The Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind


In my continued quest to give my spiritual practice more traction, my partner recently suggested I check out Alan Wallace. So, I listened to an old retreat of his on The Seven Point Mind Training and was pleased. Then, looking for more “fresh” Buddhist teachings to listen to, I stumbled onto Khentrul Rinpoche’s teaching on the same topic and found that I was beginning to get some traction.

The original teaching of mind training (Lojong) is attributed to Atisha and gives simple instructions on how to train everyday, all day, and in all circumstances. Since I have quite a lot of obscurations that block me from much tangible progress in formal mediation, a practice I can do at all times is quite attractive to me.

I would like to feel good and be happy all the time. Perhaps you share this desire? Indeed it is such a fundamental desire that it is a goal of Buddhist practice.

How do we achieve genuine happiness? If that is what we are interested in it makes sense to explore if what we are doing is working. We can then move on to consider what might work better. The Seven Point Mind Training is all about creating true happiness for ourselves and the beings around us.

The teaching starts with the advice to “First, train in the preliminaries.” The preliminaries referred to here are the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind:

  1. Cultivating an appreciation for how rare and valuable human life is.
  2. Realizing that everything born or created, dies or ends, and the time of that end is uncertain.
  3. Considering the results of our actions. When we “die”, what follows us?
  4. Recognizing the futility of trying to get lasting happiness using ordinary means.

The train of thought is basically this. There is no guarantee that when we die (which could happen at any time point#2) we will be so fortunate as to be human again. Why is it so valuable to be human? Well, it is one of the best life forms for achieving lasting genuine happiness (point#1). Animal don’t even think to consider eternal happiness, it is beyond their moment to moment survival awareness. Other forms of beings are surrounded by so much pleasure they also don’t consider the need to cultivate a mind were genuine happiness blossoms.

So why would we want to cultivate genuine happiness? The study of how life works (point #4) should motivate us. Our pursuit of happiness in regular life is much like a plate spinning act. We put so much energy into creating happiness for ourselves, but every relationship, project, circumstance, etc ends and we have to start again. While we get part of our life happy, the plate is spinning well, and then move to get the next part happy, the next plate spinning well, the first plate begins to slow and fall. When looked at this way, the cultivation of genuine happiness (aka enlightenment) is so much easier than the futile effort we put into achieving happiness in the normal way by looking to external objects.

People that are “happy” with the human condition, usually haven’t spent enough time contemplating just how dissatisfactory it is. Or they don’t really appreciate the idea of impermanence. They may be having a nice life right now, but it will end. And when it ends it will either go up or down and the direction can be quite unpredictable.

In the Buddha’s day, great practitioners would achieve fabulous mental concentration. They could spend days and weeks in the bliss of Shamata. However, this type of practice, while seemingly “enlightened” would result in a rebirth in the form or formless realm. From there, all the virtue they ever did would be used to fuel the continual bliss they experienced. Then they would be reborn in a hell realm. Since they were not enlightened, and their positive mental seeds were used up while they basked in bliss, they only mental potentials they had left were negative and all they could do was fall.

Contemplation of the preliminaries is not some step to be skipped over. If one is desiring to be free and help others to be free, this is an essential step in creating enough motivation for practice. If done correctly, the preliminaries propel one right to enlightenment.

Check to see where you are.

  1. Do you take this life for granted? Do you think you have time to dabble in everything? Do you appreciate the leisure and fortune you have? Do you want to take full advantage of your life as a human?
  2. Are you aware that you could die at anytime? So many things can end a fragile human life. Are you prepared for that moment of death? What important things do you put off doing thinking you can do them later? What if later never comes?
  3. Are you aware that the predominant thoughts you have during this life will propel you into the next life? What does anger, worry, fear, lust, hate, and envy create? What mental afflictions occupy your mind and what happens if that uncertain moment of death comes when you are under one’s influence?
  4. What have you put energy into that turned out to be unimportant five, ten or twenty years later? What would really create lasting happiness that would follow you when you die?

Purification Practice

I have recently been searching for a spiritual practice that will give me more traction. Over the past few years my faith has wavered as another level of “stuff” is arising to be cleared. Unfortunately, this “stuff” is slippery and I can’t quite get a handle on it, leaving me feeling discouraged and unsure what to do.

In response to this situation, I have gone back to the basics of Buddhist practice: purification practice. These are tried and true traditional practices that people I respect say work in clearing obstacles and preparing one for more advanced practice. I started in March by committing to 100,000 mandala offerings. I estimated this would take me about 600 hours to complete. I decided to do half the offerings traditionally and the other half in the form or mandala art to give away. (See picture of mandala art to the right.) At the rate I’m going, it will take about 4 years to complete.

More recently I started 50,000 prostrations. I have wanted to do these many years ago when I learned that Je Tsongkapa undertook over a million of them during his long retreat. When he started his retreat he had to rely on oracles and people with psychic ability to answer his questions, but by the end of the retreat he was able to be in direct contact with Manjushri and had visions to each of the enlightened beings he had dedicated 100,000 prostrations to. Unfortunately, when I tried to do prostrations years ago, it was a great strain on my body and pulled at my back. However, I am now pleased that I have enough physical healing to allow me to do them without any strain. Anyway, I am making good progress and expect to complete my prostrations in 2039 or sooner.

The one thing I’ve noticed is that days of good solid practice are followed by days of inertia. I think what happens is that stuff comes up and then I require rest as it clears. Once it clears, I am energized again and practice more. I know that Chi Gung will clear things faster for me, but even that sometimes can be a struggle to get to.

In September, I underwent a shamanistic plant ceremony that really awoke me to how stuck I was. After the ceremony, I reached out to a variety of healers to get additional support in clearing blockages and unifying aspects of self. I found that the additional help seemed to keep things moving. I noticed differences in my ability to breath more deeply and have more connection to my body in general from the extra work.

I think one of the more difficult aspects of my journey is having the sense of where I am. I know I am lower capacity, but still am not sure about how to proceed given that knowledge. I look forward to a future where I can help others progress to enlightenment with specific advice that matches their level of ability. Ahhh, the benefits of siddhis and the enlightened mind.

Dark Night of the Soul

Although the “dark night of the soul” depressed_manhas fallen into common usage, I would like to credit St. John of the Cross for his treatise by that title written in the 16th century.  Since we have been discussing the possibility of alternate views on “depression” his work seems quite relevant.

St. John of the Cross describes the “dark night” and extols its purpose and benefits to spiritual growth.  Notice the similarity of his descriptions to depression.

“The dark night puts the sensory and spiritual appetites to sleep, deadens them, and deprives them of the ability to find pleasure in anything.  It binds the imagination and impedes it from doing any good discursive work.”  (The Dark Night, Book 2, Chapter 16)

“…although it may seem to them that they are doing nothing and are wasting their time, and although it may appear to them that it is because of their weakness that they have no desire in that state to think of anything.  The truth is that what they will be doing is quite sufficient…”  (The Dark Night, Book 1, Chapter 11)

“Spiritual person’s suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that they have been abandoned* since they find no help or pleasure  in good things.”  (The Dark Night, Book 1, Chapter 10)

For someone on a spiritual path that thinks themselves “depressed” I highly recommend, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross.This work includes The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mount Carmel where he begins his discussion of the dark night.  He divides the dark night into three phases:  the active night of the senses, the passive night of the senses and the passive night of the spirit.

The active night is where we are actively turning from things that provided us with “empty calories”.  It is where we decide that twelve hours of television a day may be entertaining, but it doesn’t really satisfy us.  Or perhaps we decide that while certain foods taste good, they ultimately make us sluggish or contribute to ill health.  In this way we “actively” enter a dark night of our senses.  We are turning from simple sensual pleasures and looking for more inner meaning.

“We are using the expression “night” to signify a deprival of the gratification of the soul’s appetites in all things.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 1, Chapter 3)

Here he refers to “things” meaning “worldly” things in contrast to ultimate reality.  He further explains that it is a dark night because turning from worldly things is a dark night for our senses, relying on faith is a dark night for our intellect, and reaching enlightenment is a dark night to the soul in this life.

However, we can only get so far with that process.  To get to enlightenment, St John says we need to enter a passive process by which unseen forces (God) begins to change us. The passive process is best described as depression.  Before we were actively turning from superficial pleasures and now we inherently find no pleasure in anything.  This includes not only worldly things, but our spiritual practice as well.

“The soul suffers great pain and grief, since there is added to all this the fact that it finds no consolation or support in any instruction or spiritual master.” (The Dark Night, Book 2, Chapter 7)

The Buddhist parallel is “purification”.  Purification is the process by which our “shit” arises, we watch it without reacting, and that is the end of it.  This process is facilitated by mindfulness based meditation.  St John advises:

“If those souls to whom this comes to pass knew how to be quiet at this time, and troubled not about performing any kind of action, whether it inward or outward, neither had any anxiety about doing anything, then they would delicately experience this inward refreshment in that ease and freedom from care.” (The Dark Night, Book 1, Chapter 9)

The dark night is completely individual and unpredictable.  It can be short, severe and brutal.  It can also last years and years.  Usually the longer courses of dark night are intermingled with times of illumination.  Hmmm… sounds a little bipolar.

So perhaps when you are thinking you might just be cursed with mental illness you can consider other possibilities:

“It will happen to individuals that while they are being conducted along a sublime path of dark contemplation and aridity, in which they feel lost and filled with darknesses, trials, conflicts, and temptations they will meet someone who will proclaim that all of this is due to melancholia, depression, temperament, or some hidden wickedness.” (The Ascent to Mount Carmel, Prologue, Section 4)

On that note, I will slip back into my night.  The effort that I applied to complete this post has been great and I am spent.  I now relax into the infinite repose that is the nature of ultimate reality and I can breath again.  Being is enough.

Want to read more St. John of the Cross?  Here is a post on contemplation.

* I replaced “God has abandoned them” with “they have been abandoned” for a more universal appeal.