Four Reflections That Strengthen Your Intention to Practice

If you contemplate these traditional contemplations, the “four great reflections,” you will strengthen your intention to practice.

Norman Fischer
9 September 2017
Statue of the deity tara.
The deity Tara. Photo courtesy of The Norton Simon Foundation.

Every time we sit in meditation, every time we turn the mind toward positive thought and action to benefit others, we are strengthening our intention, our commitment, and our vow to practice continuously—moment after moment forever.

The “four great reflections” is a traditional contemplation for developing intention. It is the first of the fifty-nine mind training (lojong) slogans of Indo–Tibetan Buddhism. It is called “Resolve to Begin,” for if you contemplate these four great truths of life you will strengthen your intention to practice.

1. The rarity and preciousness of a human life.

Think about it: you have been born into this colorful world with others. You have everything you need. You have been lovingly cared for and nurtured. You can see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and think. You can love and be loved. Your soul can know beauty. This is an incomparable gift.

Stop and take a few breaths to contemplate the gift of human life you have received…

2. Death is inevitable and unpredictable.

No one can escape death and no one knows when it will come. It comes in the night, in the morning, in the afternoon, or evening. It comes at home or while away. You can die this evening, one week from today, one month, one year, one decade.

Life is brief. No one knows how long it will last. Children die, young people die, old people die. Every day, millions of people depart this life. One day, you don’t know when, it will be your turn.

Stop and take a few breaths to contemplate this…

3. Suffering is inevitable.

No one escapes pain—physical pain, loss, dishonor, disrespect, loneliness, anxiety, panic, stress, fear. Not even the most fortunate among us escapes. These days we divide the world into those who are privileged and those who are not. But in Buddhism we recognize that all beings born into this world suffer. This is our basic condition.

Stop and take a few breaths to contemplate this…

4. The indelible power of all our actions.

Throughout our lives and at the time of death, the only thing we really have is the power of our thoughts, words, and deeds. These can be allies and protectors, or they can make our lives miserable.

Everything depends on how we conduct ourselves. In the end we can’t depend on our bodies, our wealth, or our intelligence—not even our relationships. No one can accompany us on our final journey. But the words, thoughts, and deeds of a lifetime will shape the path we walk.

Stop and take a few minutes to contemplate this…

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.