For Tibetans, the main festival of the year is the New Year, which is like Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and your birthday all rolled into one. Patrul Rinpoche was a great master whose life was full of eccentric episodes that would bring the teaching to life. Instead of celebrating New Year’s Day and wishing people a “Happy New Year” like everyone else, Patrul Rinpoche used to weep. When asked why, he said that another year had gone by, and so many people had come one year closer to death, still unprepared.
— The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (p.21)
At the beginning of a new year, I always like to take a little time to reflect on my life and my attitude towards it. This provides a good opportunity to set priorities and compare my goals and intentions with my actual every day reality. The Buddhist teachings give an outlook on life that is radically different to the way we tend to look at life in the modern world. As one teacher I know once put it, “life is about mind” and not about our body.
In Tibetan the word for body is “lü,” which means “that which is left behind” As we go from one life to the next this is said to happen many, many times. After we die , in the period that is called “bardo” in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, we will have a mental body and then, depending on where we are reborn, there a different kinds of bodies that we can have. So what continues is our most subtle consciousness.
Ultimately we cannot even say that this consciousness has any characteristics which we could describe as having a solid and inherent existence. Our true nature is described as inconceivable, and said to be “beyond words, beyond thought, beyond description.” However because we have strayed and lost this understanding, our present perception of life is such that we experience it as very real and solid. So while we exist in this kind of understanding we can say that our subtle mind goes from life to life.
The teachings remind us to not loose the long term perspective by exclusively focusing on this present life. They say that it is much wiser to think about how our mind will be and what it will experience in future lives. This will depend on our actions now. They condition our mind, create habits. They are also seeds for future experiences that will be similar to the experiences that we cause for ourselves and others through our present actions.
Our human life is considered to be an extremely precious opportunity because we have the ability to direct our life and our mind, to learn, change and transform. When I wake up in the morning I always like to reflect on this and while the experience of sleep and dream is still fresh in my mind to remind myself how little control I have over my mind during the night. It is just driven by habits and conditioning. The sleep state is sometimes used as an example of how our mind will be after this life.
What makes my life so precious is my ability to take charge of my life, to direct my life and to consciously develop and shape my mind. My teachers often talk about the importance of using our life to get a handle on our mind. That’s why the Buddha said the essence of his teachings is to work with, tame and transform this mind of ours.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche urges us:
It is important to reflect calmly, again and again, that death is real, and comes without warning. Don’t be like the pigeon in the Tibetan proverb. He spends all night fussing about, making his bed, and dawn comes up before he has even had time to go to sleep. As an important twelfth-century master, Drakpa Gyaltsen, said: “Human beings spend all their lives preparing, preparing, preparing . . . Only to meet the next life unprepared.” (p.23)