The Four Preliminary Contemplations

to Correctly Practice Mind Training - bLo-sbyong

I am very happy to be here, to see you, and want to greet you very kindly. I wish to present a short teaching on blo-sbyong, which means "mind training." In order to be able to practice well and attain "superior wisdom-awareness," shes-rab-chen-po, it is necessary to purify one's mind so that one is able to appreciate the benefits of correctly engaging in the detailed practices of training one's mind.

Lhaje Gampopa offered four lines in the short verse that has become known as "The Four Dharmas of Gampopa." This short verse describes the process of mind training and is:

"Grant your blessing so that my mind may become one with the Dharma.

Grant your blessing so that the Dharma may go along the path.

Grant your blessing so that the Dharma may clarify confusion.

Grant your blessing so that confusion may dawn as wisdom."

In the first line Lhaje Dhagpo Gampopa wrote the supplication to turn the mind towards the Dharma. The second line is the aspiration to practice the Dharma. The third line is the prayer that practicing the Dharma clarifies confusion, and the fourth line is the aspiration that confusion dawns as wisdom. The first line addresses the purpose of practicing mind training.

There are very many explanatory texts on the practice of mind training. The main text is explained in seven sections or points; the first describes the preliminaries that are the support. The second point discusses Bodhicitta, which is the actual practice. The third point teaches how to transform impediments that stop one from turning one's mind towards the Dharma. The fourth point tells us how to accomplish the entire path of mind training in one lifetime. The fifth point teaches about the proficiency of training one's mind. The sixth point elucidates the heartfelt commitments a practitioner respects and adheres to in order to accomplish mind training. The seventh section offers guidelines for mind training, step-by-step. The seven points are a very condensed form for the practice of mind training.

The first point deals with the preliminary practice that is the basis and support to practice the next steps correctly. It is a short practice to receive the blessing to practice. We imagine that our Root Guru, His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa sits upon a lotus above the crown of our head. We direct our entire attention on our Root Guru and earnestly pray, "May I practice mind training so that I can develop genuine love and compassion for all living beings and be able to help them attain liberation from suffering and pain." After having recited the aspiration prayer with the profound and sincere intention as often as possible, at least three times, we imagine that our Root Guru becomes smaller and smaller, enters through the crown of our head, and unites with us.

After having meditated the short Guru Yoga practice for a short while and rested in the fact that one is united with His Holiness, one focuses one's attention on the preliminary contemplations that reliably inspire and move one to turn one's mind away from samsara. The four contemplations one reflects again and again so that one sincerely turns one's mind towards the Dharma are the fortunate occasion of having attained a precious human birth, impermanence, karma, and the defects of samsara. When one has won a very good understanding and has conviction in the four contemplations by having reflected them quite well, then one is not only grateful for having a human body that is very useful, but one is very conscious of the fact that one has a very fortunate human existence through which one can practice the Dharma. By contemplating the first of the four preliminary practices, one appreciates and acknowledges how precious and short a human life really is and how difficult it will be to attain such a fortunate birth again. Then a follower truly understands that life may not be wasted and generates the sincere wish to lead a meaningful life by turning his or her attention towards the precious Dharma.

If one is truly aware of having attained a most fortunate human existence, one next contemplates and acknowledges the fact that birth inevitably leads to death, that life is not permanent and can end in any moment since the time of one's death is uncertain.

The third contemplation is reflecting the defects of conditioned existence, samsara. A practitioner reflects that cyclic existence only entails suffering and thinks about the manifold types of suffering and anguish that living beings experience and necessarily have to endure. Without fully understanding the various states of suffering that conditioned existence irremediably brings on, a follower will not see a reason to turn away from samsaric ways and will also see no reason to turn towards the Dharma.

The fourth contemplation is reflecting karma. When a devotee realizes that samsara unremittingly brings on pain as well as frustration and woe, then he or she understands that suffering is a result, i.e., suffering has a cause. The seed for every action is born in one's mind, and all experiences are merely a reflection of one's very own actions that one has carried out in the past or will carry out in the future.

The four preliminary contemplations enable a practitioner to recognize and appreciate that a life that is free of the eight unfavourable states of existence and that is endowed with the ten favourable acquirements is truly precious and rare; furthermore that life is transient, samsara is deceptive, and all actions cause suffering that one experiences as long as one remains entangled in delusiveness. In his major treatise, entitled The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Lhaje Gampopa offered most precise and detailed explanations on the four contemplations that inspire devotees to turn their mind towards the Dharma.

Why are the four contemplations referred to as "preliminary practices"? Because the actual body of mind training involves other practices, but one will not be able to practice them correctly if one has not met the preparations of contemplating the four preliminaries. In fact, it doesn't matter which practice one engages in, the preliminary contemplations are always the same in all practices and consist of these four contemplations. If one thinks one can skip these steps and just sit down and meditate, it would not be correct, because one does need to know why one is meditating. Without correctly understanding the reason why one meditates, any further practices will not be beneficial.

One can meditate impermanence and death, but it will not be helpful unless one understands why one should. It is so very important to understand impermanence thoroughly and correctly. As it is, living beings are entangled and caught in samsara due to their strong attachment to a self that they think is permanent and assume will last forever. Attachment to a self is the primary cause for all the suffering that follows, so this is why it is important to recognize and know that everything is impermanent.

There are many ways to describe impermanence, which can be summarized in four topics. In short: First it is evident that after birth has occurred there is death. Secondly, it is evident that whatever comes together eventually disperses. Thirdly, anything that is collected is lost at some point. Fourthly, whatever rises and grows eventually collapses and ceases. How does this apply to us?

First, concerning the purpose of reflecting the fact that whatever is born dies: It is a fact that we have been born, so that phase has ended for us. What follows is our death. Denying death by brushing its imminence aside and making numerous far-flung plans for the future is not helpful at all. So, contemplating impermanence and death is very beneficial. Why is it beneficial? Usually one postpones one's plans, because one thinks one has lots of time at one's disposal. By realizing fully that the moment one was born leads to death and by acknowledging that nobody knows when they will die, one will not neglect one's responsibilities but will make good use of the time one has and try to lead a meaningful life.

Secondly, concerning the purpose of reflecting the fact that whatever comes together eventually disperses: We are deeply connected with our father and mother, have many family members, a husband, or a wife, children, and friends, but everyone separates at some time. Not every partner in a marriage is friendly with the other, for instance, so it is good to contemplate impermanence and realize that nothing lasts, not even those relationships one does not like anymore. Nobody is condemned to tolerate each other forever. If a couple understands that death will definitely separate them, then they will be more friendly and will find less excuses to quarrel, insult, and hurt each other. On the contrary, they will be grateful for the time they can spend together and be nice. If one does not like people one associates with, it is helpful to reflect impermanence and know that those relationships will also end. So, it will be very beneficial if one realizes that everything that comes together is eventually and inevitably separated. Just sitting down to meditate and telling oneself that everything is impermanent helps nobody. One needs to understand why it is crucial to acknowledge that everything is impermanent.

Thirdly, concerning the purpose of reflecting the fact that anything and everything that is collected will be lost at some point: It is very helpful to always remember that whatever is collected will be lost again, at the latest when one dies. If one denies this fact, one wastes a lot of time collecting riches, wants more and more, and never has the feeling of having enough, always being discontent. If one has 1000, one wants 2000; if one has 2000, one wants 3000, and so forth. As a result, one becomes so stingy, cannot part from anything one has, and can never give anything away, so it is very beneficial to acknowledge that whatever is collected will irrevocably be lost. One will certainly lose any wealth and possessions one has hoarded in life when one dies. One cannot take anything along when one dies, and no possessions or riches will help one at that time. One doesn't even know who will take all the things one spent so much energy craving, buying, and collecting when one is dead. Therefore, contemplating impermanence again and again diminishes one's greed and miserliness. The impulse to want so and so many houses, cars, and luxurious things will also be pacified and eventually overcome if one contemplates impermanence and death.

Contemplating impermanence really helps one's mind. If one is honest with oneself, one wants to be happy and content and can easily see that material things do not really make anyone happy. If one awakens truthful recognition and realization of impermanence in one's mind, then one has done justice towards oneself. Simply reiterating that one has contemplated impermanence, without having integrated its truth in one's life, is of no help whatsoever.

Fourthly, concerning the purpose of reflecting the fact that whatever rises and grows eventually falls and ceases: For example, any more-storied house collapses at some point. Anybody who has managed to finally get a job they are proud of is eventually subject to mobbing, too, and loses the job. By understanding that whatever rises eventually falls helps one be less frustrated when such things do happen.

Recalling the four contemplations again and again and having integrated them in one's life correctly diminishes one's attachment to oneself. If one has diminished and finally given up being attached to what one thinks is permanent is a sign that one has reflected impermanence quite well.

Even though it is more than evident that all objects one perceives in the world are impermanent, it is most beneficial to realize one's own impermanence, especially when one feels inclined to be impulsive. For example, contemplating that everything that is built eventually collapses reminds us of the recent destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. Just thinking of this very negative and extremely tragic instance in time is of no big help, rather it is very important to contemplate impermanence in one's own life deeply so that one remains stable when one finds oneself forced to accept painful changes that life inevitably brings. We will meet many people in life who are very friendly and kind to us as well as thieves and robbers who plan and will manage to hurt us. In both cases, remembering impermanence pacifies one's attachment on the one hand as well as one's frustration on the other hand.

Returning to the example of a high position in life, most of you have a job and usually things go well, but it can happen that suddenly and unexpectedly one loses one's job or experiences difficulties at work. Remembering impermanence and that all things that rise fall at some point helps one deal with those situations when they occur, instead of becoming frustrated and sad.

It can be generally said that meditation is very helpful for one's mind. Merely saying that one meditates emptiness and impermanence is of no help. If one's practice doesn't change one's usual way of thinking and seeing, then that is a measuring rod to be truthful with oneself and know that one's practice is faulty.

This has been a very short discussion of the four ways of contemplating impermanence. Now I wish to speak about the inadequacies of conditioned existence, i.e., samsara. If one wants to describe samsara using a few words, then it is appropriate to say that the nature of samsara only entails suffering and pain. The state free of suffering and anguish is nirvana.

Just like in the contemplation of impermanence and death, it is of no use merely looking at suffering in the world, rather contemplating samsara is only beneficial if one looks at one's own suffering and frustration. For example, sometimes one suffers pain because one is sick, at other times one suffers mental anguish and is sad. One needs to deal with these situations and face them instead of turning one's attention outwards. It is important and necessary to ask oneself whether appearances and experiences entail suffering or not. The moment one acknowledges that one is suffering, it means that one is in samsara, since suffering defines samsara.

Now, happiness and suffering are emotions that vary immensely and are therefore relative. Happiness and suffering are not experienced alike by everyone. One person experiences something with joy and that same experience can cause someone else pain, and vice versa. The experiences of happiness and suffering are a very individual matter, which is evidence for the fact that they are context-bound. It is quite clear that happiness and suffering depend upon an individual's interpretation and attitude. For example, taking my monks and me, lay practitioners may think we suffer and might say to themselves, "Oh, how awful. No wife, no children." Taking it from the other side, my monks might think, "Oh, heavens. Always together with that woman and those nagging children. Having to go to work everyday must be terrible." So, that's how it is that everyone experiences suffering and happiness differently.

It is important to understand that everyone experiences mental and physical pain differently and to know that happiness and suffering have a cause, i.e., are due to past positive or negative karma, and that one's actions are determined by one's own thoughts. And so, the root of all negative experiences is one's thoughts. Appreciating and acknowledging this fact is the key one holds in one's hand for one's personal future experiences, i.e., one's negative thoughts determine one's future actions that lead to future painful results. Everyone thinks and acts differently, so everyone's experiences are an individual matter. In the same way, it will not help very much to think about the immense suffering those beings in the hell, or hungry ghost, or animal realms, etc. endure, because one will not have the experience oneself. When it is taught that one should know about and see the inadequacies of conditioned existence, it means one needs to look at one's own suffering and recognizing its causes.

Taking each other, everyone lives under different circumstances and experiences varying situations and events. Some of you live alone and want a partner; others may be married and have children. Yet others may be unemployed and want a job. Some of you have a job that you don't like, while others have a wonderful job that they like. There is such a huge difference among living beings and this difference is due to the inadequacies of conditioned existence, which is samsara. If one goes deeper and truly understands that samsara can never be a goal of one's aims, then one will have realized that any happiness one may experience in samsara is deceptive, since the nature of samsara is suffering and pain.

The third preliminary contemplation is reflecting karma, the law of cause and effect. One can say that it is a specific teaching stressed in Buddhism that is not taught in other belief systems. In short, it is easy to understand that nothing arises and happens without a cause. If one investigates more deeply, though, one will find that a single cause cannot give rise to a single result and that a single condition does not give rise to a specific result either, rather a result necessarily arises when causes and conditions that coincide come together and mingle and mix. Investigating appearances and experiences from that angle enables a devoted practitioner to understand the law of cause and result quite well. To exemplify this: Taking two sticks and hitting them against each other gives rise to a particular clicking sound; it is impossible to make the same sound unless both sticks are hit against each other. This is called "the meeting of an arisen energy-force," i.e., karma. The coming together of smallest instants of time is also a prerequisite so that a sound can arise. It follows that a dissimilar cause cannot engender a dissimilar result that does not coincide with a cause.

Speaking about happiness in this vein, it is logical that the experience of happiness is a result that arises from a similar cause, i.e., a positive cause gives rise to positive actions that, in turn, lead to happiness and joy. Likewise, when speaking about suffering, it is logical that the experience of suffering is a result of a similar cause, i.e., a negative cause gives rise to negative actions that, in turn, lead to suffering and pain.

It is extremely important to know who is responsible for one's experiences of suffering and joy. One's present experiences accord with one's own former actions. It is also very important to know that many causes always give rise to a specific result, because the actual evil-doer is one's thoughts. Thoughts determine and drive one to act and speak the way one does. The many kinds of thoughts one has determine all one's physical and verbal activities. One has various positive thoughts that move one to act beneficially, which will bring positive results. One also has a great variety of negative thoughts that move one to hurt others, which will bring negative results. If one understands this, then one realizes that one's thoughts are the driving-force that lead one to experience life the way one does.

For example, I am convinced of the truth and benefit of practicing the Dharma, so I am in the Dharma and offer instructions. Therefore you trust me, listen attentively, and believe me. Let's assume that I suddenly had negative thoughts, like the wish to steal something and I do so. If you were to see me steal something, you would lose all your trust in me and conclude that I am not a good Lama but a thief and bad person. I only brought this example to show the chain of causes and results that arise from the wish to do something and all the painful consequences that follow from the initial thought of stealing something. This applies to the opposite, too. The example clearly shows that the father of all positive and negative karma is one's attitude and thoughts.

One engages in the practice of blo-sbyong, mind training, in order to purify and clarify one's thoughts and feelings - that is the main purpose of mind training. When one's thoughts are positive, nothing can go wrong. Pondering, "Oh, heavens, what did I do wrong?" when one experiences suffering and difficulties is not very helpful. Rather, it is most important to understand and acknowledge that anything negative one experiences presently is the result of past negative thoughts that moved one to perform negative actions. Understanding this fact well enables one to be aware of one's present thoughts and feelings. In short, pondering the past when speaking about karma, actions and their results, is useless. Contemplating karma is most beneficial when it relates to one's present situation, for example, when one is asked to take on responsibilities in one's job. It would be especially good to direct these kinds of thoughts towards the future instead of dwelling on what has passed.

This concludes my short presentation on reflecting the four preliminary contemplations so that one earnestly turns one's mind towards the Dharma. The four contemplations are: the fortunate occasion of having attained a precious human birth, impermanence, the defects of samsara, and the infallible law of karma. Contemplating them pertains to one's own mind and has nothing to do with anything outside oneself. They are practiced in order to help one change one's thoughts and attitude, too. Certainly, there are many explanations about practicing mind training. I did not speak about the intellectual aspect, rather hope to have offered the aspect of practice so that you can integrate these instructions in your life. Thank you very much.

Let us recite the dedication prayer together now.

"Through this goodness, may omniscience be attained

And thereby may every enemy (mental defilement) be overcome.

May beings be liberated from the ocean of samsara

That is troubled by waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

By this virtue may I quickly attain the state of Guru Buddha, and then

Lead every being without exception to that very state!

May precious and supreme Bodhicitta that has not been generated now be so,

And may precious Bodhicitta that has already been never decline, but continuously increase!"

May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.

May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless (in number) as space (is vast in its extent).

Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings without exception

swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.

Presented at Theksum Tashi Chöling in Hamburg in 2006. Photo of His Holiness courtesy of the Kagyu Office website, photo of Venerable Chöje Lama with Rosi Findeisen courtesy of Horst Rauprich, President of Kamalashila Institute. With sincere gratitude to Khenpo Karma Namgyal for his immense help, translated into English in reliance on the German rendering kindly offered by Rosemarie Fuchs by Gaby Hollmann, responsible and apologizing for all mistakes. Copyright Karma Lekshey Ling Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal, as well as Theksum Tashi Chöling, 2008.