The Four Foundations: Thoughts that Turn the Mind Towards the Dharma
Venerable Ji Qun
When we first begin to practise the Buddhist path, it is necessary for our minds to turn towards the Dharma. This is accomplished by relying on the Four Thoughts which are the common foundations for one’s practice. All previous masters and siddhas contemplated on these Four Thoughts.
The Four Thoughts to contemplate on are:
1) Precious Human Rebirth;
2) Impermanence and Death;
3) Karma, Cause and Consequence; and
4) Suffering of Samsara.
1. Recognising the great significance and preciousness of this human rebirth
We have a precious human rebirth replete with freedoms and endowments. It enables us to learn the Buddha-Dharma and holds great meaning, but its value needs to be actualised by taking refuge in the Three Jewels.
The freedoms and endowments refer to the eight freedoms and ten endowments. The eight freedoms are: (1) freedom from rebirth in the hell realm; (2) freedom from rebirth in the hungry ghost realm; (3) freedom from rebirth in the animal realm; (4) freedom from being blind, deaf or dumb; (5) freedom from false worldly views; (6) freedom from being born at a time when the genuine Dharma has vanished; (7) freedom from being born in the northern Uttarakuru continent; and (8) freedom from being born in the god realm of non-discrimination.
The ten endowments are: (1) the endowment of being born human; (2) the endowment of being born where the four types of disciples are present; (3) the endowment of being born where there is Buddha-dharma, with complete sense faculties to hear, accept and retain the Buddha-dharma; (4) the endowment of not having committed or caused others to commit the five actions of immediate retribution; (5) the endowment of not being obscured by false views such as the denial of karma and its results; (6) the endowment of teacher, which refers to encountering the advent of a Buddha in the world; and (7) the endowment of meeting the peerless Buddha-dharma; (8) the endowment of achieving results from one’s practice and so forth in accordance with the Dharma; (9) the endowment of having scriptural and realisation Dharma being transmitted in the world; and (10) the endowment of having favourable necessities, that is the complete necessary collections for practice. Among these ten endowments, the first five are inner and the rest are outer.
These endowments can be summarised into the following main points:
1. The foremost is to possess unimpaired intellect, so that one has the abilities to study and understand the Buddha-dharma;
2. The next is to be free from disabilities such as being deaf or blind, so that one is able to read the scriptures or hear one’s spiritual guide explain the Dharma;
3. The third is being free from the obstacles of misconceptions, such as completely denying religion due to having come under the influence of certain trends of thought;
4. The fourth is living in a place where there are opportunities to hear the Dharma.
What exactly is the value of such a human rebirth? Its value is priceless, for it endows us with the ability to unearth the limitless treasures of our life: to eliminate all our future sufferings and those of all other beings, and to proceed to the state of liberation on the other shore together with all sentient beings.
None of these accomplishments can be achieved through any kind of wealth. Of course, if we are unable to use our human rebirth correctly, our human rebirth can cause us to create negative karma and fall into the lower realms. Or it can cause us to become its slave, so that we spend our entire life toiling and undergoing strife for its sake. What a stark contrast between gain and loss here!
To begin with, a human rebirth is already difficult to obtain. Now, a human rebirth endowed with the freedoms and endowments is even more difficult to obtain. If we do not know how to cherish it and are not skilful in uncovering its potential, then our existence will be squandered in the worst possible way. Suppose a person has been sentenced to imprisonment for a hundred years due to a serious crime. During this period he is allowed half a day of free activity. If he uses this opportunity to perform meritorious acts to atone for his crime, he will be able to enjoy total freedom for the next fifty years. If instead, he simply uses it to have fun, then even though he may experience some degree of happiness right there and then, what follows will still be lengthy imprisonment. And if he is not careful and creates further wrongdoings while enjoying himself, he may be subjected to prolonged and even more intense misery in jail.
The plight of sentient beings in cyclic existence is just like that. We have no idea how many times we have been wandering in cyclic existence life after life, appearing and disappearing on this long pathway of birth and death without end. It is with difficulty that we have obtained this long-awaited chance to be liberated, a status that will enable us to engage in practice. If we do not seize it to transform ourselves with joyous effort and achieve liberation, very quickly we will go on to take rebirth in cyclic existence. At this junction with several options leading to different destinations, we must identify the correct direction to take and make a timely decision as to where we are to go.
Practising the Dharma is a path we need to traverse in order to unearth the boundless treasures of our life. Obtaining a human rebirth is equivalent to getting the precious chance to decide how our life will unfold in the future. As we come to be aware of this fact, can we bear to give it up easily? Will we not take action immediately? If there exists a poor man who hears that he is in possession of a priceless treasure but is in no hurry to find it, but instead passionately pursues all kinds of trivial gains at the cost of his life, we will certainly bemoan his foolishness. Now what is unfortunate is that we ourselves have been such a fool life after life. Busying ourselves for our entire life for the sake of external possessions, which we did not bring along at birth and will not take away at death, we neglect to unearth our own treasures. Or we might have tried for a short while with great enthusiasm, but readily abandoned the endeavour when the search proved to be difficult or long. We behave in such a foolish manner because we do not understand the precious value of our human rebirth.
2. Being mindful of death and impermanence
Likewise, being mindful of death and impermanence is a strong driving force. The Buddha said, “The observation of impermanence is sufficient for one to attain the path.” This quintessential statement should be deeply impressed upon the mind of every Buddhist. Perhaps some people will feel puzzled, “I’m living just fine. Be mindful of death? Won’t that just be looking for trouble for myself?” Yet others may develop the misunderstanding that Buddhism inclines people towards becoming passive and escapist.
The truth is, Buddhism emphasises the mindfulness of death and impermanence so that we can fully understand the harsh reality and be constantly prepared to handle any mishaps. Even if death were to suddenly descend upon us, we will be able to face it with ease, control and confidence. In this sense, the mindfulness of death urges us to be proactive in using this life to practise the Dharma, and thereby accomplish the turning point in the transformation of our life.
In this world, most people are preoccupied with making a living, pursuing fame and gain, and indulging in pleasure. Notwithstanding the constant struggle and the price they have to pay physically and mentally, even if they were to become successful in the end, what would they have added to their life? They would have added nothing but some momentary satisfaction and fleeting worldly purpose. When death comes to us, will such achievements enable us to depart from this life without regrets and face death unflinchingly?
If there is birth, there will definitely be death. Like the shadow cast by an object in sunlight that cannot be shaken off, none of us can escape death. What is frightening about death is that the time of death is uncertain. Some people die in an accident soon after being born. Some pass away only at a ripe old age of a hundred years old. Some die due to illness while some leave suddenly due to an unexpected calamity. Nobody can guarantee that he will definitely be alive tomorrow. Even for us who are alive and well today, our breathing can just stop and we may find ourselves in a future rebirth with our next breath. Death is a phantom whose whereabouts are uncertain; we do not know when we will fall into its clutches.
We cannot predict how much more time is left for us in this life. It may be a few decades, one year or even a day, before we are caught off guard and lose this only chance where we can act as the master of our own destiny. We may suddenly die even before we have the time to sigh. Our precious human rebirth replete with its freedoms and endowments, having expired, will go down the drain. What other loss in this world can be more tragic?
When death comes, having a high status will not be able to save us. Riches will not be able to help us and our relatives will not have the power to prevent us from dying. In this boundless universe consisting of the billion-fold world systems, what can give us strength, allow us to face death fearlessly, and provideus with the power to transcend birth and death?
As far as our continuum of life is concerned, only the Buddha-dharma has everlasting true meaning. Everything else is just a dream, an illusion, a bubble or a reflection.
Actually, it is not necessary to wait until death to recognise our circumstances as such. When elderly people recall the past events of their youth, do they not lament that life is like a dream, worldly matters are like illusions, and no trace whatsoever will be left behind?
For this reason, being mindful of death will enable us to clearly see our perilous situation in cyclic existence, recognise the significance of the Buddha-dharma in our life, and naturally give rise to the thought to seek protection, just as someone who falls into water will immediately look to a strong person extending a helping hand. This is a very important prerequisite. Just imagine, is it possible for such a person, who is on the verge of drowning, to have wandering emotions and thoughts? If someone in those circumstances were to have the luck to meet a rescuer at that point in time, would he not cling on to the rescuer for dear life without letting go even slightly? In a certain sense, if we fail to contemplate death for a single day, it is likely that the day will pass in vain. This is because we will unknowingly revert to our old ways and come under their control. Our habits have enormous force and need to be counteracted by applying the powerful antidote of being mindful of death.
Mindfulness of death and impermanence is like the deafening chimes of a bell issuing alerts to worldly people. Each chime reminds us to cherish every minute and second that we have now, and to use our time to accomplish the most important task of this life. This kind of attitude is similar to that of a person who is about to die treasuring what little remaining time he has, without allowing himself to be indolent even slightly. Therefore, being mindful of death and impermanence should lay the foundation for all our Dharma practices.
3. Meditating on the infallibility of karma and its results
Karma is an important force impelling the continuation of life. In a certain sense, karma creates everything, and karma is everything. Since the very existence of life is the existence of karma, the continuation of life is the continuation of karma. Karma refers to the imprints left behind by the actions of our body, speech and mind. Among them, some are strong while others are weak. These imprints or forces are accumulated over our past lives. Some people accumulate only a particular type of force, while some accumulate only another type of force. For example, people who continuously exercise attachment will strengthen the force of attachment in their life, moulding a character where attachment is predominant. Those who continuously exercise hatred will strengthen the force of hatred in their mind, casting the mind into a disposition where hatred is predominant, and so on. Every type of force represents the accumulation of karma, and directly affects our life thereafter.
How do we gauge a person? According to profession or title? According to the role in the family or the role in society? These outer forms are impermanent, changeable and unreliable.
The factor deciding what we are is precisely our karma. This is to say, you are what you do. Our past actions determined the present, and our present actions determine the future. In this process there is no specific soul or self. Therefore, life is very malleable; it will become whatever inner quality we endow it with.
In the flow of life, no thought or conduct will go to waste. Regardless of whether our thoughts and conduct are positive or negative, they will leave their imprints. The only difference between them is the strength of the imprints. When we give rise to compassion, we are reinforcing compassion in our life. When we give rise to attachment, we are reinforcing attachment in our life. Different thoughts and conduct strengthen different kinds of forces and create different directions in life.”
Another characteristic of karma is that one will not obtain the result of a karma one has not created; but once one has created it, it will not go to waste. Karma does not arise out of the void. If we have not created a certain karma, no one will be able to falsely accuse us of committing it and attribute blame to us by force; but once we have created it, it will certainly not vanish and we will not be so lucky as to be spared from the principle of karma. So in this sense, the principle of karma is more just and precise than worldly law.
Karma can increase but it can also decrease and disappear. What happens to it depends on the causes and conditions that we set up. If we provide virtuous causes and conditions through continuous confession and practice, then our negative karma will no longer have the opportunity to grow; instead it will gradually be eliminated. Conversely, if we increase our afflictions uninterruptedly, then this supplies the fertile land for our negative karma to thrive and rapidly multiply, even up to billions of times. This is like a seed growing into a gigantic tree reaching to the sky and producing thousands and thousands of seeds.
Karma and its results are true and infallible. The results include not only the manifested effects, but also the inner consequences. Many people are concerned with the outer results, wondering, “If I do this, will I fall into the hell realm? If I do that, will I rise to the god realm?” I feel that, from the viewpoint of the principle of cause and result, the external result is not important. Rather, we should be concerned about the psychological force that is produced by our every thought and conduct in life. This is because the objective result will just be a dream, an illusion, a bubble or a reflection; it will become the past after all. However, if the inner force is not eliminated through confession and repentance, it will affect us forever. Hence, this kind of force has long-term ramifications and is more frightening.
We need to have unwavering confidence in the certainty of karma, that every kind of karma will bring about its results: virtuous karma will bring about the result of happiness, and non-virtuous karma will bring about the result of suffering. Happiness or suffering, no matter how slight, does not occur by chance; it is induced by virtuous karma or non-virtuous karma. It is said in The Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment that the hell beings who are undergoing boundless suffering experience occasionally a cool breeze between their bouts of suffering; even the happiness that is brought about by that cool breeze has to do with their past virtuous karma, whereas the pain of sickness and hardship manifested by noble hearers arise from the non-virtuous karma they created previously.
Not only will karma bring about future results, it will also manifest in some form of change right in the present. A virtuous karma represents a mental factor of virtue and is a type of harmonious force. When we give rise to compassion and loving-kindness, our mind feels warm and pleasant, we experience happiness right here and now, and this happiness can spread to those around us. In contrast, when we give rise to hatred and jealousy, our mind will definitely be in a state of confrontation and conflict, we will experience pain right here and now , and we may go on to cause harm to those around us. Therefore, the results of happiness and suffering, produced by virtuous karma and non-virtuous karma respectively, are completely determined by our individual mental characteristics.
It has been said, “Karma that has been created will not disappear even after hundreds and thousands of aeons. Once the causes and conditions come together, one will experience the results.” Karma is true and infallible. At the same time, we should also recognise that the view of karma in Buddhism is one of selflessness, in which karma itself is also free of inherent existence and can be altered through confession and repentance. If karma cannot be altered, then the karma we have created since beginningless time will impel us to undergo suffering for long lengthy aeons, such that the day when we will be free from it will never arrive. The purification of karmic obstacles serves as the preliminary of all practices. And karmic obstacles are counteracted mainly through the power of remorse (feeling intense regret due to one’s belief in karma and its results), the power of refuge (taking refuge and generating bodhicitta), the power of remedy (reading and reciting Mahayana scriptures, cultivating the view of emptiness, and so forth), and the power of resolution (not repeating one’s misdeeds). In conjunction with purification, we should extensively practise virtuous conduct and improve ourselves continuously so that we can improve our situation life after life.
4. Reflecting on the suffering of samsara, especially on the suffering in the three lower realms
Why is death frightening? Without doubt, it has to do with our inability to let go of our attachment to this world, but more importantly, it is because we do not know where we will head to after death. Accomplished practitioners are able to face birth and death with light-heartedness, precisely because they know very clearly what the future holds for them, and are able to make a choice according to the power of their own wish, whether to be reborn in Sukhavati Pure Land and “encounter the Buddha when the flower opens up” as the Chinese saying goes, or to return out of compassion to the world according to their vows. However, mundane beings have no control but to drift about according to their karmic winds and be mired in the ocean of suffering.
The Buddha-dharma tells us that sentient beings cycle continuously in the six realms: god (deva), human, demi-god (asura), animal, hungry ghost and hell realms. Among these realms, the agony and intensity of the circumstances in the three lower realms are unbearable to hear about, let alone experience. The reason the Buddha repeatedly described the sufferings of the lower realms was neither to terrify us, nor to increase the sense of heaviness of our miserable human existence, and especially not, as some have imagined, to create an atmosphere of sensationalism in order to attract disciples. We need to know that the Tathagata is one who speaks what is genuine, true, not false, and not inconsistent. He wanted us to recollect the sufferings of the lower realms due to his infinite compassion. To wake up worldly people from their deluded dream, he cautioned us, who are as if dwelling in a house on fire and yet unaware of the danger we are facing, so that we will wake up from our stupor and quickly escape using whatever means.
We should see clearly that the three lower realms are not far away from us at all. In reality, they may just be a single breath away. When your next breath fails to come, do you have the confidence that you will not be reborn in a lower realm? We should reflect: “Do I have control over my mind right now? If I lack control over it at present, what are the chances that I will emerge victorious at the moment of death? And how am I going to face the trials of my various karmas as well as the adverse conditions?”
Upon that precarious and hazardous road of the intermediate state leading to the next rebirth, one deprived of discernment by means of a well-trained mind is like a blind man dwelling at the edge of a cliff. It will only take slight heedlessness for him to plummet into an abyss and experience suffering in the lower realms for long lengthy aeons.
So how can we avoid the sufferings of the lower realms? How can we save all sentient beings — ourselves and others — from cyclic existence? We can attain these goals only by going for refuge in the Three Jewels, practising properly, and attaining final liberation. Therefore, it is said that frequent recollection of the sufferings of the lower realms, together with the other three thoughts is an important cause for turning our mind towards Dharma practice.