back in slowly and count that as one, then repeat twenty-one times, and in the process calm your mind down. You’ll find that whatever disturbing thing has been bothering you, it will momentarily subside.

Later, Bengungyel, who now had a great deal of patrons and was receiving help from everybody, remarked, “Before, when I was a bandit, I had forty acres of land, and I thieved at night, fished and hunted, and my mouth was still unable to find enough food to eat. Now that I have become a spiritual practitioner, even if I don’t need things, people come and give them to me. Whereas before my mouth couldn’t find enough food to eat, now the food cannot find enough of a mouth here to get all inside me.”

After you have examined your motivation, if it’s a poor motivation and you are in a bad state of mind, you settle down by doing breathing exercises. After that, you get down to the actual main body of the session, which would be, for instance, building up beneficial habits of mind thinking of the precious human rebirth that you have, and so forth, whatever topic you might be addressing for that session. If when you examine your motivation you find that it’s alright, then there’s no need to do the breathing techniques first, you can go straight on to the actual subject matter.

The meditation posture is referred to as either the seven or eight-point posture of Vairochana. The eighth part, which can be included or not, refers to the breathing. There’s a simile for understanding how counting the breaths can fool your disturbing attitudes into momentarily going away. The simile is, suppose this room was completely filled with people coming to the discourse. If an extra person wanted to come in tomorrow, there would be no room for this person to get in and get a seat. If he just came in and said to someone directly, “Hey, give me your seat, I want to sit down,” that wouldn’t do and he wouldn’t be able to get a seat. But if he came in, and made up a story, saying to someone, “Hey, there’s something really interesting outside. Why don’t you get up and go have a look?” And that person got up and went outside, then he could sit down in that person’s seat. So he would have connived his way into getting a place to sit. It is like that that the breathing fools your disturbing attitudes into going away for the time being.

The Question of Past and Future Lives

Alex: I asked Rinpoche the question of past and future lives that you brought up last night. The question was, if you are still working through the issue of whether or not there are past and future lives while you are doing various practices, would that still be considered Dharma in a formal sense? Rinpoche said that if you define Dharma as preventive measures to stop you from falling to a lower rebirth in the future, then, if you don’t think in terms of benefiting your future lives, your actions won’t go in the direction of preventing you from falling to a lower rebirth, because you are not actually thinking in those terms. That doesn’t negate the fact that what you are doing is building up positive potentials. It is beneficial because there are many levels of preventive measures in terms of the general ordinary use of the term as a translation for the word Dharma.

For instance, you go to the doctor and get a shot or something like that. That’s a preventive measure to prevent you from getting sick and that is of benefit in this lifetime and, naturally, at a certain ordinary level it is a preventive measure. Likewise, what you do in this life, whatever particular measures you have to apply at the moment, when they have a result here, that’s also, in this life, a preventive measure. But if you are talking formally about the actual paths of the mind described by the lam rim, the graded paths of the mind of someone with an initial, intermediate and advanced level of motivation and scope with which they are working, all of that comes before the initial scope. You can only get into the first step given in the description of the paths when you actually think in terms of benefiting future lives.

So that is where, as Westerners, we start from, the step before that. If the actual boundary where the Tibetans start describing the spiritual path lies where you actually work to benefit your future lives, then, in order to actually reach that stage, it is necessary to know about future lives and how to go about establishing their existence for yourself.

Serkong Rinpoche: Now we all know that we have both a body and a mind. Pillars, beams and these things don’t have a mind in the sense of a consciousness that we all can understand. If we were simply a physical body without having different ways of being conscious – or a mind – then, if everything were just physical, we would be no different from a corpse and no different from a pillar or a beam.

Alex: Rinpoche asks what’s your name?

Participant: Thubten.

Serkong Rinpoche: So when you say Thubten as your name, we see your body; we can’t actually see your mind, your ways of being conscious. But when you speak in terms of your mind as mental activity, then there’s your mental activity of yesterday and today and also tomorrow. There is never a moment when the mind, the mental activity, becomes nonexistent, it is a continuum. When you start to think in those terms, you should try to realize that although the body can come to an end and become nonexistent, it is not the same case with the mind.

As for the way in which you actually become convinced of the laws of behavior and its results – that performing a positive and constructive type of action builds up a positive potential and results in happiness as its fruit – as I discussed the other day, it is something that you become convinced of on the basis of scriptural authority. It is very difficult to see that with your eyes, to be able to prove to yourself that cause and effect works like that. You have to accept the word of the Buddha on that matter.

Now, if that is something that you can’t actually see with your eyes and you just have to accept the Buddha’s word, how can you come to accept the word of the Buddha on these matters? What makes the Buddha a correct and valid authority on these things, in terms of happiness resulting from doing positive things and the mental continuum going on into future lives? The way that you can comfortably and validly accept the Buddha’s word on these matters is by thinking about some of the other things that the Buddha spoke about. Namely, the Buddha spoke about voidness or reality, and also spoke about the methods for gaining shamatha, which is a stilled and settled state of mind or mental quiescence. If you look at what the Buddha said on those matters and you actually practice according to what he said, you find that, in fact, it is all true. You can verify for yourself, from your own experience, that what he said about reality was true because you can see it. What he said about gaining a stilled and settled state of mind is true because you attain it. So, on the basis of that, you can accept his word on other matters such as future lives.

You can consider the example of identical twins or triplets. These two or three children may be physically identical, but one of them will be smarter than the other; one of them will be able to learn things very quickly and the other will be duller. The reason for that lies in their past lives. One of them trained their mind very well in past lives and had the instincts to be smarter, whereas the other did not do so and, therefore, was a little bit slower of mind. In any case, even if you can’t prove that the mind does come from past lifetimes and that past lifetimes and future lives exist, even if you can’t prove that, it is also the case that you can’t prove definitely that they don’t exist. However, if you gain this stilled and settled state of mind, shamatha, where you have perfect single-minded concentration, then you will acquire different types of ESP; and when you have these, you will actually be able to see your past lives. You might not be able to see a huge number of them, but at least you will be able to see a few. The same applies in terms of your future lives: you will be able to know where you will be reborn. By following the methods, it actually is possible to see for yourself the existence of past and future lives.

Participant: May I ask a question?

Alex: Yes.

Participant: What kind of detail would you be able to see?

Serkong Rinpoche: Naturally you are going to have people with different levels of memory of what they did in past lifetimes and this is true for this lifetime as well. Some people can remember every meal they had in this life; others probably have no memory at all of most of the meals that they took years ago, what they actually ate and did on each specific day, let alone remember what they did on each specific day in past lives. It depends on the individual. Some would be able to see with more or less detail. Do you remember each meal that you had eight years ago on each day of that year?

Participant: Maybe four and a half.

Serkong Rinpoche: Do you remember each meal that you had four and a half years ago?

Participant: From January to March, but only lunch time.

Serkong Rinpoche: But you don’t remember what you had the month before that though?

Participant: No.

Serkong Rinpoche: The same then is true of past lives. It is going to be pretty rare for you to remember every excruciating detail of it. Even among regular folk there are ordinary people who also have memories of past lives.

Proving logically the existence of past and future lives is quite difficult. The great logician and master Dharmakirti, in ancient India, also had a tough time proving it to a king through logic. What he did was he found someone who was dying and placed a pearl in this person’s mouth. Afterwards, some months later, a child was born with a pearl in his mouth and in this way he demonstrated, on a very physical level, the existence of rebirth. You should likewise consider His Holiness the Dalai Lama who at present is the fourteenth reincarnation of the line of Dalai Lamas; the Panchen Lama as well, who is more than the tenth in that line; also the line of the Karmapas, the past one was the sixteenth in that line. Although these great lamas have changed bodies in all these incarnations, their mental continuums have continued without a break. It’s not simply like finding an official to replace a retired old official, it’s not like that. When they look for the reincarnation they are not looking for a replacement, but rather they are looking for the continuity of that mind-stream. After the thirteenth Dalai Lama passed away and they looked for signs to find the fourteenth, very many amazing things happened. There’s a lake that is sacred to Palden Lhamo, and in this lake there appeared images of the house, place and letters indicating the name of the area and so forth where the fourteenth Dalai Lama would take rebirth.

When you think about all these matters, you will start to get more into the idea of past and future lives. When you accept this, then you will find that doing various positive actions in order to benefit future lives will become very important to you. If mind was simply a mechanical or physical device that you could install into machines, for instance, you could make a computer and then install a mind and it would actually be a living being. Then you could make dogs, cats, insects and various beings out of machines and, in fact, you could put consciousness into absolutely everything. The absurd conclusion that follows from this is that if mind was purely physical, then you could put mind into absolutely everything in the world, and everything around you would be alive and consequently would be capable of growth. Either that, or it would absurdly follow that, if you could put life and mind into machines, then as all the machines broke down, life would become extinct. We’d all become like dinosaurs and disappear if it was purely something mechanical, that as the machines break down life is finished. Both possibilities are ridiculous when you think about it.