The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind from Samsara




Bulach, Switzerland – May 28, 2016



The morning began with a fulsome praise of the Karmapa offered by Namkha Rinpoche, who requested the Karmapa to remain until the end of samsara to benefit living beings. After the accolade, his students presented the supports of body, speech, and mind to the Karmapa thanking him for his teachings and requesting him to remain in the world and live a long life.
The Karmapa began his teaching by naming the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind from Samsara: (1) the precious human rebirth; (2) death and impermanence; (3) karma as cause and effect; and (4) the defects of samsara. He spoke of the first one, the precious human birth, in terms of the eight freedoms and the ten resources, which he explained in a condensed form. To practice well, he said, we need to the freedom from obstacles, and the main condition, or resource, we need for liberation is to meet a spiritual friend who imparts the practice to us. Having found a human rebirth, he explained, we also possess the capacity for making moral decisions, for knowing what to leave aside and what to take up. All human beings have this ability, he stated, which allows us to make our lives meaningful.
We can reflect on our precious human rebirth, the Karmapa said, from two perspectives: the difficulty in finding it and the great meaning this life has. The first one is a little complicated, he commented, because in order to think about it, we need to believe in reincarnation. To understand rebirth, however, we do not need to rely on scripture but can consider our present life. “Most of you are born in Switzerland,” he said, “and live in a comfortable situation, but in many places of the world, people do not even have the basics of life, food to eat and clean water to drink.”
In contemplating our situation, he suggested, we can ask ourselves, How is it that I have this excellent set of circumstances? Where did it come from? Seeing that we have this good life and the capacity to make moral decisions, however, is not enough he said. We actually need to take responsibility for accomplishing something meaningful in this life. Simply having the capacity to do something is not enough; we must use it. And how we do that depends on the extent of our motivation. From the very beginning, he remarked, our motivation should be vast.
In this world of the twenty-first century, he commented, information technology has brought us closer together so that we are like a global village and know a lot about each other. The connections between countries and people are now very clear. Without relying on philosophy, this allows us to see directly how linked to each other we are. Being aware of this interconnection, we can open out our hearts and minds. The Karmapa commented that usually our basic frame of mind, he commented, is that we are independent: we do not reply on others and they do not rely on us. However, from an ultimate point of view, he remarked, we are all mutually dependent: there is no one who does not depend on me and no one on whom I do not depend. We are not distant from others; rather, they are intimately related to us⎯our happiness and suffering depend on them.
We can see this connection if we think, for example, about the clothes we wear. The person who made the shirt we are wearing might be working an Indian factory, yet we may never see them, so we are not conscious of this relationship. The same is true for the food we eat and the air we breathe. Our very physical existence comes from other people, our parents. Considering all this, we can understand that we are not alone and independent. Our happiness, suffering, and success in the world all rely on others.
Therefore, he concluded, we carry a responsibility for others and they for us. It is not enough to look out for ourselves alone, he stated. Having the intelligence to understand our situation, we must take responsibility for others.
The Karmapa then turned to the second thought, death and impermanence. The fact that we are born, he explained, means that we will die; the two arise in dependence one on another. We could say in brief that birth has the nature of death. “Hearing this,” he said, “many people could think it is something negative, but I think it is positive. Impermanence means that things are changing moment to moment. It indicates that with each moment, we have a new opportunity.”
He further commented that we might think this fresh chance is something that comes from the outside, that someone else gives it to us. But actually, he remarked, it comes from us. It is part of how we are, so we have endless opportunities. If we have done something negative is our life, it is possible to change, he said. Milarepa is a classic example; he saw the possibility of transforming his life and he took it. In a shorter time frame, if we did something regrettable in the morning, the Karmapa explained, we have the opportunity in the afternoon or evening to alter it and start anew.
If we think of the past and the changes time brings, we lose something and we also gain something. If there were no change, if the first moment always stayed the same, we would be stuck, for example, on the first note and never able to play a melody.
Within the subject of impermanence, the Karmapa noted, death is a special topic. We know that we will die, but we do not know the conditions. And when our time comes to pass away, he commented, we are helpless to stop it. For some, death brings suffering and for others not. This makes us anxious and so does not knowing when we will die. Further, he noted, if we die accidently there is no time to prepare.
Tibetan Buddhism has numerous explanations about death and the experience of it, such as how the three kayas manifest, the Karmapa remarked, so we can have an idea of what happens, which relaxes and calms our mind. Some people think that death will bring suffering, and to prepare they must meditate on suffering. But this is not necessarily the case. If we have made our lives deeply meaningful, death does not bring suffering.
We lead busy lives, he remarked, our time is filled morning to night, but if at the end of a day we reflect on what we have done, can we find something that really satisfied us? Maybe not. Often, the Karmapa said, we do not distinguish between what we want and what we need. When we are asked what we want, our brain is busy thinking of many things. If we are asked what we need, our answers are not so quick, yet in truth this is very important. Our lives are hectic, but are we doing something meaningful? Reflecting on death and impermanence helps us to see what we really need and what has meaning for our life. This will help us to prepare ourselves since we do not know when or how we will die.
The Karmapa explained that the first thought of the precious human birth and the second thought of death and impermanence are related. We have the intelligence to see that our human life is precious and that we should make it meaningful, and knowing that this is not always possible, we seize the moment. In this way we can reflect on our lives and exert ourselves to give them a deeper significance.
To illustrate impermanence, the Karmapa gave an example from his own life. When he was seven years old (in western years), a search party came to his isolated valley and told his parents that he was the Karmapa. His family had a connection with both the nyingma and kagyu traditions and also faith in the Karmapa whose photo they kept on their shrine. “All of a sudden,” he recounted, “I was the person to whom we had been prostrating. I didn’t know quite what to do. Before my friends and I had played at being a lama, and suddenly it was the old and the young people who were playing this game with me.”
Historically, the Karmapa is an extraordinary lama, he said, but he felt like an ordinary child who had been given an extraordinary name. People immediately expected that he would have amazing abilities, he recounted, but for an ordinary child this was a bit difficult. One does not become extraordinary by simply receiving a certain name. In the end, the way he understands his situation is that he has been given an extraordinary opportunity to benefit the teachings and people. Though it is sometimes difficult, he does the very best he can.
In our lives, he advised, we need to motivate ourselves to be the best people we could possibly be. We all have this precious human life and we can use this chance to be concerned about others and take responsibility for them. Actually, he said, to help others we do not need to be extraordinary. As ordinary people we can have extraordinary bodhicitta (the wish to benefit others an bring them to awakening) and with this we can certainly benefit others.
Sometimes people come to him, the Karmapa said, and ask him to make them wealthy and influential so they can help the poor, but it does not work like this. We should dedicate our body, speech, and mind toward benefitting others, he explained, and this will definitely allow us to help. Becoming wealthy is no guarantee that we will think of others. At first we might wish to help, but then in becoming wealthy, we could forget our original motivation. With this caveat, the Karmapa ended the first session of teachings for this weekend.


In the afternoon session, the Karmapa examined the remaining two thoughts: karma, cause and effect, and the defects of samsara.
His Holiness began by dispelling some common misunderstandings of the term karma. He noted that this Buddhist principle was very much linked to themes from the morning session, such as the difficulty of attaining a precious human birth and interdependence. Karma should be considered in a broad way. “As we all are interdependent, everything I do not only affects myself, my family, or people close to me, but has an effect on the whole world. It is very important, therefore, that we all take responsibility for our actions,” he stated.
Many people take a too simplistic view of the workings of karma, for example, supposing that since I criticised people in my last life that is why I am being criticised now. This superficial approach only leads to confusion, especially when we see bad people seemingly prosper while good people suffer. In reality, because of its profundity, karma is very complex, the Karmapa said, and the way we accumulate karma and experience its results depends on the environment and the time in which we live. Karma should be seen on a vast scale, working throughout the whole universe and accumulated over innumerable lifetimes, he stated. Furthermore, just as in a court of law where the people’s motivations are examined, we can see how very different they are.
We all have to take responsibility for our actions, but those who choose to follow the mahayana path assume an additional responsibility for the well-being of all sentient beings, based on the pure motivation to work for the benefit of others. If we claim to be Mahayana practitioners, an honest appraisal of whether our ideas about ourselves match the reality is very important. Are we really good people or not? To be a good practitioner, we need to be a good person.
Becoming Dharma practitioners, however, does not immediately make us into good people. The practice of genuine Dharma should be transformative, the Karmapa remarked, bringing out our good qualities step-by-step. Generally, when things such as cars no longer function properly, we discard them but people are not objects that can be thrown away; we need to work with them. When we take on the responsibility of dedicating ourselves to the benefit all sentient beings, we need a firm foundation of love and compassion; otherwise it can become a heavy burden.


With that advice, His Holiness moved on to discuss the defects of samsara, the fourth thought that turns the mind to Dharma, noting that by stages the four thoughts had become more complex.
Fundamentally all beings want to be happy; no one wants to suffer, he began. However, when we ask ourselves what real happiness is, some of the things we wish for are counterproductive. Consequently, though we want to be happy, all we achieve is suffering. What we perceive as happiness is suffering, and what we see as suffering might be happiness. This is especially true in the 21st century with its high level of material development. Many people mistakenly believe that when they possess all the material goods they seek, they will be happy. But their desires can never be fulfilled. The more they have, the more they want, and it is this constant desire, which prevents them from attaining true happiness. Further, it endangers the environment because many of these things come from natural resources that are limited. His Holiness concluded:
Limited resources can never quench the thirst of limitless desire. Many scientists tell us that if we continue to consume as we do, the world will come to an end. And I think because of that, if we try to find happiness in material resources this is not just a mistake, it is a disaster. This attitude is destroying our environment and destroying the habitats of many sentient beings. For the sake of future generations, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves whether what we are doing is right.
He then discussed the three types of suffering according to Buddhism: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering. Suffering is more than physical discomfort. It is the manifestation of the result of our negative actions. The suffering of suffering is clearly visible suffering such as physical pain. The suffering of change is the suffering of impermanence. We normally experience it as happiness, but it will transform into suffering, because its basic nature is suffering. All-pervasive suffering is found everywhere in samsara, His Holiness explained:
True happiness means to be free of the afflictions. If we are under the influence of negative actions or the three poisons [ignorance, hatred, and attachment], it is difficult to be free and independent. Being under the power of these afflictive emotions is all-pervasive suffering.
Buddhism defines true happiness as liberation from all negative actions and afflictions, he continued. We have to free ourselves from ignorance and mental obscurations. The power of advertising and our consumer culture causes us to lose our independence by persuading us that we need and should want things that are not necessary to our lives. In truth, what we want is not that important, and what we actually need is very little. To lighten the mood, His Holiness told a joke, though he had doubts about whether its actual source was the Buddha.
Once someone came and said to the Buddha, “I want happiness.” Buddha told him that first he needed to delete the “I” so that he would lose his fixation on a self. Secondly he should get rid of “want.” Finally he would be left with “happiness.”
The essence of the Buddhist teaching is that the happiness we seek is inside, in inner peace and contentment, and can never be found from external things. Even breathing, the Karmapa reminded everybody, could be a source of wonder and happiness.
The remaining time was given over to questions from the audience.
First came a request for advice on prayers and practices that could be used with dying people. His Holiness suggested that various yidam deity practices or mantras could be useful, including the Akshobhya mantra, and also we could read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. If the dying person were a Buddhist, the prayers and mantras should be recited aloud, otherwise, quietly or perhaps in secret.
The second question concerned the meaning of buddha nature. His Holiness began with a story. A student once asked a lama who had attained enlightenment, “What is it like to be a Buddha?” (Usually one of the signs of the Buddha’s enlightenment is the ushnisha or protuberance on his head.) The lama rubbed his flat, bald head and replied, “It’s nothing. It’s delightful.” Buddha nature is like that, the Karmapa suggested. He continued to say that in explaining buddha nature, the Jonangpa tradition follows the zhentong (or empty of what is other to it) view, which speaks of the emptiness of objects and the wisdom of the subject. It asserts that mind’s nature is free of all adventitious stains, and to fully manifest this nature is to become enlightened.
The next question asked whether pure love could be impermanent. The Karmapa explained that the view of impermanence means that everything changes from moment to moment, but this does not negate the existence of a continuum. There can be a continuum of love. But love is often self-centred in which case it would not be sustainable.
In response to a question about using one’s own language when reciting sadhanas and mantras, the Karmapa stated that it is important to understand the meaning of what we are chanting. He advised that if an accurate translation of the practice were available in the mother tongue, it could be used. Many Westerners, however, still prefer to recite in Tibetan, as they feel it has more blessing. The Tibetan translators left the mantras in Sanskrit because the written form of the syllable as well as the sound were important.
His Holiness was then asked to comment on whether our mind could transform karma. It is said that everything is the appearance of our mind. It is also said that everything is the result of karma. If both are correct, does this mean that our mind can change a negative into a positive result? Can it shift karma?
The Karmapa responded that when it is said that all is the magical play of the mind, as long as we have not resolved dualistic perceptions, we would be caught up in these perceptions. And due to this, our freedom is limited. Some high level bodhisattvas can transform karma but we are ordinary beings. It is said that those in the hell realms are trapped there by wrong perception; if their minds were not deluded, they could be free. For as long as their negative karma is not exhausted, they will experience this suffering. For this reason, we need to understand in depth the principle of karma, cause and effect.
A further question concerned how to fit the preliminary practices (ngondro) into a busy schedule. The Karmapa suggested using holiday time for intensive practice in retreat. Alternatively, he joked, during Sagadawa or during the Month of Miracles, as the effects of our actions are magnified 100,000 times, one prostration could become 100,000, and one mandala offering could become 100,000, and so forth. Another possibility, in order to make a meaningful connection, would be to practice diligently to the best of one’s ability for a month without keeping count and offer that as the practice.
The penultimate question asked: Who are we? Are we the one who is watching or is even the watcher being observed? “Who are we when we see a vase in front of us? “ His Holiness responded. We first see the vase and are able to point at it, he said, but when we investigate more closely we realize that it does not exist in the way we perceive it. Similarly when we look at ourselves, we will not find an inherently existing ‘”I.” There is, however, a kind of naked or bare perception due to the vase and the self being appearances that arise in dependence on causes and conditions.
The final question concerned whether it is possible to practice in more than one sangha. His Holiness explained that when we talk about the sangha it refers to the Dharma community living harmoniously together, so harmony is of prime importance. If we practice in two sanghas, there may be differences in view, which could create difficulties for our practice. However, if we can practice in harmony we can practice in one, two, or even a hundred sanghas.
With this final question, the dialogue and day’s discussion of the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind came to a close.

2016.5.28 Karmapa gave his first day of teachings in Bülach Switzerland, on the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma.

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