The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind

By Lama Ganga

WE ARE VERY FORTUNATE TO BE BORN as human beings and to encounter the Dharma. Achieving a human birth is not easy. It takes positive karma to be reborn and then to practice successfully. If we had not accumulated good karma in past lives, then we might have taken birth in the lower realms.

Even with this precious human body our lives are extremely difficult, and Dharma practice is essential to succeed on any path we follow. Our first thought as we begin to practice must be appreciation for our human birth.

Western people especially should understand that their collective karma is ripening now. To be able to practice the Dharma without great difficulties and to meet a teacher without going through hardship are signs of the ripening of karma in the West. If the fruits of this ripening are skillfully used, they will in the future produce greater fruits.

Generally speaking, all living beings--whether human, animal, or insect--desire happiness and comfort, pleasure and success. But because of attachment to the self, the ego, people separate self from others, subject from object. From that separation comes the problems of hatred, jealousy, and anger. It is ignorance that produces these poisons, because we are attached to a self that is actually nonexistent. Ignorance is the basic cause of all of our confusion. We all have Buddhanature within us, but in our ignorance we do not recognize it. Dharma practice introduces us to our own nature, and through practice we can eventually fully realize it as Buddhanature.

Because in our present state of ignorance and attachment we do not recognize our own nature, we try out of curiosity to obtain possessions, wealth, fame, and so forth. But in fact these things bring us suffering. When at last we do realize Buddhanature, we no longer feel attached to any thing, and no one is our enemy; there is nothing that is self or other. Actually, everything and everybody are one, and realizing the oneness of everything brings eternal happiness. It is known as Buddhahood. The best method to find Buddhanature is self-examination, to observe what is happening within ourselves. This is better than studying others, because when we look at another's errors we do not see our own, and when we criticize others' faults we feel that we have none. We might even feel that we are perfect. Without self examination we can only remain ignorant and make many mistakes without even knowing it.

The second thought in starting to practice the Dharma is understanding that everything is impermanent, even our selves. When we do not examine ourselves we forget this obvious fact, and we act as if we will live forever. We collect as many possessions as possible and try to make hundreds of friends, and we waste our lives. But when we face the inevitability of our death, then we start to wonder what to do about it and how to deal with the uncertainty of life.

As soon as we personally encounter impermanence in this way, Dharma practice becomes easy--our mind falls into practice, so to speak. We become interested in it, and we know why it is important. From the start we must base our practice on this awareness, realizing that at the time of our death the only thing that can help us is the practice that we have done during our life. Nobody else can help. In this way we meditate on the impermanence of both our selves and others.

Our third thought as we practice is to consider karma, or cause and effect. Karma and its result are infallible. They are like a seed and its fruit. If you plant the seed of a sweet fruit such as an orange, it will grow as an orange tree and produce oranges. The result of a sweet fruit is health, if you plant its seed. If you plant a poisonous seed, it will produce poisonous fruit, and its result will be painful or even life threatening. Karma works in the same way, because if we act negatively now, then in our next life we will experience suffering, illness, pain, and frustration. If we practice the precious actions of body, speech, and mind now, then in our next life we will experience greater happiness and success.

The fourth thought, and a big obstacle to success on the path of enlightenment, is our attachment to samsara. Because we are all so strongly attached to samsaric life we need to examine with great care whether worldly activities will benefit us eternally or not. For instance, most people desire possessions and also love and acceptance, and many work hard, day and night, to obtain them, going through much discomfort and even suffering. Yet if we evaluate whether possessions or popularity will help us after death or with a better rebirth, we find that neither does us any good. Clinging to samsaric life is fruitless. To practice the Dharma means to remove our confusion. Right now we are so confused that we are attached to everything. We take the right thing as the wrong thing, and the wrong thing as the right thing. Again we must examine everything that we do. For example, we may feel that friends, relatives, and family truly make us happy. But if we look carefully, we see instead that these, too, bring sufferings.

When you look for a spouse, for example, you first experience the suffering of searching, trying to find a suitable person who has things in common with you. Finally you find someone and you get married. But before too long painful problems arise between the two of you, and you separate. You file for a divorce to free yourself from the same person that not so long ago you worked so hard to find. That is the result of samsara; it is the nature of samsara.

The divorce itself does not happen easily, either. Both partners go through intense emotional pain, and if you have children, they suffer, too. You have to go through the law and the courts, and many people become involved. All of this causes suffering, not only for you and your partner but for many other people. Samsara is nothing but suffering.

The samsaric life distracts us from practicing the Dharma. No matter who we are or what job we are doing--whether president or engineer, doctor or singer, a dancer or even a beggar--each of us wants only to be happy and successful. But that is samsaric life, and it will never help after death. For example, the Shah of Iran was very rich, but when he be came gravely ill, even his great wealth could not save his life. Similarly, when death came for the great singer John Lennon, neither money nor friends could help him. Thousands and thousands of his friends cried for him, but they could not return him to life. If Lennon had done Dharma practice, it would surely have helped him far more than thousands of people crying in the street. Everyone needs to practice, for only practice will help. It will help ourselves as well as other people.

We have now examined four thoughts that turn our mind away from its clinging to samsara. We have seen that the first thought is to appreciate that obtaining a precious human birth is not easy. The second is to recognize that because this precious human birth is impermanent we should practice as soon and quickly as possible. Third is karma and its result, knowing that if we act positively through body, speech, and mind we experience happiness, and if we act negatively we experience suffering. Fourth, we understand that the nature of samsara is suffering. These are sometimes called the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma, or the four ordinary foundations. They are the basis or foundation of all Dharma practice.

The best way to practice is the way of the great yogi Milarepa. Milarepa practiced in solitude, living in a cave and owning no clothes, no cushions, and no food. He ate only nettles and meditated for many years, and he obtained enlightenment in one life time. He was not attached to his family and he did not want a wife.

Because he did not seek success or fame, it might seem that Milarepa led the life of a hippie. You might say, "OK, that sounds good, I'll live the hippie life like Milarepa. I won't buy clothes, I won't live with my family, and I won't follow conventional rules. I won't even pay taxes. I'll be real happy." But the hippie point of view is not the attitude of a Dharma practitioner. If you call yourself a hippie, you may believe that you live simply. Yet you roam everywhere, smoke everything, and do not practice the Dharma. In the end you are still just a human being, no matter what you call yourself.

The difference between Milarepa's practice and the life of a hippie is that Milarepa was practicing Mahayana Buddhism, not just a kinky alternative life-style. Shakyamuni Buddha, our teacher, presented three different teachings--the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana--and Tibetan Buddhism combines all three of these. For instance, through our physical body we follow Hinayana disciplines. Through our mind we follow the Mahayana mind called bodhicitta, or enlightened attitude for the benefit of all sentient beings. In the Vajrayana, or secret practice, we use methods such as visualization and recitation of mantras that combine the Buddha's three teachings. With the Vajrayana practice we accomplish the two types of accumulation: accumulation of merit and accumulation of wisdom. In addition, our practice includes shamatha and vipasyana meditation.

Vajrayana practice is the fastest way to attain enlightenment. But to do it requires strong devotion from the bottom of our heart and from the marrow of our bones. To have that kind of faith is very difficult in this age, and to develop it we must go step by step. The first step is to take Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The second is to meditate, generating love and compassion equally toward all sentient beings. Finally, gradually, we begin the Vajrayana practice.

When we meditate on love and compassion, we develop bodhicitta, which means enlightened attitude or bodhisattva mind. To obtain such a mind or attitude, we have to first engender love and compassion in ourselves. Loving kindness is engendered through relative truth and compassion through absolute truth. As we meditate on these two truths, we generate the two types of bodhicitta. The first, aspiration bodhicitta, means understanding the suffering of all beings and wanting to remove it. Basically, aspiration bodhicitta is just wanting something. Perseverance bodhicitta is actually entering onto the path, starting to do what we wanted to do, acting to remove the illness, frustrations, and suffering of ourselves and others.