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Transcribing the oral tradition...
Viryaja, Toowoomba, Australia
Viriyalila, FBA Team
Nagabodhi, London, UK
Viveka, San Francisco, USA
Kuladharini, Glasgow, UK
Ratnaghosha, FBA Chairman
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Suriyavamsa, Glasgow, UK
The Four Mind Turning Reflections
Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM739
Talk given at Tiratanaloka Retreat Centre, 2005
The Four Reflections are connected with Going for Refuge
This is an introductory talk about The Four Mind-Turnings together as a set of the Reflections as an
introduction to this retreat. As Maitreyi and I both said last night, we did these reflections in our kula
on a couple, if not more, of retreats last year and thought what a good retreat it would make to explore
them in more depth.
In terms of the retreat themes we used to do, we used to have a Going for Refuge theme: exploring
Going for Refuge in its levels and dimensions as a central teaching of the Movement. This particular
retreat, this Four Sets of Reflections, is very much connected with Going for Refuge. Because they are
designed, as a set of reflections, to turn our minds away from illusory involvement in samsara towards
Dharma practice. So there is a sense of going forth from what we would call ‘false refuges’ (the things
that we engage in which we think are going to give us lasting pleasure) and towards ‘true refuges’
which are, ultimately of course, The Three Jewels. So there is a very strong emphasis on renunciation:
from going forth from false refuges in this set of Reflections and turning towards the Dharma, towards
the True Refuges.
I know some of you have read around this material, and in some sets of reflections you come across the
last reflection Reflecting on the Inadequacy of Samsara and sometimes it’s just left like that, and that
gives you impetus to want liberation from the cycle of birth and death. But the way that other Sets of
Reflections are written, you also look at the Six Realms in that last Reflection to empathize, not just
wih your own suffering, but the suffering of other beings. So the impetus to escape from Samsara is
very much associated with doing that for the sake of all sentient beings and very much associated with
the Bodhisattva Ideal. This, of course, is again very much associated with our ways of looking at
Going for Refuge as an altruistic dimension of Going for Refuge.
The Four Mind Turnings together are a set of Reflections. They also encompass a lot of dharmic
teaching as we look into them. They are a method for turning our mind from just being involved in the
pleasures of Samsara towards the Path and towards the Dharma. They’re called different things when
you come across them:
• The Four Mind Turnings, which is what I’ve called them here.
• The Four Ordinary Preliminary Practices, because they precede other preliminary practices
• The Four Thoughts that Transform the Mind
• The Four Reminders, so the reminders to turn from Samsara towards Nirvana and towards the
• The Four Thoughts that Touch the Heart, which change the heart, which I thought is nice.
So that very much brings into play the idea in Buddhism that citta is heart-mind, and not just a
1 conceptual thing but heart based also. So you are trying to turn your whole being away from
illusory involvement and attachment to Samsara and towards the Dharma.
The Four Mind-Turnings are often said to be the bedrock of Buddhist or dharmic practice, in that they
encourage us to make our lives meaningful. They also act as a mirror, as they are all to do with the
nature of existence, so if we reflect upon them we are confronted with Reality, the reality of our life
and of life in general. So that enables us to generate faith in the Dharma and gives us motivation to
practice the Path.
Foundations for Practice and a Path for Regular Steps
It’s often said that they are like the foundations of a house or a building, and I think that’s a good
metaphor for them. If we think about building anything, if we build a building on sand its going to
collapse, so we need to build the whole of our Dharma life, our practice, on good foundations. There’s
a quote I came across, which says”
“They are like the foundations of a house or building - without them nothing can be perfected.
Therefore, cherish persistent recollection of them. This is my heart advice. “
So they are both seen as a foundation, but you continue to reflect upon them throughout your Dharma
life. I think this very much connects for us in the Teachings of the Path of Regular Steps.
Many, many years ago Bhante gave a talk on the Path of Regular and Irregular Steps and some of us
were quite drawn to the Path of Irregular Steps. He also posited No Steps, which was quite exciting
[Laughter]. But what he was encouraging us to do in that talk, and I think in his whole teaching of the
Dharma, was to follow a Path of Regular Steps to build our practice up on good foundations. This very
much accords with that approach to the Dharma. Sometimes the Path of Irregular Steps is good and
sometimes the Path of No Steps just comes to one, but in terms of a lifelong engagement with the
Dharma the Path of Regular Steps is a good strategy. We can have a tendency to have great bursts of
enthusiasm, “Oh that’s great”, but we aren’t always able to follow that through with continuity,
continuity of interest. We also tend to have quite high expectations. So we can have the initial great
enthusiasm and high expectations, but that doesn’t work [Laughter] because we expect things to
happen very quickly and we have ideas about change and how quickly we are going to change. Maybe
as we mature we are a bit more realistic. I remember as a very young Dharma practitioner I thought I
was going to get Enlightened next week, but I’ve learned differently over time. The thing about that
combination of interest and enthusiasm, and high ideals and high expectation is that it can so easily turn
into disappointment and disillusionment. And then we can’t really settle into a regular meditation
practice, our minds aren’t settled because we are all over the place. So building a firm foundation of
practice is very important for us.
So yes, “Cherish persistent recollection of them”. Implied in this set of Teachings, this set of
Reflections is a need to reflect on them constantly and integrate them into our lives and to begin to
experience them into our being as it were. They point to attitudes. They are a crystallization of
particular reflections that we need to be in touch with all the time. We may not need to do that through
a formal reflection on them daily. They are such big topics that in a way we are confronted with them
all the time. So we are alive, and our life has certain opportunities and freedoms and so on and so we
2 may just be thinking about that anyway. Impermanence constantly impacts upon us in various ways.
So that’s very much part of nature, part of life. We are continually acting, and our actions continually
have consequences and we reap those consequences in our life stream. We are living in Samsara and if
we look at the Six Realms psychologically our mental states continually fluctuate dependant upon our
previous actions. As a set of Teachings, it’s drawing on very general Buddhist teachings and
crystallizing them into a set of Reflections. So we have probably been thinking about these things
I came across a quote by Keith Dowman who said, “They are okay as a set of reflections but you can’t
beat real experience”. By which I think he meant that real life experience of impermanence and death
in our life, for example, is going to have an impact on us, maybe a bigger impact than just sitting and
reflecting on impermanence. But of course there’s a feedback process in there, in those reflections and
our life experience. So we’ve all got life experience in these areas, that’s what I’m trying to say. So in
a way, when you come to do the reflections you are drawing on your own life experience.
They are also said as a set of Preliminary Practices to be ‘more profound than the actual teachings’,
which is a bit odd as they are actual Teachings [Laughter]. I think they are very much seen as a set of
Preliminary Practices and someone else is saying, “Well they are not just preliminary they are a very
profound set of teachings”. And perhaps there are other meditation practices which are more profound,
but you won’t reap the benefit of practices further on in a path unless you’ve really engaged in your
preliminary practices and you’ve engaged in these Four Reminders because they generate good
motivation for practice.
The Teachings crystallized in this set of Reflections are found all the way through the Dharma and
early Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. They are crystallized into this set of Reflections
particularly in Tibetan Buddhism. They are used in that context, in that tradition, as the Preliminary
Practices in the Graded Path, the Lamrim set of Practices. So if you’ve read the Jewel Ornament of
Liberation for example by Gampopa, who is a disciple of Milarepa and also Atisha, you’ve got a very
early book, text applied ...