Remember Four Things (The Four Reminders)

(Originally posted Friday, September 5, 2008)

I’ve been asked by a few people to talk about ‘The Four Reminders”, which are in the Tibetan (/Bhutanese/Nepalese/etc.) tradition the very bedrock of the Buddhist path. Everything else is built upon these. as my teacher Khandro Rinpoche has said many times, “Any obstacles that can’t be overcome, it’s simply because one has not contemplated the Four Reminders enough.”

For you non-buddhists, this will give you a good overview of the core of what we practice.

So, here they are.  At the top of each, I will include the traditional passage from the Karma Kagyu and the Drigung Kagyu describing each of the four.  I will also include how -I- contemplate them daily, in hopes that some of you might be able to adapt it to your own practice lives.


First,  I always start any session by setting the motivation by reciting – slowly- this passage from the “Metta Sutra“:

May all beings be happy! Weak or strong, without exception, small or great, seen or unseen, nearby or far away, alive or still to be born – May all beings be entirely happy! 

May nobody despise anyone anywhere, may no one wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred!

May we cherish all creatures as a mother would her only child! May our loving thoughts fill the entire world, above, below, and all around, without limit!

May we have a boundless goodwill to the whole world, unrestricted, without hatred or hostility!

I’ve heard from many teachers that setting this motivation at the start is very, very important.  Otherwise, one can easily forget what they started out to do in the first place. It also helps to create a wider perspective right off the bat, to get past some of the “me-me-me” thinking we are all usually caught in the majority of the time.

Then, I do 21 breaths, evenly in and out, as described in the classic Jamgon Kongtrol text on LoJong (Mind Training), The Great Path of Awakening.   My ADD-adled brain needs this in order to be able to focus on the 4 Reminders.

First: Precious Human Birth

This is a precious human birth, hard to gain and extremely easy to lose.  Now that I have it, I must not waste it, but instead do something meaningful. 

Keyma! This kind of leisure and endowment is supremely difficult to obtain!Having obtained this body, which is very easily lost, do not waste it meaninglessly,but rather use it to attain the joyous result of ultimate liberation.
“A good way to contemplate how fortunate we are is to consider how sentient beings suffer. Traditional Indian Buddhism used six mythical creatures to symbolize this:

The denizens of hell, drowning in pain,
The poor, starving “preta” spirits
The oblivious animals
The clever, desirous humans
The “asura” demigods, always jealous of the gods
The blissful gods, proud before they fall.”

(Source: Ken Rawie)

To go through this, think in this way:

“It is indeed a very rare and precious birth that allows me to practice the dharma to attain liberation in this way.  There are SO many other possibilities that would not allow this, such as:

(Counting out with my fingers)

The Hell Realms:

hot (including Avichi – comparable to the “lowest ring of hell” from Dante’s Inferno), cold, and surrounding.

The Human Hell Realms:

watching loved ones suffer and die and being totally helpless to stop it, with one’s body going – for example, by ALS, or being ravaged by cancer- and being helpless to stop the process, with one’s mind going – for example, by Alzheimers’ – and being utterly helpless to stop the process,

being raped and/or otherwise violated, being led to your own execution, or being so full of hate and anger that you can’t think of the repercussions of your actions and are willing to destroy yourself, for example, a suicide bomber.

The Preta Realms:

walking around with a tiny mouth and huge belly that can never be close to full.

The Human Preta Realms:

being without food, water, clean water, medicine surgery or other health care, with drug and alcohol addictions or sexual obsessions, without shelter, employment, companionship or sanity.

The Animal Realms:

Think about how animals run around, with no real ability to think out their actions. Yes, our dogs and cats seem to have good lives, but what of the TRILLIONS of other animals in the outside world?  Do roaches have free will? Does a giant squid EVER have any idea beyond “eat – swim – kill – don’t get killed”? Most animals have very, very hard lives. And, the predators create the karma of killing without even realizing it.

The Human Animal Realms:

Think of all the humans who’s entire lives are spent simply foraging for food and surviving from day to day.  At LEAST 1/2 of the planet lives like this!  They have no opportunity to realize that there may a happiness beyond a crust of bread (that soon disappears, and then hunger returns…etc.)

The Ashura (“jealous god”) Realms:

The classical descriptions are that they are beings that live in incredible luxury compared to every realm below, but it is still not enough.  They know that the Devas live even better, and are determined to ‘get theirs now’ through force.  But, like the Coyote after the Road-runner, they always get out-smarted, out-gunned, out-everything by the Devas.  Their lives are fantastic, but it’s not enough.

The Human Ashura Realms:

Think of all the men and women doing everything possible to get up the corporate ladder, or the “Hill Climbers” in the House and Senate buildings.  Their minds are so set on getting the next ‘piece of cheese’, they will do just about Anything to climb higher and get more.  At the same time, though, there is no appreciation for what they have now, or that this lifestyle may have flaws.  These are the kind of people who think “what’s my next partner/hook-up going to be like?” in the middle of sex with their current interest, or think “in THAT boardroom they have even better coffee!” while mindlessly sipping their Starbucks (or Seattle’s Best or whatever).  It is a realm of suffering.

The Deva (“god”) Realms:

These are beings said to live blissfully for 1000’s or even millions of our years.  This experience seems to line up with the folk-belief-via-Christianity view of Heaven. There are lots of pleasant experiences, wonderful food, great music, never aging, getting whatever they desire just be thinking about it, real streets of gold-type stuff.  However, they are said to be blissfully unaware of their real condition. After a million years here in the Elysian Fields, they are said to start wilting, and realize that they will have to leave soon.  All the other Devas start avoiding one when they start their quick decline.  There is tremendous anguish at the end when they realize they are about to die.  BUT, the other Devas quickly forget, and the thought doesn’t even occur to them that “this will happen to me too.”

The Human Deva Realms:

Think of all the now “whatever happened to?” stars, who used to be on top, but then had to experience the slow horrible slide into anonymity and losing the perks of stardom, such as Joe Piscopo, all the 80’s hair metal bands, etc.

Now, compared to all the beings in the six realms, think:

  • I was born in a central place.
  • A Buddha has come.
  • He has taught.
  • His teaching still exists.
  • People still sponsor and practice these teachings.
  •  There is still genuine compassion and wisdom in the hearts of the teachers.

I have the inclination, faculties (functioning sense organs, relatively sane mind), and opportunity to study, contemplate, and practice these teachings.This is rarer than one star in the infinite sky, or a snow flake in an ice age. This chance will NOT come again.  Don’t you DARE waste This Precious Life.”

Second: Death and Impermence

The whole world and it’s inhabitants are impermanent. In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble. Death is real; it comes without warning.  This very body will soon be a corpse. At that time, my Dharma practice will be my only help; I must practice now with exertion.

The nature of all phenomena is impermanence;death is a certainty for all who are born.Death can come any time, like a drop of morning dew on a blade of grass.Quick! NOW it is time to make effort for the essence of Dharma.

“I will die. I WILL die. There is no reason to believe this could not be the day i die. (Think about all the ways you could die today – accidentally choking, tripping and falling down the stairs, getting in a car accident, getting hit by a freak meteorite, lighting strike, or blue ice, etc.) But, there is no reason to believe this could not be the day I finally understand these teachings.  And, it is said that the moment of death is one of the best opportunities to “get it”. So, It is a good day to die.

I must always remember the reality that (counting on fingers):

  • I will die.
  • My wife (or spouse, partner, etc.) will die. Our animals will die. Any children we have will die.
  • (if you have children, you would count them off and say “”   ” will die”)
  • My mom and dad will die. My spouses parents will die. (or, if they have already passed, count off “my ”   ” has already died”)
  • My siblings will die. (If you have a sibling that has had a severe illness, count off  “”    ” has already almost died once.”)
  •  My friends will die. (again, if any friends have died, remember that as above)
  • My family will die. (ditto)
  •  My sangha(s) will die.  (For VKR folks, remember Lucinda died, and remember what Rinpoche said about that)
  • My root guru ”    ” will die.
  •  My other root teacher ”   “will die (if you have more than one).
  •  This very special friend will die/this special friend has died/this teacher has died (all you Trungpa Rinpoche students would fill his name in)/etc.

Everybody who has ever been born has died (Even if the watered-down Mithrasism that became the Christian “greatest story ever told” IS a real historical event,  Rabboni Yeshua bar Yoseph Nazarene – better known as the badly-translated ‘Jesus Christ’ – DID die, at least for a while).

Death is real. It comes without warning. Because of this, it makes much more sense to be ready for it than ignore the inevitability.”

Third: Cause and Effect (Karma)

When death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always perform virtuous actions. Everyday, I will examine myself.

The fruit of one’s positive karma is happiness; suffering is the fruit of negative karma.Karmic cause and effect is inevitable for all phenomena.From now on, practice the Dharma by distinguishing between what should be practiced – and what should be given up.
“There are actions that always lead to suffering, and actions that always lead to a fruition of happiness.  Because of this, I must cut the Ten Unvirtuous Actionsof:

  1. Killing – physically or mentally
  2. Taking what is not offered (more than just stealing) and stinginess
  3. Sexual misconduct and obsession
  4. Lying, especially for one’s own selfish benefit
  5. Speech that causes disharmony and conflict
  6. Harsh speech (yelling “Motherfu2ker!” when someone cuts you off in traffic counts, even if no one else hears)
  7. Meaningless talk – gossip, idle talk, ‘talking a lot but not saying anything’
  8. Craving and jealousy for what someone else has
  9. Wishing to harm another being
  10. Having wrong views on cause and effect (not believing that every action has a reaction)

I must cultivate the Ten Virtuous Actions of:

  1. Protecting life wherever possible (saving earthworms, etc.)
  2. Generosity
  3. Only performing sexual acts that won’t cause suffering to yourself or others * (Some traditional texts say here “no oral sex.” As a wise (and wise-guy) old monk explained it to me, “If YOU lived in a culture that only bathed 1-2 times a year, would YOU welcome putting your mouth on a body part that hadn’t been cleaned in 6 months? I don’t think so!” :))
  4. Speaking the truth – it’s much easier than having to keep up lies, anyway
  5. Uniting speech, words the heal divisions
  6. Gentle speech – it’s pretty much what most people expect of Buddhists, anyway! 🙂
  7. Speaking only what is necessary, without going into idle useless conversation
  8. Rejoicing at other’s good fortune
  9. Wishing positive occurrences for others
  10. Having correct views of cause and effect (through study and contemplation)”

Fourth: The Suffering of Samsara

The homes, friends, wealth and comforts of samsara are the torments of the three sufferings, just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death.  I must cut desire and attachment and attain enlightenment through exertion.

In the three lower realms, and even in the three higher ones,there is not an Instant of Absolute happiness.I will avoid the root cause of my samsaric existenceand practice the excellent path of peace to enlightenment.

“All this stuff of samsara is honey on a razor blade. EVERY bit of happiness in samsara also comes with suffering attached.  The people that are the greatest joys in our lives are also the source of our greatest sorrows when they leave your life, through emotional/physical distance or ultimately through death.

All the “good things of life” end, and then suffering begins.

Relationships end.

Orgasms end. (since that’s considered by many to be the peak of existence)

The most intense sexual experiences end.

ALL experiences end.

Meals end. Books end. Vacations end. Movies end. Conversations end.

EVERYTHING ends.  Because of this, it makes the most sense to get ready for the inevitability and, as Dr. Suess said, “Don’t be sad that it’s over. Be glad that is happened.””

…So, by the end of this, what have we learned? That this life you have – even with all the troubles, physical and mental defects, and problems – is about a zillion times better than pretty much EVERY other being in the universe. (The WHOLE universe – as Khenchen Rinpoche said, “even UFO aliens just want happiness and freedom from suffering too” :))  Be glad for that.

However, this amazingly precious life can be gone -like that (snap fingers).  There’s a grinning reaper in your future – maybe 20 years, maybe 20 seconds, but he’s there.  Grim Reaper, Yama  – the Lord of Death, however you want to anthropomorphize, it’s still The End. There really is no time to lose.

In the time you have left, you commit innumerable actions with body, speech and mind.  Instead of getting freaked out or getting a Catholic-style “sin! sin! sin!” guilt trip about this, instead, use is as an opportunity to actually SEE what you really do.  This very moment, you can change your behaviors and change what happens next. It’s just that easy – and that difficult.


Just in case you still figured, “Screw this! I have this wonderful life, but death may come at any time. I wanna get mine NOW!”, well, sorry to be the rain parade, dude, but “getting yours” will just lead to more sorrow and unhappiness.  “Whatever you wish to keep, you’d better grab it fast” (so sang Mr. Zimmerman in ‘it’s all over now, baby blue”)  – but anything you grab will be like sand through your fingers. You can’t hold or solidify that experience. Period.  Sorry, that’s the rules of the universe, your mileage may vary.  Everyone, everything you try to hold onto will change and/or go away.

From contemplating all this repeatedly, what should arise is an intense urge to sit down and practice.  It will also undo some of the “stickiness” or “big deal” quality of things of this world.AFTER all this, then we get to fun stuff – the blissfulness of shamatha resting in emptiness, the pleasantness of yidam practice, the “what -have- I been holding onto all these years! It’s silly! :)’ release quality of vipashina (analytical insight).  But, without this basis, most people won’t stick it out to get to those points.So, this is the Four Reminders.  After going through these slowly, it is recommended that one do Guru Yoga (as described in a previous post).IAGW (If All Goes Well), this will help some of you deepen your practice.Let me know of you have any questions.-JTR/LWD

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