The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma


I like to begin classes with a set of preliminaries. These are various methods to help us quiet down and get into an appropriate state of mind for meditating or listening to teachings. In order to be able to get into something fully we need to enter into it slowly and appropriately. That is a purpose of preliminaries.

There are many different ways to get into a state of mind conducive for meditating or for listening. I usually follow just one of many possibilities. This method starts with counting the breath. When we are very distracted emotionally or mentally, from our work, from traveling here or whatever, it is very important to first quiet down into a neutral state. This helps us to relax. The way that we do this is to breathe normally through the nose, which means not too quickly, not too slowly, not too deeply and not too shallowly. The cycle is to first breathe out, then allow a slight pause and, because we have made a slight pause, we naturally breathe in more deeply. That is a much more relaxed way of breathing deeply than consciously taking a deep breath. As we breathe back in, we count it as one in our minds. Then, without holding the breath we breathe out. We repeat this cycle eleven times and then repeat the count of eleven two or three times, depending on our speed. The numbers don’t really matter. We can count up to any number. We do not need to get superstitious about it. The point is to occupy the verbal energy of our mind with something so that we are not thinking something else while focusing on the breath. Let us do that please.

Once we have quieted down, we try to get our energies, our mind and emotions, going in a positive way. We do this by affirming our motivation. Why we are here? What do we want to gain or to accomplish by being here, or by meditating? We are here to learn more methods to apply to ourselves personally to help us in our lives. We are not just coming for entertainment or amusement or for intellectual knowledge. We are here to learn something practical. It is the same thing when meditating. It is not just for relaxation or a hobby or sport. We meditate to try to help ourselves to develop beneficial habits for use in our lives. We don’t do it to please our teacher. We are doing it because we are convinced that it is beneficial. We want to listen to something practical because we would like to be able to deal with difficulties in our lives more skillfully, and not just make our lives a little bit better, but eventually go all the way and get free of all the difficulties we have. We would like to learn methods that will help us to become Buddhas so that we can really be of best help to everyone.

When we reaffirm our motivation, not only do we look at what we are doing here at a teaching, but it is important also to look at the final aim. Although we may aim for liberation and enlightenment, it is not going to happen overnight and miracles normally do not happen. Dharma is not magic. We are not going to learn magic means that will suddenly free us from all our suffering. It is not that we learn some methods and day-by-day it is going to get better and better. We need to be realistic. Realistically speaking, as we know from our own life experience, the moods and events in our lives go up and down, and they will continue to go up and down. We can hope that things will get better in the long run; but from day to day, we are going to have difficult moments. It is not that all of a sudden we will never get upset again. If we approach learning Dharma methods and practicing them in meditation and in daily life in a realistic, down to earth way, we will not get discouraged. Even when really difficult things come up in life and even if we still get upset we are not thrown off course. This is our motivation. This is our aim. This is our understanding of what we can gain from coming to teachings and meditating and practicing.

It is important to remind ourselves of this by reviewing and thinking about it. Let’s say we are very upset before a meditation session. Instead of taking refuge in food, friends, sex, television or beer we take refuge in the Dharma and meditate to help us get over being upset. Even in that situation we need to be very careful not to expect that it will be like taking a shot of heroin, as if we could sit and meditate and feel high and joyous and all of our problems would be gone. If that does happen, be suspicious. If we do the meditation properly, sure we may feel better. But it might not make us feel a hundred percent better. Unless we are super-advanced, the unpleasant mood will likely come back. As I often repeat, “What do you expect from samsara?”

When we reaffirm our motivation we say, “Okay, I am going to do this because it will help me. I will try to apply these things properly to help me get free from this difficulty that I experience and to eventually be of help to others.” Whether we feel better a half hour from now or not is not the point. That is not our main focus. We are going in a certain direction in life and this is what we are doing to go further in that direction. The direction is refuge. Each time we listen to teachings or meditate, we take another step in that direction. We keep going, despite the ups and downs. That is realistic. Let us reaffirm that for a moment.

Then we make the conscious decision to meditate with concentration. This means that if our attention wanders, we will bring it back; if we get sleepy, we will try to wake ourselves up. To help our minds to be clearer we sit up straight and to help our minds be clearer we can use the visualization of a camera coming into focus.

Then there is a fine adjustment that we can make. First, we try to lift the energies in our body if we are feeling a bit heavy and our energies are too low. For this, we focus on the point between our eyebrows with our eyes looking upwards but our heads staying level.

Then to ground our energies if they are running a bit wild in our bodies and we are bit stressed, we focus on the navel with our eyes looking downwards but our heads staying level. We breathe in normally and hold our breath until we need to breathe out.


There are four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma:

  1. Thinking about appreciating the precious human life
  2. Thinking about death and impermanence, that the opportunities that we have now with this precious existence are not going to last
  3. Thinking about the laws of karma and cause and effect, in other words how our behavior affects what we experience
  4. Thinking about the disadvantages of samsara, of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

If we appreciate the opportunities that we have now with this precious human life and if we recognize and acknowledge the fact that this life is not going to last and that we are going to die sometime, if we recognize that our behavior is going to shape our experience in this life and also after we die in future lives, and if we realize that no matter what we experience in the future, because it will arise from behaving from confusion, will have a lot of difficulties and troubles, then we will turn our minds to the Dharma.

The Safe Direction of Refuge

What does it mean to turn our minds to the Dharma? It basically means taking refuge. It is quite clear that taking refuge is not something that you do after walking into a Dharma center for the first time. It is not to join a social club or a Dharma center. Taking refuge is something quite advanced and requires an appropriate state of mind. I find that the term “taking refuge” is inadequate and gives a misleading impression. In our languages, it implies something passive – that we go to a more powerful person or being and say save me, protect me and we are protected. Then we don’t have to do so much from our side. This is not what Buddhism is talking about. Rather, what we are talking about is putting an active, safe, positive direction in our life. That is why I call it taking safe direction. We need to have these four attitudes or understandings before we can put this direction in our life with sincere conviction. This implies that we need to have some idea of what this direction is.

What is this direction? It is Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the Three Jewels. What in the world does that mean? We often look at this in a very elementary way. We think of the Dharma as the teachings, the Buddha as the one who actually gave these teachings both verbally and in terms of his own realizations, and the Sangha refers to something like the congregation of a Buddhist church or Dharma center. That is not what Sangha means. We are talking about very advanced practitioners who already have straightforward perception of reality and are already well on the way to becoming liberated or enlightened. Even if we say, “I am going in the direction of the Dharma teachings as the Buddha taught them and as great practitioners are realizing them,” this type of elementary understanding of the Three Jewels is not a very stable basis for putting this direction in our life.

What is the basis for being convinced that this is a positive direction? We need a slightly more sophisticated understanding of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The more sophisticated our understanding is, the firmer our direction will be. This means that this whole topic of refuge is not something that we ought to trivialize. “I did that in the beginning when I first came to the center and now I have a red string to wear around my neck.” It is a topic that we need to work on and deepen as we go further along the path. The deeper this direction in our lives is, the more stable we are on the spiritual path.

The actual direction is indicated by the Dharma Jewel, which must be understood within the context of the four noble truths. These are the four facts that any person who sees reality – a highly realized being – would see as true. They are called “noble” because that is how some people translate the Sanskrit word arya. When we see reality directly, we see these four facts. The first fact is the difficulties in life – what are they really? Then we see the real causes of these difficulties. Then we see the stopping of the difficulties in life and their causes. Then we see that there is a pathway of mind, in other words a way of understanding, that will bring about that understanding of reality by removing the main cause of the problems: confusion. When we get rid of the cause of our problems, confusion, we get rid of the problems.

True direction is indicated by the third and fourth noble truths. That is the actual Dharma refuge. Without leaving it as jargon, what we are actually aiming at is this state in which all problems and their causes are removed in such a way that they never come back again, as well as the state of mind that not only brings that about but that results from this. When all difficulties and shortcomings are removed, we have a state of mind in which we are able to use all of our abilities.

What is our Dharma direction? It is the state of liberation and the state of enlightenment. Liberation is a state in which all of our suffering and its causes are finished. Enlightenment is a state in which we are able to help others as much as is possible and where the things that prevent us from being able to do that are removed forever. Buddhas are those who have achieved both of these fully and who have shown us how to do it. They have shown us how to do it in terms of their realizations as well as by giving step-by-step instructions. The Sangha are those who have achieved at least some liberation from some of the problems and their causes and are working further, so they are already incredibly advanced.

The Gateway to the Dharma

In order to be able to turn our minds and energies toward liberation and enlightenment, we have to know two things. We have to know what liberation and enlightenment actually mean. They are not just nice words. And, secondly, we need conviction that it really is possible to achieve these. If we are not convinced that it is possible to gain liberation and enlightenment, why would we want to work toward achieving them? How do we gain this conviction? What are the steps that will lead us toward this?

One great Sakya master, Sonam Tsemo, wrote a very helpful text called The Gateway to the Dharma. He addressed this very question. He said we need three things. First, we need to recognize and acknowledge the suffering and difficulties in our lives. In other words, we have to really look at ourselves honestly and evaluate what is going on in our lives. The second is having a very sincere wish to get out of this suffering, not just to “make the best of it,” but really wanting to get out of this. The third thing is some knowledge of the Dharma so that we have some conviction that the Dharma is going to show us a way out. That conviction is not just based on the nice words of some charismatic person. We have to have some actual knowledge and understanding of the Dharma and of how it leads us out of suffering.

What is the way out? It is gaining liberation and gaining enlightenment. The Dharma shows us how to do this based on the first noble truth, that of suffering. That is what Sonam Tsemo said we have to start with, recognizing the problems. And there is a cause for those problems. They are coming from somewhere. To achieve an elimination of the cause of our problems, the third noble truth, we have to have a path of understanding; and that is the fourth noble truth, which gets rid of confusion.

It is not at all easy to gain conviction that it is possible to remove the causes of our difficulties. We need to persevere and work on it. We must try to understand what this is talking about. We can start to work with this in a logical way. We experience life now with confusion. For example, we imagine that we are the most important person in the world and the center of the universe. Based on that, we always feel we have to have our way and we become very greedy and pushy. We are the most important one, so everybody has to pay attention to us and love us. If people don’t pay attention to us and don’t love us, then we get very angry.

We may be loveable but that does not mean that the whole world needs to recognize it! With confusion, we think everyone should recognize it. Or we go the other way and think that if people don’t love us or pay attention to us something must be wrong with us and we are no good and then we have low self-esteem. In either case, we suffer. We have mental anguish and it is all coming from the confusion that we are the center of the universe and everything should go the way that we want it to.

Buddha said that it is possible to get rid of all of the misery that we experience by getting rid of this attitude of confusion that causes it. What will get rid of the confusion? Understanding. If we understand how we and everyone in the world exists, we won’t be confused about it. We cannot have both confusion and understanding in one moment of mind. Understanding is the exact opponent to confusion. Since we cannot have both at the same time, which is going to win? If we examine confusion, the more closely we examine, we see that it really does not stand up to analysis. Am I really the center of the universe? Well, no, because everyone else thinks that they are the center of the universe. On the other hand, if we examine understanding, it does hold up. No one is the center of the universe. What that means is that no one is more important than everyone else. Nobody is the center of everyone else’s attention and loved by all. The more we examine this, the more we see that it makes sense. It is not only true based on logic, but also from experience and from seeing how life works.

Because understanding can be verified and confusion falls apart when we examine it, not only can understanding replace confusion temporarily, but it can get rid of it forever. When we understand that there is no center of the universe, we know that not everyone will pay attention to us and love us. Not everyone loved and paid attention to Buddha, so why to us? The result of this analysis is that we don’t get upset. It doesn’t matter if people don’t pay attention to us. What do we expect from samsara? Because we are not upset, we are able to deal with each person in a way that is warm, loving, understanding and so on, without being worried about whether they will listen to us or like us. We try our best. In this way, we work on an initial level to become more convinced that liberation and enlightenment actually are possible. Then we are not crazy for working in the direction of achieving liberation and enlightenment.

The Four Thoughts in Reverse Sequence

The four thoughts that turn our mind to the Dharma show us on a slightly deeper level that this is possible. We have discussed how it is possible to gain conviction in the possibility of liberation and enlightenment in terms of the three basic thoughts needed to enter the Dharma: suffering, wanting to get out of suffering, and having the conviction that it is possible to get out of suffering. The four thoughts that turn our mind to the Dharma actually turn our minds toward these three thoughts, specifically to the first of these three steps, recognizing and acknowledge the difficulties and sufferings in life. The last of the four thoughts is of the unsatisfactoriness of samsara, which is the actual acknowledgement of difficulties and problems in life. We need to work backwards in order to appreciate the order and necessity of each step.

What are the difficulties and problems that we face? Buddha gave many lists, but the more concise one is a list of three. We can call them the three types of problems. The first is gross suffering: pain and unhappiness. It includes physical pain as well as mental pain. Most people can recognize this without much difficulty. Nobody likes to be unhappy, so most people would like to get out of it.

The second problem is the problem of change. This refers to our usual ordinary experiences of happiness, which are tainted with confusion. They change; they do not last. For instance, we eat and feel the happiness of our stomach being full but it does not last and we get hungry again. What is the problem? The problem is not that the happiness does not last. That is just the nature of this type of happiness. Having the most profound, direct understanding of voidness is not going to change the fact that this type of happiness is impermanent. Nothing is going to change that. We can get less upset by the fact that it changes, but that is not the point here. The real problem with this type of happiness is the uncertainty factor: when it ends, we do not know what will follow. We are with our friends, having a good time. The good time ends and we don’t know if we are going to feel happy, tired, unhappy or what. That is the real problem here. Just going after this temporary happiness will not help us, even though we feel okay for a while. Not only does it not eliminate all our problems, but we are left in a state of real insecurity, not knowing what will come next.

The third type of true problem is the all-encompassing problem. This is that just the type of body and mind and emotions that we have will perpetuate all the other problems. They are self-perpetuating. We have this type of body. We have to feed it and take care of it all the time. And when we eat, the happiness does not last and we have to eat again and again. How boring. We go into one difficult relationship with someone and do not learn and get hurt and go into another and another. The confusion just goes on and on. This person did not turn out to be Prince or Princess Charming and so we look for another and another. The feelings of insecurity keep coming up. This is the real problem; it just keeps on recurring. Understanding these three sufferings is the fourth thought, the disadvantages of suffering. It is also the first noble truth, that of problems.

What is the basis for this understanding of the disadvantages of samsara? The third thought, the understanding of karma and cause and effect. This is the cause of the suffering of samsara. This is noble truth number two. Why do we experience the first type of true problem, gross suffering? From acting in destructive ways. We act destructively because of confusion. We don’t understand the results of our actions or we think that our actions have no results.

The second type of problem is that of change and uncertainty. To understand the reason why we experience that, we need to understand karma. If we understand karma, we understand that what we experience is very complex. We have been doing so many things, both constructive and destructive mixed with confusion, without any beginning. We could think we are the center of the universe and be nice to everyone or mean to everyone. We have built up millions and millions of both positive and negative karmic potentials. So, we experience happiness for a moment. It comes from a positive potential. Then it is finished. Now what? There are countless karmic possibilities waiting to ripen. What ripens next? It is not simple. It depends on many different factors: our attitude, the circumstance, what other people do, our health and so on. No wonder there is no certainty, and no wonder that our experience in samsara goes up and down. The twelve links of dependent arising describe how karma and confusion perpetuate samsara. When we understand karma deeply, then we understand how the whole mechanism of karma goes up and down, perpetuating itself, which is the all-encompassing problem.

The third thought that turns our mind to the Dharma gets us into the state of mind of understanding why there is this uncertainty. What will turn our minds to thinking that way?Awareness of death and impermanence. Our lifespan is uncertain. This is the second thought that turns our mind to the Dharma. If we take death and impermanence seriously, realizing that situations do not last on a gross level, then we can start to appreciate the teachings on karma, which show us the uncertainty of what happens from moment to moment.

What is going to bring us to think about death? Appreciating the life and opportunities that we have now: this precious human life. So, thinking about the precious human life that we have now is the first thought that turns our mind to the Dharma.


By working backwards in this way, we can see how each attitude arises from the previous one. One can explain it going from one to four in a logical sequence. But, since most of you have studied this already, I wanted to present it in reverse order to show how each thought depends on the previous one. In forward order, we think of our precious human life, that it is not going to last forever and that what happens after death, in future lives, depends on karma. Even if we are born in a favorable situation, there will be many problems. Realizing this, we want to get out of suffering. For that, we need conviction that the Dharma actually does teach the way out and that it is actually possible to achieve liberation from problems and enlightenment. That leads us to take safe direction and to develop bodhichitta, with which we dedicate ourselves completely to achieving enlightenment to be able to benefit everyone.

In reverse, as we have seen, in order to put safe direction and bodhichitta in our lives, we need conviction that it is possible to get rid of suffering and its causes. For that, we need to understand the nature of confusion and how understanding gets rid of confusion. For that, we need to recognize the difficulties in our life, the difficulties of samsara: the recurrence of problems and uncertainty. That uncertainty is because of karma. To start thinking in terms of uncertainty, we need first to think about it on the gross level of death. We would not worry about death, if we didn’t think about the life that we have now with its opportunities and did not want to lose it.

Whether we look at these four thoughts in a progressive or a reverse sequence, they are very essential for helping us to become stable on the path so that we can be of more help to ourselves and more help to others.


How does uncertainty fit into mundane concerns and thinking that if I could only have this or that, I would be happy?

It depends on what we think will bring us happiness. If we think, “If I could only gain enlightenment, I would be happy,” it is different from thinking, “If I could only have the perfect partner, I would be happy forever and never have any suffering.” If we are looking for the total removal of suffering, such that it never returns again, from chocolate, a partner, sex or whatever, then we are always going to be frustrated. However, if we acknowledge the ordinary type of happiness for what it is, then we can aim for it as a provisional goal. If we have a certain level of happiness, we can use it as a circumstance to go further on the path. That is why the initial scope of the lam-rim graded path is aiming for a fortunate rebirth. We need general worldly happiness as a circumstance for working toward liberation and enlightenment. It all depends on recognizing our usual type of happiness for what it is and not inflating it. We need to have our feet on the ground.


It is quite helpful to work with these four thoughts. They are called preliminaries in the sense that they get us into an appropriate state of mind to be on the path very firmly, just as the preliminaries before a class get us into an appropriate state of mind to listen to teachings. What does it mean to get onto the path of Dharma? We can talk about it in technical terms, but let’s not talk about it on that level. To be on the path means to really be convinced in what we are doing and to have our hearts in it fully. Otherwise, we are not very stable. We may do it a little while as a hobby or because other people are doing it, but we are not really into it.

To be really into it requires a change of attitude. It requires a certain way of looking at life. It requires really seeing our life situation and acknowledging that there are problems and difficulties. It is important to appreciate our precious human life and to know that it is not going to last forever. Our life has problems and these problems come about basically because of confusion and karma. Even though we experience happiness in our lives, it is not really satisfying because it does not last and we cannot guarantee that we will stay in a good mood. It is not good enough to just be happy some of the time.

We may know that we get into dysfunctional relationships, but because they are exciting and fun in the beginning, we get into another one knowing that we or the other person will mess it up. And then we get into another and another. Eventually, we get tired of that and say, “I really want to stop this!” We become convinced that it is possible to stop it. Based on that conviction, we can realistically work toward stopping it.

While on the way, we need to try to gain temporary happiness, because it will make it easier to go on the path. But our experience will go up and down. Instead of constantly going out to find Prince and Princess Charming, we can get in some sort of relationship that is not going to be perfect – it is never going to be perfect on this level – and we can use that as the basis for working further. It is the same thing with money. If our entire lives are spent searching for more and more money, it is never-ending.

We do need a certain amount of material comfort to be able to live and likewise we need a certain level of affection, love and partnership in order to have the conducive circumstances to work on ourselves. The relationship with a partner is never going to be perfect. The amount of money in the bank will never be perfect. The amount of comfort that we have in our home will never be perfect. This is the problem of change. Working to try to make those perfect is just banging our heads against the wall. When we have enough of these things to be able to get on with our spiritual life, we need to get on with our spiritual life! The point is to use the imperfect level that we have to work toward something that we can realistically attain: the ultimate state. We can remove the confusion from our minds, and that means that we can eliminate suffering. That is what it is all about. In this way, we will be happy and we will be able to make others happy. Will we be more able to help others by always trying to get the perfect partner, or by working to get rid of our anger?


Let us end with a dedication. May whatever understanding we might have gained go deeper and deeper so that it slowly starts to make an impression on us and adds to our positive potentials so that we gradually start to see things in terms of these four thoughts. May we gradually become more stable in our safe direction in life so that we can eventually attain liberation and enlightenment for the benefit of everyone.