Meditations on the Four Thoughts which Turn the Mind towards the Dharma

by Ven. Lama Norlha Rinpoche

1) Precious Human Birth

To fulfill what it means to have found a Precious Human Birth with its eight opportunities and ten resources it is essential to be aware of how rare the inconceivable power and ability we now have for practicing Dharma is. If we don't make use of this opportunity, we will soon lose it, and it will be difficult to find again.

All human beings can be classified as lesser, middling, or greater persons, with regard to basic motivation and ability. Lesser persons are those who practice virtue for the sake of improving their own situation during this lifetime in order to be happy and comfortable. The middling types are those who understand that this life is impermanent and full of suffering, and perform virtuous actions with the idea of achieving peace in the next lifetime. People of this second type have an understanding of cause and effect, and know that through negative behavior their next lives will be negative, while positive behavior will yield positive fruits later. The third, greater, type of person also understands the law of cause and effect, but in addition appreciates the fact that all sentient beings have been our parents. Such a person will not try to win peace just for himself or herself, but has the idea that it is necessary to purify karma and emotional afflictions so as to achieve perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.

With the precious human body, we are able to perform virtuous actions, cast off negative actions, practice the path of the Bodhisattva to attain Buddhahood as Milarepa did, and unfailingly accomplish in this life the benefit of all sentient beings. Therefore this precious human body that we've obtained is far more powerful than that of beings of the six realms such as the gods, nagas, and so on. When meditating on the difficulty of attaining the precious human existence, however, you must realize that its fruits will not necessarily appear in this lifetime but rather may ripen until future lifetimes.

If the body were permanent and completely unchanging, any activity would be acceptable. Because the body really is impermanent, it is important to practice Dharma immediately. We cannot predict what kind of birth we will take in our next lifetime; we cannot assure ourselves that our next life will be happy or that we will avoid suffering. It is therefore important for us to think about the great sufferings of the three lower realms: the hell and hungry ghost realms that we cannot perceive; and the animal realm, of which we see only a part, and not even the part with the greatest suffering. When we consider very carefully the tremendous suffering of the lower realms, we rightly become sad and frightened.

On this topic there is a special meditation devised by Karma Chagme Rinpoche, a great Lama from eastern Tibet. He lived in the seventeenth century, during the time of the 9th and 10th Karmapas. I have received this teaching myself, and find it an especially effective method of meditation.

Begin by visualizing a high mountain. Around the mountain are regions full of beings of the six realms of samsara. Think about all the different kinds of karma that each of those sentient beings has, and all the various sufferings that each of them is experiencing.

Reflect on them and visualize them very clearly. Then look at yourself: you have a sound body, can rely on Lamas, practice Dharma, and enter any path you choose. Reflect joyfully on the favorable situation you have attained and understand it to be the fruit of accumulated merit of virtuous actions in previous lives. Consider that all those sentient beings around the base of the mountain are experiencing the results of unvirtuous actions and are now suffering greatly. Then realize that your situation is also difficult —you too will fall into those realms of great suffering. At this point the thought comes to you that you must find some ultimate means of freeing yourself from this cycle of suffering.

Above and before you in the sky, visualize your Lama as any Yidam (personal meditation deity) in the Buddhadharma in whom you have great faith. Meditate on him. For this particular practice, it is especially effective to visualize the Lama as Chenrezi (skt. Avalokitesvara), since this deity is known for his love and compassion. Imagine him as the essence of all Buddhas. Then hear the Lama say to you: "You have obtained a precious human body and are able to hear, contemplate, and practice the perfect Dharma. But if you don’t accomplish virtuous action and abandon evil, no good will come. If you don't obtain an excellent human body in your next life, you will experience great suffering." Meditate on the suffering you will experience if you fall into each of the lower realms. This will encourage you to practice Dharma well.

By renouncing and accepting, your human life will be meaningfully fulfilled. Also think about the fact that all the sentient beings in the unending cycle of rebirths have at one time or another been your mother and very kind to you: therefore, arouse great compassion and feeling for their suffering. Resolve with determination that you will quickly establish each of them without exception in a Buddha realm.

Next, visualize that from Chenrezi's heart come rays of light. The rays touch you, purifying all the sins and obscurations of your body, speech, and mind. You are instantaneously reborn in Dewachen, the Pure Realm of Great Bliss of the Buddha Amitabha. Then, through the power and ability you thus obtain, light rays emanate out from your heart and touch all sentient beings, purifying their suffering, sins, and obscurations; they too are reborn in the Pure Realm and become fortunate ones, completely enlightened. At this point, you can visualize yourself and all others as being Chenrezi.

2) Impermanence and Death

In the first meditation we considered the difficulty of obtaining a precious human existence. Now we will reflect on death and impermanence.

Usually our perceptions seem very real and permanent, whether they are of the container (the outside world) or its contents (sentient beings). Yet there is absolutely nothing in the phenomenal realm that is permanent. The external world is made up of the four elements. Even as science tells us, the elements that make up the container, the world, are constantly deteriorating year by year. They do not increase. If we have something like a house, at first it's in good shape, then it gets older and weaker every year. And generally speaking, because we are sentient beings, the internal contents of the world, we have more pain and sickness as we get older. Thus, both aspects of the world become worse and worse.

Nowadays, science and medicine, with all their new remedies and operations and examinations, are inconceivably more powerful than they were in previous times. Yet now there is also more and more suffering and sickness in the world, with many new diseases such as the different forms of cancer; in many ways life is cut short. In general, the situation of sentient beings is worsening, and less can be done to benefit them. If there were no impermanence, it would not be necessary to examine it. But since the force of impermanence will come to us all, it is beneficial to meditate on it. It is a profound method of practice. Year by year, month by month, we age, our suffering increases, and we approach death. Because of this, no activities will benefit us except Dharma. The only relevant principle that should concern us is that through performing virtuous deeds there is happiness, and by doing evil, there is suffering.

Karma Chagme has given us an excellent way of meditating on death and impermanence. First, you enter again into the realm of the imagination. Visualize that you're alone on a vast plain, empty of all other beings. There are very high mountains, and there is the sound of water. Below the plain in a valley is a large river filled with sentient beings.

Next, the sun sets and it becomes very dark. You are frightened. Since you are in an unfamiliar place, you do not know where you are as you walk around in the dark. You become even more afraid. Suddenly you find yourself at the edge of a cliff, and in danger of falling into the river in the gorge below. You grasp at two clumps of grass with your two hands, which keep you from falling into the abyss. As you hang there in great fear, there appears at your right a little white mouse, and on the left a little black mouse that come out from the rocks. The white mouse begins to chew on the bunch of grass your right hand clutches, while the black mouse chews the bunch of grass your left hand holds. The clumps are becoming thinner and thinner. You are in a state of panic because you know that any second now you could fall into the river and drown. And you know the river is full of various creatures that could eat you.

At this point you will realize how negligent you have been in the practice of Dharma. Then you see Lama Chenrezi in the sky, and you make many prayers to him. Lama Chenrezi says, "Whoever is a sentient being has sickness, death, and suffering. The nature of everything is impermanence. When you attain freedom you will practice well. Pray to your Lama."

Then with faith, longing, and determination you pray intensely to Lama Chenrezi. At the moment the two mice finish the last blade of grass, light rays emanate from the heart of Lama Chenrezi and strike one's heart, purifying the obscurations of body, speech and mind. You are instantly reborn as Chenrezi in the pure land of Dewachen. Meditate with love and compassion. Inconceivable numbers of light rays emanate from your heart, touch all the beings of the six kinds, purify their sufferings, evils and obscurations, and guide them to Dewachen.

This meditation could be elaborated upon in many ways. The most important point is what benefits your mind. You should observe the results of the meditation and ascertain which sections of the sequence seem useful for your individual needs. You can emphasize and spend more time on any one part. In particular, if you are a person with great pride, hatred, etc., and find it difficult to practice Dharma, this meditation is very beneficial.

3) The Law of Cause and Effect

Karma Chagme Rinpoche’s third meditation is on the law of cause and effect; it is particularly relevant to our discussion of the virtuous and unvirtuous occurrences of mind. His method is traced to the Indian Siddha Shawaripa, one of the eighty-four Mahasiddhas.

Imagine that in front of you is a huge mirror, like a vast television screen. In this mirror you can see distinctly the six realms of samsara. Think about the fact that after you die and enter the bardo of Becoming, the force of your previous actions will determine the realm in which you must take rebirth.

Next, visualize Yama, the great Dharma King, on a large throne. Here Dharma refers particularly to laws and rules of conduct. Into his presence is brought someone who has committed many evil acts. From the right and left sides of Yama appear two people who are personifications of karma. One is white, the other black. The white figure speaks on behalf of the defendant, recalling all the virtuous things he or she has done: Dharma practice, and so forth. The black figure speaks to accuse the defendant of evil actions. The two argue like lawyers before a judge in a courtroom.

Meanwhile, Yama and the jury are scrutinizing a mirror which shows the actual truth of what the defendant has done in the past; they read a record of all previous deeds. They weigh these on a scale to determine which is heavier, virtue or evil.

Since the jury has authoritative records and can judge clearly, it's not possible to lie or to cover up the defendant's faults. And so the jury decides that this person has committed grave misdeeds and will now have to go to the deepest hell.

Next a second defendant, a good person, is brought before Yama. Again the evidence is presented: the jury looks into the mirror, reads the records, weighs all the deeds: and again, there is no lying or concealing. In this case, when all the evidence has been considered, even though there has been arguing on both sides, it seems clear that this person who has done virtuous actions is going to be reborn in the higher realms.

If one has a record of virtuous actions, a peaceful disposition, and accomplishment in developing the mind, no accuser can prove the person to be evil. Such a person cannot suffer the ill effects or obscurations that result from wrong deeds. All these appearances in the bardo are only manifestations of previous activity.

Meditate on these two scenes and apply them to yourself. How would you fare in such a situation? Contemplate the results of virtuous and evil deeds. Consider the fact that in this situation there is no possibility of lying about any evil actions you have ever done.

There is no one you can ask to help you at this point. Meditate on the certainty of the ripening of your karmic seeds and the inevitable appearance of their fruits. Resolve that when you meet the Dharma King, you won't be in the position of having to be ashamed of previous evil actions. If your activity in this life is virtuous, at the time of death there won't be any need to be ashamed or afraid, because you won't have any feeling of guilt.

This is a meditation from Shawaripa on the events that will occur during the bardo of Becoming. In Tibet, knowing about this was easy. Among us there were certain unusual people, such as one woman who was famous in my country. After being dead for about seven days, such people could, if nothing had been done to the corpse, come back to life. During those seven days these individuals might see the states of existence, the pure realms, and also the bardo, where they might witness the fates of many people. When they return to life they are able to relate what they have seen. These people are not like Western psychics, this is a somewhat different phenomenon —it's actual experience.

Such people have related their experiences to great Lamas such as the Gyalwa Karmapa or Dudjom Rinpoche, and these Lamas have confirmed that their stories were authentic.

I have met one of them, and I can tell the difference between some foolish people I've met in America who claim all sorts of things, and someone who has actually had this kind of experience.

You must practice much virtuous activity to be this sort of individual. The person I knew was the mother of Tarjay Gyamtso, my root Lama. When my teacher was young, he knew a man who wasn't really much of a practitioner but had posed as a great Lama. My teacher asked his mother how this man had fared after death, in the bardo.

My teacher's mother answered, "Oh, him? He wasn't a real Lama, was he? He wasn't a real monk, nor was he even an ethical and virtuous person. Right now, he's trying to communicate with his relatives, telling them that they should do good deeds so that they can avoid the trouble he is having." In another case she told my teacher about a great Lama of that region, truly a great monk and practitioner, who died and had reached the Pure Realm of Sangdok Palri. Both of these people in life had seemed to be Dharma people, but when they died the truth was known.

When my teacher's mother herself died, her teacher, a great Lama named Garchen Tulku, performed the ritual of transference for her. Through the excellence of her intention and the power of this Lama, she was reborn in the eastern part of the country as a young boy who later became a monk.

In general, the result of practicing the Dharma is that one's future lives do not become worse, but naturally improve in accordance with one's practice.

3) The Shortcomings of Samsara (Worldly Existence)

Let us complete our study with a short period of meditation on the shortcomings of samsara. This is an unhappy subject, so while you are meditating on this, you should sit in the position that I am in now, with one knee bent, elbow resting on knee, and head in hand —the posture of sorrow.

The six realms of samsara are completely filled with suffering, without even a hair's tip of happiness, like a pit of blazing fire.

Wherever one might be reborn, there is only suffering. Reflect in detail on the sufferings of the each of the realms. For example, think of the fact that those in the god realm have to foresee their rebirth in the lower realm of suffering; that human beings suffer birth, illness, old age, and death: that animals are forced into service, or kill and catch each other; that hungry ghosts endure intense hunger and thirst; that hell-beings undergo unbelievable heat and cold. There is no enduring happiness whatsoever in any part of Samsara, whether it be the lower realms or even the higher realms.

Although suffering plagues all the realms, beings in the three lower realms are completely engulfed in it. There, through the cause of powerful hatred, desire and stupidity, suffering is unavoidable; it cannot be circumvented by any means. In our present lives we feel a great deal of pain if our skin is pierced by a needle or if we are out in the cold for a day; but those in the hells undergo kalpas of extreme heat and cold and excruciating pain.

If we go for a day or two without food and water, we know how difficult this is. But in the hungry ghost realm, beings have no control over their environment, and they have to go for unimaginable lengths of time without even a drop of water. We should reflect deeply upon such suffering.

As for animals, they are either constantly fighting with each other or hunting, killing and eating each other. Human beings force some of them to work; their state is one of perpetual fear and unhappiness.

In the human realm, even in America, one of the best places a human being can be, there is suffering of all kinds. There are many luxuries which may give us some physical comfort, but mental happiness is really very hard to find, and there isn't a single person who doesn't have some kind of suffering or problem. Consider this, and then think of humans living right now in other countries and situations, people who are very poor, who don't have all the things that they need, and who have much more suffering. Finally, all humans, no matter what their situation, have sickness, old age and death.

In their realm, the Asuras continually fight with the gods; they are embroiled in jealousy and constantly suffer the pains of making war. The gods in the lower part of the sixth, highest, realm are those who fight the Asuras, and so they also suffer this combat. In the upper part of the gods' realm, there are tremendous luxuries and a feeling of happiness. Yet there is also latent suffering, because once the god's stock of merit has been exhausted, he must fall back into one of the other five realms of suffering. Thus, suffering is pervasive even in the higher realms.

Think about these various realms of samsara. Feeling fear at the prospect of being born in one or another of them, you begin to wonder, "How can I possibly get out of this cycle? What method can prevent me from experiencing this suffering?" Reflect that this is not your problem alone: all beings face this situation, including your mother and father and every other sentient being. Generate great compassion for their situation.

Now visualize that in the space in front of you, your own Root Lama appears in the form of Chenrezi. He says, "The nature of samsara is like a hot, burning fire. You need to bathe away the suffering of the lower realms by means of compassion." You then pray, "I have been wandering in samsara for a very long time. Now that I am practicing your teaching, with your great kindness please help me to enter the Buddha's Pure Realm." Promise that you will help all sentient beings to enter the Pure Realm also, and will not just save yourself.

Then imagine that light rays emanate from Chenrezi's heart, touch your heart, and guide you to the Pure Realm of Dewachen. Next, light rays come from your heart and touch all sentient beings in the universe, leading them to Dewachen. In this way meditate undistracted on great compassion.

Now that we have finished, we should dedicate the merit. When one meditates or explains the Dharma, it is important to share whatever roots of virtue one has accumulated with all living beings. In addition we should also make prayers of aspiration for the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood for everyone; for the world to be free of sickness, war, and famine; that the precious teaching of the Buddha endure and those who promulgate it live long.

The Five Skandhas. The Dharma: That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon (SUNY Albany Press)

1986 Kagyu Thubten Choling Reproduction not permitted without written permission from Kagyu Thubten Choling

Photo courtesy of Linda Jordan / Kagyu Samten Choling