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The Four Mind Turning Reflections

by Dhammadinna

... to the Graded Path. And if you read books on Tibetan Buddhism, often those
books will begin with some kind of exposition of The Four Mind-Turnings. So you find them in works
by Atisha, by Gampopa and, particularly in the Galupa tradition, one of the chief teachers is
Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa is the author of the poem that we are going to use throughout the retreat and
he comments on The Four Mind-Turnings a lot in his works. So you’ve probably come across them if
you’ve read any works on Tibetan Buddhism, you’ve come across The Four Mind-Turnings.

Nisarana – The Renunciation of False Refuges

As a Set of Reflections they are very important and they counteract certain basic delusions that we
carry around with us, which I will come onto later, and they can have a very powerful effect on our
practice. They enable us to do a variety of things.

They enable us, particularly the first one, to realize our potential as human beings. They enable us to
turn towards the Dharma more deeply and to take up a path of practice more deeply. So they are called
The Four Mind-Turnings, The Four Thoughts that Transform the Mind. So reflecting on these four
deeply enable us to transform our minds and the ways in which we view the world. They highlight the
fact that we have got great opportunities and not to waste those great opportunities. So they give us

3 inspiration to practice the Dharma and keep us focused on the goal. They help us to create a good
motivation. Continuing motivation is one of the things we find difficult, to maintain our interest and
motivation and to make progress on the path.

In general, they bring about an abandonment of attachment to Samsara, so that we’ve got a good basis
of renunciation upon which we can begin to meditate. They are concerned with renunciation. I know
renunciation… if I say the word renunciation and gave you a few minutes to let that impact on you and
think what your physical and emotional feeling was in relation to that, quite often its not very
comfortable experience is it? Renunciation and ‘giving up’ can tap into our own conditioning and lead
to nihilism and that kind of thing. But renunciation is often a translation of nisarana, Not Going for
Refuge. So The Four Mind-Turnings are a turning away from Going for Refuge to Inadequate
Refuges. It is renunciation in that sense and going towards Real Refuges. The difference between an
Inadequate Refuge or a False Refuge and a Real Refuge is that with the Inadequate Refuge we pile on
it what it cannot give us. So we see conditioned things (Inadequate Refuges are anything that’s
conditioned), as permanent rather than impermanent. Intellectually we know things are impermanent,
but often our emotional response is that the things of this life are going to last and they are going to
give us lasting pleasure.

In some senses, the things that we load false views onto are okay in themselves if we see them for what
they are. So its not the things in themselves which are bad, which is what we can tend to think and then
go into a very strong aversion and nihilism and renunciation in that sense, to which we will have some
sort of reaction to at some point. So that’s not what we are talking about when we are talking about

A gradual reflection on the Four Mind-Turnings enables us to have a more positive relationship and
association with nisarana, with renunciation, rather than if we do “Oh I don’t want to do that – I like
the things I like ... I want to do them”. So from that point of view they are a good set of practices.

Preciousness of this Human Life and Impermanence and Death

The ways I’ve put them up here is the usual way we work through them as a set of Reflections. If
you’ve read about them, you may have come across them in a different order, I’ll come back to that
later. Usually you come across them in this order, and this is how we are going to explore them on the
retreat. Also, in later commentaries, particularly from Tsongkhapa, they are divided into two sets of
two. They may not have been looked at in this way in early commentaries, but Tsongkhapa does this.

He looks at the first two: The Preciousness of this Human Life and Impermanence and Death
as a way of bringing about renunciation of the pleasures of this life or the ‘letting go’ of the hankering
for the pleasures of this life in a particular kind of way. This is not being attached to the pleasures of
this life and ‘attachment’ is the important word. It’s not that this life doesn’t have any pleasures. Life
has many, many pleasures. But it’s to do with not living merely for the pleasures of this life and not
living a purely hedonistic life. And sometimes it’s put as not looking for a happy outcome in this life,
in the sense that Samsara will work for us or that the things in Samsara will give us lasting pleasure and
happiness. So we may think that life is about having a great time, making lots of money, being famous
– all the things that Samsara is about: money, health, fame, happiness. You might think, "Well what’s
wrong with that, what’s wrong with those things?” There’s a tendency, if that’s your total focus, to not

4 be looking at suffering and pain (either your own or other peoples’) and to have that kind of attitude,
well we are not really faced with the way things really are with reality. The tendency is that it keeps us
attached to the pain-pleasure cycle. So we look for pleasure, and the things in which we look for
pleasure aren’t lasting. So the pleasure isn’t lasting and that leads to disappointment and unhappiness
and suffering. The first two Reflections are working against that delusion, and of course all of us, and
the fact that we are practicing the Dharma, have seen through that delusion to some extent already.
Perhaps using these Four Reflections can take us into seeing through it much more deeply. Also if we
think about samsaric pleasures, if we start to reflect on impermanence and death more deeply, we see
those pleasures - those mundane pleasures - in a different perspective, in a perspective of
impermanence and death. So quite naturally then we start to withdraw from things, become less
interested in things, because we realize they are not going to satisfy our deepest needs and desires.

So the first two Mind-Turnings enable us to invest more deeply in our inner life, our spiritual life, in
our Dharma life. It doesn’t mean we are not going to still carry on enjoying the pleasures of Samsara,
but we will have a different perspective on life. So we are beginning to let go of our preoccupations
with the things of this life. Sometimes it’s talked about in terms of the Eight Worldly Winds and
sometimes in terms of a preoccupation with food, pleasure and reputation. We realize that we can’t
take the things that we enjoy so much with us.

The Precious Human Life in this set of two is a very positive place to start. Sometimes we start with
Impermanence, but I think for us reflecting on This Precious Human Birth and its freedoms and
opportunities (which I’m going to go into in much more detail tomorrow) enables us to have a lot of
faith and confidence in our potential, in what we already have in our lives and in our Dharma practice.
It gives us a very positive basis for practice. We can tend to take life for granted, so this is one of the
samskaras that this can turn around. We may even think that our life isn’t up to much, worth much, or
have much going for us, and there’s a very common practice in the Dharma applied to many, many
different things, which is to reflect on the benefits of whatever. So if you want to generate metta, then
you reflect on the benefits of metta, if you want to generate the bodhicitta, you reflect on the benefits of
bodhicitta. The first chapters of the Bodhicaryavatara are a sustained reflection on the benefits of
bodhicitta. It’s a very simple and very effective practice to turn your mind to the benefits of something
that you do want to generate and develop, and to focus on that gives you a lot of positive energy.

So reflecting on the Precious Human Birth, the Precious Life, and its freedoms and opportunities
generates gratitude for the things that you do have. It generates appreciation for your self and the
context in which you find yourself. It gives birth to self confidence in our potential, it generates faith,
and all that intensifies our motivation to practice. So it’s an incredibly positive basis to practice. We
will take tomorrow and the next couple of days looking at that in much more detail. I think it’s a good
place for us to start, because we so often don’t have, maybe because of our materialistic and nihilistic
tendencies in our culture, we often don’t value what we have and the context in which we find
ourselves in and we aren’t often deeply in contact with our own very positive potential. This highlights
all that, and on the basis of that, maybe only on the basis of that, we can begin to reflect on
impermanence and death.

Tsongkhapa’s poem of course really highlights these first Two Mind-Turnings. ...

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