We’ve surveyed the Buddhist path to its fruition, so now let’s return to where we really are—to the beginning. The question we all face is, what will make our journey genuine dharma and not another spiritual fantasy or creation of ego? What Buddhism calls the Four Reminders will keep our practice real.
If you visualize yourself as a donkey on the road to enlightenment, you may begin to find that there are lots of carrots and lots of sticks on the path. The numerous enticements include the promise, or at least the hope, that meditation will make you a better person. You hope you will gain control of your thought process, a modicum of contentment, and the ability to positively influence your life and your environment. You won’t be so negative and defeatist. Pure motivation and a lot of meditation and contemplation will, you hope, make you a happier person.
The further promise of mahayana is that you will become one of the Dharmic Heroes. You will help other people, you will relieve the tremendous suffering of beings, you will save the world, and you will do this all without complaining—with joyful loving kindness, in fact. In the vajrayana, you may finally find someone who understands you from the inside out—your guru—and you discover magic. Through your devotion, your wisdom, and your commitment to practice, you may experience bliss and emptiness, all within the sacred world.
Then, there is the Big Carrot, the possibility of enlightenment at the end of the road. We don’t know exactly what enlightenment is, but we know it’s a good thing, and we believe that being enlightened will bring more good things. It sounds, from a donkey’s perspective, somewhat…yummy. Or as Groucho Marx said, “Say the magic word and the duck comes down.”
On the other side of the equation, many of us are perfectly happy with just a little bitty sweet baby carrot, and we experience most of the description of the Buddhist path as a big stick that is trying to move us forward against our will. We just got on the road to go to the next pasture, where all the great-looking donkeys are hanging out. Nobody warned us that we were going to have to carry saddlebags or have people ride on our backs, or that we’d have to be on the road all night. Forget it. Sit, sit, sit. Study, study, study. Suffer, suffer, suffer. Renounce, renounce, renounce.
Not me. I just want peace, contentment, a practice to calm my mind. Ouch, don’t hit me again. Ouch, ouch, no, I’m not budging. Carrot? Ooh. Now that looks nice…
Maybe visualizing oneself as a donkey is not the best approach.
Buddhism and the practice of meditation are not laughing matters, but a sense of humor is essential. We need a gap in the storyline, a light touch that enables us to look afresh. It is said that all dharma (i.e., all teaching) agrees at one point, and that point is egolessness, the insubstantiality of self and other. What we are and what we experience as our world are not solid. A reified view of Buddhism, practice, enlightenment—any of those can be a hindrance if we can’t see through the concepts.
The process of wearing out our preconceptions about self and other is essentially what makes up what we call the path. If you involve yourself in Buddhist practice and study, you find yourself on that path whether you are the kind of donkey who likes carrots or the kind who prefers to be beaten with big sticks. At first, when you survey the journey that lies ahead, with all its schools and stages, you’re barely on the road. Essentially, you’re studying the map before you get underway. There is a difference between imagination and reality in this regard.
A few years ago, I planned a trip to Europe with my family. In addition to the guidebooks we studied, we had access to the Internet. The experience of this virtual reality can blur the distinction between researching a place online and actually going there. You can get confused while you’re on the computer or the iPhone. When you actually set out, however, you soon discover the difference. We had found a great little hotel on line, in the fourth arrondissement in Paris. The hotel and the neighborhood were much as advertised, but nothing prepared us for Le Smoke in the airport when we disembarked at Charles de Gaulle. And we had no idea that the sandwiches they sell in French train stations were so good. When we moved on to Italy, the quaint hotel in Milan was cute, the room was fine, and breakfast was complimentary and plentiful, as promised, but we hadn’t counted on the fact that the establishment rented out rooms by the hour during the day, for activities that probably wouldn’t be classified as family entertainment.
In a similar way, the journey we make when we commit ourselves to the Buddhist path is full of uncertainty and the unexpected. It doesn’t necessarily go smoothly. Sometimes it feels as though we are going nowhere for a long time. We don’t progress from stage to stage as though we were riding an elevator that takes us upstairs without any effort.
So while it is not just advisable but indispensable to survey the wisdom and skillful means of the Buddhist path, we need to keep in mind that, in doing so, we are just getting on the on-ramp of that broad highway, setting out on a long journey across the continent. Many of the great teachers have said, “It’s better not to begin, but if you begin, you should go all the way to the destination.” So if you don’t want to make the whole journey, it’s better to get off at the beginning. The karmic price you pay for leaving the path in midstream is much steeper.
You can have what might be called a journey without goal, but you have to be willing to constantly be traveling, to be continually engaged—even if you don’t really know where you’re going or care when you get there. Stopping by the side of the road to catch your breath is perfectly fine, as well, but the journey will go on.
Presuming that this truth-in-advertising disclaimer hasn’t scared you off and you are still interested in setting forth—or continuing if you’re already underway—you will find it helpful to bring along a few provisions. One of the things you need is some kind of dharmic compass, something that helps you remain oriented and helps sort out the main road from the many sidetracks along the way. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the daily contemplation of the “four reminders” is one such aide.
The preciousness of life is the first reminder. Life is indeed rare and unique, and we should understand that it is not a rehearsal. We will never have this life to lead again. This is it. It is a one-shot deal, every moment. One breath, one shot, one precious opportunity. A traditional analogy is that it is more difficult to gain a precious human birth than it is for a tortoise to put its head through a single ring floating in the vast ocean. If we are lucky enough to be here, we shouldn’t waste this opportunity.
The precious opportunity that this life presents is also fleeting. The second reminder, based on the Buddhist understanding of impermanence, is that life is like a bubble; death is real, and it comes without warning. Take it personally. Impermanence is not about somebody else.
The reality of one’s own death is sobering. However, the point is not particularly to be depressed, or oppressed, by the feeling that someone is dangling a heavy weight over your head, ready to fall on you at any moment. The awareness of death makes this life all the more precious, and it is an incentive to apply the wealth of Buddhist teachings that we come across. Knowing that death is real can also help us to experience that life is real. When you are acutely aware of your life, when you are actually leading it with wakeful mindfulness, you are much more present—which is delightful and somewhat humorous.
Precious, fleeting, and also meaningful: the reality of karma is the third reminder. Life has consequences. What we do or don’t do matters. It will catch up with us eventually. Sometimes we act as though we had a pocketful of “get out of jail free” cards, but this is not Monopoly. Our actions are not moves in a game. This is our life, and we don’t get to take any moves over again.
There is a tendency toward fundamentalism in some Buddhist circles, or maybe we should just say, within all of us. A simplistic view of karma is that if you think good thoughts, you will do good things, you will be good, and you will be rewarded. On the other side, if you think bad thoughts, you will do bad things, you will be bad, and you will be punished. While it’s easy to impose a simplistic view of good and bad, reality is not that simple. For example, Hitler was a vegetarian. Makes you want to eat meat tonight, doesn’t it? Genuine purity is a purity of mind beyond good and bad. Unless your behavior is utterly consistent, based on a pristine, luminous, and empty mind and boundless compassion, you have to be careful about assigning praise and blame.
Yet, karma is infallible. Go figure. In a certain way, that truth is terrifying. However, it is also somewhat comforting. We know what’s coming to us, so to speak, and—somewhere beyond our projections, our fear, and our self-deception—we really do want to get what’s coming to us. It might be good to pay up. Not in a masochistic way, but simply in the sense that we could face ourselves. We really could, and then we could move beyond. Unless we do face the truth about ourselves, nothing is fundamentally going to change.
As well, there is an aspect of relief that comes with the understanding of karmic cause and effect. Normally, we might be tempted to tell everybody, including ourselves, what’s wrong with them all the time or try to correct their behavior—which is quite different from genuinely helping someone. The law of karma says that you can trust that someone will get the feedback they need at some point. This is a little different than thinking, “You’ll get yours.” The point again is to lighten up. We can give situations some space and trust that they contain their own sanity as well as their own confusion.
The fourth reminder is that samsara, the confused round of existence that we experience as everyday life, is fickle, flexible, and merciless. It is also painful, vicious, and endless. It’s not really the “good news” we generally want to hear. The Buddhist texts speak of the friendships, successes, and comforts of samsara as a feast you indulge in before you are led to your execution. It’s quite a ghastly image, and one feels uncomfortable at being continually reminded of the nature of the world we create for ourselves to live in.
Similarly, some people would rather not know that they are about to die. But if you are interested in the Buddhist path, you have agreed to work with your own suffering and mortality, as well as the larger suffering in the world. We are able to live in a state of denial a lot of the time. The fourth reminder enables us to wake up from our deluded state at least once a day, if we contemplate these teachings in daily practice. The truth of samsara is so utterly true that to remind us of it is unimaginably kind.
The truly wretched quality of samsara is also the reason that we have to take the teachings to heart. You may see yourself as someone who is trying to get as far as they possibly can on the path, or as someone who just wants to feel at peace and be in control of their mind. Either can be a trap. On the other hand, either viewing spirituality as a complete path to enlightenment or as a path to self-improvement can be workable—provided we make a wholehearted commitment to whichever approach we take in this life. This is a genuine commitment to showing up and being there, on the spot—no matter what the goal is.
Otherwise, we can go through all the motions, receive the instructions, do all the practices, mimic the experiences, and…go nowhere. Or we can try to use our practice to look good, feel good, be good, but still we have to work with the reality that we’re going to die and we’re going to suffer and it won’t always be pretty. That is the message of the four reminders.
The good news is that the insidious endlessness of samsara implies its opposite: that cessation or relief is possible. That is why people contemplate these reminders: as the ground for making a genuine commitment to practice. Having contemplated the four reminders, we may ask ourselves how we can live our lives so that we don’t have huge regrets about what is left undone. As practitioners, that question leads us to investigate how we can genuinely practice this stainless good dharma.
At the end of the day, what sense can we make of the panoply of forms and options presented to us? My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, coined a phrase that I think is very helpful: buddhadharma without credentials. Being without credentials is accepting the reality of life for what it is, without artifice, endorsement, or adornment, and it is practicing on the basis of that knowledge, with confidence in our own good heart. The proclamation of dharma must be fearless. It is not about building yourself up or building up someone else. It is not about pomp and circumstance; it is not about creating a refuge from reality.
I say, let’s find that genuine dharma. Let’s insist on that, for ourselves and for others. Let’s give up wishful thinking.
To be sure, we need help. We need teachers. This is obvious. We cannot constantly be reinventing the wheel. If you want to learn to cook great Italian food, you need to learn from a great Italian cook. The master cook will not make you a master. You have to do that for yourself, but without some instruction, without learning thoroughly about the ingredients, the methods, and the tradition, there is almost no chance you’ll succeed at making a sublime bolognese.
Similarly, if you want to learn to meditate, find a mentor. If you want to recover from the sickness of samsara, find a doctor. If you want to be enlightened, find a buddha. But don’t just buy what anyone is trying to sell you. Beware of buddhadharma with credentials.
You may hear reports of an approaching tropical storm. You watch reports of where it’s been and the kind of damage it’s done. The storm finally hits, with overpowering wind and rain. Perhaps your power gets knocked out and a tree is downed. The next day the storm has moved on, and you go out to witness the devastation. You see huge waves that are a little scary breaking on the shore, and you feel good that you’ve survived. Now you feel you can speak with authority about tropical storms or hurricanes. Those are your credentials. But you have just witnessed the storm. It’s not at all the same as being the storm—that level of surrender and letting go, beyond hope and fear, is quite different.
When you look for a teacher, look for someone who is honest. If they tell you they’ve witnessed the storm, that’s pretty good. If they tell you they are the storm, be wary. Unless they truly are. If you can find that kind of teacher, I’d go for it. In the meantime, sitting down with yourself, with a well-trained instructor, sitting with yourself beyond any expectations: to me, that’s good wholesome carrot cake. Very sweet, a little gooey, good food for a tired old donkey.