The Four Foundations: thoughts which turn the mind towards the dharma
by Ven. Karma Khenchen Rinpoche
When we begin to practice the Buddha’s path, it is necessary for our minds to turn towards the dharma. This is accomplished by relying on the Four Thoughts which are the common foundations for our practice. All previous masters and siddhas contemplated these Four Thoughts. These preliminaries which turn the mind towards the dharma are more profound than the main practice.
The Four Thoughts are: 1) Precious Human Rebirth, 2) Impermanence and Death, 3) Karma, Cause and Result, and 4) Faults of Samsara
Precious Human Rebirth
The first contemplation is that we have a precious human rebirth. Our human rebirth is difficult to obtain and is extremely rare. Our precious human rebirth has the eight freedoms from eight unfavorable states of existence. Freedom from these unfavorable states of existence enables us to practice properly without major obstacles.
The eight unfavorable states of existence are:
- Hell Beings, tortured so much by heat and cold they cannot even find the time to think about practicing the dharma.
- Hungry Ghosts suffering so greatly from hunger and thirst that they cannot begin practicing the dharma.
- Animals so obscured by ignorance that they cannot understand complex language and analysis. Therefore, animals obviously cannot turn their minds toward the dharma if they cannot reason.
- Barbarians and individuals who are born in countries where the dharma is not taught or where non-virtue prevails. This makes them unable to have any contact with the dharma; they are unable to assimilate the dharma into their lives.
- Long-lived Gods are greatly attached to bliss so they do not wish to practice the dharma; their minds are too distracted by pleasure and enjoyment.
- Individuals (possessing wrong views and biases) revile and dislike virtue, so they do not wish to practice the dharma.
- Some are born during periods when the teachings of a Buddha are not available; no Buddha has recently appeared in the world and the teachings of previous Buddhas have not have remained. This makes them unable to practice the dharma since they have no example to follow.
- Individuals born with incomplete faculties and other impairments are unable to understand the dharma properly.
The Ten Endowments also are apart of our precious human existence.
These are the Five Inner Endowments of (1) Being born as a human, (2) Living in a country in which the dharma has spread and virtue is upheld, (3) Having one’s physical faculties complete such as hearing, seeing and thinking so one can understand the dharma, (4) Not having extremely negative karma which would cause obstacles for one to come in contact with the dharma and a spiritual guide, and (5) Having confidence in the dharma and faith in a spiritual guide.
The Five Outer Endowments are as follows (6) A Buddha came into this world as an example. During eons called the dark kalpas, no Buddha appears as an example. (7) The Buddha did not remain silent but taught the dharma for everyone’s benefit, (8) His teaching survives and has not diminished, (9) Our practice is encouraged and supported by other practitioners who are dharma friends possessing faith and enthusiasm, and (10) There are patrons who support the dharma and practitioners who successfully travel its path, allowing the Buddha’s teachings to continue and flourish without diminishing.
Since our human existence is very potent with great abilities and endowments, we can accomplish whatever is wished for. With courage and diligence, we should then practice the dharma as it is possible to attain Buddhahood in a single lifetime.
There are three different types of aspirations possible for dharma practitioners to develop. These are (1) The Lesser type; one practices virtue while striving for temporary happiness, which results in rebirth as a god or human being. (2) The Median type; one aspires to attain permanent state of happiness for only the benefit of oneself like a Prateyabuddha. (3) The Great type; one wishes for the happiness and liberation of all beings without exception, which results in perfect Buddhahood.
Human rebirth is obtained due to our virtuous actions in previous lifetimes; that is why human birth is very rare and special. One can understand this more completely by comparing the six realms through example. Sentient beings occupy all space, even space as small as the eye of a needle. The number of animals on earth are like the amount of yeast cells in a keg of beer, the number of hungry ghosts is like the amount of snow flakes in a blizzard, and the number atoms which make up the earth equals the quantity of beings suffering in hell. However, the number of gods and men are akin to merely the amount of dust particles which stick to the surface of a bean.
Likewise, the rarity of being reborn as a human rebirth is further demonstrated by the story of a turtle who wanders aimlessly in the great ocean. The chances of this turtle, who surfaces from the ocean only once in a hundred-year period, poking his head through a specific yoke floating on the ocean’s surface is almost impossible and improbable. The Buddha said that a precious human rebirth is even more rare than the probability of this.
Longchen Rabjampa explained that if our dharma practice is mixed with desire, anger and ignorance then it is not true and sincere dharma. That is why we cannot waste this precious opportunity as a human and should practice virtuous actions sincerely. We must perfect our inner state as well as our outer virtuous appearance. Otherwise we will be hypocrites practicing a false dharma.
We have taken rebirth more times than the amount of water drops in the ocean, and might have been a human previously. But even so, we did not practice the dharma sincerely enough. In this particular lifetime, we are experiencing the results of past good karma. This rare opportunity might not come again easily.
The human rebirth is a support which allows us to escape suffering and guide others across the ocean of suffering To waste this precious life would be like coming back from an island of jewels empty-handed.
Impermanence and Death
Even though one’s precious support of a human body is capable and strong, it is impermanent, temporary and ephemeral. Change is an inevitable part of all phenomena; it is the nature and basis of phenomena. The Four Ends summarize this temporary nature of phenomena by asserting that the end of birth is death, the end of meeting is parting, the end of creation is destruction and the end of accumulation is loss. By meditating on the truth of impermanence and death, one will want to practice virtue in this lifetime.
The contemplation of impermanence can be divided into two sections: Reflecting on the impermanence of outer environment and the impermanence of inner mind of sentient beings. The outer environment has both coarse and subtle impermanence, and the inner mind of sentient beings includes the impermanence of both oneself and others.
The coarse impermanence of the outer environment simply means that all is subject to destruction. Everything which seems so stable, even valleys and mountains, does not last forever since at the end of an eon the entire universe is destroyed. Even the physical elements have the nature of destruction within them, such as fire burning, water sweeping away and wind blowing away.
The subtle impermanence of the outer environment relates to the relativity of time. Every moment, objects do not stay the same. The seasons, for example, change each year. Each month, each day, each instant, objects change. If we throw a shoe into a flowing river, the shoe ends up downstream; it ends up so far away that we cannot even see it. Yet, we refer to this river as if it is something stable and solid, while in reality it is constantly changing. Our lives are like this.
We live in world which we think has a never changing continuity, but the world does indeed change moment by moment. In our relationship with others, there is always a flux of labeling people as friends and enemies. People aren’t born with and do not inherently have these labels; it is our emotions which change these labels instant by instant. For example, one moment someone is angry and next moment that emotion subsides, or one moment someone is one’s enemy and the next he is one’s friend.
Now, consider the impermanence of the self by realizing that as soon as we are born, we begin to grow old. Someone who is young will definitely lose color in his or her face, and have hair fall out. It is inevitable to go through birth, old age, sickness and death. At the time of death we can take none of our power, possessions or friends with us. Also, the exact time of death is uncertain. Some people have lived well over one hundred years, while others have died in their mother’s womb or during their youth.
We can reflect on the impermanence of others through contemplating how many people die each day, whether we know them directly or just read and hear about them. It could be a friend, child, relative or even acquaintance. Through their death, they are sending a message out to us: We too will pass away. Once the practitioner considers this, he or she can break through the stubborn idea and false trust which asserts that the self is immune to death.
Nagarjuna commented, “This life is like a butterlamp flame in the wind, or like a water bubble. It is amazing that I woke up this morning.” Such is the uncertainly and impermanence of this life. The purpose of realizing impermanence is to understand that we should not waste even an instant in meaningless activity.
Karma, Cause and Result
After contemplating the truth of impermanence and death, some practitioners, due to not knowing about the truth of Karma, fall into the incorrect view of nihilism which maintains that everything is without meaning or concern.
Karma is based upon the actions which we commit. We experience various results which are in accord with those actions. The results of our karma, or actions, are due to the interdependence and coming together of various causes and conditions. Concisely, virtuous actions and causes create good results; non-virtuous actions and causes create suffering.
Our karmic actions consist of four factors: 1) The intention 2) The plan to carry it out 3) The action itself, and 4) The rejoicing in committing the deed. When all four of these factors are present, the karma committed is very strong. When these factors are not all present, then it is not a complete karmic act. For example, if someone accidentally ran over a snake with a car there was no intention, no plan and one possibly had remorse. Therefore it is not a complete karmic act.
Karma also can ripen immediately, such in the case of retribution for committing very heinous acts. This result can be understood through the example of a bird flying through the sky and then landing. As it lands on the ground, the bird meets its shadow (the result). The cause (the bird) and the condition (its shadow) came together to produce a specific and sudden result while the bird was landing.
However, karma can also ripen gradually. When a seed is planted it takes time for the causes and conditions to come together and allow it to grow. The results occur gradually and build up over time.
For sentient beings, karma ripens inevitably. It does not ripen in stones, or the earth or the sky! It ripens for the sentient being and within the mind of the individual who accumulated or committed that karma. Karma follows us into the bardo and determines what we experience in the future.
It is said in the Sutras that just as it is ridiculous to say that “a cold fire burns or the sun and the moon can be reversed,” it is also ridiculous and impossible for karma to not ripen. Relatively, karma will ripen without fail.
Enlightened masters and siddhas who have realized the ultimate level, the enlightened mind and nature, understand that ultimately there is no karma. They have transcended karma and its limitations. At this level, an enlightened being understands that all appearance are emptiness. That is why enlightened practitioners such as Tilopa, Naropa or Saraha display types of conduct which on the outside seem strange or negative, but in reality are based on the complete understanding about the true nature of phenomena. For them, the five poisons (desire, ignorance, anger, jealous and greed) arise as five wisdoms.
These masters understand that karma is like the experience of a dream. But, when an ordinary individual does not know that he is dreaming, he experiences terror, confusion and suffering during dreams, such as being killed or chased by wild animals. Realized masters know that our awakened experience, caused by karma, is similar to a dream which creates confusion and affliction.
In some practices like Mahamudra and Dzogchen, negative emotions are not abandoned but instead transformed and self-liberated into the five wisdoms. However, for those of us who are operating on the relative level, we are servants to the five poisons and cannot transform them into the five wisdoms.
The Samadhi Sutra states that “The mind is like space. This space-like mind commits space-like actions and goes to a space-like hell realm.” Even though this illustrates that ultimately karma does not exist, relatively it does exist for us. In short, beings like ourselves have a continuity of actions and results, causes and conditions.
We, as ordinary beings, see various appearances and grasp at them due to our previous habitual patterns. Therefore, we have to act in accordance with the law of karma. We do not function on the ultimate level yet. Therefore, we must prevent ourselves from committing negative actions; we must not fool ourselves into thinking that we are a realized siddha transforming phenomena!
Negative actions are summarized by the Ten Non-virtues. Non-virtue arises on the basis of desire, aversion and ignorance. In sum, they all are rooted in ignorance as it is the ignorant attachment to a self which causes non-virtue. When one clings to the self, desire arises, this is the desire to obtain things to benefit the self. Once desire arises, we then act to protect ourselves and maintain the happiness we get from fulfilling that desire. Aversion towards objects which do not satisfy us then comes about.
The abandonment of the Ten Non-virtues constitutes the Ten Virtuous actions.
The Three Non-virtues of Body and their Karmic Results are:
- Taking the life of another living being; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth in a hell realm. Its short-term result is that, as a human, one will have a shortened life-span.
- Stealing other’s possessions; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth as a hungry ghost. Its short-term result is that, as a human, one will be impoverished.
- Unclean sexual acts; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth as a hungry ghost. Its short-term result is that, as a human, one will have many enemies and experience disharmony.
The Four Non-virtues of Speech and their Karmic Result are:
- Lying to cheat others for self benefit; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth as an animal. Its short-term result is that, as a human, others will ignore one’s words; one’s speech will have no efficacy.
- Slandering others; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth in a hell realm. Its short-term result is that, as a human, one will have no friends or people to help in times of need.
- Speaking callously or with anger towards others; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth in a hell realm. Its short-term result is that, as a human, one will experience ingratitude from others.
- Engaging in gossip and meaningless chatter; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth as an animal. Its short-term result is that, as a human, others will ignore one’s words as meaningless.
The Three Non-virtues of the Mind and their Karmic Result are:
- Having a jealous and covetous attitude; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth as a hungry ghost. Its short-term result is that, as a human, one’s mind is bent towards extreme attachment.
- Having an irritating and harmful attitude; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth in hell. Its short-term result is that, as a human, one has a short temper.
- Having perverted or wrong views; its fully-ripened karmic result is rebirth as an animal. Its short-term result is that, as a human, one will be stubborn.
Even a small negative or positive action can ripen into a large result, just like a spark of fire can cause an inferno. Also, we cannot get away with committing negative actions by having others do it for us.
The potential results of committing these Ten Non-virtues depend on the intention and emotions behind the action. For example, an action which seems negative can be positive if the motivation was very, very positive and proper. This is the sometimes case with actions performed by Bodhisattvas to benefit others. In one of the Buddha Shakyamuni’s past lifetimes, as a Bodhisattva, he knew the thoughts of others. One time, a ship was about to set sail to an island of jewels. The ship had five-hundred sailors, most of them were Bodhisattvas. The captain planned to throw all the other sailors overboard and take the riches for himself once they completed their mission. Shakyamuni, in that lifetime, killed the captain; he thereby saved the captain from acquiring such negative karma and prevented the death of all those enlightened individuals.
Likewise, the yogi Milarepa relayed that, “Even though I do not know anything about the Vinaya (the scriptures on what conduct is proper and improper for a monastic practitioner), if I discipline my own mind, that is enough.”
So, even though Milarepa didn’t study all the fine points of the Vinaya, it was enough for him to control the motivations and emotions of his own mind, which in turn affected his outward conduct.
Karma teaches us to overcome negative emotions. As beginners on the path, sometimes desire is a part of practice. Our desire to give rise to Bodhicitta and benefit others is a virtuous state of mind and intention. The result is good, even though some attachment and aversion occurred during the path. As one progresses, self-interest will decrease gradually. The best practitioner has little desire, aversion and ignorance, but in the beginning most have some mixed in.
Even left-over, or latent karma, exists in the mindstreams of all beings, even those of high attainment. Individuals who do not have a comprehensive understanding of karma can develop doubts when they see a Great Master or Lama manifesting illness, suffering and pain. They do not understand why someone of such high attainment is suffering.
Due to these Great Masters being in a physical form, nirmanakaya form, they still carry with them this latent karma. Even Third Gyalwa Karmapa wrote in his composition, the Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer, “May all this latent karma ripen for me in this very body and lifetime so I do not have to experience it in the future.” Even Milarepa upon dying, which was due to drinking poison, said that this would purify his latent karma. Even the Buddha stepped on a sandalwood splinter, causing his foot to bleed. This was due to the ripening of his latent karma acquired from killing the captain who planned to murder his fellow crewmen.
If your attitude is excellent, then the path and the levels of progression during practice will be excellent. But if one has a negative attitude, then the path and the levels will be negative. If one doesn’t have a positive outlook, there will be obstacles and anguish.
The Buddha taught that positive karma is acquired through the Two Accumulations, merit and wisdom. The fruition of Buddhahood is attained by accumulating merit and wisdom; they are like two eyes. With only one of them, the practitioner cannot achieve realization.
Merit is a conceptual accumulation. Making offerings to the Buddha or to poor people will result in the accumulation of merit. If one does not accumulate sufficient merit, signs will appear such as having many obstacles. For example, even if one has an excellent intention the result might turn out to be other than what was hoped for.
Wisdom is not tangible. It is accumulated by listening to the teachings, contemplating and meditating upon them.
From the Mahayana view, Bodhicitta meditation is central to reducing non-virtuous actions. Since most of the negativity we commit is due to protecting our own self-interest, the meditation of exchanging oneself for the benefit of others is efficacious in developing Bodhicitta. One can lessen negativity by the meditation of exchanging one’s own happiness for the suffering of others.
In summary, karma and its results is seen all around us. The variety of animals on earth, all those strange and various species, is due to karma. If you want an excellent rebirth, meditate on patience. If you want power to benefit others, respect a Lama or another sublime being. If you want confidence and courage, you should be without ego and pride. If you want freedom from sickness and suffering, give up negative actions. If you want happiness, meditate on loving-kindness. If you want a melodious voice, you should speak the truth. If you want good qualities, attend upon a spiritual friend, perfect Calm-Abiding and Insight meditation, and analyze the self with discriminating wisdom. If you want rebirth in higher realms, meditate on the Four Immeasurables. Last, and most important, if you want a human rebirth, you should practice the Ten Virtuous actions.
Faults of Samsara
Based on positive, negative and neutral actions individuals have performed, they are reborn in one of the six realms of samsara (the cycle of suffering which beings live in).
We will start with the three more favorable states of existence. In the Human Realm, individuals suffer from the Four Great Rivers: Birth, old age, sickness and death. In the Gods’ Realm, individuals suffer from falling from grace. Five days before death, a god or goddess begins to lose color in the face. They begin to smell bad and their flower garlands wilt. They have visions of the lower realm in which they will be reborn. They become depressed and sad, since they have been in the God Realm for so long. So distracted by bliss and the peace of samadhi for eons, they never bothered to practice the dharma. In the Realm of the Asuras (Demigods), individuals suffer from fighting and disharmony, aroused by a jealous attitude.
Next are the three less favorable states of existence, where sentient beings suffer much more constantly. In the Animal Realm, individuals suffer from fear. They eat each other, or are enslaved and eaten for their meat. We can see the suffering in this realm very vividly. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, hunger and thirst plagues the sentient beings. Even though they can see food, they cannot eat it. If they do ingest some, it burns their throats and empty stomachs ceaselessly. In the Realm of Hell dwellers, heat and cold torments the individuals who suffer in one of the eight cold (such as bursting blisters or chattering teeth) or eight hot realms. There are also occasional and neighboring Hell realms. Some of these we can see, such as strange small animals living under rocks or insects who live for long periods of time underground. In these occasional hells, the individuals die and are reborn again and again in that realm for a very long time.
Not a single living being escapes suffering, whether it is mental or physical. In order to understand the suffering of the lower realms, one must identify the suffering existing around oneself. As a rancher who breeds domesticated animals, think how painful it must be for the cattle to be slaughtered for their meat. As a hunter, contemplate how it would feel to be an animal pursued and finally shot.
Take the relative experiences we have and turn them towards understanding samsara. For instance, if you stand outside in the winter with no coat on, you feel chilly. Just imagine how much colder it is in the cold hell realms. If is very painful when a spark of fire burns your finger, just imagine how much more painful it is in the hot hell realms. If it is anguishing to be without food for three days, just imagine how much worse it would be as a hungry ghost.
Existence in samsara consists of the Three Types of Suffering: (1) The suffering which pervades the mindstream and exists in all conditioned existence (2) The misery of pain, and (3) The suffering caused by change due to remorse when good situations and objects are taken away from us.
As human beings, our minds should not be hard, inflexible, callous and cold. We should contemplate the suffering of others, so our minds become soft and gentle.