“The freedom and opportunities we now have are extremely precious.
Being impermanent, everything that is born must die.
The results of our virtuous and harmful actions are inevitable.
The three realms we experience as samsara are an ocean of suffering.
Remembering this, may my mind turn towards the dharma.”
“We are all quite attracted to Dzogchen practice, but many times we try to jump past the ngondro (foundational) teachings just to get to the Dzogchen teachings. This shows precisely how confused we are, how mistaken our intention is.” (JTR)
Teaching by Jigme Rinpoche on the Four Thoughts —
Without contemplation of the Four Thoughts, our ngondro and our path thereafter will not be any different to ordinary worldly activities. But we cannot be freed from samsara (cyclic existence, worldly suffering) through samsaric methods. Although they do not bring us true freedom or happiness and have never taken us to a higher place, we have been avidly pursuing samsaric ways for lifetimes. We are expert at engaging in samsaric things. We do not have to think of samsaric things to do, we do not have to put great effort into them; we naturally get drawn. We talk about Dzogchen as the effortless practice, but for us samsaric practice is effortless. Even when we are practicing, our mind goes off effortlessly. When we are supposed to be doing deity practice, our samsaric concepts come to us naturally, without any effort. See? We are that much enmeshed with samsara, we have such big imprints. If our samsaric habits had been useful, we would have been freed a long time ago. But we are not yet freed, and we sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of cyclic existence by continuing as we are. This is why we need to practice dharma purely and precisely, step by step, free from samsaric hopes and fears.
When people approach me requesting teachings and asking to become my students, I teach them the Four Thoughts and let them work on that for a long time. One person after 18 months of this contemplation came for an interview, and said “Rinpoche, if you give me more teachings, I’m very happy; if you don’t give me more teachings, I’m very happy. What I got from you on this particular subject – there’s a lifetime’s practice within this. I’m completely happy to just do this practice and serve your activity”. That was the biggest and best news since I arrived in America. Mostly I hear “I’m doing ngondro, I’ve almost finished half, but not finished half — can I do the Dzogchen retreat?” In approaching these contemplations we cannot apply the traditional school model where everything is scheduled year by year from kindergarten to graduation: “This year I do this, next year do that”. It does not work that way with dharma. You need to practice the Four Thoughts until you get the Four Thoughts — not just for one month, two months, but until you get it.
I encourage you all to reflect regularly on the Four Thoughts, remembering as always to first establish pure bodhicitta intention. Our bodhicitta motivation should be constantly refreshed, for every teaching we listen to, every action we take, every sitting we do, whatever situation we find ourselves in.
Each of the Four Thoughts can stand independently, but they also interconnect in a profound and beautiful manner. Understanding the preciousness of our human rebirth is important because then this life becomes useful; we apply ourselves properly and with great joy, moment by moment. Contemplating impermanence again helps us to appreciate the preciousness of our life, while helping to break down our belief in the solidity of things. By reflecting on the transient nature of phenomena we no longer cling so intensely to everything. Our understanding of emptiness deepens. Contemplating on karma prompts us to reconsider how we think and behave, as a matter of urgency, and motivates us to become better, more honest people. And finally, contemplating on and truly comprehending suffering gives rise to compassion for other beings and shows us how meaningless samsara is. Understanding the meaninglessness of samsaric thoughts and actions gives us some degree of wanting to abandon these conditions. That is what we mean by renunciation. But as I look around at others and at myself, I see somewhat ‘symbolic’ Vajrayana or Mahayana practitioners. When we look at ourselves and examine our own practice, we see quite clearly how much we adore samsaric things, how much we cherish them, embrace and pursue them.
Practice takes root in the individual’s mind only once the individual has a certain degree of renunciation. Contemplating on the Four Thoughts helps us to understand samsara. Our not contemplating on this in great depth means we go on and on in a fantasy. We think we are practitioners of Vajrayana and we think we have finished ngondro and that we have moved into some other state, but in fact we are not even close. Even though sometimes once in a blue moon we do contemplate the Four Thoughts, some points we do not even like to go into because we cannot bear to relate concepts like death and impermanence to our own lives. This shows how little we have really grasped of the nature of samsara.
Appreciating how meaningless samsara is, and having genuine compassion towards all beings – these two are the most crucial points for the practitioner. Understanding samsara will give us a strong compassion for others. Then, when we come into a practice, our body, speech and mind become very happy because basically we understand the power of that dharma environment. Recognizing the blessings of that environment helps to completely loosen our body, relax our mind, soften our speech. When you practice, there is the joy of practicing; when you are sitting there is the joy of sitting; when meditating there is the joy of meditating.
As we move along the path of dharma, we have to remember to keep a balance between studying and practice. Studying is extremely important and meditation is also extremely important, but both those aspects have to be integrated. Some people go to one extreme, where they only focus on the intellectual and academic. They get so caught up in this that they do not like to meditate, or do puja or ceremonies. They believe that academic brilliance makes a great practitioner. That is simply the person not having understood the meaning of dharma. Then, some people go to the other extreme. They fail to see that studying the texts gives them all the information and methods needed for approaching practice. Or it may be sheer laziness that prevents someone from studying: memorizing a text is a very effective way of expanding and reinforcing our comprehension of the dharma, but perhaps we think it is too much hard work. This is unfortunate. Ideally, we first of all read or hear teachings explaining how things are. Next, meditation is crucial for us to perceive the oneness of these phenomena, to move beyond an intellectual understanding of their nature. We don’t see the whole of phenomena, the whole of samsara and nirvana, as one. We don’t do that – we see samsara as samsara and nirvana as nirvana. We see a demon as a demon, a deity as a deity. We don’t see the equalness — the quality of the nature of the deity and the nature of the demon — we don’t see their oneness. Until we go beyond this limited understanding, we need to train carefully in how we perceive things. Combining study and meditation is extremely beneficial, and your meditation will take a leap. But if studying is only generating more arrogance, then it’s better to stick with the meditation side. We want to make sure that we do not get stuck with the intellectual side — if a scholar has not tamed their mind, when obstacles arise, they do not recognize or do not know how to deal with them properly. So if you don’t know how to integrate study and practice, just practice simply. Teachers like Chagdud Rinpoche, a highly-realized master, a mahasiddha, have given us many instructions on how to practice. We should take advantage of what we received from these masters.
from a teaching by Jigme Tromge Rinpoche