Via Frank Berliner, from the Holiday 2008 issue.
Let’s explore the teaching on The Four Reminders, or The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Toward the Dharma. Generally speaking, this teaching is connected with the Medium level of motivation to practice meditation, which we discussed in the Summer issue.
The Buddha taught that our human world is basically one of passion. It is a higher level of passion than what “hungry ghosts” experience, because it is mixed with intelligence and resourcefulness. Our passion is practical and ingenious, so we can secure the things we require. Yet because of the First Mark of Existence, the truth of impermanence, nothing in this world gives any permanent satisfaction.
The second kind of suffering—the pain of constant alternation—is also characteristic of our human experience. Change causes us to endlessly dance between desire, dissatisfaction, further desire, and on and on.
But it is also characteristic of the intelligence of the human realm that we can detach from this cycle of frustration. We can look at our situation objectively and clearly. This is what the Buddha did, and we can do so too—precisely because we have longing and the intelligence to look at how it operates. This is why the truth of suffering in human life is called a “Noble Truth” in the teachings of the Buddhadharma. The suffering and confusion we experience—when looked at with deep clarity and kindness—contain the seeds of their own undoing. The human realm is considered precious, because the struggle to maintain our kleshas [see glossary, at bottom] as a solid experience is not quite so overwhelming that there are no gaps of clarity. There is opportunity to reflect on the futility of the whole game of longing; therefore we can stop playing it.
So this recognition of the special opportunity for liberation that the human realm offers is a vital teaching. There is a heartfelt appreciation for having been born as a human being, rather than in one of the other “realms”—particularly since the existence of the other realms and the inevitability of rebirth were both taken as literal truths in Tibetan culture.
Reflecting upon this truth was meant to rekindle the inspiration to practice meditation on a daily basis.
This reflection is the first of the Four Reminders—which were traditionally chanted by Tibetan monks and yogis before each meditation practice session:
First, this precious human body, free and well-favored,
Is difficult to gain, and easy to lose—
Now I must do something meaningful.
Now, this attitude—and the experience that grows out of it—is traditionally called Renunciation. In the Asian countries where the Dharma has been practiced for 2,500 years, renunciation has been connected with literally following the Buddha’s example. That is, renouncing the world, becoming a monk or nun or mendicant yogi with few or no worldly possessions or attachments. In Southeast Asian countries such as Burma and Thailand, young practitioners would go into the forests to hermitages or solitary retreat huts and practice meditation completely apart from the societies in which they had been born and raised by their parents. And to do this was something the larger society sanctioned and supported. It was considered that the practitioners were doing it for everyone’s benefit: to give them patronage, food or any kind of material support conferred merit on the benefactor. A similar tradition existed in Tibet.
So the practice of renunciation became an honored part of the life of the individual and his or her larger society supporting their efforts to follow the Buddha’s example in as pure a way as possible. The Lineage Supplication, which was chanted by one of the orders of Tibetan monks for nearly a thousand years, was translated by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche for his Western students:
Renunciation is the foot of meditation, as is taught—
To this meditator who is not attached to food or wealth—
Who cuts the ties to this life—
Grant your blessing so that I have no desire for honor and gain.
For someone who wishes to follow the Buddha’s example in our modern West, the support for this experience of renunciation is not so embedded in our culture’s values. It is more as if one has a personal connection with the teachings—either because of having heard or read them, or having met an inspiring teacher, or having committed oneself to the practice of mindfulness in a wholehearted way, or all of these factors. Other than living and working at a retreat center, there are few avenues to renounce the world in the traditional way.
But what happens instead is that as we continue to study and practice the dharma, our mindfulness begins slowly to expand into a larger awareness. It’s as if the dharma begins to haunt you and you can’t get away from it. It’s that kind of experience—haunting and heartfelt—when you realize more and more that the dharma is true and that it applies to your life.
Personally experiencing the truth of the Three Marks of Existence is a good example. As you contemplate them in view of your experience, you’ll realize that they aren’t neat conceptual categories out of a book. The direct experience of the Marks is choiceless and inescapable—it’s happening to you all the time. Seeing how things constantly change, you become haunted by the effort of continually trying to maintain your balance in the midst of change. You are haunted by feeling that, at last, just when you’re sure you finally have the whole thing under control once again, something unexpected happens to pull the rug out from under you.
Or when you want to believe that somehow the teaching that ego doesn’t really exist might provide an escape from the whole process—as if saying to yourself, “Well if it’s all egoless then it’s not really happening to me, is it?”—but finding out instead that the truth of non-ego actually means that your experience of the whole thing is more vivid, more direct than ever. Like the Buddhist-Jewish (Buju) joke: “If there’s no self, whose arthritis is this?”
So this is a simple experience, but a powerful one. It isn’t a sudden explosive revelation at all, but rather that it seeps into your mindstream through consistent meditation practice, it begins to grow on you, until you realize that the three marks are just a straightforward and irrefutable description of how your own life—and everyone else’s life—is unfolding. And in fact, the second of the Four Reminders for meditation practice traditionally draws the practitioner’s attention to the essence of the Three Marks. It says:
Second, the world and its inhabitants are impermanent,
Especially the life of beings is like a bubble,
Death comes without warning—this body will be a corpse,
At that time only the Dharma can help me—I will practice it now with exertion.
This emphasis on the importance of contemplating the certainty of death as a way of inspiring one to a sense of urgency about spiritual practice is common to many traditions. If you read the first book by Carlos Castaneda on his apprenticeship with the Yaqui Indian shaman, Don Juan, you may recall the moment when Don Juan tells Carlos that in order to become an accomplished warrior, he must be serious about what he is doing, he must stop his incessant talking both aloud and to himself. “Stop your internal dialogue,” Don Juan tells Carlos. And when Carlos asks him how to do this, Don Juan tells him to visualize that death is always sitting on his left shoulder, every moment, and that remembering this will help him realize that there is no time for idle, frivolous chatter.
The example of Thoreau in his classic book, Walden, is along these same lines. His experiment in mindful, simple living, which he conducted for two years in a cabin he built on the shores of a lovely pond in the woods of Massachusetts in 1845, had the same purity and power of intention as a Buddhist monk in the forests of Burma. As he said in his chapter called, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For:”
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach; and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.
Thoreau discovered that he could live quite beautifully with few possessions or comforts—that this simplicity afforded him the chance to be with himself, to look at his life and the lives of his neighbors with sympathy and detachment, appreciation and wisdom. He consciously withdrew from the commercial bustle of 19th century New England in order to reflect upon life’s deeper meaning and purpose. And he was regarded as eccentric by his contemporaries for doing so—a telling example of the challenge that has faces any person in our materialistic culture who pursues such a path.
Thoreau died at the age of 43. He never married, and his only relatives were his two maiden aunts, proper Bostonian ladies and pious pillars of the Church who regarded him as the black sheep of the family. The story goes that they visited him during his final illness, and that as they stood by his bedside, one of them said disapprovingly, “So, Henry, have you made your peace with God yet?” And he gently replied, “My dear aunt, I was not aware that God and I had ever quarreled.” This anecdote has always expressed to me the depth and integrity of Thoreau’s own path of renunciation.
Thoreau wrote a number of books, but two that were personally important were Walden and An Essay on Civil Disobedience—coming of age as I did during the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s. I took Walden as especially auspicious because that was also my middle name; I thought this synchronicity meant we had a fraternal bond. This is the romantic way young people think sometimes—and it’s not entirely misguided.
I remember that after reading it, I resolved to move to rural northern Vermont and stay there living a “back to the land” existence as long as I could, which I did. I won’t go into details except to say that I did not attain any profound sense of renunciation from doing so. Still, it was a well-meaning attempt, a meaningful gesture despite its naiveté. At that time, a lot of us were “dropping out.” We looked at our society and said, “We don’t want this. We’re going to start something new, something simpler and more wholesome.” Looking back on those years, I have no regrets about having taken that leap.
A student of meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Frank Berliner teaches Buddhist psychology and meditation at Naropa University.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS:
DHARMA>> Teachings of the Buddha, literally: ‘Truth.”
Hungry Ghost Realm>> When we experience obsessive need.
Klesha>> Overwhelmed by neurosis.
Karma>> Cause & Effect; Interdependence.
Three Marks of Existence>> Impermanence, Suffering, No Self. Samsara: living a confused life.
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