By Joshua Noiseux
Though our lives are beset by misery and suffering, and though we are constantly faced with delusion and ignorance, according to the Buddha we are incredibly lucky to be human. Indeed, being born human requires vastly more luck than winning the lottery. This is exceptionally hard to believe in 2017, but it is a perspective worth considering.
Tradition has it that the Buddha put it this way:
Monks, imagine a limitless ocean in which a turtle, blind in both eyes, swims incessantly in random directions. Only every 100 years does this turtle surface for air, always in a random location. Floating on the surface of this ocean is a golden ring which is carried away in all directions by tides, currents, and winds. Even in an incalculable space of time, how likely would it be for the turtle to rise in such a place as to put his head through the golden ring?
Monks, this would not be such a strange occurrence, as there is something a hundred thousand times more difficult than this. What is it? It is, monks, obtaining the opportunity to become a human. The turtle rising into the golden ring is not worth considering as difficult when compared with the difficulty of being born into the human realm.
For Buddhists who believe in samsara, a cyclical process of life, death, and rebirth, being born human is the best possible outcome in a range of possibilities that includes becoming anything from a bacteria, insect or animal to a super-human demi-god. Only human beings, however, have access to the Buddha’s teachings, and so only humans have the appropriate tools for escaping the suffering and misery of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Only humans have the capacity to realize the blissful emptiness of nirvana. What’s more, in Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion and the co-dependence of all creatures, only humans can become Bodhisattvas – compassionate beings who postpone their own full enlightenment in order to work for the salvation of all sentient beings.
Thinking of humans as rare is hard to do in 2017. Claiming a special cosmological position for humans flies in the face of the contemporary consensus on the dangers of the “anthropocene”. From discussions of inequality to fears around climate change, humans and human population are commonly viewed through a doubled-coated Malthusian and misanthropic lens: humans do bad things to the environment; more humans will do even more bad things.
The Buddha’s position could be viewed as the radical inverse of this concept. His focus was not on the harm that humans cause, but on the suffering inherent to human existence. Despite this suffering, being human is still the best possible situation to be in, because being a human is the first step towards becoming a Buddha or Bodhisattva.
Doesn’t it follow, then, that the more humans there are, the more potential recipients of the Buddha’s dharma there are too? Thinking in this way, how could humans ever be considered overabundant? Maybe population increase is actually a miraculous karmic transformation on a global scale, the beginning of some kind of Buddhist millennium.
The Buddha would have formulated his Turtle-in-a-Vast-Ocean Doctrine of human rarity around 450 BCE, when the human population on Earth was about 160 million. Human life had not yet become abundant, or, for that matter, expendable. It was precious, cosmologically so, and it behoved every human to, in Nagarjuna’s words, “heed the sacred Dharma and make their life bear fruit”.
In 2017, with human 7.6 billion humans clamouring and clinging to life on Earth, the question is: wasn’t the Buddha spouting nonsense about the rarity and value of human existence? Indeed, even if human population growth might generate a bigger audience for the Buddha’s teachings, it seems obvious that it will definitely increase the amount of human suffering and ecological devastation. Is there any way to salvage the Buddha’s Turtle-Ocean doctrine?
It seems that there are really only two ways to slice it.
Option 1: An ever greater percentage of all sentient beings are being born human. In Buddhist cosmology this would be the result of karmically beneficial action by non-humans, meaning that billions of non-humans are suddenly behaving well enough to merit rebirth as humans.
This is a peculiar position to think through, as it logically entails the gradual extinction of non-human life as more and more sentient beings find themselves meritorious and lucky enough to be born as humans. Because an endlessly increasing number of humans does not augur well for other species, or for human civilization itself, this is really a double-edged sword: a large-scale biomass/sentience shift from non-human to human, plus a mass extinction event ultimately including humanity itself. Perhaps this is a dystopian kind of planetary nirvana, karmic extinguishment on a global scale, but it is very hard to see any compassion at work here.
Option 2: Remembering that the Buddha was not a demographer, we can try to take the Turtle/Ocean tale a little less literally. Even if it is about 50 times easier to be become a human now than it was in Buddha’s day, suffering and delusion persist as ever. Perhaps the Buddha’s point was not so much about the rarity of human life itself as it was about the importance of recognizing the urgent task at hand for all humanity.
Indeed, the Buddha’s message was less about pleasant mindful calming than it was about stress induction: he taught his followers to understand cyclical existence as an emergency akin to being trapped in a burning house. His teaching was meant to alert people to the approaching flames and spur them into radical action. Get out of the burning house and work towards realizing selflessness and cultivating compassion!
In this reading the prognosis is not necessarily any less grim. We are still hurtling towards ecological catastrophe. Our mindless consumerism and incapacity to challenge capitalist modes of production/destruction are still leading to irrevocable climate change, mass extinction, and untold suffering. Still, for better or worse, it is only humans that have the opportunity to do something to remedy the situation.
Short of a sudden, horrific decline in human population, we are headed (by 2023) towards 8 billion humans no matter how we feel about it. It is not a question of if it will happen, but of how we are to respond. Maybe we ought pass on the temptation of dejected eco-misanthropy and seriously consider the Buddha’s message about humanity’s unique capacity for enlightenment and selfless service to other beings. Expansive compassion, rooted in a recognition of the interconnectedness of humans within the natural world, certainly feels like a decent place to start.
 Paraphrased from: Sayadaw, Mahathera Ledi. The Vipassana Dipani: The Manual of Insight. Accessed online at: https://www.wisdomlib.org/buddhism/book/the-vipassana-dipani on December 1, 2017.