The Four Reminders


Sangharakshita comments that a person who has a basic acquaintance with the Buddhist teachings probably has all they need to travel a long way down the path. But what we lack, he says, are emotional equivalents of our intellectual understandings. One consequence is that we simply forget what we believe to be true because we aren’t, emotionally speaking, wholly convinced by it. It’s easy to be aware, but it’s hard to remember to be aware.

For example, we all know that our lives are finite and will end in death. If you keep that thought in mind it lends urgency to your experience, but we typically act as if we will live forever. We know that suffering is inevitable, but considering the moaning, griping and complaints that accompany our lives, it seems that we allow the fact to slip our minds. Similarly, we know that our actions have consequences, and that we can make choices that affect our future experience. And we know, if we consider things, that we have a precious opportunity in our lives to develop, which it would be foolish to squander. But how do we keep such thoughts at the forefront of our consciousness? How do we remember to remember?

These reflections address the emotions, and they have the power to motivate and inspire us. But they can easily be ignored in the rubble of our lives, or overlain by the mound of Buddhist teachings and practices that are available to us. The same problem faced the Tibetans when they inherited from India the vast accumulation of Buddhist teaching and practice that had developed over many centuries. So the great scholar-practitioner Atisha, and later Gampopa and Tsongkhapa, systematised Buddhist teachings into a progressive sequence that they called lam rim, or ‘the stages of the path’. They placed these reflections at the start of the path — the stage they called ‘the hinayana view’ — and they taught ways they could be pondered in preparation for other practices. These reflections precede even ‘going for Refuge’ because they concern the reasons we should wish to make such a commitment to the Buddhist path.

The subjects of the four reflections are the precious opportunity offered by human life; death and impermanence; karma, or the fact that actions have consequences; and the disadvantages of samsara, or suffering. These might be called ‘the facts of life’ in the Buddhist perspective. They aren’t news and they aren’t contentious, but despite their importance they easily slither out of awareness to be replaced by quite different assumptions. They are wake-up calls, jolts to our complacency, articulations of the troubling voice of reality as it speaks through our immediate experience. As we go through them, we are saying to ourselves, ‘Remember, reflect, wake up to the truth.’ The term I like best for these reflections was coined by the Buddhist scholar, Reginald Ray, who calls them ‘the Four Reminders’.

These Reminders are formed into an organised series of observations or reflections that you can turn over in your mind. I have most enjoyed doing the practice on retreat, when I have spent perhaps ten or fifteen minutes on each of the four. Having done that I now find that I can bring the essence of each reflection to mind much more quickly. On retreat, pacing mindfully up and down, I went through the reflections in the form shown below, holding each one in my mind until it had sunk in. That’s important or else, like every other practice, they can become mechanical. So you think: ‘One day I will die,’ and then a subliminal response comes to your mind: ‘Yes, I will, I really will. Isn’t that extraordinary! And how odd that it should seem strange.’ And then you pause, you feel it — feel, yes, it’s true, it’s really true. And then you move on to the next reflection.

You can find traditional versions of these reflections in Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation Tsongkhapa’s Lam Rim texts and many other sources. But many features of the traditional accounts are somewhat alien to people who have not been brought up in a traditional Buddhist culture. For example the section on ‘the disadvantages of samsara’ usually includes lengthy descriptions of the troubles facing non-human beings such as hungry ghosts and angry gods, and there are gruesome accounts of the Buddhist hells. The reflections on karma rapidly involve one in complex presentations of Buddhist teachings on causality and ethics.

The inaccessible character of such presentations is a real problem because the Four Reminders are meant to move our feelings, and inspire in us a dedication to practice. That means they need to be as direct and accessible as possible. So I have worked out my own version of the reflections. In doing so, I have drawn on a variety of traditional sources, and my version has evolved as I’ve turned these over in my mind. I have discarded concepts and references that raise difficulties, but I hope I have retained the essence of each 'Reminder', and developed from it a set of reflections that will function as spurs to action.

The reflection which differs most from the traditional versions is the first, on ‘this precious opportunity’, which traditionally centres on the advantages of human birth over alternative forms of existence, and the rarity of achieving it. I have focused on a more general consideration of our ability to make something valuable of our lives.

What I give below is a stripped-down version of my own practice of the Reminders. When I go through the reflections I fill them out with thoughts about my particular circumstances and examples from my own life. I therefore offer these ‘stripped down’ texts as a starting point for others who might be interested in doing the practice themselves. Some of the thoughts may not apply to you: for instance, you may not be in good health. In that case you should adjust the reflections according to your circumstances. If you do take them up then I would encourage you to explore the reflections in your own way, over a period of time. It might help to go back to the original texts I have mentioned in order to see my point of departure before making your own. And I can also recommend Ray’s comments on the practice in Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism.

Structured reflection is a distinct genre of Buddhist practice, rather like puja or visualisation, which needs to be explored over time. Although it is not common in the FWBO it is an important part of some other traditions, starting with the Buddha’s own teaching as recorded in the Pali Canon. Reflection differs from study, in which one thinks conceptually and discursively about a Dharma topic. It differs from musing, when one turns over a teaching or an experience while gazing into a fire, perhaps, or walking in the country. It differs from vipassana, or insight meditation, in which one seeks to penetrate deeply into a teaching on the basis of meditative concentration. In a structured reflection you simply rehearse a series of thoughts and this brings them into awareness so that they can inform and guide your experience. Like any other mental exercise it requires concentration, such as can be developed through the mindfulness of breathing. And as its aim is to stir you up, it requires a positive emotional base, such as can be developed through the practice of the Metta Bhavana.

A friend of mine who had been doing these reflections intensively in the course of a long retreat said he just wanted to get a few basic points ‘into his thick skull’ so firmly that they wouldn’t be dislodged, come what may. Even on his deathbed. Even after that. As we turn over these reflections in our minds we can allow ourselves slowly to be convinced by them. Eventually they get under your skin. They wake you up. And just as the entire path can be found in the apparently simple undertaking to go for Refuge to the Three Jewels, so the simple truth of these reflections is a door that opens onto reality itself.

1.This Precious Opportunity

Here, now, I have a chance to make something of my life.
I have health.
I have energy.
I have the ability to think and feel freely.
I have enough food and enough money to meet my needs.
I live in a country that free of war, and many of the other difficulties people can face.
I’m not trapped in a negative state of mind like madness, craving, hatred or depression.
All of these things can change, but while I have these advantages I have a great opportunity.
I have had the great good fortune to meet the Dharma.
The Buddha taught it.
It has been practised down the generations.
Thanks to my teachers it has come to my country and into my life in a form I can understand and accept.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet an effective sangha, whose members offer me guidance and friendship.
All these conditions have made the Dharma a presence in my life, and made its practice possible for me.
Am I making use of the opportunity this offers?
How much time I waste!
How much of my life passes in unawareness!
How strongly my habits constrain me!
I would be foolish to waste this chance.
So let me commit myself to practising as fully as I can.

2. Reflection on Death

One day I will die.
I cannot avoid it. It comes to everyone, and it will come to me.
Everyone who has lived in the past has aged and died, and those living now are ageing and will die too.
Think of the millions of people who have lived in the past. Where are they now?
I see myself ageing. Day by day, year by year my body grow older, as I can clearly see.
The causes of life are unstable and impermanent, and when they run out my death will come.
I will have to face death and meet it, the end of my life.
I am life a fish caught in a net.
I am like a prisoner condemned to execution.
I am like an animal in a slaughterhouse.
In my fantasies I am exempted from the general truth of death.
But that is a delusion, and death will come to me, even me, as well.
The time of my death is uncertain.
Even if I live a full span, that is just a few decades.
But death could come at any moment — in a few years, or a few weeks, or even today.
There are many causes of death in addition to old age: illness, accident, disaster and violence.
Every day people die in these ways, all of them having expected to live longer.
Therefore death is a presence that should be borne in mind.
My plans should always be provisional; I should not put things off, and live free from regrets and obligations.
Everyone I know will die as well.
One by one we will be taken by death.
All my friends, all my family, everyone I know, everyone I love, everyone who loves me.
In a hundred years we will all be gone.
To face death I will need courage, forbearance, contentment and a clear conscience.
I need to be free of regrets, and that means using my time wisely.
All that will matter at the time of death is spiritual practice.
What will matter is what I have become in myself, the qualities of my mind, and the sense of having lived a worthwhile life through helping others.
So I should live with awareness of the inevitability of death and of its imminence.
And I must make good use of my time through practising the Dharma.

3. Karma

Everywhere I look in the universe I see things arising and passing away in dependence upon conditions.
From galaxies and stars to micro-organisms, this pattern holds true.
Things aren’t random — they have causes and effects.
This is also true of my life.
What I am today is the product of many influences: my family, culture, education and relationships.
It’s also the product of choices I’ve made, of how I’ve acted, of my mental states and habits.
There are many things I cannot alter, and these I must accept.
But I can change those conditions that spring from my mind.
I can change how I think, I can affect how I feel.
Meditation and Dharma practice give me ways to do so.
I know that skilful actions have brought me happiness and fulfilment and have benefited others.
When I’ve been kind or generous I’ve seen others benefit, and it has given me happiness.
I know that my unskilful actions have harmed others, and harmed me too.
When I have been unkind I have seen the pain I have caused.
Those actions have reinforced negative states of mind that make me unhappy, and I’ve felt remorse and regret.
Therefore I should cultivate positive states, practice skilful actions and avoid unskilful ones.
This means practising the Dharma, which offers a sure path to establishing positive conditions.
To this path I commit myself.

4. The Defects of Samsara

Suffering is part of my life.
Everything I experience is tinged with incompleteness.
I cannot escape unsatisfactoriness.
My life involves stress, striving and struggle.
The same is true of others.
Almost everyone I know is searching for something their lives do not give them.
Everywhere I see this.
People’s lives include many other kinds of suffering.
There is illness and physical pain: that goes with having a body.
There is the mental anguish of depression, fear, madness and many other afflictions. The possibility of such experience goes with having a mind.
All this is within the spectrum of experience I occupy.
This is human life, and these things can happen to me.
When I consider my experience I see that it’s in continual flux.
My body changes continually, a mass of processes that never settle.
My mind is an endless stream of thoughts, one after another.
Similarly, people change, situations alter, nothing endures.
The whole world is like this.
Nothing is solid, or final; nothing can be fully relied upon.
Consider this present moment, and you see this is true.
Look around and you see it is true everywhere.
I want the world to be substantial and knowable, but it isn’t.
This causes me to suffer.
These are the defects of samsara.
It’s futile to expect the world to make me happy: that expectation is the very source of my suffering.
I must change the way I see the world, and live on the basis of reality, not illusion.
The Dharma offers a way to do this.
It gives a path away from being trapped in samsara.
Therefore let me commit myself to practising the Dharma.