Four Transforming Thoughts that Redirect the Mind

This is a daily meditation practice from Tibetan Buddhism that can help you to focus your mind towards Nirvana and enlightenment. The four thoughts reflect on these areas:

  1. Your precious human existence
  2. Death, mortality, and impermanence
  3. The Law of Karma, or Cause and Effect
  4. The defects and shortcomings of samsara, including the eight kinds of problems you face and suffering

This text is from Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das:


1. Precious Human Existence

This precious human existence, this lifetime, well-endowed with leisure, qualities, and opportunities, is difficult to attain, tenuous, and easily lost, so this is the time to practice spirituality with diligence.

Shantideva, the eighth-century Mahayana Indian saint (his name translates as ‘The Peaceful Angel’) and author of The Way of the Bodhisattva, wrote:

These human leisures, opportunities, and faculties
are very rare to obtain and easily lost;
If one squanders the chance to fulfil the aim of human life,
How will such an opportunity arise again?’

2. Death, Mortality, and Impermanence

All things are impermanent; our life breath especially is just like a bubble on a swift-moving stream. The time of our death is uncertain, and we depart alone from this world.

All that is born, dies, even the enlightened masters, saints, sages, and powerful leaders;

Our longevity and hour of our death are uncertain, and then we sally forth alone and unaccompanied;

All constructions eventually fall to ruin;

All those who are gathered together, eventually separate.

Everything passes and dissolves;

Even the mountains and the seas;

So resolve now to realise the deathless reality and undying peace of freedom and nirvana.

In the Lalitavistara Sutra, the Buddha says:

‘The universe and its inhabitants are as ephemeral as the clouds in the sky;
Beings being born and dying are like a spectacular dance or drama show.
The duration of our lives is like a flash of lightning or a firefly’s brief twinkle;
Everything passes like the flowing waters of a steep waterfall.’

3. The Ineluctable Law of Karma

The law of karma follows us like a shadow follows the body; virtue and non-virtuous words, thoughts, and deeds procreate in kind.

The lawful workings of cause and effect, virtue and vice, are unavoidable.

When we die we leave everything behind, except our karma and our spiritual realisation.

This karmic conditioning propels us forward according to what we have set in motion through our actions, words, and deeds.

Karmic cause and effect (interdependent origination) creates everything, and by thorough understanding of karmic causation and skilful means we can become free. The Buddha said:

‘If a king or householder shall die,
His wealth, family, friends, and retinue cannot follow him.
Wherever we go, wherever we remain,
The results of our actions follow us.’

4. The Defects and Shortcomings of Samsara

Samsara and all its contents, pleasure as well as pain, are like a public feast we are passing through on our way to the grave.

Birth is difficult, growing up is difficult, illness is difficult, aging and death are painful.

Losing what we care for hurts; not getting what we want is frustrating.

We feel lost and powerless, anxious and insecure by a sense of being out of control, blown about by circumstances and conditions we don’t understand.

Being unaware and half-asleep in our own lives is wasteful and meaningless.

We are continually tormented by our fears of the unknown and ignorance and doubt about where we will go and why.

These are just a few of the myriad waves in the ocean of suffering called samsara or cyclic existence. Cross beyond this raging tide of confusion and misery to the other shore, and you’ll find the joyous waters of nirvana – peace, freedom, and the everlasting happiness of perfect enlightenment.

Lama Surya Das says that contemplating these four thoughts and gradually experiencing their truth over time can really help you to let go of being preoccupied with worldly aims. There’s no sense in chasing happiness from external experiences because those things don’t last. The only real and lasting happiness comes from within. He says:

This reflection helps loosen our preoccupation with this body, this life, and this world, opening up wider horizons and a far more unselfish, universal perspective.”

That doesn’t mean you don’t care about this life or this world. It means you can live in a more joyful way because you’re not constantly making yourself miserable by chasing after things that don’t last.

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