The Four Ways Of Changing The Mind
The Four Ordinary Foundations
By Ringu Tulku Rinpoche

"Dharma practice" means working with our mind, dealing with our mind, transforming our mind. Why do we need to transform our mind? Because when our mind is unclear everything becomes distorted. We have no clear understanding of ourselves or our motives, and so problems, confusions and dissatisfactions arise. If we could see our way clearly and become more aware of the way things really are, it would help us to be a little clearer about ourselves, what we are and why we are like that.
There is a great deal of difference, between understanding something and actually putting it into practice. A geography student who has studied the city of Lhasa will describe a different Lhasa from the person who lives there. In the same way, if we come to a conclusion through logical, rational analysis, it will probably differ from a conclusion, which we reach through our experience. When we talk about contemplation, understanding, etc. we can think that Dharma is just philosophy. But that is not the end that is not the real understanding. The real understanding of Dharma is the experience.
A real change in ourselves will not take place through an intellectual approach. We need to find the understanding at an intellectual level, then bring it deep into ourselves so that it becomes a real experience. We need to take the meaning of these four Foundations and through meditation and contemplation absorb this understanding until it becomes part of our system. When that happens, then our fundamental outlook, our basic way of seeing things changes. Soon everything else follows. All the other things, our beliefs, our ways of reacting, also change, because these are dependent on this outlook.
Until we change our basic way of seeing things, nothing else will change. We may have some information on how things really are, but if we do not use that information we will continue to react in the same way. Only when it becomes our experience, will we be transformed. The only way to absorb it into our experience is to think about it again and again, to familiarize ourselves with it so totally that it becomes part of us. There is no other way.
Around 1042 AD, Atisha Dîpankara (982-1084 AD) an Indian scholar and devout Buddhist practitioner, was persuaded to travel across the Himalayas to restore the practice of Dharma in Tibet. Buddhism had been introduced into Tibet in 8th century AD but had lapsed and followers were no longer integrating the teachings into their daily life. Reform was needed and Atisha devised the practice of "The Four Foundations" or the "Ngöndro Practice". This was found to be so clear and so effective that it has been followed by all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism right up to the present day. It is still recommended for every follower of Tibetan Buddhism, whatever their country or nationality. The "Four Ordinary" or "Preliminary" Foundations I am teaching here are the introduction to the Ngöndro Practice of Atisha Dîpankara.
The Precious Human Life
"The first meditation topic concerns the precious human life endowed with every freedom and asset. It is difficult to get and can be easily destroyed, so now is the time to make it meaningful."
The four leading quotations were translated under the kind and illuminating guidance of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche by Katia Holmes, 1980.
It is said that the human realm, the human body, is the perfect condition for the practice of Dharma. In this human body we know about unhappiness but we also have some leisure. We are not completely controlled by our own conditions; we have free will and are able to exercise choice. At the same time, we see the problems of others, their troubles and unhappiness: compassion develops within us and the motivation to help.
Some people think that being born a human being (as opposed to animal or fish or insect) is only precious if you also have certain favorable conditions. But all human life is precious. Unfortunately we don't always value it or appreciate our good fortune. When we don't realize the true value of something, we don't appreciate it in the right way or use it properly. If you have a crystal glass, but do not know it is crystal, you might just treat it as an old jam-jar. If you know it is crystal and therefore precious, then you will treat it carefully and even if you only use it for drinking water, you will appreciate its beauty and feel proud and happy when you use it. You may only be drinking water, but it is from a crystal glass!
When you realize that your life is important, valuable, precious, hard to get and easy to lose you will not idle it away. You will appreciate it more and use it to better purpose. You will not waste it by making yourself uselessly miserable or worrying too much about small things. If something goes wrong, then all right, it goes wrong, but you still have your life, which is very precious. If you understand this deeply, then even if you have nothing else, absolutely nothing except your life, you still have your most important possession.
As you know, human beings are considered the most intelligent species on earth - and maybe we are. We can use this intellect, we can use this power for right or wrong; we can use it to destroy ourselves and the whole universe or we can use it to benefit ourselves and others. But whichever way we use it, we have this great power and this great opportunity.
To understand deeply the value of our human life means to understand the great opportunity we have to benefit so many people - including ourselves. If we really want to and if we really try, we can even eliminate all our problems. If we can develop that understanding, that conviction, whatever we do will be affected and influenced by it.
Moreover, this will not only change the way we look at ourselves but also the way we look at others. When we appreciate ourselves, when we value our own life, then we value others' also. "I appreciate myself as I am so I will not waste my life; and similarly, I shall respect the value of the lives of all other human beings also." If we really see things that way, we could all become pleasant human beings, no? If we first understand this, then think about it over and over again, meditate on it, remember it, and make it part of ourselves, we can actually transform ourselves and become better people.
Human life is precious, difficult to obtain and very easy to lose. When you understand that deeply, when you truly appreciate the value of your life, you will feel a great inspiration, a strong urge to use your life purposefully, for yourself and for others. When you really have that understanding, that attitude, it means you have accomplished the First Foundation.
Death and Impermanence
"Secondly, the universe and everything that lives therein is impermanent - particularly the lives of beings, which are like water-bubbles. The time of death is uncertain, and when you die, you will become a corpse. Dharma will help you at that time, therefore practice it diligently now."
It is not really saying "you", it is saying "I". These philosophies are not abstract; they apply to everyone of us here and also now, to you, the reader of this web-site. When "I" die, I will become a corpse. Dharma will help me at that time, therefore I must practice diligently.
I shall not explain the meaning of "impermanence" and "death", but discuss how we experience them. All of us know that nothing is really permanent. Everybody dies, everything changes - we can see the evidence of it everywhere. It is no secret, it is not difficult to understand. However, when something happens to us, like for instance your car breaks down, or my watch stops working then we get really upset. I know that this watch will stop some day, but when it actually does, I shall be upset. Likewise you can be very disturbed by the death of someone close to you - even though you know that no one lives forever.
The Buddha said that everything that is compounded is impermanent. Everything that has been amassed will be dispersed will come to an end. Anything that has been built up will fall down. Any time that we meet someone, we shall also have to part. Whoever is born has to die. Everything changes. There is no compound substance that does not change and everything is a compound substance. This is the understanding of impermanence.
How do you meditate on impermanence? There are many different ways or different methods. First, contemplate the impermanence of the outside world, and then contemplate the impermanence of the beings living on it.
Think of the world, how it has changed since the beginning of time, how it was formed and how it will disintegrate in the end. This great earth, which we inhabit; the sun and the moon, which we know so well, there will come a time when they too will disintegrate and vanish. Even within this universe, the solar systems, the planets and the stars - these are all moving, changing, growing, shrinking.
There are not only these great changes, but there are so many small changes, like the changing of the seasons, the change from day to night, from sunshine to rain. There is no pause in time every moment brings change. Try to think of these things and understand that this is how to meditate on the impermanence of the outside world.
Now think about the beings on this earth, they are also impermanent. We can look around us and see other beings changing, we can see them growing older, we can see them dying. We can also think of our own death, our own impermanence. In these two ways, we gain understanding and make ourselves more conscious of the nature of impermanence.
Out of these two ways, death is the most important example of how impermanence reveals itself. Contemplation on death is one way of realizing impermanence in its fullest form. One has to understand that everybody, every single person, including you, the reader of this web page, will definitely die one day. We do not know when we shall die but there is nothing in this world that can prevent us from dying.
Why are we so sure that we are going to die? Well, have you seen anyone living now who will live forever and never die? If I breathe out and then do not breathe in, I am dead! You are able to read this now simply because although you slept last night, you did not stop breathing! Life is that insecure! Life is so unstable that if we breathe out and do not breathe in, then we die!
Our life is like a pond, where there is no water flowing in, only water flowing out. When even one drop flows out, the water in the pond decreases. Our life is running out in the same way. Every moment that we live, brings us nearer towards the end, towards death, towards disintegration. It is just foolishness to ignore it. This is the truth and we must face this.
Death is certain but the time is not; we could die at any time. Being young is not a guarantee against death; good health is also not a guarantee against death. Our wealth cannot stop it, nor our position, our friends, nor can any of our physical or mental powers and there is absolutely no certainty when death will come. We must contemplate that one day we shall die and try to come to terms with this fact.
Too often people think the idea of death is miserable and depressing and it is unlucky to think or talk about it. Although we know we are going to die sometime, when we see other people dying this makes us feel afraid and insecure. However if we consider this issue more deeply, an awareness and acceptance of death is not going to make us unhappy or depressed. Quite the opposite! If we understood it we would be happier, because we would feel no fear.
If we truly accepted that we have come together for only a short time, and will part soon I think we would not waste so much time quarrelling and scheming. If we knew for certain that we were going to die, say next Monday, then all the small problems of today would become insignificant and we would really appreciate being alive. Only when we really confront death can we appreciate life. And if we can really acquire a deep understanding of impermanence, then I think we would appreciate life more and enjoy it instead of being trapped in its small irritations.
Impermanence does not mean that everything comes to a standstill; it means that everything changes. Because of impermanence, because of inter-dependence, there is change, growth and decline. Therefore, what we are now will not last; we are changing all the time. What we experience now, the difficult and painful as well as the comfortable and enjoyable - will also change.
This also means that as nothing is permanent, or really stable, we ourselves can bring about change. We can make things better or we can make them worse. If we change ourselves for the better that will have a positive affect on everyone around us. So if we want to improve our mind and our attitude to life we should start to do it now because we might not get such a good opportunity again. We must not be slack or complacent, thinking, "I have a precious human body, yeah!" That's not enough. That too will change, and what then?
Meditation on impermanence is a "motivator", an understanding that gives you a strong motivation to practice Dharma. Everything is going to change and some day I shall die. When I die, the only thing "I" can take with me is my mind - my actions and reactions, my conditioning. Therefore, the only way I can help myself is to change the way my mind reacts. Only Dharma can help me do this, so I shall practice Dharma.
Thirdly, after your death, you will have to experience your own karma, having no degree of control over what happens. So give up harmful actions - all your time should be spent in the practice of virtue. Thinking this way, evaluate your life daily.
Karma means "actions and reactions", "causes and effects". Karma is not something you believe, but something you understand. Whether you believe in it or not, karma will still happen; if you can acquire an understanding of it, that will help you to improve.
Everything that happens is the continuation of something that went on before. A combination of a number of particular elements will give rise to a particular situation. Another combination will give another situation. It is like chemistry. If you combine hydrogen and oxygen, you get water. This applies not only to all the things we can see, but also to all our actions. We are completely responsible ourselves for what will happen to us in the future as well as for what we are now. What we are now, and what we do now is the result of our past actions. The way we act at present is going to affect our the future; therefore unless we make some major changes, what we will be in the future will be very similar to what we are now.
The "law" of karma does not work like man-made laws. Nobody is recording our actions in a notebook and deciding the reward or punishment. "He/she did this, therefore he/she deserves to be treated like this!" It does not work like that. There is nobody acting as a judge "Do this!" or "You must not do that!". Too many people have this understanding of religion and react very negatively. If you see it that way, you will feel resentful and probably do the opposite! On the other hand, if you understand karma, you will follow the advice out of self-interest and therefore have a happier life.
Everything that happens, everything we do with strong feelings, with strong emotions is incorporated into our own mind stream, into our way of thinking and reacting; and it reinforces our emotional and thought patterns. It becomes part of our own personality, and therefore it gives rise to the same result. Many people tell me "I have this problem because of a big shock I experienced in my childhood." This is well known nowadays, isn't it? How does it happen? It is the same thing; this is how karma works. It is not that you did something in your childhood, something happened, you experienced it and you reacted. Whatever we do, whatever strong reaction we have, becomes part of our being. It matures in us and when certain circumstances come together, the reaction reappears, sometimes with even greater power. When that happens, sometimes there is not much we can do about it because it has grown so strong.
Sometimes, when something bad or unpleasant happens to us, we become disturbed and frustrated, "How can this happen to me? I don't deserve this!" We get angry and resentful. We shouldn't. It happens because of our own past of something we did ourselves but there is no need to blame ourselves either, because it may go back to particular events that happened to us a very long time ago. If we understood and accepted the law of karma, it would be easier for us to accept what we are going through.
We can see examples of how karma works in this lifetime, and if we place it in the broader, longer perspective of many lifetimes, we will understand more easily how it functions. Of course, life is not always easy. There is good and there is bad. But if we can accept the unpleasant and difficult and also the pleasant and enjoyable as the result of our own karma, we will not look for something or somebody to blame, neither will we be angry or conceited.
It is important to understand that karma will inevitably change because it too, is not permanent or independent. Everything that happens is only temporary, so even if something negative, something really unpleasant should happen, we should see that although it is painful it will pass. It will not last; it is a temporary thing, which we need to work with and purify to ensure that it does not happen again. Karma is cause and effect and can also be changed by our own efforts. A "problem" is something in our mind-stream, so when we have a big problem, we should not try to run away but try to solve it with a quieter, less agitated mind. If we can do that, things will no longer feel so heavy.
Briefly, the "law" of karma is that if we do something good, with a good intention, then there will be a positive result; if we do something bad, something harmful, then there will be a negative result. It is not difficult to understand. If I smile at him, he smiles back. If I frown at him, he frowns back. If I throw a stone in the sky, it will fall down heavily, if I throw a flower, it will flutter down lightly. Everything is like that. That is the main understanding of karma.
Let us assume that it is understood. Now what we are trying to do is to bring that understanding into our own experience. For instance, if I develop strong anger, and nurse this hatred and resentment for a long time, what will be the result on me, what will I become? And if instead of anger and hate, I develop love, kindness and joy and nurse these strongly for long enough, what will I become?
What we are now will continue. In this life, we have childhood, youth, old age. Sometimes people blame their youth for all their problems and disturbances and think that when they grow older, everything will calm down. I think that is completely wrong. I am forty-six years old and have not changed much! So if I have not changed in the last forty-six years, I don't think I will change much in the next forty-six years either! If I created all sorts of fears and anxieties in my early years, then they will stay with me and will continue to affect me not only in this life but in the next lives also, in a long chain. This is the understanding of karma.
Of course, we cannot understand all our karma in every detail. It is too complicated because it is all-dependent on so many factors. Nobody has only good or only bad karma; it is all mixed up, what we call a "kedgeree" meal in India. Have you ever eaten "kedgeree"? It is a mixture of everything, including all the "leftovers". It is mainly rice, but then you add meat, vegetables - anything you have in the cupboard. Our karma is a "kedgeree", a bit of everything - including the "leftovers" and that bit in the back of the fridge which has been there so long you don't even know what it is!
When we have this strong understanding of how karma works, then it becomes obvious that in order to improve ourselves we have to do something about our negative emotions. We know that if we create strong karma, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to control. If you become very depressed, even if you know there is no real cause, it is too strong to push away. Maybe if you had recognized the warning light a long time ago, you could have lessened its effect but by now it has become too strong. When our negative karma comes to full maturity, it is very difficult to control.
If we understand that it is for our own good, we are more likely to take notice and try to work with our negative reactions, because we know they will create painful results later for ourselves or for others. If we know clearly that something will affect us and those around us in an unpleasant way, either in the immediate future or in the long term, then we shall be less likely to do it, even if the wish is there. There is a story to illustrate this!
There was once a shepherd who was determined to improve himself so he went to a wise hermit to ask his advice. The hermit told him to take two bags of pebbles, one with black pebbles, one with white. While sitting looking after his sheep, he should watch his thoughts: if a negative thought came in his mind, he should take a black pebble and put it on one side. If a positive thought came in his mind, he should take a white pebble and put it on the other side. The shepherd did this, and after a while, he saw that the pile of black pebbles was really growing high, while the white one was very small. He was a little worried, and went back to the hermit to ask what he should do. The hermit answered, "It doesn't matter. Don't bother. Just keep on as you are." After a while, slowly, slowly, the two piles became similar, and after some time, the white pile became bigger than the black one.
As we say in Tibetan, "To know what you were in the past, just look at yourself now, and to know what you will be in the future, just look at your actions now." You do not have to consult a fortune-teller to know what you were in your former life: what you were then was about the same as you are now. And if you want to know what you will be in the future look at what you are doing now, because you are creating your own future. The understanding, the experience of karma, that conviction, will strengthen your positive approach to doing things. If we know what is wrong and what is right and if we are watchful, we will go the right way. Start carefully because there is a long way to go. When there is a long way to go, we walk slowly and steadily, don't we? If we start by rushing, we don't get very far.
One is constantly tormented by the three kinds of suffering. Therefore samsaric places, friends, pleasures and possessions are like a part (in a play) given by an executioner who will then lead one to the place of execution. Cutting through the snares of attachment, strive for enlightenment with diligence.
We continue in this way: our actions create results and these in their turn create more actions and more results. It goes on and on. What is this situation like? Is it nice, wonderful, or are there some difficulties, some things we want to change? This is what we contemplate. What kind of mental state are we in right now? If we have no problems at all, if everything is nice and good, then it is all right. There is no need to do anything else. But if this is not the case, we should try to identify the problems inherent to this way of life, to this way of thinking, and what has caused them.
When we look at our life, or at others' lives, we see that there are problems, stress, unhappiness... Life can be pretty tough at times. The Buddha himself did not see his own poverty as a problem, but he looked into life and saw childbirth, old age, sickness and death.
How do these affect us? Can we escape them or not? We all have to die, and we all get old and sick although we don't want to. These problems are hard to bear sometimes. And they happen again and again. When we solve one problem, we get another one! What are the main causes, the main reasons why these problems arise? As everybody gets sick, grows older, dies... why does it bother us so much? Why do we find it so hard to bear?
If we look at our life we can see three kinds of suffering, or situations that we find hard to bear. The first is the suffering of suffering. This is when we have an obvious problem like getting what we don't want or not getting what we do want; or when we experience actual pain, or the death of someone we love - something that really makes us miserable.
That kind of problem does not just happen once and disappear forever when it is solved. It doesn't happen like that. Those problems that really make us suffer will happen again, because we are going that way, because we accept the unpleasantness as unavoidable and it becomes a habit. If we are used to something, then we take it for granted. We identify so much with our sufferings that we consider them part of ourselves, part of our identity.
This is no special exception, it is happening all the time. Sometimes, Buddhists are accused of being very dull, very serious people, always contemplating suffering. But when Buddhists talk about suffering, we understand that it is unpleasant and undesirable. We try to see the issue clearly, accept things for what they are, and then do what we need to do to get out of it. The main issue for Buddhists is to understand the cause of suffering and know how to stop it.
I think it is important at this stage to understand what we mean by "accept". "Acceptance" is not a passive attitude by which we just let things happen. Acceptance means that we see whatever is going on exactly as it is - not coloring it, not hiding it under a carpet, not cheating ourselves by pretending it is something else. "This is pretty awful, so what shall I do about it?" And then we do whatever is necessary to get out of it, we work on the causes of suffering, in whatever way is appropriate. That is the approach.
The second type of suffering is the suffering of change. If we look closely, even when we have no specific problem, no actual pain, we have a fear of change. Everything changes, continuously; nothing remains as it is, even from one moment to the next. Nothing is permanent. We are all right now, but it is not going to last. When we have everything, when everything is fine and we have no problems, then we worry that something might happen, that something might change. We carry that worry, that fear lurking at the back of our mind, deep in our heart. And insurance policies do not banish the fear - they only cushion it.
The third type of suffering is the suffering ingrained in the nature of everything. When we discussed impermanence and karma, we found that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that we can rely on. Everything is affected by everything else, one-thing changes and the rest follows. Everything exists only as a continuous flow and there is no rock on which we can build a foundation.
Have you noticed that somehow you are nearly always in a slight state of anxiety or under pressure of some kind? And you are not always sure why. That is samsára. To put it simply, samsára is not the physical world around us, but our way of seeing things and our mental reaction to it. Samsara is a state of mind where we continuously feel aversion and attachment. We label our reactions, "This is bad. I don't want this. I can't bear this." That is aversion, and aversion is, I think, the most important ingredient in the sufferings of samsára. When we cannot bear something we naturally want to escape, to run away from it, but we cannot run away from it, because the aversion is in our mind. Aversion gives rise to fear, and because of fear, we develop attachment.
Attachment is the need to cling to something because we think it might be the solution to our fears or we feel we cannot do without it. We would feel threatened if we didn't have it. Sometimes, people ask me whether there is any difference between love and attachment. There is a great difference! Attachment is self-oriented, you clutch onto something just for your own need. Compassion and love are directed towards others, not towards yourself. When you feel genuine compassion, genuine love, it cannot turn into hatred. But attachment can turn into jealousy and hatred in a second, just like that. That is the difference.
Attachment and aversion are like the two sides of a coin. But even if we run after something and are able to grab it, it never gives us complete peace and happiness because the problem lies in the way our mind reacts. So our life become a never-ending chase. For example, I think I need a particular house; it is the answer. If I get this house I will find lasting happiness. Then I go after it, doing all different kinds of things. I work long hours, I hurt others, I undergo many difficulties and problems, and finally I get that house. But then I find nothing has changed. I am still stressed. I still have problems. Fears and anxieties are still there. Then I think that I was wrong, "No, the house is OK, but I need a better car!" Then again, with many difficulties, I chase after the car. At last I get the car I wanted, "Yes! Now I've got it!" .But I haven't "got it". I find that nothing has changed. Everything still goes on as before.
Attachment, this running after things, comes from fear, from aversion. That aversion/attachment mentality, that way of reacting, is samsára. In such a state of mind where you are always running away from something or running after something, you will never find peace. This is why we talk of the "Wheel of samsára". When you have a water mill, the water flows day and night, so the mill is turning day and night, it never stops. That is samsára. We have to run all the time without ever resting. We are always trying to avoid something or get something.
According to Buddhism, there are six different realms in samsára arising from the six negative emotions. If your anger or hatred is very strong, then you will be born in the hell realms of fire or ice. If your greed, or your avarice is very strong, then you will be born into the hungry ghost realm where no matter how much you get you will never be satisfied. If your ignorance is very great, if you refuse to learn, or if you are confused or dull, you will be re-born as an animal or fish. In the wild, your life will be a constant search for food and avoiding being eaten; if you are a farm animal or pet you will be at the mercy of your owner.
If jealousy is your strongest emotion, then you will be born in the demi-gods' realm spending your time fighting, feuding, always looking over your shoulder. If you are very proud, then you will be born into the gods-realm, you will be rich but you will be selfish. If your desire is great, then you will be born into the human realm. But the human realm, as I said at the beginning, is called "the precious human birth" and is the best of all if you genuinely want to improve yourself and work for the benefit of all beings.
When you talk about being born in one of these "samsaric realms" they are not physical places, but states of mind as the result of your conditioning. In the hell realm for example, all your misery, all your burning hatred will become more real so you see everything through a fog of anger and paranoia. That is the hell realm.
It is often said that in the same day or even the same hour, we can experience the hell realm, the heavenly realm, and the human realm according to our state of mind. It is also said that one glass of water can be seen in the different realms as different things. A human being would see this as nice drinking water. A hell realm person would see it as foul poison, and someone from the gods-realm would see it as champagne perhaps. These different views are, quite simply, the results of our own conditioning, our own karmic action and reaction.
We can be very attached to our problems and completely wrapped up in our own unhappiness. We should not dwell on or give in to the things, which make us unhappy, but try and understand the nature of their origin. By doing this, we should be able to leave our problems behind and escape out of the samsaric confusion and delusion.
Complete happiness and complete freedom do not exist in samsára; they too are states of mind. The only way to find complete freedom and happiness is to become liberated from our samsaric state of mind. To achieve this, we must realize and develop the true quality of our Buddha-nature, our innate, basic goodness. With this realization, it is possible to escape completely from our confusion, our stress, our delusion and to attain enlightenment. It is possible to be truly happy all the time instead of just thinking you are now and then.
To leave samsára behind we must reach a state of mind where we no longer feel aversion or attachment for anything. Whatever happens is acceptable. We can cope comfortably with anything. And as we don't fear anything, we don't have to cling to anything either. When we understand that, it means that we are on the Path, we are actually practicing Dharma. Real practice of Dharma is understanding our own potential and working towards it.
"If you can change it, do so, and therefore why worry? If you can't change it, what's the point of worrying?"
"As long as space exists
And beings endure
May I too remain
To dispel the misery of this world"