The Four Reminders to Practice

Submitted by zotar on December 9, 2007 - 10:56pm

Felt all inspirated after sharing this practice with folks at our Sunday sit, so I thought I'd share it here.

There is a Buddhist contemplation practice in my tradition called the Four Common Preliminaries, the Four Reminders, or the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma. These contemplations are often offered as preliminary practices, done just before other dharma practices, or contemplated quietly each morning. They are not necessarily dogma, but thoughts to be considered, reasoned out, questioned and contemplated. Some seem even common sensical, and yet while we may say "Oh, I know that.", do we really live as if we knew that? What would happen if we did?

Before, in the middle of, or after meditation practice (but always as a seperate practice, with its own block of time, rather than as a spontaneous distraction fro your mindfulness), one might sit with a quiet mind and simply spend a few minutes considering each of the four reminders. You may choose to question them, reason them out, or simply mentally repeat a phrase and see what arises in your mind. In any event, the contemplation is meant to deepen your understanding and your commitment to practice.

First, contemplate the Preciousness of being born human, free and well favoured. From the traditional Buddhist perspective, being born a human being rather than an animal or other, invisible being (if you believe that sort of thing) is the most valuable birth. Only in the human realm is it possible to practice meditation and attain wisdom and enlightenment. Only in the human realm is there just enough suffering to make us want to change, and just enough strength and intelligence to make us able to change.

You may consider the many attributes we have that make us incredibly well favoured. Do we have a body relatively whole, capable of meeting its own basic needs, and capable of meditation? not continuously wracked with chronic pain or disease? Do we have a relatively healthy mind, capable of reason and logic, of investigation and questioning, free from debilitating mental illness or solidified, harmful views? Do we have a healthy heart, capable of some degree of kindness, compassion, understanding, not subject to painful diseases of the soul that lead to hatred and delusion? Then we are extremely well favoured.

Furthermore, do we live in a land where we are free to think, talk, and practice spirituality without violent censure? Do we live in a land where our basic needs can be provided for, leaving enough leasure and comfort to take the time to think, study, practice? Is our land free from violent wars and conflicts? Do we have access to wisdom teachings and the wherewithall to study and practice with like-minded people who can support our path? If so, we are extremely well-favoured.

Considering some of these great freedoms we possess, we realize what an opportunity we have with this human life. If we come to appreciate this, we can decide how best to use the time and powers we possess.

Second, contemplate the Truth and Inevitability of Impermanence. Of all contemplations, the Buddha said this was the most important. If we come to understand impermanence, we are just a step away from completely understanding emptiness and the reality of all things.

Begin by contemplating the impermanence of the world and everything in it. Everything without exception is in a constant state of change. Everything born is subject to death. Everything created is subject to decay. Everything brought together is subject to coming apart. You can picture or think of any number of things in the world, from a blade of grass or a drop of water to a mountain or ocean. If you consider it, you find that everything, without exception, is impermanent and subject to continuous change. Try to think of anything- any form, thought or feeling, that isn't subject to change. It seems quite self-evident at first, and yet consider how many things in our world we just assume will be there tomorrow!

Second, you can contemplate the impermanence of life, and particularly of your own life. If even mountains, oceans, whole worlds are subject to decay and death, then the life of beings is "like a bubble, a flash of lightening, a wisp of smoke on the wind". Death is real. We are each of us going to die. Our bodies will one day be corpses. This contemplation is not meant to be scary or depressing necessarily, but simply plain truth. If we are willing to face the reality of our own impermanence, it makes change and even death much easier to face, and makes us appreciate the time we have even more.

Third, contemplate the Inescapable Truth of Karma. Karma, in this case, means cause and effect. The Buddha taught that the whole world, all its inhabitants, and even the whole of the universe are subject to the law of cause and effect. Everything we see is the effect of a cause, and itself the cause of another effect. There is no need for a creater God or deities who control or manipulate reality. In the Buddhist view, even gods are subject to karma. Only cause and effect have real sway.

This means, simply put, that we reap what we sew. Anything we have or experience now, whether good, bad, or indifferent, is the results of past action, the fruits of past plantings. Anything that is to come can only be the results of what we are doing now, the fruits of the seeds we currently plant and cultivate. Furthermore, no one gets away with anything! Ever! And at the same time, no good deed can possibly go unrewarded. This is a deep and profound subject, which I don't think anyone can truely say they grok one hundred percent. Further study might be good for all of us. But in the meantime, consider contemplating what this might mean were it true. And consider how it would effect the way we make decisions and the way we act.

Fourth and finally, contemplate the Inevitable Suffering of Samsara (ie of this life). "The whole world and everything it contains are subject to the three sufferings." 1) the suffering of pain, or not experiencing what we want and experiencing what we don't want; 2) the suffering of change, or knowing that even pleasant experiences, bought by great labours and at great sacrifice, will inevitably come to an end, and make us sad, frustrated, grief-stricken; and, 3) the all-pervasive suffering, which is the very subtle, continuous under-lying discomfort simply of existing, and trying to maintain that existance.

The Buddha taught not only that there was suffering in life, but that all life is marked in one way or another with dukkha- pain, stress, unsatisfactoriness. Taking the time to question this, and ask what he might have meant, could be one of the most fruitful practices you could choose.

These four reminders have been taught many ways by many different teachers. If you are inspired, I suggest looking into them where ever possible, and consider making their contemplation a practice. (I have rarely been able to maintain a regular contemplation practice myself, I must admit, but my limited experience leads me to want to share it).  

May it be of great benefit to many beings. May all beings everywhere enjoy peace, happiness, and complete prosperity. May all beings be happy and free.

 

Comments

1 comment posted
A friend brought this up

A friend brought this up last night, and I dug out an old textbook to find the traditional contemplations of the Four Thoughts. At Nalandabodhi they start each session of sitting with someone reciting each and then giving a minute or two for contemplation. Then the bell rings and we go into mindfulness meditation.

First, contemplate the preciousness of being born free and well-favoured. This is difficult to gain, easy to lose; now I must do something meaningful.

Second, the whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent; in particular, the life of beings is like a bubble. Death comes without warning; this body will be a corpse. At that time, the dharma will be my only help. I must practice it with exertion.

Third, when death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always devote my time to virtuous actions. Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.

Fourth, the homes, friends, wealth and comforts of samsara are the constant torment of the three sufferings, just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death. I must cut desire and attachment and attain enlightenment through exertion.

The instruction is to sit and think about these things for a minute or two each. One suggestion that I use is to break them up into main ideas- "preciousness", "free and well-favoured", "difficult to gain, easy to lose", "meaningful". I find it best to add a lot of question marks, you know? Am I free? Of what? Am I well-favoured? How? What does it mean, "difficult to gain, easy to lose?" What would be a meaningful thing to do?
Further, Ponlop Rinpoche suggests that if and when you have an "ah-ha" moment, when your mind kinda goes, "Oh! Hmmm!", you could drop the cognitive contemplation and try to rest for a second or so in that "ah-ha!" I think those ah ha moments are when the mind goes a step beyond the "talky-talky" kinda contemplation and something gets a step further into your psyche or what have you. Like a new sankhara, in Goenka-speak- but a skillful-er one. (?)
So, have fun with that. Maybe we can do them again one Sunday? That time I shared them actually opened me up to the practice a little bit.
K. Be well!

Posted by zotar on June 16, 2008 - 12:08pm