The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind from Samsara

by Michele Martin on 30 May, 2016

Bulach, Switzerland – May 28, 2016

The morning began with a fulsome praise of the Karmapa offered by Namkha Rinpoche, who requested the Karmapa to remain until the end of samsara to benefit living beings. After the accolade, his students presented the supports of body, speech, and mind to the Karmapa thanking him for his teachings and requesting him to remain in the world and live a long life.

The Karmapa began his teaching by naming the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind from Samsara: (1) the precious human rebirth; (2) death and impermanence; (3) karma as cause and effect; and (4) the defects of samsara. He spoke of the first one, the precious human birth, in terms of the eight freedoms and the ten resources, which he explained in a condensed form. To practice well, he said, we need to the freedom from obstacles, and the main condition, or resource, we need for liberation is to meet a spiritual friend who imparts the practice to us. Having found a human rebirth, he explained, we also possess the capacity for making moral decisions, for knowing what to leave aside and what to take up. All human beings have this ability, he stated, which allows us to make our lives meaningful.

We can reflect on our precious human rebirth, the Karmapa said, from two perspectives: the difficulty in finding it and the great meaning this life has. The first one is a little complicated, he commented, because in order to think about it, we need to believe in reincarnation. To understand rebirth, however, we do not need to rely on scripture but can consider our present life. “Most of you are born in Switzerland,” he said, “and live in a comfortable situation, but in many places of the world, people do not even have the basics of life, food to eat and clean water to drink.”

In contemplating our situation, he suggested, we can ask ourselves, How is it that I have this excellent set of circumstances? Where did it come from? Seeing that we have this good life and the capacity to make moral decisions, however, is not enough he said. We actually need to take responsibility for accomplishing something meaningful in this life. Simply having the capacity to do something is not enough; we must use it. And how we do that depends on the extent of our motivation. From the very beginning, he remarked, our motivation should be vast.

In this world of the twenty-first century, he commented, information technology has brought us closer together so that we are like a global village and know a lot about each other. The connections between countries and people are now very clear. Without relying on philosophy, this allows us to see directly how linked to each other we are. Being aware of this interconnection, we can open out our hearts and minds. The Karmapa commented that usually our basic frame of mind, he commented, is that we are independent: we do not reply on others and they do not rely on us. However, from an ultimate point of view, he remarked, we are all mutually dependent: there is no one who does not depend on me and no one on whom I do not depend. We are not distant from others; rather, they are intimately related to us⎯our happiness and suffering depend on them.

We can see this connection if we think, for example, about the clothes we wear. The person who made the shirt we are wearing might be working an Indian factory, yet we may never see them, so we are not conscious of this relationship. The same is true for the food we eat and the air we breathe. Our very physical existence comes from other people, our parents. Considering all this, we can understand that we are not alone and independent. Our happiness, suffering, and success in the world all rely on others.
Therefore, he concluded, we carry a responsibility for others and they for us. It is not enough to look out for ourselves alone, he stated. Having the intelligence to understand our situation, we must take responsibility for others.

The Karmapa then turned to the second thought, death and impermanence. The fact that we are born, he explained, means that we will die; the two arise in dependence one on another. We could say in brief that birth has the nature of death. “Hearing this,” he said, “many people could think it is something negative, but I think it is positive. Impermanence means that things are changing moment to moment. It indicates that with each moment, we have a new opportunity.”

He further commented that we might think this fresh chance is something that comes from the outside, that someone else gives it to us. But actually, he remarked, it comes from us. It is part of how we are, so we have endless opportunities. If we have done something negative is our life, it is possible to change, he said. Milarepa is a classic example; he saw the possibility of transforming his life and he took it. In a shorter time frame, if we did something regrettable in the morning, the Karmapa explained, we have the opportunity in the afternoon or evening to alter it and start anew.

If we think of the past and the changes time brings, we lose something and we also gain something. If there were no change, if the first moment always stayed the same, we would be stuck, for example, on the first note and never able to play a melody.

Within the subject of impermanence, the Karmapa noted, death is a special topic. We know that we will die, but we do not know the conditions. And when our time comes to pass away, he commented, we are helpless to stop it. For some, death brings suffering and for others not. This makes us anxious and so does not knowing when we will die. Further, he noted, if we die accidently there is no time to prepare.

Tibetan Buddhism has numerous explanations about death and the experience of it, such as how the three kayas manifest, the Karmapa remarked, so we can have an idea of what happens, which relaxes and calms our mind. Some people think that death will bring suffering, and to prepare they must meditate on suffering. But this is not necessarily the case. If we have made our lives deeply meaningful, death does not bring suffering.

We lead busy lives, he remarked, our time is filled morning to night, but if at the end of a day we reflect on what we have done, can we find something that really satisfied us? Maybe not. Often, the Karmapa said, we do not distinguish between what we want and what we need. When we are asked what we want, our brain is busy thinking of many things. If we are asked what we need, our answers are not so quick, yet in truth this is very important. Our lives are hectic, but are we doing something meaningful? Reflecting on death and impermanence helps us to see what we really need and what has meaning for our life. This will help us to prepare ourselves since we do not know when or how we will die.

The Karmapa explained that the first thought of the precious human birth and the second thought of death and impermanence are related. We have the intelligence to see that our human life is precious and that we should make it meaningful, and knowing that this is not always possible, we seize the moment. In this way we can reflect on our lives and exert ourselves to give them a deeper significance.

To illustrate impermanence, the Karmapa gave an example from his own life. When he was seven years old (in western years), a search party came to his isolated valley and told his parents that he was the Karmapa. His family had a connection with both the nyingma and kagyu traditions and also faith in the Karmapa whose photo they kept on their shrine. “All of a sudden,” he recounted, “I was the person to whom we had been prostrating. I didn’t know quite what to do. Before my friends and I had played at being a lama, and suddenly it was the old and the young people who were playing this game with me.”

Historically, the Karmapa is an extraordinary lama, he said, but he felt like an ordinary child who had been given an extraordinary name. People immediately expected that he would have amazing abilities, he recounted, but for an ordinary child this was a bit difficult. One does not become extraordinary by simply receiving a certain name. In the end, the way he understands his situation is that he has been given an extraordinary opportunity to benefit the teachings and people. Though it is sometimes difficult, he does the very best he can.

In our lives, he advised, we need to motivate ourselves to be the best people we could possibly be. We all have this precious human life and we can use this chance to be concerned about others and take responsibility for them. Actually, he said, to help others we do not need to be extraordinary. As ordinary people we can have extraordinary bodhicitta (the wish to benefit others an bring them to awakening) and with this we can certainly benefit others.

Sometimes people come to him, the Karmapa said, and ask him to make them wealthy and influential so they can help the poor, but it does not work like this. We should dedicate our body, speech, and mind toward benefitting others, he explained, and this will definitely allow us to help. Becoming wealthy is no guarantee that we will think of others. At first we might wish to help, but then in becoming wealthy, we could forget our original motivation. With this caveat, the Karmapa ended the first session of teachings for this weekend.