Transcript of the First Session
First Session: Part 1 of the morning teachings:
First Session: Part 2 of the morning teachings:
In between times practice Guidance
Reflecting on these four preliminary foundation practices isn’t a case of ‘thinking about’ them. What these reflections will lead to if we begin to recognise them more vividly in our every day life is that the ‘wishing things were different’ or ‘clinging to wanting the things to stay the same’ will reveal a sense of not appreciating being human. This wanting things to be different is a dislocation from our every-day dealing with what it is to be human. So when this arises, simply drop back into the breath, the body and open up your appreciation of being born human. This moment is the opportunity to wake up, be liberated – and help others profoundly through being awake.
Impermanence raises its head all the time, we get so habituated to this resisting this state that we just don’t notice it. Clues are in the words ‘should’ , ‘must’, ‘ought’, ‘have to’ – and more, all have a certain solidity in their meaning, they show us where we have closed down to things being different to what we expect, where our hearts have closed to how things – and us – change.
Karma, cause and effect, reveals itself when we are careless with our words and actions. When we don’t take a look at the bigger picture. This reveals itself in our culture when policies are taken that are short term – to please the electorate, but do not take into consideration the long-term legacy of our actions. I am sure you can think of many things happening right now in the world that do have a long-term impact on generations to come, but because our hungry ghost of desire is so strong, this legacy is ignored or denied. For us when we become more aware of cause and effect our power in the world can be very influential, even on a very subtle level We can begin to work with cause and effect more mindfully by being kind and utterly honest with ourselves and through our language. Speak the truth, with compassion, so we do no harm to ourselves or others. Be mindful of the actions we take – are these helpful or harmful? And sometimes when we think we are being helpful, we are being harmful, so check if this is the right time or the correct action before launching in because you are convinced that this is the right thing to do. In his biography, A Crooked Cucumber, The zen master Suzuki Roshi, told a student who said to “Roshi, I want to help people’ ‘be careful, so often when we think we are helping people we might be harming them’.
Suffering – we have all sorts of ways to deny our own discomfort. ‘No, I don’t need any help’. ‘No, I am perfectly OK’, ‘there is nothing the matter’, ‘no, I am not angry, depressed, sad etc’ all might be said in answer to another who is concerned of your welfare. So this is difficult. Years of training ourselves into not admitting even to ourselves on a deep, internal level, that what we are experiencing is difficult and is a hurtful situation is not useful. The pain will leak out somewhere, joy will be submerged by the effort of disguising our heart-hurts – and more, With this practice it is recommended that the practitioner starts to be really really open and honest to her or himself, there is no need to share this recognition of hurt and suffering with anyone else, especially to begin with. It can be a quiet, internal acknowledgement that we are human, and some situations can be hurtful, irritating, fearful. To admit that things aren’t always OK, that this situation does cause hurt, anger, fear, jealousy – states that poison us and effect our communication with others takes courage. Immense courage.
In fact starting to openly bring these four preliminary practices into our every-day life does take courage. On a retreat with Lama Rinchen a couple of years ago she said the word ‘courage’ many, many times. We get practised at concealment, especially to ourselves, so having the courage to dive into the messy internal environment and be present with whatever is going on does take courage.
So this is warrior work, this preparing the ground through the four preliminary foundation contemplations, the four reminders, or mind changers, as they are also referred to, so we can look more deeply into the four immeasurable qualities of loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. May your foundation practice bring you insight and joy!
Let’s sit for a while, sit with what is going on right now, accept it all, name it all, and return to the breath. Through this simple way of practising we slowly start to open up space and offer kindness to ourselves.
Preliminary or Foundation Practice
The common or ordinary preliminaries consist of a series of deep reflections or contemplations on the following four topics:
- The freedoms and advantages of precious human rebirth
- The truth of impermanence and change
- The workings of karma, cause and effect
- The suffering of living beings
The above four contemplations are sometimes referred to as ‘the four reminders’ or ‘the four mind-changers’.
Reflect deeply on:
- The preciousness of human life endowed with liberty and opportunity.
- The certainty of death; uncertainty of the time of death; and that the only thing that will be of any help at the time of death is your spiritual practice.
- The inexorability of causality (karma); that every action of body, speech and mind has a ripple effect, both positive and negative, on ourselves, others and the world.
- The suffering, disappointment and unreliability of living an unconscious, compulsive existence, the unawakened state.
The aim of such reflections is to help reprioritise your efforts towards spiritual practice and redirect your energies towards the monumental opportunity for freedom pregnant in this present moment.
Contemplations that may be helpful
Reflecting on human life and survey how we spend our time.
What is the most important thing?
What makes me and the people around me happy – really happy?
How do we surrender to the inevitable flow of life through us?
When pain, hurt or suffering visits, at any of those times when the going gets tough, the heart hurts, anger arises through unacknowledged fear, or a tricky situation arises – or any other expression we may use for when things are not meeting our expectations – and we feel like lashing out or curling up and hiding we can make a gentle space for the uncomfortable experience. This space starts to open up once we recognise that this is a moment of pain and we say to ourselves: (you might wish to place your hands over your heart when saying this to yourself, as though hugging yourself):
ʻThis is a moment of suffering .
Suffering is a part of being human.
Other people will be suffering in the same way as me.
May I be kind to myself at this moment of suffering.ʼ
Use this as often as you can, even for the slightest twinges.
The Five Recollections
Frank and Pithy, these five reminders about the reality of impermanence and karma are attributed to the Buddha himself, as taught in the Upajjhatthana Sutta. Though they start with what is plainly “bad news”, contemplating the Five Recollections helps us accept life’s difficulties, motivating us to practice and be kind to ourselves and others.
- I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape having ill health.
- I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.
These traditional statements of foundational Buddhist thought have been embraced by dharma communities across traditions, many of which recite them daily. Try reciting them three times over and notice how your feelings about them do or do not change in the process.