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I study, and try to practice, Vajrayana Buddhism. My main areas of interest are Chod, Kagyu and Nyingma traditions as well as Buddhisms interactions with the West, pop-culture and engaged Buddhism.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Four Thoughts (that turn the mind to Dharma)

When we talk about practicing the Dharma, we are really talking about working with our minds, or meditation. This process, or series of processes is often difficult and as such it is very easy to find excuses not to do it. On a cultural level this is probably also why relatively few lay Buddhists in Asia meditated.

I have absolutely no meaningful experiential understanding of Dharma, primarily due to never really bothering with meditation due to laziness. Similarly my intellectual understanding is severely limited to a bit of academic study. As such I really need to turn my mind to Dharma and have therefore written this to remind myself of this using some parts of a research project I did on the Vajrayana preliminaries or Ngondro supplemented with comments from my own experience. This is written for my own benefit, although should you find it useful despite the plethora of faults, then I guess this is ok.

How then do I turn my attention to the Dharma? Traditionally, The Four Thoughts, often called the Four Ordinary Foundations, are contemplated in order to nurture renunciation, lessen grasping and to encourage the practice of BuddhaDharma. These are precious human birth, impermanence, karma and the intense misery of samsaric existence. Contemplating these four consistently and methodically can radically alter ones view and experience of the world.

Generally if one is doing them as part of Ngondro or in retreat conditions one might spend months on them, however simply reflecting on them daily at the start of a mediation session and intermittently throughout the day is also worthwhile.

"The first meditation topic concerns the precious human life endowed with every freedom and asset. It is difficult to get and can easily be destroyed, so now is the time to make it meaningful." - 9th Gyalwa Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

The first of the Four Ordinary Foundations is precious human birth. Whilst there are various definitions as to what makes a human birth precious, it is generally seen as such primarily in terms of it being an opportunity to engage in spiritual practice.

This opportunity presents itself as human birth is generally viewed as having less of the obstacles that other births come with. In The Jewel Ornament of Liberation Gampopa classifies precious human birth into two factors of body and three of mind. The two factors of body are leisure and endowment, whilst the three factors of mind are trust, longing and clarity.

Leisure and endowment effectively mean having the freedom, time and ability to engage in spiritual practice such as meditation. Human birth entails suffering; however it is not on the scale of the lower realms or with the distractions of the upper realms.

Birth as a non-human lacks the freedom to practice for the following reasons, detailed descriptions of which can be found in numerous Sutras and commentaries. I have mostly used Patrul Rinpoches Words of my Perfect Teacher, Jamgon Kongtruls Torch of Certainty and Gampopas Jewel Ornament of Liberation.

The hell realms, whether hot, cold or ‘miscellaneous’ involve unrelenting constant pain and misery making anything other than suffering impossible. Life here is one of constant physical pain and the mental agony of not knowing when it will end as well as the constant fear of what new misery is around the corner.

The pretas (yi dags), or hungry ghosts are similarly in constant pain caused by thirst and hunger as well as exposure to the elements. They have no control over their lives and are often merely generating further negative karma for future suffering.

Animals are constantly busy trying to feed themselves whilst avoiding being eaten or exploited by humans. In a contemporary context it's worth remembering the misery endured under modern farming as it's really not very far removed from the experiences of the hell realms.

In brief the lower realms are believed to be too painful as to allow the freedom to anything other than suffer, let alone engage in spiritual practice.

Those born in the god realms are too busy indulging in what appears unending pleasure to be interested in spiritual practice whilst the Auras (lha min) or jealous gods are too busy fighting the god and being jealous of their pleasure

Gampopa goes on to classify endowment into two groups of five personal qualities and five external qualities of a precious human life. The five personal qualities are being human, being born somewhere with access to Buddhist teachings, having all senses, some sense of morality and some devotion to the Buddhist teachings. The external factors are: the appearance of a Buddha in the world, the Buddha teaching, the teachings continuing, and followers of the teachings being around and there being “love and kind support” from others. Having these qualities and circumstances present is also seen as precious due to the relative rarity of this happening, Gampopa, Patrul Rinpoche, Shantideva and numerous others use the example of the blind turtle to illustrate the statistical chances of precious human birth.

"Suppose this whole earth were an ocean and a person threw in a yoke that only had one hole. The yoke would float back and forth in all the four directions. Underneath that ocean, there is a blind tortoise who lives for many thousands of years but who comes up above the surface once every hundred years. It would be very difficult for the tortoise’s head to meet with the yoke’s hole; still it is possible. To be born in a precious human life is much more difficult." - Jewel Ornament of Liberation

Gampopa the continues to describe the three factors of mind trust, longing and clarity in the following way: Trusting faith is the belief in the law of karma, longing faith is the wish to become Enlightened and clear faith is taking refuge in the Three Jewels.

We meditate on the precious human life in order to motivate ourselves to really use the rare opportunity to practice whilst we have the chance as there is absolutely no guarantee we will have the opportunity again in the near future as most of the time we are generating more negative karma to supplement that which we have generated since beginningless time.

However, our deluded habitual tendencies to see everything as permanent and everlasting, often reinforced by cultural conditioning, may indeed lead to procrastination. This is why contemplation of the precious human life is followed by contemplating impermance.

"Secondly, the universe and everything that lives therein is impermanent – particularly the lives of beings which are like water-bubbles. The time of death is uncertain and when you die you will become a corpse. Dharma will help you at that time, therefore practice it diligently now." - 9th Gyalwa Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

Impermanence is one of the key doctrines of Buddhism. In the context of the Four Ordinary Foundations it is essential to understand that impermanence here isn’t a doctrine to be understood intellectually as an abstract concept, or something to be believe in as an article of faith, but rather it is to be experienced and internalised as this will then make us more able to deal with it as it arises in everyday experience and be less affected by it as well as being mindful that the opportunity to engage in spiritual practice is itself not something to be taken for granted and as such must be prioritised as ultimately practicing Dharma, in order to liberate all sentient beings without exclusion, is the only thing that is of any real value. According to the Buddha, meditation on impermanence is like an elephants footprint as it is so deep and powerful. Similarly Nagarjuna states that liberation, let alone unsurpassed Buddhahood is impossible if one fails to meditate on impermanence.

Patrul Rinpoche suggests progressively contemplating the impermanence of the external universe, sentient beings, holy beings and the impermanence of those in positions of power. He then moves on to miscellaneous examples of impermanence. The function of this is to remind the practitioner of his own mortality and thus spur him on to practice. Linked from this is a reminder that the uncertainty that comes with impermanence also applies to the moment of death as the causes and circumstances of death are varied. He also says that regular and consistent meditation on impermanence will engender deep renunciation and as such serves as a gateway for spiritual practice.

In between sessions it is useful to bring to mind the reality of impermanence. All the things we enjoy, all the people we love, all the various things we are collecting will shortly be taken away from us forever. Similarly, all the things we don't enjoy and all the people we perceive as harming us will also soon be gone and our very bodies will also be gone. As such being attached to anything, including feelings of anger and resentment is really insanity as none of this will last, yet we constantly generate future suffering on the basis of our attachments to impermanent and hugely unreliable phenomena.

Meditation on impermanence is primarily practiced to develop renunciation and to serve as an antidote to procrastination encouraging us to make use of our precious human birth, however the lessening of attachment is something that benefits us in this life as it makes things like bereavements and break-ups far less upsetting.

This meditation logically follows the meditation on precious human birth and precedes the meditation on karma

"Thirdly, after your death you will have to experience your own karma, having no degree of control over what happens. So give up harmful actions – all your time should be spent in the practice of virtue. Thinking this was, evaluate your life daily." - 9th Gyalwa Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

The third of the Four Ordinary foundations is the meditation on karma (las). Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism and one that is very often misunderstood. Whilst acknowledging its centrality and complexity, Jamgon Kongtrul sums it up by stating that a negative cause will generate a negative result, whilst a positive cause will generate a positive result. After this he lists actions which lead to Samsaric birth and those which lead to liberation. At the end of his chapter on karma he talks about the primacy of motivation in the formation of karmic results, citing examples of seemingly positive acts which will yield negative results due to their motivation, whilst at the same time warning against committing negative actions even if they are positively motivated, urging the practitioner to avoid judgement of others actions.

In some ways the whole point of the meditation on karma, or cause and effect, is to make us more mindful of our actions be they physical, verbal or mental. All our actions of body and speech originate with the mind, so really developing mindfulness is the key here. If one is mindful and aware of which emotions are arising, one has more chance of avoiding negative states of mind which if left unchecked can wreck havoc with what positive karma we have generated. As Shantideva famously says "kalpas of merit are destroyed in a single moment of anger".

A secondary effect of this meditation is that as we gain more understanding of karma we are less likely to blame people and things for anything that goes wrong. This not not to say that we should simply have a fatalistic acceptance, or worse sense of predetermined powerlessness, of anything that happens as simply "our karma". In fact the wonderful thing about karma is that it means we are entirely responsible for what happens in the future, no God or other external force is responsible for us. However, it is also worth pointing out that karma is acknowledged to be so profound that only a fully enlightened being completely understands its working as it is said to be “unthinkable”.

The meditation on karma as part of the Four Ordinary foundations is to make us mindful of our actions in general, but more specifically to think how karma will affect us even after inevitable death. This is why it comes after the meditation on impermanence and before the meditation on the suffering of samsara.

"One is constantly tormented by the three kinds of suffering. Therefore samsaric places, friends, pleasures and possessions are like a party given by an executioner who will then lead on to the place of execution. Cutting through the snares of attachment, strive for enlightenment with diligence." - 9th Gyalwa Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

The suffering of samsara is the final of the Four Ordinary Foundations. Gampopa, Jamgon Kongtrul and Patrul Rinpoche all list the specific forms of suffering associated with each realm as described previously when discussing the precious human birth. The “three sufferings” mentioned in the above quote are: suffering itself, the suffering of change and what is generally referred to as all pervasive.

Suffering itself includes the physical pain involved in birth, sickness, ageing and death as well as the emotional pain that can go with these.

The suffering of change is losing that and those to which we are attached, as well as being faced with that and those whom we find unpleasant, such as meeting a carjacker and consequently losing our car, our partner leaving us, watching our child die, receiving a court summons. The variety of misery is unending really.

All pervasive suffering is the sense of not having what we want or being attached to conceptual ideals and then suffering when experienced reality fails to live up to them. Jamgon Kongtrul states that the first two sufferings are rooted in the coming together of the five aggregates and that it is latent in all samsaric existence. Samsara is also described as a state of mind where there is continuous fear and attachment.

The all pervasive suffering is really that which is meant in the context of the first of the Four Noble Truths. The tricky part with this is that it is extremely subtle, and it is often said that the difference between an ordinary person experiencing it and someone with realisation experiencing it is like the difference between feeling a hair in the palm of ones hand and feeling it in ones eye.

Basically most of the time we have no idea how involved in suffering we actually are. There is no lasting or untainted happiness in samsara. However much we have of money, food, sex, applause, friends or anything else, we always want more. This is being discontent. Everything we mistakenly see as happiness in samsara is generally suffering, or at least contains the karmic seeds of future suffering.

Patrul Rinpoche describes the meditation on the unending misery of samsara as "the basis and support for all the good qualities of the path. It turns your mind towards the Dharma. It gives you confidence in the principle of cause and effect in all your actions. And it makes you feel love and compassion for all beings."

Meditation is a bit like physical exercise, doing it once or very irregularly will have little benefit. But consistent practice, even in small ammounts, will have beneficial effects. Even from my extremely limited personal experience I know this.

Namo Guru!

Precious Lama, Padmasambhava in person, bless me that vomit inducing revulsion with samsara may arise in my mind and in the minds of all beings. May such revulsion and a sincere longing for liberation become stable and in turn give rise to precious Bodhicitta, the crowing glory of the Dharma.

Whatever mistakes and faults are in the above ramble are entirely mine. Whatever small merit may have arisen I dedicate to all sentient beings without exclusion, particularly those involved in extremely negative activities and who lack compassion.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spiritual exhibitionism.

One negative thing I've noticed about Buddhist circles in the West, both academic and faith ones, is that there is a shit load of one-up manship that goes on. Sure this goes on everywhere people have egos, but it seems more overt here. Usually it follows a pattern of "I've got such and such initiations, Lama superspecial is my root guru and I've spent over 9000 days in retreat". My personal version of this tends to start off with some namedropping of various teachers, then some ridculous annecdotes about how unattached I am to everything, possibly interspersed with referencing retreats.

Why do we do this? Well the obvious answer would it's ego driven and rooted in the eight wordly concerns, particularly the latter four of these. However on a more manageable level I think it to some extent also comes down to the newness most Western Buddhist have to it all. There is uncertainity about how we are practicing on lots of levels, so making ourselves sound like 'proper' practitioners or reacting strongly to those who criticise us, or our teachers or lineage, is a way of trying to feel better.

I think some of this also comes from most Western Buddhist carrying loads of theistic emotional and cultural baggage. Simply because you have seen the irrationality and imorality of a theistic view on an intellectual level, does not mean you will be over the deeper impact and conditioning it may have had on you. At this point I could liken it all to how someone in an abusive relationship leaves, yet occasionally yearns back to it, or how former cult members sometimes go back even though they know it is harmful for them. I realise that this paragraph might provoke as much hatemail as the pompous "Porn and meat" blog I wrote a while back did.

Back on topic a bit. In the sixth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva famously spoke about 'enemies' or those who attack and criticise us as being our greatest teachers because without them there is no way to develop patience and forgiveness, as well as the fact that they are providing us with a chance for some of the ocean of bad karma we are carrying to be purified.

How to do this as something other than an intellectually appealing and somewhat abstract idea? I'm guessing the mind training approach is the most direct with this. I don't really practice so trying to elaborate or explain would be beyond ridiculous.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"If you watched your own mind as closely as you watch others, you would already be a Buddha"

Advice to myself.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

So yeah, it looks like I will be training to be a translator at Rangjung Yeshe. I am very excited about this, very happy and also nervous purely in terms of the sense of responsibility I feel about translating BuddhaDharma.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Nyung Nays were amazing in and of themselves, used the Tibetan text the whole time rather than phonetics. It's three years since I've done that practice and the first time using Tibetan text. Vaguely proud.

Still no final yay or nay on the translators course front, but I'm optimistic after some comments made by both Rinpoches.