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The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, May 30, 2000
Lightly edited course transcript

Preliminaries

I like to begin classes with a set of preliminaries. These are various methods to help us quiet down and get into an appropriate state of mind for meditating or listening to teachings. In order to be able to get into something fully we need to enter into it slowly and appropriately. That is purpose of preliminaries.

There are many different ways to get into a state of mind conducive for meditating or for listening. I usually follow just one of many possibilities. This method starts with counting the breath. When we are very distracted emotionally or mentally, from our work, from traveling here or whatever, it is very important to first quiet down into a neutral state. This helps us to relax. The way that we do this is to breathe normally through the nose, which means not too quickly, not too slowly, not too deeply and not too shallowly. The cycle is to first breathe out, then allow a slight pause and, because we have made a slight pause, we naturally breathe in more deeply. That is a much more relaxed way of breathing deeply than consciously taking a deep breath. As we breathe back in, we count it as one in our minds. Then, without holding the breath we breathe out. We repeat this cycle eleven times and then repeat the count of eleven two or three times, depending on our speed. The numbers don’t really matter. We can count up to any number. We do not need to get superstitious about it. The point is to occupy the verbal energy of our mind with something so that we are not thinking something else while focusing on the breath. Let us do that please.

Once we have quieted down, we try to get our energies, our mind and emotions, going in a positive way. We do this by affirming our motivation. Why we are here? What do we want to gain or to accomplish by being here, or by meditating? We are here to learn more methods to apply to ourselves personally to help us in our lives. We are not just coming for entertainment or amusement or for intellectual knowledge. We are here to learn something practical. It is the same thing when meditating. It is not just for relaxation or a hobby or sport. We meditate to try to help ourselves to develop beneficial habits for use in our lives. We don’t do it to please our teacher. We are doing it because we are convinced that it is beneficial. We want to listen to something practical because we would like to be able to deal with difficulties in our lives more skillfully, and not just make our lives a little bit better, but eventually go all the way and get free of all the difficulties we have. We would like to learn methods that will help us to become Buddhas so that we can really be of best help to everyone.

When we reaffirm our motivation, not only do we look at what we are doing here at a teaching, but it is important also to look at the final aim. Although we may aim for liberation and enlightenment it is not going to happen overnight and miracles normally do not happen. Dharma is not magic. We are not going to learn magic means that will suddenly free us from all our suffering. It is not that we learn some methods and day-by-day it is going to get better and better. We need to be realistic. Realistically speaking, as we know from our own life experience, the moods and events in our lives go up and down, and they will continue to go up and down. We can hope that things will get better in the long run; but from day to day, we are going to have difficult moments. It is not that all of a sudden we will never get upset again. If we approach learning Dharma methods and in practicing them in meditation and in daily life in a realistic, down to earth way, we will not get discouraged. Even when really difficult things come up in life and even if we still get upset we are not thrown off course. This is our motivation. This is our aim. This is our understanding of what we can gain from coming to teachings and meditating and practicing.

It is important to remind ourselves of this by reviewing and thinking about it. Let’s say we are very upset before a meditation session. Instead of taking refuge in food, friends, sex, television or beer we take refuge in the Dharma and meditate to help us get over being upset. Even in that situation we need to be very careful not to expect that it will be like taking a shot of heroin, as if we could sit and meditate and feel high and joyous and all of our problems would be gone. If that does happen, be suspicious. If we do the meditation properly, sure we may feel better. But it might not make us feel a hundred percent better. Unless we are super-advanced, the unpleasant mood will likely come back. As I often repeat, “What do you expect from samsara?”

When we reaffirm our motivation we say, “Okay, I am going to do this because it will help me. I will try to apply these things properly to help me get free from this difficulty that I experience and to eventually be of help to others.” Whether we feel better a half hour from now or not is not the point. That is not our main focus. We are going in a certain direction in life and this is what we are doing to go further in that direction. The direction is refuge. Each time we listen to teachings or meditate, we take another step in that direction. We keep going, despite the ups and downs. That is realistic. Let us reaffirm that for a moment.

Then we make the conscious decision to meditate with concentration. This means that if our attention wanders we will bring it back, if we get sleepy we will try to wake ourselves up. To help our minds to be clearer we sit up straight and to help our minds be clearer we can use the visualization of a camera coming into focus.

Then there is a fine adjustment that we can make. First, we try to lift the energies in our body if we are feeling a bit heavy and our energies are too low. For this, we focus on the point between our eyebrows with our eyes looking upwards but our heads staying level.

Then to ground our energies if they are running a bit wild in our bodies and we are bit stressed, we focus on the navel with our eyes looking downwards but our heads staying level. We breathe in normally and hold our breath until we need to breathe out.

Introduction

This evening I have been asked to speak about another aspect of preliminaries, namely the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma. Specifically, the four thoughts are:

  1. thinking about appreciating the precious human life,
  2. thinking about death and impermanence, that the opportunities that we have now with this precious existence are not going to last,
  3. thinking about the laws of karma and cause and effect, in other words how our behavior affects what we experience,
  4. thinking about the disadvantages of samsara, of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

If we appreciate the opportunities that we have now with this precious human life and if we recognize and acknowledge the fact that this life is not going to last and that we are going to die sometime, if we recognize that our behavior is going to shape our experience in this life and also after we die in future lives, and if we realize that no matter what we experience in the future, because it will arise from behaving from confusion, will have a lot of difficulties and troubles, then we will turn our minds to the Dharma.