Using the Four Thoughts to Transform the Mind
The path of practice leads us out of ignorance and grasping and brings us to the state called nirvana, or enlightenment.
This is referred to as “crossing over”—crossing over to realize absolute truth, which completely removes every stain of ignorance that obscures the mind. In this way, the true nature of things can be understood. One of the best supports for this path is the contemplation of the Four Thoughts That Transform the Mind.
Contemplation is a simple antidote for the solid concepts we’re so attached to. Using the theory “like cures like,” we can use a concept to cure a concept. We can use a positive thought to transform a negative thought.
By transforming negative concepts into positive concepts, we enter into a deeper understanding of the true essence or meaning. This is what the hinayana and mahayana practice paths are about.
Mind then becomes mature enough to understand transcendence, which is what the vajrayana teachings are about.
First, contemplating the preciousness of human existence brings a genuine appreciation of our human body, mind, and potential. With exertion, we can actually create the cause for genuine happiness and benefit for others.
Contemplating impermanence brings a sense of urgency about not wasting that potential and exerting more effort.
Contemplating the suffering of the six realms enables us not to conceptualize selflessness and exertion. Whether we read about it or actually experience it, the pain of sentient beings should turn our minds toward exertion and effort. In that way, we become free from the ignorance that creates confusion and unnecessary suffering.
Contemplating both impermanence and suffering brings a strong motivation to create the fundamental ground of good karma. With a ground of good, positive actions, we can attain happiness and the cause of happiness for ourselves and others. Otherwise there would be no reason to contemplate such things.
Contemplating karma develops awareness and helps us to understand the intricacies of a mind that continually slips back into habitual patterns. We may aspire to selflessness and freedom from habitual conceptualizing, but just talking about them is not enough if we lack the awareness to put these things into practice.
Contemplating karma, we realize the need for the support of constant mindfulness and awareness. We also understand the importance of aspiring to compassion and freedom from suffering for all sentient beings.
If our compassion is truly genuine, there won’t be any lack of awareness; if there is a lack of awareness, we need to strengthen our aspiration and put it into action.
Contemplating karma challenges us to see whether awareness has been truly planted and strengthened in our mind as a result of contemplating the other three reminders. Seeing the diversity of suffering that karma creates, we want all sentient beings to be free from suffering.
It’s not just about us saving ourselves or escaping from samsara. It’s about the exertion we put into bringing all of our human endowments to fruition. The teachings on suffering and karma are not meant to lead to paralyzing fear or a solidification of the realms and their sufferings.
Instead, they enable us to create positive circumstances from adverse circumstances. Because our effort is nonconceptual, we can put that effort into the right path, the path of genuine compassion.
Compassion arises for all sentient beings, who, through a single moment of ignorance, are stuck in painful creations that they don’t want but continue to create. Contemplating the Four Reminders and bringing them to the path brings an understanding of the path and the practices.
Otherwise, if we’re simply dabbling in Buddhism, we might get stuck at those points that we like or dislike, conceptualizing them and making them solid. Then history would repeat itself: mind would come up with very spiritual reasons that it shouldn’t let go of grasping; we would revert to habitual actions, and our aspiration to benefit beings would never be accomplished.
This contemplation doesn’t need to be sequential or even particularly Buddhist.
The Four Reminders bring the mind back again and again to the ground of awareness, which becomes stronger.
When habitual patterns strike, awareness is there, and we can go on our way, maintaining even greater awareness.
Source: Based on Rinpoche, Khandro. This Precious Life. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.