The Five Best Opportunities
That Are Difficult to Obtain

by Sayagyi U Chit Tin

In The Manual of the Greatest of Men (Uttama-purisa-dipani), Venerable Ledi Sayadaw gives a brief discussion of the five best opportunities that are difficult to obtain (dullabha): [1]

  1. Birth as a human being which is difficult to obtain (manussatta-bhava-dullabha ), [2]
  2. Encountering a Buddha which is difficult to obtain (Buddhuppada-dullabha),[3]
  3. Obtaining the going forth (as a bhikkhu) which is difficult to obtain (pabbajita-bhava-dullabha),[4]
  4. Attaining confidence (in the Triple Gem) which is difficult to obtain. (saddha-sampattiyo-dullabha), [5]
  5. Hearing the True Doctrine which is extremely difficult to obtain (Saddhamma-savanam atidulla-bha). [6]

These five opportunities are important because it is through them that release from suffering can be attained. Most people aim for lower goals. But even these are hard to obtain, as the Buddha pointed out to the layman Anathapindika.[7] The Buddha said that long life, beauty, worldly happiness, honour and rebirth in the heavenly worlds cannot be attained by vows or prayers.

They must be earned through the right path, which the commentary says means making merit through generosity, moral living, etc. And the Buddha said that an inclination towards meritorious states is one of the six things whose appearance in the world is difficult.[8] The highest goal, Nibbana, will only be obtained if meritorious deeds are done with the intention of attaining the goal.

1. Human Existence

Ledi Sayadaw points out that birth as a human being is important first of all because it means one has escaped from the four lower realms of existence which involve great suffering. But this does not mean that ordinary happiness is the reason human existence is to be desired. If that sort of happiness were important, the Buddha would have mentioned rebirth as a Deva or Brahma among the rare opportunities. Devas and Brahmas enjoy celestial pleasures in the higher planes of existence which far surpass anything in the human world. Human existence is mentioned because this is the best plane in which one can cultivate good actions and meritorious deeds.

This is not possible in the lower planes of existence because their inhabitants do not have enough intelligence to know how to work or to make progress in understanding, or, they are in so much pain, they cannot think of anything else. The heavenly worlds are not as favourable as the human world because the pleasures to be experienced there are so great it is difficult to appreciate the Truth of Suffering, and life-times are so long, it is difficult to understand impermanence (anicca).

We are most fortunate to be human beings, for we can perform innumerable good deeds which will be the basis of many future lives as human beings, Devas or Brahmas if our aim is no higher. If we take advantage of the other opportunities which are ours, we will be able to lay the foundations for attaining the highest goal, or, if we have accumulated the necessary merit in past lives, we will be able to attain that goal in this life.

If we do not perform good deeds, our opportunity will be wasted. Realizing this, we should be able to renounce the pleasures of this world for the sake of future wordly pleasures which will be far greater. Otherwise, we will be like the fool who swaps a precious gem worth an entire kingdom for a small meal.

Buddhist texts give glowing descriptions of the splendour of the Universal Monarch who rules over the entire world. If he merely enjoys the glory of his state, he will lose it all when he dies. But if he appreciates his great opportunity and makes merit by renouncing the world as early as possible, he can be assured of hundreds of thousands of future existences as a Universal Monarch, as well as many lives in the Deva and Brahma worlds. The Brahmas in the highest planes live for eighty-four thousand great æons (mahakappa).[9]

If we are truly wise and aspire to the supramundane, then we should be even more eager to forsake worldly glory. Human life is the ideal opportunity for working for the true happiness of Nibbana. If we wish to work for the supramundane as humans, we must possess certain qualities.

Two of these are mentioned in another list of six things whose appearance in the world is difficult.[10] The two are: not being deficient with regard to the senses and freedom from being mentally dull, slow-witted and impure. Being intelligent and having a certain degree of purity are especially important. Otherwise we will not be able to understand reality and our concentration will be bad.

We may be able to overcome deficiencies in five of our senses. Being blind, for example, will not make it impossible to follow the Buddha’s Teachings. But if our mental powers are weak or distorted, this will be a great stumbling block. So this sixth sense of the mind should be whole.

2. The Appearance of a Buddha

The appearance of a Buddha is important because it is only during the period that a Buddha’s Teachings are available--a Buddha-Sasana--that one can work for the supreme goal of Awakening (bodhi). During other periods it is possible to lead moral lives, develop great concentration, and acquire great worldly knowledge. But these will only lead to the transitory happiness of life as a human, Deva or Brahma. And worldly knowledge will not give us insight into reality.

The Teachings of a Buddha will not lead to freedom either if we only have a theoretical understanding and do not practise the Teachings and obtain real understanding through direct experience. A person with only a theoretical appreciation will not be able to stand firm when the Buddha’s Teachings are no longer available, and wrong teachings will win him over.

Ledi Sayadaw says that such people of great learning who do not experience the truth themselves will eventually end up like the ordinary individual, content to swim and drift and sink in the floods of continued rebirths. They will continually seek new lives in the sensual worlds, like an old ghost scampering for a crumb around a garbage heap.

Thus, the appearance of a Teaching Buddha in the world is of the greatest significance. At one time, a group of Licchavi laymen were discussing some of the treasures which a Universal Monarch enjoys. The Buddha pointed out to them that they talked of these because they were intent on sensual pleasures and he gave them a list of five treasures whose appearance in the world is difficult to encounter. The first treasure is the appearance of a Tathagata, Arahat, Fully Awakened One. Tathagata is the term by which the Buddha often designated himself.[11]

The last three opportunities are dependent on the appearance of a Buddha in the world. Otherwise, the True Doctrine is not heard, which means people cannot gain confidence in it and there is no Sangha in which people can ordain.

3. Going Forth (being ordained as a bhikkhu)

Going forth from the life of a layman and becoming a member of the Sangha is important because this is the way to practise the Buddha’s Teachings full time. This is important for the individual because he will be able to take advantage to the fullest of the opportunity of encountering the Teachings of the Buddha. It is important to the world in general because it is the Sangha which keeps alive these Teachings after the Buddha attains final Nibbana.

Ledi Sayadaw points out that hardly one human being in ten million benefits from the Teachings. Of those, not one in ten thousand will become a bhikkhu. During the time of the Buddha, there were millions in the city of Savatthi who attained one of the four paths of Awakening. Among these, only around one hundred thousand were bhikkhus. So we can see how rare this opportunity is.

Ledi Sayadaw also points out that it is possible to ordain and yet squander the opportunity. There are several types of going forth:
(1) a person may go forth through wisdom (panna-pabbajita) and work for knowledge;
(2) a person may go forth through faith (saddha-pabbajita) and work to fulfil the noble practice; or
(3) one may go forth through fear (bhaya-pabbajita), desiring the material requisites of alms food, robes, monastic shelter and medicines which bhikkhus enjoy. The last type will miss his opportunity.

This last type may also be divided into two:
(1) those who go forth through greed (lobha-pabbajita), desiring comfort, and
(2) those who go forth through delusion (moha-pabbajita), desiring shallow things, lacking self-discipline and through a superficial regard for the Teachings.

In Buddhist countries such as Myanmar and Thailand, many men ordain for a short period as a bhikkhu.[12] In this way they do not entirely miss the opportunity of going forth in this life and acquire the foundation for taking fuller advantage in a future life--both for themselves and for those who aid them to become bhikkhus.

We may include here the practice of the Buddha’s Teachings. Laypeople who do not ordain can still practice the Teachings and reach the goal of Nibbana. In the five treasures which the Buddha explained to the Licchavis, the fourth is a person who practises the Doctrine in all its fullness, having encountered the teachings of the Discipline and Doctrine of the Tathagata or Buddha.[13] This is the only way in which we can take full advantage of the fact that we are humans in this life, living in a period when the Teachings of a Buddha are still available. The last two opportunities are the basis for this practice.

4. Attaining Confidence

As we have seen, it is possible to attain human birth and yet squander the opportunity. This will especially be true if a person does not take advantage of the appearance of a Buddha and if a person who ordains as a bhikkhu does so for the wrong reasons. So these last two opportunities of attaining confidence or faith and hearing the True Doctrine are of especial importance to us all.

There are four types of confidence or faith given in the commentary to a discourse which the Buddha gave to the bhikkhus shortly before his death.[14] He explained what they must keep alive if they were to prosper. The Buddha included in his instructions the following seven conditions of welfare:
(1) confidence or faith (saddha),
(2) scruples (with regards to doing wrong) (hirimana),
(3) moral dread (of doing wrong to others) (ottapi),
(4) being firm in energy (araddha-viriya),
(5) being of great learning (bahussuta),
(6) being endowed with mindfulness(upatthita-sati), and
(7) possessing wisdom (pannavanto).[15]

The commentary mentions the following four kinds of confidence:[16]
(1) confidence through belief (pasada-saddha),
(2) established confidence (okappana-saddha),
(3) confidence in one’s own destiny (agamaniya-saddha), and
(4) confidence through attainment (adhigama-saddha).

Confidence through belief is belief through repeating the Triple Gem, the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Ledi Sayadaw explains that this means a superficial high regard and not a deep conviction. Therefore, it is not a firm type of faith. The sub-commentary mentions Maha-Kappina as an example, though his faith was very strong. He was a king at the time of the Buddha.[17] He sent out four riders to see if the Triple Gem had appeared in the world. Eventually, traders came to his city from Savatthi and informed him that the Triple Gem had indeed appeared. He immediately set out with a thousand courtiers to find the Buddha and ordain.

Established confidence is believing after having settled on and having put one’s trust in the Triple Gem. Ledi Sayadaw defines this as faith which is inspired by the noble attributes of the Triple Gem. It is firm and lasts for one’s whole life. After death, however, it vanishes from one’s consciousness.

The commentary says that both these types of confidence can be understood in two ways--as being very strong or as leading to more superficial actions. In the second case, one carries out the duties towards a pagoda terrace and Bodhi-tree terrace (such as sweeping), and with regard to a bhikkhu, he carries out all the duties towards his preceptor and teacher.

A stronger conviction, the commentary says, is found in the case of Vakkali.[18] He was so devoted to the Buddha that he wished to be with him all the time. So much so, the Buddha had to reprove him, saying that seeing a mere physical body is of no importance. Seeing the Dhamma is the important thing. "He who sees the Dhamma, sees me," the Buddha told Vakkali. Venerable Buddhaghosa mentions Vakkali as an example of someone whose confidence needed to brought into balance as it was too strong.[19]

Confidence in one’s own destiny is the confidence of one who is bent on attaining Awakening and becoming an omniscient Buddha who teaches the Path to others.[20] The excellence of the Great Bodhisatta is unlimited. He cannot be shaken and has firm determination. His confidence, therefore, is stronger than for those who are preparing either for self-awakening without teaching, as in the case of Pacceka Bodhisattas, or for attaining Awakening as the disciple of a Teaching Buddha, as in the case of Savaka Bodhisattas. Ledi Sayadaw points out that after receiving a sure prediction for becoming a Teaching Buddha from a Buddha, the Great Bodhisatta has unwavering faith in the Triple Gem. This means that he never doubts that merit comes through doing good deeds.

Confidence through attainment is the confidence of Noble individuals, those who have attained the fruition states of the four stages of Awakening. The sub-commentary mentions the layman Sura-Ambattha as an example of this kind of confidence. He is mentioned by the Buddha as foremost among the laymen in his absolute belief.[21] He was a follower of the heretics, but after hearing a discourse by the Buddha, he attained the first stage of Awakening (Sotapanna). Afterwards, Mara, disguised as the Buddha, came to tell him that he had changed his mind. Although he had said that all volitional actions are impermanent, he now thought that only some were impermanent. Sura-Ambattha, through the confidence he acquired on attaining the first Path, saw through the disguise and drove Mara away.[22]

Ledi Sayadaw points out that of these four types of confidence, attaining even superficial faith or confidence through belief is very rare. There are many people born in Buddhist countries, for example, who do not attain even this first step. A person who acquires established confidence will have greater understanding and will be able to pay respects even to a bhikkhu whose conduct is far from correct, for such a person will bear in mind the attributes of the Noble Sangha and direct his respects towards it rather than towards the individual member of the Sangha.

A person who has confidence in his own destiny will not be able to go a single day without finding an occasion for performing merit. Noble people, Ariyas, who have attained at least one of the fruition states will have the sort of confidence that is a great attainment in itself. They have an abiding faith in the Triple Gem, the importance of observing the five precepts at all times, of doing good deeds, and of practising the factors of Awakening.

Ariyas will look on the world in a different way from ordinary people. Ledi Sayadaw gives the illustration of a person who is seized by epileptic fits whenever he hears exciting music. Once he is cured, no music will cause such fits. Then he will remember what such fits were like: his heart would throb uncontrollably and he would lose consciousness. He is very glad to be cured. When he sees or hears of others having these fits, he will remember his past affliction and feel glad that he is now free of it.

In much the same way, people in the world find many occasions for being afflicted with the arousal of passion, hatred, vanity, delusion, pride, and so forth. An Ariya, seeing this, remembers how he allowed passion or hatred and so on to arise in him before he realized Nibbana. He knows this will no longer occur, and remembering his past foolishness, he feels very glad to be free.

A person who suffers from epilepsy will be anxious if he sees another person who is having a fit. He will be reminded of his disease and be afraid that sooner or later he will suffer like the person he sees. An ordinary person is also anxious when he sees the misfortunes of other people, misfortunes due to their uncontrolled passion. This is because he knows he is not free of passion. An Ariya, however, has no such fear. He knows he is free of passion. So he is glad both when he remembers his previous defiled state and when he reflects on his freedom from passion in the present.

Ledi Sayadaw quotes two verses from the Dhammapada which illustrate the attitude of the Ariyas:

          Susukham vata jivama aturesu anatura,
          aturesu manussesu viharama anatura.
          Susukham vata jivama ussukesu anussuka,
          Ussukesu manussesu viharama anussuka.
                                      Dhammapada, vv. 198, 199

                We who are free from misery live very happy indeed 
         among the miserable; free from misery we dwell among men 
         who are miserable.

                We who are free from longing live very happy indeed among 
         the longing; free from longing we dwell among men (full of) 

The Ariya observes the multitude around him, painfully accomplishing their daily chores, both in good weather and bad. He sees people who are full of ego, blinded by ignorance, and who are feeding the fires of ageing and death that burn within. Knowing he is free from such imbecility or barrenness, the Ariya is happy. Ordinary people, on the other hand, simply follow the example of the busy life around them.

The world is full of barren activity. Due to their ignorance concerning the future results of their activities based on desire and clinging, people consider that this frenzied activity is progress. In big cities, for example, we can see all kinds of barren activity in the railway terminals, markets, seaports, airports, busy streets, etc., where a babel of voices and cries continually fill the air. All this noise represents misdirected effort. But its futility is only seen by the wise, the Noble Ones.

A wise ordinary individual will feel worried when he observes people who are miserable or when he sees the suffering of animals or when he considers the extreme misery to be experienced in the lower worlds which we call hells (the Apaya realms). He will realize that he too may one day share their lot, for he has been involved in the same barren activities and he has been driven by the same defilements that caused such suffering.

The Ariya will observe the miseries around him and will have compassion for those who are suffering. But knowing that he is free of such a fate, he will feel happy. This must be the reason that one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Maha-Moggallana, smiled when he observed the miserable individuals in the ghost realm of the petas who were around mount Gijjhakuta.[23]

We have encountered a period during which the Teachings of a Buddha are available. This is the time to put out the fires within--the fires of ageing and death, of belief in a permanent self, and all the fires that are part of the rounds of existence. This is the time to leave behind human affairs and cares and devote ourselves to the eradication of ignorance (avijja). We have been human beings many times before.

This present human existence of ours is not special. We should not cling to it. No matter how rich or how powerful we are, all our riches and all our power are well worth abandoning if we seek Nibbana. Even life as a Deva or Brahma is not to be considered as special, for the fires of ageing and death are working within. All the pleasures of the human world and heavenly worlds are sources of the defilements that lead to rebirth. All these pleasures continually decay, crumble and perish.

The only task that is worthwhile is the task of rooting out the wrong belief that there is a permanent self, the belief in a personal identity which in fact does not exist. This task must be taken on now, while the opportunity is ours. When our time is up here, the chance will be lost.

A wise ordinary person will observe that precious time is being wasted in the pursuit of the pleasures this hollow existence has to offer. He will think to himself, "I too am still craving, still clinging." He will see that one is never satiated with these pleasures, never satisfied with the glories of the human world or the heavenly worlds.

The Ariya will rejoice in the knowledge that he has freed himself from the craving and clinging that could drag him down to the lower worlds of suffering. We should all work to reach that stage ourselves.

5. Hearing the True Doctrine

The True Doctrine is the Doctrine taught by the Buddha. His Teachings can be summarized as: training in higher virtue (adhi-sila-sikkha), training in higher consciousness (adhi-citta-sikkha), and training in higher wisdom (adhi-panna-sikkha). The Teachings can also be divided into the categories of learning (pariyatti), practice (patipatti), and comprehension (pativedha). Here, learning means theoretical knowledge which can be learned from the texts; practice means following the instructions found in the Teachings; and comprehension means understanding through one’s own practice the Four Noble Truths.

We can include with this opportunity of hearing the True Doctrine some other occasions which are described as very difficult to encounter. One of these is rebirth in the region of the Noble Ones.[24] People of today are very fortunate, for with modern travel and communications, it is possible for almost anyone in the world to hear the Teachings of the Buddha and put them into practice.

But it is not inevitable. Two other things are necessary: there must be someone who teaches the Doctrine and one must encounter these Teachings.[25] As the Buddha said, it can only happen through the rarest chance that the Discipline and Doctrine revealed by a Tathagata shine forth in the world.[26]

It is only if we hear the Teachings and are well disposed towards them that we will be able to gain confidence in them and put them into practice.

Illustrations of How Difficult It Is to Obtain the Best Opportunities

The Buddha used the illustration of the blind turtle in describing how difficult it is to obtain human existence, for a Teaching Buddha to appear and for the Discipline and Doctrine taught by a Buddha to shine forth in the world.[27] Suppose the earth were one mass of water, he said, and that a man throws a yoke with a single hole in the water. Winds from all directions blow the yoke around. A blind turtle sticks its head out of the water once every hundred years.

Would he put his neck through the hole in the yoke? The bhikkhus listening to the Buddha’s discourse said that this could only happen through mere chance (adhicca). The commentary says that the yoke must not rot, the sea must not dry up and the turtle must not die. Moreover, the turtle must want to accomplish the task. Similarly, the Buddha said, the rare opportunities are obtained through mere chance. [28]

The commentary expands on this illustration, adding as a fourth opportunity the extremely rare chance of being able to attain comprehension of the Four Noble Truths. Imagine a man standing on the edge of the eastern world system being able to throw a yoke over the neck of a blind turtle. This is how difficult it is to obtain human existence. Once he has managed this, imagine that he proceeds to the southern world system and throws a yoke over the head of a blind turtle there.

This shows how rare it is to encounter a Buddha. Having achieved these two tasks, the man continues to the western world and does the same thing. This gives an idea of how rare it is to encounter the explanation of a Buddha’s Discipline and Doctrine. Finally, the man proceeds to the northern world system to throw the yoke over the neck of a blind turtle there. This is how rare it is to be able to comprehend the Four Noble Truths.

The Example of Buddha Gotama

We can also appreciate how rare the five best opportunities are by looking at the example of Buddha Gotama.[29] First, a person who is intent on Self-Awakening must reach the stage where he is ready to attain the supreme goal through the Teachings of a Buddha.[30] Then, he decides to put off his own Awakening in order to become a Teaching Buddha. He makes a firm resolution in the presence of a Buddha who gives him a sure prediction that he will eventually fulfil his aspiration.[31] Then, as a Bodhisatta, he fulfils the ten perfections for a minimum of four incalculables (asankheyya) and a hundred thousand great æons (mahakappa).[32] All ten perfections must be constantly practised during this period.[33]

It would be impossible to calculate the number of lives the Bodhisatta lives during such a long period. Out of them all, the Bodhisatta who became the Buddha Gotama encountered only twenty-four Buddhas. During those twenty-four lives he was not a human being five times. During the nineteen times he encountered Buddhas as a human, he became a bhikkhu only nine times. If human existence, encountering a Buddha, hearing the Dhamma, attaining confidence and ordaining as a bhikkhu were so rare for an individual as highly developed as a Bodhisatta, we can well imagine how difficult these are for ordinary people.

A proper appreciation of how fortunate we are should inspire us to put forth right effort, here and now, in order to gain the maximum benefit from our present life.

Sayagyi U Chit Tin


[1]  See Spk I 244, where they are given in a different order.
[2]  Spk: Dullabho manussata-patilabho, "the difficult (opportunity)
     of obtaining human existence."

[3]  Spk: Dullabho Buddhuppado lokasmim, "the difficult 
     (opportunity) of the appearance of a Buddha in the world."

[4]  Spk: Dullabho pabbajja, "the difficult (opportunity) of going

[5]  Spk: Dullabha saddha-sampatti, "the difficult (opportunity) of 
     attaining confidence."

[6]  Spk: Dullabham saddhammo-savanam, "the difficult (opportunity) 
     of hearing the True Doctrine."

[7]  See A III 47; GS III 39f.
[8]  Kusala-dhamma-cchando dullabho lokasmim. A III 441; GS III 307.
[9]  See the account of the Universal Monarch Maha-Sudassana, 
     D II 169-198; DB II 199-232.

[10] A III 441; GS III 307 (patubhavo dullabho lokasmim).
[11] A III 168f.; GS III 126f. These five treasures are given in another
     discourse to the Licchavis at A III 239f.; GS III 174f. The 
     appearance of a Tathagata is the first of six things whose 
     appearance in the world is difficult to encounter (A III 441; 
     GS III 307). On the term Tathagata see ANV 331-344.

[12] In the appendix to MB (Vol. 1, part 2, book 12) it is pointed out 
     that such men are called "Dullabha monks" in Myanmar. Some people 
     misunderstand the expression dullabha (with difficulty), thinking 
     it is therefore easier to ordain for life rather than for a short 
     period. In actual fact, if it is rare to become a bhikkhu for a few
     weeks or months, it is much rarer to have the opportunity to become
     a bhikkhu for life.

[13] See Sv 529 and D-t II 165.
[14] Tathagata-ppaveditassa dhamma-vinayassa desitassa vinnatassa 
     dhammanu-dhamma-patipanno patubhavo dullabho lokasmim. A III 168f.,
     239f.; GS III 126f., 174f.

[15] D II 78f; DB II 83.
[16] Ledi Sayadaw discusses them in a different order than that given in
     the commentary and we follow his order here.

[17] For his story see Dhp-a II 116-126; BL II 169-176.
[18] See S III 119ff.; KS III 101-106 and Dhp-a IV 118f; BL IV 262f.
[19] Vism, Chapter IV, 45.
[20] The commentary gives Sabbannu-bodhisatta which the sub-
     commentary defines as Maha-bodhisatta.

[21] A I 25; GS I 23.
[22] Mp I 215. The story is given in DPPN II 1274.
[23] See S II 254ff.; KS II 169-174.
[24] A III 441; GS III 307.
[25] A III 168f.,  239f., 441; GS III 126f., 174f., 307; Dhp v. 182.
[26] S V 457; KS V 384.
[27] S V 457; KS V 384. See also M III 169; MLS III 214f.
[28] Spk III 302.
[29] Most of this discussion is based on MB, appendix to Vol. 1, part 2,
     book 12.

[30] See ANV 326.
[31] For the career of the Buddha Gotama see Bv (CB) and Bv-a (CSM).
[32] See ANV 325.
[33] Mp I 112.

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