The Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind

Atisha

In my continued quest to give my spiritual practice more traction, my partner recently suggested I check out Alan Wallace. So, I listened to an old retreat of his on The Seven Point Mind Training and was pleased. Then, looking for more “fresh” Buddhist teachings to listen to, I stumbled onto Khentrul Rinpoche’s teaching on the same topic and found that I was beginning to get some traction.

The original teaching of mind training (Lojong) is attributed to Atisha and gives simple instructions on how to train everyday, all day, and in all circumstances. Since I have quite a lot of obscurations that block me from much tangible progress in formal mediation, a practice I can do at all times is quite attractive to me.

I would like to feel good and be happy all the time. Perhaps you share this desire? Indeed it is such a fundamental desire that it is a goal of Buddhist practice.

How do we achieve genuine happiness? If that is what we are interested in it makes sense to explore if what we are doing is working. We can then move on to consider what might work better. The Seven Point Mind Training is all about creating true happiness for ourselves and the beings around us.

The teaching starts with the advice to “First, train in the preliminaries.” The preliminaries referred to here are the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind:

  1. Cultivating an appreciation for how rare and valuable human life is.
  2. Realizing that everything born or created, dies or ends, and the time of that end is uncertain.
  3. Considering the results of our actions. When we “die”, what follows us?
  4. Recognizing the futility of trying to get lasting happiness using ordinary means.

The train of thought is basically this. There is no guarantee that when we die (which could happen at any time point#2) we will be so fortunate as to be human again. Why is it so valuable to be human? Well, it is one of the best life forms for achieving lasting genuine happiness (point#1). Animal don’t even think to consider eternal happiness, it is beyond their moment to moment survival awareness. Other forms of beings are surrounded by so much pleasure they also don’t consider the need to cultivate a mind were genuine happiness blossoms.

So why would we want to cultivate genuine happiness? The study of how life works (point #4) should motivate us. Our pursuit of happiness in regular life is much like a plate spinning act. We put so much energy into creating happiness for ourselves, but every relationship, project, circumstance, etc ends and we have to start again. While we get part of our life happy, the plate is spinning well, and then move to get the next part happy, the next plate spinning well, the first plate begins to slow and fall. When looked at this way, the cultivation of genuine happiness (aka enlightenment) is so much easier than the futile effort we put into achieving happiness in the normal way by looking to external objects.

People that are “happy” with the human condition, usually haven’t spent enough time contemplating just how dissatisfactory it is. Or they don’t really appreciate the idea of impermanence. They may be having a nice life right now, but it will end. And when it ends it will either go up or down and the direction can be quite unpredictable.

In the Buddha’s day, great practitioners would achieve fabulous mental concentration. They could spend days and weeks in the bliss of Shamata. However, this type of practice, while seemingly “enlightened” would result in a rebirth in the form or formless realm. From there, all the virtue they ever did would be used to fuel the continual bliss they experienced. Then they would be reborn in a hell realm. Since they were not enlightened, and their positive mental seeds were used up while they basked in bliss, they only mental potentials they had left were negative and all they could do was fall.

Contemplation of the preliminaries is not some step to be skipped over. If one is desiring to be free and help others to be free, this is an essential step in creating enough motivation for practice. If done correctly, the preliminaries propel one right to enlightenment.

Check to see where you are.

  1. Do you take this life for granted? Do you think you have time to dabble in everything? Do you appreciate the leisure and fortune you have? Do you want to take full advantage of your life as a human?
  2. Are you aware that you could die at anytime? So many things can end a fragile human life. Are you prepared for that moment of death? What important things do you put off doing thinking you can do them later? What if later never comes?
  3. Are you aware that the predominant thoughts you have during this life will propel you into the next life? What does anger, worry, fear, lust, hate, and envy create? What mental afflictions occupy your mind and what happens if that uncertain moment of death comes when you are under one’s influence?
  4. What have you put energy into that turned out to be unimportant five, ten or twenty years later? What would really create lasting happiness that would follow you when you die?

One thought on “The Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind

  1. I love this! The “happy” resonates so much for me. The Four Thoughts and Four Questions are such good study. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *