At our meditation study and practice meetings in New Hampshire, we often talked about the Four Thoughts, also known as the Four Reminders. Their full title is the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind, i.e., redirect it from worldly to spiritual concerns.
Lama Norlha Rinpoche has always placed a great deal of emphasis on really getting to know these thoughts; he says it is like building the foundation of your house. If you haven’t really internalized these thoughts, your Dharma practice will never be truly stable. (Just before we entered the three-year retreat, he gave a teaching on these same four thoughts.) Whenever you find yourself wavering about whether to do your meditation or go make some popcorn and put in a dvd, you can always come back to the Four Thoughts to remind yourself why the dvd isn’t going to help you when things go wrong.
Informally expressed, the Four Thoughts are:
The Precious Human Existence: We need to appreciate what a rare opportunity we have in this life; we have everything we need in order to free ourselves from the otherwise endless cycle of confusion and suffering. We are not gravely impaired or imprisoned in a situation that leaves us no leisure; and we have access to the Buddha’s teachings and to living teachers who can help us apply them. Not everyone has this situation, and we might not have it ourselves the next time around; we need to put it to work for us.
Impermanence and Death: Darn, there’s that D-word again. Why do Buddhists have to be so morbid? Because it’s the truth: we don’t know how long this opportunity is going to last. Even if we don’t die tomorrow, something could happen that could prevent us from practicing. It could happen any minute (wait, is that the phone?)—so we have to make use of our time right now!
Karma, Cause and Result: This one is very complicated; even if I understood it, I wouldn’t try to explain it! But Jamgon Kongtrul, the great nineteenth-century Kagyu teacher, says in The Lamp of the Definitive Meaning (aka, The Torch of Certainty, translated by Judith Hanson) that anyone can understand the fundamental underlying law of karma: virtuous-positive-helpful actions lead to future happiness, and unvirtuous-negative-harmful actions lead to future suffering. Part of Dharma practice is to conduct ourselves in the world in such a way that we don’t create more negative conditions for ourselves or others. This isn’t a moralistic edict, it’s completely practical: we are looking out for our own future, which may kick in to some extent in this lifetime, but really takes hold when we die and as we move on to our next life. As Lama Norlha Rinpoche often advises: don’t set yourself up for regrets on your deathbed, because there’s nothing you can do about them then.
The Disadvantages of Samsara: Samsara is the Sanskrit word (Tibetan kor.wa) for the endless cycle of suffering that goes round and round from lifetime to lifetime. The Buddha taught that it’s all suffering, every atom of it. Even what feels like fun is suffering in disguise: if it doesn’t make you fat or aggravate your asthma, at best it has to end; and if you look at anything in life closely enough, you see that it came to you via a trail of others’ pain and destruction, especially if you believe, as Buddhists do, that even tiny animals count. (How many insects died for your bowl of brown rice or strawberries?)
For a more classical presentation and more detail about the Four Thoughts, some good books are The Torch of Certainty by Jamgon Kongtrul, The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, and two books by Kalu Rinpoche: The Writings of Kalu Rinpoche (his first book, available from KTC Monastery) and Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism.