The Four Thoughts That Change the Mind

To enhance your Dharma practice, Tsoknyi Rinpoche requested that a series of short papers based on his retreat teachings be published on the web site.  The Teachings section on the web site also contains a library of previously published materials and chants. Scroll to the bottom of this essay to view an accompanying glossary.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche: I want to speak about The Four Thoughts That Change the Mind, but I think many of you will chant the Western mantra, “I know, I know.” I’ve heard the “I know” mantra chanted 100 times in a single conversation. Really! I think it means, “I’ve got it, so don’t make me listen to it again.” You’re all really smart, but in the case of the Dharma, repeating a teaching is not just for your conceptual mind. Once your conceptual brain understands, you think you understand. But that kind of understanding is not enough because repetition is for your mind’s emotional understanding. In order to feel the teachings deep down, the Dharma needs to take root in the alaya, your unconscious mind. Only then can the Dharma grow from the inside out and be true nourishment for how you live. I think this takes a lot of repetition. That’s why you need to hear the teachings 100,000 times or more, even a million, a billion times. Then the preciousness of a teaching will stay with you. It’s the same as conceptually understanding the View and then meditating on it. It takes many, many, many years until it becomes part of you. First you contemplate and then you rest in the View. The same thing is true of The Four Thoughts That Change the Mind. So please listen…again.

This Precious Human Birth

Contemplate the importance and opportunity of having a precious human birth. We are very fortunate to be born as human beings and to encounter the Dharma. This human existence is invaluable, for we are endowed with the freedom and conditions necessary for practicing Dharma and cultivating our spiritual development.

When you read about the preciousness of a human birth one or two times, you’ll know the concept intellectually. But to feel that having this human life is precious, that is something else. Do you feel it? Most of time, no. Each morning when you wake up, do you feel how precious it is to have this birth? Maybe. But most of time, no. And before you fall asleep, do you feel, “Wow, I’m so lucky I have a nice bed, a warm blanket?” Maybe. But most of time, no. More often you feel the opposite about your life and yourself. You say, “I want more, I want things to be different, better.” Or…“I’m bad, worthless…I’ve been abandoned…I’m unlovable.” Generally this is because you’re caught by the ego, which is never ever satisfied. It always needs something, wants something because it’s hollow. It’s like a hungry ghost that is never ever fulfilled. So many, many people stay caught there.

But honestly, your life is really very good. That’s what you need to consider about your precious human birth. Think about how much freedom you have because of this human birth, how good this circumstance is for learning the Dharma. You have food, warmth, safety, and you have teachers. In every session of meditation you need to purposely reflect on this because Buddhist training is based on thinking and then resting the mind. You need to influence your emotional understanding about the preciousness of your human birth, and that influence comes through conscious, repetitive mind training. You just have to think about it again and again until you feel it in your whole system, until everything inside your body agrees that, “I know I have a precious human birth. How important this opportunity is!” Once you have conviction about the preciousness of human existence, you’ll want to use all the time you have in this life as best as you can. As the master Longchen Rabjam said, “We now have the independence to genuinely apply the sacred Dharma, so do not squander your life on pointless things.”

Impermanence and Mortality

Because of ignorance and misperception, we become attached to permanence and solidity. We habitually deny the fact of our mortality, acting as if we will live forever. This misperception of reality only brings more confusion, stress, dissatisfaction, and suffering. However, 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.

When thinking about impermanence, the mind goes straight to negative experiences of impermanence, and you immediately want to make your life better in the time you have. Many of you say that you need to reduce fear of death so you can enjoy life more. You say, “I understand impermanence and death. They are some of the elements of life I’m not so happy about. But I don’t want to think about them, really. They’re scary, so I’m going to accept them without investigating them. That way I won’t be scared and can enjoy this life more before it ends.” But for authentic Dharma that is not the point, really.  Until the Dharma seeds have taken root, fear of death is useful. You need this fear as motivation to learn about death and the bardos because you’re shaping your future life right now. When you appreciate this, you will take karma and practice more seriously.

You say that you feel the meaninglessness of this life and so you practice Dharma and compassion to bring meaning to this life. That is still not good enough. It’s 50% OK, but not 100%. You are still trying to make this life perfect…this life, this life, this life. Still, it’s OK. Understanding Dharma this way will make this life juicier, so it’s OK. But this is what is called “healthy human being Dharma.” So far in the West, 90% of Dharma is devoted to this life, to making this life happier. Becoming a healthy human being is a very good place to start, but it could become a trap. If it were your main purpose for practice, you would be called a “California Dharma Practitioner” because there is so much interest in self-improvement in California. Such a practitioner uses Dharma to make life more pleasant and emotionally comfortable. But there is no reduction of attachment, no reduction of anger, no reduction of jealousy, no reduction of pride, no reduction of ignorance. No reduction of ego, really. In fact, you are simply making ego feel more “spiritual.” Whenever ego suffers from fear of death and your practice turns to seeing impermanence, ego settles down. This actually makes ego more comfortable, more established. The symptoms of the five poisons subside, but Dharma didn’t go to the root. It didn’t purify the five poisons and uproot the dominance of ego. But in this contemplation, we’re talking about going beyond ego, not making it stronger. Dharma is about transcending samsara, not making it a nicer place to be. That is the tough part. Very, very tough.

The actual wording in Tibetan for the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind is “Turning the Mind from Samsara.” With practice you’re reversing the mind’s interest in perfecting this life by turning it away from samsara. Sometimes in the West, practicing with this contemplation on impermanence and death leads only to improving the quality of this life, but not to motivating you to attain liberation.

So what we are talking about is change. Changing the mind, turning it away from its strong attachment to this life. Live life by thinking this way: “If I need some medicine and it helps, I will take it. If yoga or tai ji helps, I will do it. If Dzogchen or Mahamudra or Theravada helps, I will practice it. If music or dancing helps, I will make music, dance and sing. If something helps my life, that is good, but I’m not doing any of this to make this life 100% happy.”

Karma and its Consequences

It is wise for us to contemplate that the quality of our life is fully determined by the quality of our behavior. Our thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions, virtuous and nonvirtuous, create the intricate patterns of our life experience. We ourselves create the causes for our own happiness or our own suffering. When we understand the unwholesome, nonvirtuous actions that cause suffering, we can eliminate those causes. When we understand the wholesome, virtuous actions, which bring happiness and benefit to ourselves and others, we can cultivate those causes. We must begin by acknowledging that our situation in life is the result of our own actions.

So let’s focus on karma, the natural, unequivocal relationship between cause and effect. There cannot be any mistake about this; it is one of the defining characteristics of the Buddha’s teachings. The traditional example is that if you plant rice, you will never obtain wheat or corn from that grain of rice because there is continuity from seed to plant. Yet, even though we start with a certain cause, different conditions come into play and the fruition of that cause might change. Because it’s possible to introduce different causes and conditions, we can change the fruition, we can change the result. But even this is not permanent. How do you know it’s not permanent? You use logic to see it. If karma is dependent on causes and conditions, then it has no intrinsic existence. If it were not dependent, everything in the world would be fixed in the first instant and nothing would ever change. The same is true of kleshas. They, too, are dependent and so have no intrinsic existence. They’re the fruition of causes and conditions coming together.

On his enlightenment, Buddha identified suffering as the nature of our experience. But then he identified the cause of suffering. He saw the origin of suffering is karma and the afflictive emotions. But the cause of suffering is itself impermanent; it actually has no true and permanent existence. The Buddha also saw the interdependent nature of everything, so any particular cause is the result of previous impermanent causes and itself is now an impermanent cause. If it were real or solid, it would be outside dependant existence, and we could never change or eliminate it. But we can bring about change. Change occurs by creating new conditions, and we can change conditions. Causes and conditions are the elements that produce karma and also produce change.

So the conditions that we create are the Path, and the main objective of the path is to eliminate the cause of suffering. You really can delete past karma! But the force of the conditions that change the course of events must be strong to do this.

The Shortcomings of Samsara

A very large obstacle to success on the path of liberation is our attachment to samsara, to the worldly life. Because we are all so strongly attached to this material world, we need to examine with great care whether worldly activities will benefit us in the long run or not. For example, most of us desire possessions, pleasure, comfort, and we also want love and acceptance from others. We work hard to obtain these things, going through much discomfort and even suffering to get them. Ultimately, we will find that clinging to this world as the source of our safety, happiness, and satisfaction is fruitless and futile.

Given all that has been considered in the first three contemplations, this fourth one makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? But for this contemplation to be of real benefit, there needs to be more then intellectual acceptance of samsara’s shortcomings. There needs to be some basic change in your attitude about samsara. To bring about such a change in attitude you need something strong, you need to work with your own mind because your own mind is the root of both samsara and nirvana. The mind has produced your ego, and it’s your ego that’s attached to samsara. Although there really is no “I,” beings still cling to an “I.” Although there’s no ego or intrinsic identity, human beings still cling to the notion that their identity is intrinsic. It’s this clinging that forms the afflictions, the five poisons, and the poisons are what make all beings wander in samsara. Considering this, we can begin to arouse genuine compassion for all beings, including ourselves.

One way to do this is to practice bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain complete enlightenment in order to be of benefit to all sentient beings trapped in samsara. Bodhicitta begins with the practice of compassion.

This contemplation offers you an opportunity to feel how good it would be if all of us were free from the poisons, the afflictions. Bringing your mind to this can open your heart to genuine generosity and the other paramitas. You need to train your mind to keep coming back to bodhicitta by thinking, “Through these practices may I be able to free all beings from their suffering. If I cannot do it right now, may I have the conviction to do it in the future. It may not happen now or next year. It may take fifteen years, or 30 or 40…or the next lifetime, or the next or the next. No matter how long it takes, I want to have strong conviction that one day I will free all beings from suffering.” Never giving up on bodhicitta gives you the fortitude and the strength of mind to carry on in this lifetime.

If we cannot experience this compassion naturally, then we have to apply methods for it to happen. In the beginning it may be artificial and awkward, but we still have to do it. Many Buddhist practices are like this. By fabricating our intentions and actions again and again, at some point they become natural. Everything we become accustomed to, everything we master is like this, isn’t it? It is quite ordinary to begin by fabrication and practice. That is how people learn new languages, to play an instrument, to master a sport, to perfect the art of cooking, even how to make offerings. It is all fabrication, isn’t it? Fabricating compassionate intentions and actions are no different. So we need to practice more than once, more than twice or 100 times. We need to practice bodhicitta 1,000 times, 10,000 times, 1 million times, 100 million times…as long as it takes.

The Kadampa teachers say that as soon as you wake up you should practice bodhicitta. In the morning you practice bodhicitta; at work you practice bodhicitta; while having lunch you practice bodhicitta; in the afternoon you practice bodhicitta; during dinner you practice bodhicitta; in the shower and brushing your teeth you practice bodhicitta; when going to sleep and during your dreams you practices bodhicitta. The next morning upon waking, you practice bodhicitta. All day and all night should be embraced by bodhicitta practice. Over time, it infuses your life.

However, you also need to remember that this mood of compassion has to be present without any attachment or grasping. It needs to be there, but without ownership. By recognizing the emptiness of non-ownership, what begins to arise is absolute bodhicitta (experienced and expressed without any distinction between subject [me] and object [receiver]). At that point compassion and emptiness are indivisibly united and are a natural expression of rigpa [the nature of mind]. Make sure you live the unity of emptiness and compassion, not just rely on the idea.

While remaining in rigpa, compassion can sometimes fade away. Just let it fade. Don’t have hope that it will come back. Maybe it won’t come back at all. But that’s nothing to worry about. When you worry, ego is involved. You need to establish the right attitude, an altruistic attitude in which ego isn’t involved. Then whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it to free your mind from the five poisons and to establish the intention to help other beings to bring them to liberation, no matter how long it may take.

It may happen that you can’t manage to do this in this lifetime. Is this ok with you? Or is it too bad? Really look into this and see what you actually think. Do you think you’re wasting time if it doesn’t come in this life? Or are you willing to practice this way, live this way, no matter how many lifetimes it may take?

(copyright 2010 Pundarika Foundation)

Glossary 1.  The Four Thoughts That Change the Mind

1. Alaya (Tib. kun gzhi). The repository of all karmic imprints, which conditions our existences in samsara. Only when the alaya is totally depleted one is a fully enlightened being. In another context kun gzhi may imply the basic ground from which all phenomena emerge.

2. Attachment and grasping. Grasping, or fixation (‘dzin pa), is the function of ignorance and ego, establishing the basis for attachment and aversion—and all of the derivative afflictions associated with these— to arise. Fixation has many forms, such as dualistic fixation (gnyis ‘dzin), reifying fixation (bden ‘dzin), ego-fixation (bdag ‘zdin), fixation on characteristics (mtshan ‘dzin).

3. Bardos. The Tibetan word bardo means “in between.”  It refers to intermediate situations we experience through life and death. Generally four bardos are taught: birth and life, death, absolute reality and becoming. Included in the bardo of birth and life are the bardos of meditation and dream, thus extending the number of bardos to six. Teachings are given to utilize any of these bardos as a way to liberation.

4. Bodhichitta – relative and ultimate. In an ultimate level bodhichitta refers to the enlightened mind itself. In the relative level, which operates in the structure of conceptual mind, it indicates the motivation to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others, out of a sense of love and compassion. Relative bodhichitta has two aspects: aspiration and application. In aspiration bodhichitta one systematically develops the four boundless states of loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. With the resultant altruistic motivation, application bodhichitta entails effectively acting to benefit other beings through the six paramitas.

5. Compassion. An innate sublime quality of our Buddha nature. Although it is naturally present in every being, it must be developed if one’s aim is attainment of Buddhahood. Technically it is defined as the wish that all beings be free from suffering. However, compassion in the Buddhist context does not mean mere pity. It includes a sense of empathy to other beings out of the recognition that we are all the same in that we want to be happy and avoid suffering, a conviction that we all have a right to experience this and a resultant sense of responsibility to help all beings achieve these aims.

6. Dharma (Tib. Chos). The Sanskrit word dharma has 10 meanings, including path, teaching, phenomena. It also has a sense of protection.

7. Emptiness. The ultimate nature of all things. It indicates the absence (or emptiness) of intrinsic nature in the self and in phenomena. In terms of contemplative experience, emptiness is usually referred to as open space.

8. Five poisons and five wisdoms. The five poisons are the five main afflictions, or kleshas, present in a samsaric mind: ignorance, passion, aggression, pride and envy. Together with karma they constitute the origin of suffering. The fundamental affliction is ignorance, as it provides the dualistic basis for the other four to operate. In essence these are expressions of our innate wisdom energy distorted by the misconception of ignorance. Therefore, once ignorance is eliminated by the realization of the true nature of reality, these afflictions, freed from that element that was causing the distortion, arise as aspects of primordial wisdom: wisdom of dharmadhatu, discerning wisdom, mirror-like wisdom, wisdom of equality and all-accomplishing wisdom.

9. Hungry ghost. One of the six kinds of beings in samsara, afflicted constantly by hunger and thirst.

10. Ignorance. The root of all afflictions that binds a being to experience its existence as samsara, affected by suffering and conditioning, instead of experiencing innate Buddhahood and liberation. It basically has two forms: a) mere unknowing, in the sense of not knowing one’s nature, and b) having a misconception regarding it.

11. Karma. Literally it means “action.” However, since any action has a result, karma also implies the result. The moment the action is completed, an imprint is formed in the alaya in the manner of habitual pattern that conditions our existence. Unless the empty nature of reality is realized, karma will continue to condition not only the type of rebirth but also one’s perception.

12. Kleshas. See five poisons. From the five basic poisons, kleshas evolve to a total of 84,000.

13. Liberation. Liberation from samsara is achieved when the empty nature of reality is realized. Since at that point ignorance is destroyed, afflictive emotions collapse and one is freed from suffering. Once this is accomplished, the cognitive obscuration preventing the realization of omniscience must be removed in order to attain Buddhahood.

14. Nirvana. The state beyond suffering. It can refer to the state of peace gained by the realized beings of the Theravada tradition, or by the level of Buddhahood, in which case it is called “non-dwelling nirvana,” since a Buddha neither dwells in the state of peace nor in the samsaric level.

15. Paramitas. The six paramitas, or transcendent perfections, are: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation and knowledge. Only when the first five are guided by the transcendent knowledge of reality, the sixth one, they truly become transcendent. At some level of realization four more paramitas are added: method, strength, aspiration and wisdom, thus forming a total of ten paramitas.

16. Rigpa. An important term that indicates the nature of mind in the dzogchen teachings, implying non-conceptual, empty cognizance.

17. Social I. An aspect of ego that, in order to feel worthwhile, engages in productive activity for which it has received positive feedback; however, in order to maintain the positive self-reflection, it depends on constantly receiving positive feedback.

18. Solidity. Based on the two types of ignorance, the fixation to reify arises, leading to solidifying oneself as a solid “I” and the phenomenal world as concrete entities.

19. Samsara. The mind, afflicted by ignorance, dwells in a state of confusion regarding one’s true nature, which results in the experience of suffering and the conditioning of karma, death and rebirth. Driven by karma, one may be reborn in any of the six states of existence, circling helplessly from one to another in a succession that can only be interrupted by the elimination of ignorance.

(copyright 2010 Pundarika Foundation)