The Four Mind Turnings

sky-bird The First Point of the Seven Points of Mind Training is “The Preliminaries,” and the single associated slogan is, “First Practice the Preliminaries.”  The Four Mind Turnings are seen by most authors and teachers as a fundamental aspect of the preliminary practices.

The Four Mind Turnings: The Preciousness of Human Life, Impermanence, Cause and Effect (Karma), and the Suffering that is present in ourselves and in the world.  A deep understanding of these 4 factors (that “turn the mind” to spiritual practices) can bring relief from much of our suffering.  Much (some would say all) of our suffering is a result of our reaction to the external and internal events that we experience, rather than the events themselves.  Exploring the mind-turnings can have a profound effect on these reactions.

  • The preciousness of this human life: All life is precious, but unlike many life forms, humans have the capacity to harm or help vast number of beings, human and otherwise.  Both the opportunity and the responsibility can be thought of as precious aspects of our lives.  We are here right now with human bodies and minds in good enough condition to think about these practices, to actually experience healing and transformation within us, and to increasingly be a positive force in our world.  We live in a time and place where the teachings of awakened beings are so very accessible. There were times when people would travel months and endure great hardships to obtain teachings that we can order from Amazon for $12.95.  (A cautionary note: Thomas Paine wrote, “what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly…”) We are able to meet together without fear.  Our lives are not being disrupted by war or famine as is the case in many parts of the world.  May all beings have the benefits that we enjoy.  Many many millions do not.
  • Impermanence: To simply recognize the impermanent, ever-changing nature of our bodies, perceptions, thoughts, and emotions, to accept and embrace this dance for ourselves and also for what we perceive as separate phenomena, can bring great relief.  There are no longer expectations that things, including ourselves, those we love, and conditions that we like, will remain as they are.  Gratitude increases for the beauty that is here for us now. There are no longer the fears that painful conditions in ourselves and in the world around us will never change.  All composite things, including our bodies and our minds, come and go naturally, changing unceasingly.  Without impermanence, healing and transformation could not occur.  And, of course, our precious human lives change rapidly, and often without warning.  Tomorrow we may not be able to do the things we take for granted today.  And we are going to die.  We don’t know when or how this will occur.  Knowing this, what are we waiting for?
  • Cause and Effect (Karma): When we see ourselves and other phenomena around us, we are seeing the effects of a multitude of causes and conditions.  These causes and conditions, even those regarding ourselves, are often not obvious and not uncommonly are impossible to uncover completely. Nonetheless, they are there.  This is because that is.  When a thunderstorm arises, we are aware that the causes and conditions for a thunderstorm have arisen.  We don’t get mad at the storm.  People are the same.  While we may decide to take action in response to something which has arisen in our world, to truly embrace this understanding of cause and effect helps relieve us of our anger and incredulous responses to the things that may happen , e.g., “I can’t believe s/he said or did this or that,” “There is no earthly reason for that person or group of people to believe or act the way they do,” “I don’t understand why I keep doing that same stupid thing over and over again,” etc., etc.  To acknowledge that the reasons for all these things are always causes and conditions of which we may or may not be aware, helps us to look more compassionately, rationally and calmly to see what these causes may be and what might be truly helpful, to ourselves as well as to others.  This is the second Noble Truth: There is a cause of suffering.  Suffering doesn’t just happen out of nothingness.  Additionally, recognizing that our thoughts, speech and actions in this present moment are creating new causes and conditions for future effects, we are able to deal with old maladaptive habit energies in new ways, and see the suffering in and around us with fresh eyes.
  • Suffering: There is suffering (First Noble Truth.) There is suffering in us, and in the world around us.  There are many forms of suffering.  There is the suffering of physical pain, hunger, illness, of not getting what we want, of getting what we don’t want.  There is the suffering of unwanted change.  We become very attached to many phenomena in the world which ultimately prove unsatisfactory in some way, large or small, and we suffer. Ultimately there is the suffering of perceiving oneself as a separate self-entity, disconnected from what we perceive as “other,” In the face of suffering it can be easy to judge and cast blame, difficult to see our own role in the suffering, and sometimes hard to even acknowledge the suffering we are experiencing, turning instead to the suffering we are seeing around us without truly touching our own.   Our suffering often presents as an afflictive emotion of some kind: anger, fear, despair and so on.  (Our group has looked at some of these together, including a brief look at the 5 Hindrances.) To look directly, recognizing and accepting that there is suffering in and around us is the first step to being able to heal and transform ourselves and our world. Once recognized and accepted, these difficult aspects of our lives can become gateways for increasingly deep understanding of our attachments and aversions and the distortions in our view that frequently underlie them.  Using these difficulties as portals for increasing our understanding and our compassion is sometimes referred to as “taking adversity as the path.”

Practicing with the 5 Remembrances can be a powerful way to bring the Four Mind Turnings into our meditations and daily life.  A discussion of the 5 Remembrances can be found here:

Here are some further thoughts on the 4 Thoughts, (or 4 Mind Turnings.)  First, from Ringu Tulku:

From Mind Training, By Ringu Tulku

We begin with the Four Thoughts or Contemplations. They are not sermons or holy rules but truths which we can reflect upon and use in our own way to revise and clarify our thinking about the world. They make us aware of our true situation and give us a sense of urgency about going forward on our spiritual path. Understanding the four preliminary thoughts is the first step in refining and directing our compassion. They are the groundwork of liberation.

Precious Human Birth

This is traditionally always the first principle we think about. No matter what our hardships or handicaps, it is important to appreciate the life we have been given. Even if we have nothing, no home or wealth or education, we are human and that in itself is a very great blessing.

A human birth is not more valuable than any other life form, but it has greater possibilities and responsibilities. Human beings can destroy the world, animals and trees cannot. Our actions can be very positive or very negative. We are in a position to help thousands of other beings or to harm them, and this is why we need to understand the significance of this birth and use it mindfully.

It does not take any special talents to manage ordinary survival, even a worm can do that. Our human consciousness gives us exceptional potential. We are aware of our own thoughts. We can examine and reflect on the shortcomings of life. We have freedom of choice and can make our own decisions. We understand the difference between good and bad. Finally, our physical existence is not so partial or precarious that it prevents us from following the spiritual path. Only human beings can fully recognize the misery of birth, old age, sickness, and death. This realization was the first step in the Buddha’s liberation. We can develop the same enlightened strength and use the advantages of this birth by training our mind.

Just being alive is a great thing. It is such a pity when we break down or become self-destructive and forget all our advantages. A woman I know had an accident climbing in Japan. She slipped and fell into a crevasse in the ice and almost died. When she was rescued, she said that all her worries had gone. She had no more complaints, she was just happy to survive. If we live like this, our cynicism and melancholy will disappear.


According to Buddhist thinking, something can only be “permanent” if it exists independently of everything else, is not caused by any conditions, and does not change. It is actually impossible to find anything like this. Everything that exists is interdependent, conditional, and subject to change. We can see this for ourselves. It is obvious. Nothing around us remains the same. We know things are impermanent, but we do not always accept it.

Our lives are fragile. The physical and mental capacities we have taken for granted are gradually wearing down. Our body can be damaged or destroyed in a second. We will all die. That is certain, but we do not know when our death will take place. The suspense about our time of death allows us to feel eternal and gives us a false security about time. We behave as though our lives will last forever. A sense of timelessness makes the mind passive and lethargic. It also causes insecurity and impatience in our daily lives.

Life would be unbearable if everything stayed the same because human beings find situations that are fixed and predictable very hard to tolerate. Even in small matters, we become uneasy if we feel there is no end in sight. I know of couples who live harmoniously together for 10 years then marry and are divorced within a year. As soon as they feel bound to each other for the rest of their lives, they begin to fight. Impermanence removes our reasons for quarreling with each other. Arguments only break out if we imagine that our relationships are endless. When we appreciate that our time with our families, partners, and friends may be shorter than we think, we get on better with each other. Awareness of impermanence gives us extraordinary inner strength and resilience. I’ve experienced this myself. When I left Tibet, I traveled to India with thousands of other refugees. We had lost everything: our homeland, our property, families, and friends. People in the outside world who met us were struck by our reaction to exile. It surprised them that we all seemed so cheerful. We had arrived in the country that was completely unlike Tibet. The language, food, and weather were all totally different. It was terribly hot and the camps were crowded and noisy. The area was full of mosquitoes and leeches. Many of us had fevers and illnesses. It was a little bit like hell. People expected us to be gloomy, but we were in good spirits. During the evenings when we could not sleep because of the heat and insect bites, we laughed and joked and sang together. Although our future was uncertain, we enjoyed ourselves and I believe our Buddhist background was the reason for this. We had lost our country, but life felt very precious to us. We accepted that suffering was not unusual and many other people had undergone similar ordeals before us. Among over 100,000 people in the camp there was death, disease, and hardship but there were remarkably few breakdowns or mental problems.

Bearing impermanence in mind pacifies our anxiety and fear. The factors causing our troubles are temporary and only here for a short time. Even the lowest state of despair, there is the solace of knowing that things will sooner or later get better. We will also take greater pleasure in things and enjoy ourselves more if we realize that our joy will soon fade.

This thought is not about passively allowing events to control us or surrendering to circumstances. On the contrary, a sense of how transitory our lives are works against wishful thinking and lethargy. Nothing can be held back. The basis of our lives is change so there is no time to lose. We should make good use of every moment. So many complications come from holding on to the past. It is already gone, let it go. What will happen next? We do not know. By contemplating the impermanence of everything in existence, we discover a basic truth about the nature of mind.

The Deficits of Samsara

Samsara is not a place or a situation but a painful state of mind, dominated by confusion and ignorance. This ignorance is subtle, it is not so much a lack of information as a lack of clarity. We do not know who we are or what we are doing. We wander in samsara and return again and again to the cyclic existence of samsara.

Our true nature it is absolutely pure and luminous. We lose sight of this purity when conflicting concepts from our senses and the ego cloud our minds. Our awareness is dulled by the repeating cycles of pleasure followed by pain, expectation followed by dismay, and desire followed by loss. The illusions and conflicts of samsara do not really exist. They are myths, constructed by the mind.

The mind creates samsara because it is the mind which interprets the body experiences in an incomplete and deceptive way. Our eyes are engineered to picture something visually. We respond to the object with our sense of sight but when we close our eyes we can only see what we mentally recall, not the original vision. We are never able to reproduce exactly what our senses received because the mind records the information in our imagination, under the influence of former associations and memories. These subjective mental patterns and shape our whole perception of reality.

Each of us has a characteristic blueprint for the external world and the impressions which do not fit into this model are simply ignored or overlooked. When we are introduced to new ideas, we try to adapt them or cut them down to size, but if they still do not match our mental expectations, they will be discarded. I encounter this in a very vivid way when I arrived in India after leaving Tibet. I was told about something called a “train.” I had never heard of one before, there was no such thing in Tibet. We had no trains there. People told me the train was made of metal and travel down to iron tracks. You could ride in it drinking a cup of tea and the tea never spilled. I tried to imagine this. I pictured a ball rolling down an iron road and myself turning around and around inside it, but I could not imagine drinking a cup of tea without spilling it because the image my mind produced gave me only a very partial understanding of the train. With practice we can confront the delusions of cyclic existence and free ourselves from them. Being human means we are likely to be unhappy, but it is possible to look for a way out; to renounce the suffering of samsara, to transcend it.

Karma: Action, Cause and Effect

Just as each seed has a flower, every action has a consequence. This is the law of karma. Our karma is everything we are from our past lives; through this lifetime from birth until now, today, and yesterday. Our karma can be plus or minus. We do negative things when emotions like anger, pride, jealousy, and agreed to take over and this leads to negative results.

Memories of the virtuous things we may have done before, or our plans to do better in the future are not going to make any difference now. The impact of our immediate thoughts is what truly matters. This moment is the outcome of our previous actions and if our situation is unfavorable, it is the effect of our past negativity. The future is created by what we do now. This makes liberation possible.

By recognizing and regretting negative conduct, our karma can be changed. The best way of improving our actions and their outcomes to purify the way we think. When our mental attitude is more wholesome, our physical and verbal behavior will be better. It is always possible to turn bad mental habits into good habits, but we have to be skillful to remedy our karma. We cannot push too hard. The mind is very sensitive and subtle and too much pressure will not work.

People sometimes have the impression that Buddhist philosophy is dull and serious, but it is actually an extremely optimistic way of life. If we follow the preliminary thoughts, we are in no doubt that our human existence is valuable. We know that nothing in the world is permanent or lasting and we recognize suffering as an inevitable result of our own negative actions. These are all insights which lead to peace of mind.

And this from Tsoknyi Rinpoche:

The Four Thoughts That Change the Mind

Tsoknyi Rinpoche: I want to speak about The Four Thoughts That Change the Mind, but I think many of you will chant the Western mantra, “I know, I know.” I’ve heard the “I know” mantra chanted 100 times in a single conversation. Really! I think it means, “I’ve got it, so don’t make me listen to it again.” You’re all really smart, but in the case of the Dharma, repeating a teaching is not just for your conceptual mind. Once your conceptual brain understands, you think you understand. But that kind of understanding is not enough because repetition is for your mind’s emotional understanding. In order to feel the teachings deep down, the Dharma needs to take root in the alaya, your unconscious mind. Only then can the Dharma grow from the inside out and be true nourishment for how you live. I think this takes a lot of repetition. That’s why you need to hear the teachings 100,000 times or more, even a million, a billion times. Then the preciousness of a teaching will stay with you. It’s the same as conceptually understanding the View and then meditating on it. It takes many, many, many years until it becomes part of you. First you contemplate and then you rest in the View. The same thing is true of The Four Thoughts That Change the Mind. So please listen…again.

This Precious Human Birth

Contemplate the importance and opportunity of having a precious human birth. We are very fortunate to be born as human beings and to encounter the Dharma. This human existence is invaluable, for we are endowed with the freedom and conditions necessary for practicing Dharma and cultivating our spiritual development.

When you read about the preciousness of a human birth one or two times, you’ll know the concept intellectually. But to feel that having this human life is precious, that is something else. Do you feel it? Most of time, no. Each morning when you wake up, do you feel how precious it is to have this birth? Maybe. But most of time, no. And before you fall asleep, do you feel, “Wow, I’m so lucky I have a nice bed, a warm blanket?” Maybe. But most of time, no. More often you feel the opposite about your life and yourself. You say, “I want more, I want things to be different, better.” Or…“I’m bad, worthless…I’ve been abandoned…I’m unlovable.” Generally, this is because you’re caught by the ego, which is never ever satisfied. It always needs something, wants something because it’s hollow. It’s like a hungry ghost that is never ever fulfilled. So many, many people stay caught there.

But honestly, your life is really very good. That’s what you need to consider about your precious human birth. Think about how much freedom you have because of this human birth, how good this circumstance is for learning the Dharma. You have food, warmth, safety, and you have teachers. In every session of meditation, you need to purposely reflect on this because Buddhist training is based on thinking and then resting the mind. You need to influence your emotional understanding about the preciousness of your human birth, and that influence comes through conscious, repetitive mind training. You just have to think about it again and again until you feel it in your whole system, until everything inside your body agrees that, “I know I have a precious human birth. How important this opportunity is!” Once you have conviction about the preciousness of human existence, you’ll want to use all the time you have in this life as best as you can. As the master Longchen Rabjam said, “We now have the independence to genuinely apply the sacred Dharma, so do not squander your life on pointless things.”

Impermanence and Mortality

Because of ignorance and misperception, we become attached to permanence and solidity. We habitually deny the fact of our mortality, acting as if we will live forever. This misperception of reality only brings more confusion, stress, dissatisfaction, and suffering. However, when we face the inevitability of our death, then we start to wonder what to do about it and how to deal with the uncertainty of life.

When thinking about impermanence, the mind goes straight to negative experiences of impermanence, and you immediately want to make your life better in the time you have. Many of you say that you need to reduce fear of death so you can enjoy life more. You say, “I understand impermanence and death. They are some of the elements of life I’m not so happy about. But I don’t want to think about them, really. They’re scary, so I’m going to accept them without investigating them. That way I won’t be scared and can enjoy this life more before it ends.” But for authentic Dharma that is not the point, really.  Until the Dharma seeds have taken root, fear of death is useful. You need this fear as motivation to learn about death and the bardos because you’re shaping your future life right now. When you appreciate this, you will take karma and practice more seriously.

You say that you feel the meaninglessness of this life and so you practice Dharma and compassion to bring meaning to this life. That is still not good enough. It’s 50% OK, but not 100%. You are still trying to make this life perfect…this life, this life, this life. Still, it’s OK. Understanding Dharma this way will make this life juicier, so it’s OK. But this is what is called “healthy human being Dharma.” So far in the West, 90% of Dharma is devoted to this life, to making this life happier. Becoming a healthy human being is a very good place to start, but it could become a trap. If it were your main purpose for practice, you would be called a “California Dharma Practitioner” because there is so much interest in self-improvement in California. Such a practitioner uses Dharma to make life more pleasant and emotionally comfortable. But there is no reduction of attachment, no reduction of anger, no reduction of jealousy, no reduction of pride, no reduction of ignorance. No reduction of ego, really. In fact, you are simply making ego feel more “spiritual.” Whenever ego suffers from fear of death and your practice turns to seeing impermanence, ego settles down. This actually makes ego more comfortable, more established. The symptoms of the five poisons subside, but Dharma didn’t go to the root. It didn’t purify the five poisons and uproot the dominance of ego. But in this contemplation, we’re talking about going beyond ego, not making it stronger. Dharma is about transcending samsara, not making it a nicer place to be. That is the tough part. Very, very tough.

The actual wording in Tibetan for the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind is “Turning the Mind from Samsara.” With practice you’re reversing the mind’s interest in perfecting this life by turning it away from samsara. Sometimes in the West, practicing with this contemplation on impermanence and death leads only to improving the quality of this life, but not to motivating you to attain liberation.

So what we are talking about is change. Changing the mind, turning it away from its strong attachment to this life. Live life by thinking this way: “If I need some medicine and it helps, I will take it. If yoga or tai ji helps, I will do it. If Dzogchen or Mahamudra or Theravada helps, I will practice it. If music or dancing helps, I will make music, dance and sing. If something helps my life, that is good, but I’m not doing any of this to make this life 100% happy.”

Karma and its Consequences

It is wise for us to contemplate that the quality of our life is fully determined by the quality of our behavior. Our thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions, virtuous and nonvirtuous, create the intricate patterns of our life experience. We ourselves create the causes for our own happiness or our own suffering. When we understand the unwholesome, nonvirtuous actions that cause suffering, we can eliminate those causes. When we understand the wholesome, virtuous actions, which bring happiness and benefit to ourselves and others, we can cultivate those causes. We must begin by acknowledging that our situation in life is the result of our own actions.

So let’s focus on karma, the natural, unequivocal relationship between cause and effect. There cannot be any mistake about this; it is one of the defining characteristics of the Buddha’s teachings. The traditional example is that if you plant rice, you will never obtain wheat or corn from that grain of rice because there is continuity from seed to plant. Yet, even though we start with a certain cause, different conditions come into play and the fruition of that cause might change. Because it’s possible to introduce different causes and conditions, we can change the fruition, we can change the result. But even this is not permanent. How do you know it’s not permanent? You use logic to see it. If karma is dependent on causes and conditions, then it has no intrinsic existence. If it were not dependent, everything in the world would be fixed in the first instant and nothing would ever change. The same is true of kleshas. They, too, are dependent and so have no intrinsic existence. They’re the fruition of causes and conditions coming together.

On his enlightenment, Buddha identified suffering as the nature of our experience. But then he identified the cause of suffering. He saw the origin of suffering is karma and the afflictive emotions. But the cause of suffering is itself impermanent; it actually has no true and permanent existence. The Buddha also saw the interdependent nature of everything, so any particular cause is the result of previous impermanent causes and itself is now an impermanent cause. If it were real or solid, it would be outside dependant existence, and we could never change or eliminate it. But we can bring about change. Change occurs by creating new conditions, and we can change conditions. Causes and conditions are the elements that produce karma and also produce change.

So the conditions that we create are the Path, and the main objective of the path is to eliminate the cause of suffering. You really can delete past karma! But the force of the conditions that change the course of events must be strong to do this.

The Shortcomings of Samsara

A very large obstacle to success on the path of liberation is our attachment to samsara, to the worldly life. Because we are all so strongly attached to this material world, we need to examine with great care whether worldly activities will benefit us in the long run or not. For example, most of us desire possessions, pleasure, comfort, and we also want love and acceptance from others. We work hard to obtain these things, going through much discomfort and even suffering to get them. Ultimately, we will find that clinging to this world as the source of our safety, happiness, and satisfaction is fruitless and futile.

Given all that has been considered in the first three contemplations, this fourth one makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? But for this contemplation to be of real benefit, there needs to be more then intellectual acceptance of samsara’s shortcomings. There needs to be some basic change in your attitude about samsara. To bring about such a change in attitude you need something strong, you need to work with your own mind because your own mind is the root of both samsara and nirvana. The mind has produced your ego, and it’s your ego that’s attached to samsara. Although there really is no “I,” beings still cling to an “I.” Although there’s no ego or intrinsic identity, human beings still cling to the notion that their identity is intrinsic. It’s this clinging that forms the afflictions, the five poisons, and the poisons are what make all beings wander in samsara. Considering this, we can begin to arouse genuine compassion for all beings, including ourselves.

One way to do this is to practice bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain complete enlightenment in order to be of benefit to all sentient beings trapped in samsara. Bodhicitta begins with the practice of compassion.

This contemplation offers you an opportunity to feel how good it would be if all of us were free from the poisons, the afflictions. Bringing your mind to this can open your heart to genuine generosity and the other paramitas. You need to train your mind to keep coming back to bodhicitta by thinking, “Through these practices may I be able to free all beings from their suffering. If I cannot do it right now, may I have the conviction to do it in the future. It may not happen now or next year. It may take fifteen years, or 30 or 40…or the next lifetime, or the next or the next. No matter how long it takes, I want to have strong conviction that one day I will free all beings from suffering.” Never giving up on bodhicitta gives you the fortitude and the strength of mind to carry on in this lifetime.

If we cannot experience this compassion naturally, then we have to apply methods for it to happen. In the beginning it may be artificial and awkward, but we still have to do it. Many Buddhist practices are like this. By fabricating our intentions and actions again and again, at some point they become natural. Everything we become accustomed to, everything we master is like this, isn’t it? It is quite ordinary to begin by fabrication and practice. That is how people learn new languages, to play an instrument, to master a sport, to perfect the art of cooking, even how to make offerings. It is all fabrication, isn’t it? Fabricating compassionate intentions and actions are no different. So we need to practice more than once, more than twice or 100 times. We need to practice bodhicitta 1,000 times, 10,000 times, 1 million times, 100 million times…as long as it takes.

The Kadampa teachers say that as soon as you wake up you should practice bodhicitta. In the morning you practice bodhicitta; at work you practice bodhicitta; while having lunch you practice bodhicitta; in the afternoon you practice bodhicitta; during dinner you practice bodhicitta; in the shower and brushing your teeth you practice bodhicitta; when going to sleep and during your dreams you practices bodhicitta. The next morning upon waking, you practice bodhicitta. All day and all night should be embraced by bodhicitta practice. Over time, it infuses your life.

However, you also need to remember that this mood of compassion has to be present without any attachment or grasping. It needs to be there, but without ownership. By recognizing the emptiness of non-ownership, what begins to arise is absolute bodhicitta (experienced and expressed without any distinction between subject [me] and object [receiver]). At that point compassion and emptiness are indivisibly united and are a natural expression of rigpa [the nature of mind]. Make sure you live the unity of emptiness and compassion, not just rely on the idea.

While remaining in rigpa, compassion can sometimes fade away. Just let it fade. Don’t have hope that it will come back. Maybe it won’t come back at all. But that’s nothing to worry about. When you worry, ego is involved. You need to establish the right attitude, an altruistic attitude in which ego isn’t involved. Then whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it to free your mind from the five poisons and to establish the intention to help other beings to bring them to liberation, no matter how long it may take.

It may happen that you can’t manage to do this in this lifetime. Is this ok with you? Or is it too bad? Really look into this and see what you actually think. Do you think you’re wasting time if it doesn’t come in this life? Or are you willing to practice this way, live this way, no matter how many lifetimes it may take?

(copyright 2010 Pundarika Foundation)

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