The Four Contemplations

Teachings on the four contemplations—precious human birth, impermanence, karma, and suffering—provide an overview of forces and conditions that create our experience within cyclic existence.

As background to the four thoughts, however, it is useful to know something about the six intermediate states (bardos) that actually comprise a “cycle” in cyclic existence. The six bardos include four transitory states during our lifetime and two between death and rebirth.

The first, the birthplace bardo (kye nay bardo), spans the moment of birth to the moment we encounter the conditions that will result in our death.

The second, the moment-of-death bardo (chhikhai bardo), may be a sustained moment, as in the case of a lengthy terminal illness, or an instant, as in a sudden accident. Either way, this bardo leads irreversibly to death.

During these two bardos that bridge birth and death, the dream bardo (milam bardo) and bardo of meditative concentration (samtan bardo) also occur.

After death, one’s consciousness recovers from a deep swoon and awakens into the bardo of the true nature of reality (chhönyid bardo)—first to the experience of clear, unobstructed awareness, then to the display of the peaceful and wrathful deities.

Finally, the mind moves into the bardo of becoming (sridpai bardo), where it sheathes itself in a mental body and, amid turbulent projections of its karma, moves toward its destined rebirth and another cycle of existence.

The mind has circled ceaselessly in this way since the beginningless beginning.

How successfully we deal with each of these bardo transitions depends on what we accomplish spiritually in the birthplace bardo—that is, in our lives now.

Accomplishment can start with contemplation of the four thoughts.

By thoroughly reflecting on impermanence, for example, we recognize that everything fluctuates, that stability is just an illusion, and that seemingly solid appearances have no inherent reality. This knowledge undercuts attachment; and attachment—to people, to possessions, to our own bodies—acts as a terrible hindrance when we enter the moment-of-death bardo.

To the extent that we train ourselves to see everything as impermanent, we free our minds from attachment and face death with much less suffering. Thus, impermanence, only a concept to explore at the outset of our spiritual path, becomes a perspective that serves us well as we approach death.

Contemplation of impermanence and the illusory quality of appearances also represents our first step toward mastery of the dream bardo and the goal of uninterrupted meditation while dreaming.

Contemplation of karma instills an urgency to purify our karma now, before we become completely vulnerable to hallucinatory karmic projections in the bardo of becoming.

Reflecting on our precious human birth reminds us not to waste this rare, hard-earned opportunity lest the wheel of samsara turn and thrust us into a different, much less auspicious birthplace bardo.

Contemplation is an important aspect of training in meditation. Focusing thoughts, reining them in when they take off on a tangent, plunging them into the topic of contemplation, then cutting them altogether and resting in nonconceptual meditation—these skills prepare us for the bardo of meditative concentration in this life and the bardo of the true nature of reality after death.

In reflecting on the four thoughts, we alternate contemplation with resting the mind in nonconceptual meditation.

As contemplation transforms inner perception, the mind’s grasping at ordinary appearances relaxes and outer conditions can be seen differently as well.

Then, during the phase of nonconceptual meditation, the mind’s busyness, its dualistic tendency to frame everything as subject and object, self and other, begins to subside.

As our sense of mind’s relaxation deepens, the stage is set for the introduction of Great Perfection.

While general instructions for meditation on the four thoughts may be given to us, these should not limit what we consider relevant, however.

We need to gain such deep, personal insight into each of these four thoughts that they become fully integrated into our day-to-day activities, informing every moment of our life.

The insights and meditative realization that arise in our formal sessions change our view of ordinary events, and the events of our daily life provide grist for our contemplations.

We might try contemplating impermanence while driving down the highway, for instance, or precious human birth when we are tempted to indulge some addiction, or suffering as we watch a sports event, or karma when a colleague irritates us.

The lenses of the four thoughts provide a kaleidoscope of perspectives and a wealth of spiritual understanding.

Finally, the teachings on the four thoughts give rise to the renunciation of ordinary attachments and guide us toward what is beneficial.

Contemplation of precious human birth and impermanence inspires a deep renunciation of the limiting concerns of this lifetime; contemplation of karma and suffering brings a renunciation of cyclic existence altogether.

Source: Tromge, Jane. Ngondro Commentary: Instructions for the Concise Preliminary Practices of the New Treasure of Dudjom. Compiled from the teachings of H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche by Jane Tromge. Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 1995.