Lojong Slogan Practice: #1 – Train in the Preliminaries

I’m taking up the challenge of going through Atisha’s 7 point training of the mind from Tibetan Buddhism and will attempt to write a breakdown for every one of the associated 59 slogans. I hope this will add depth and a movement towards effortlessness, sudden meditative non-meditation, and well, healing for myself and offer a breakdown of each slogan in the hope that it will help others as well.


I actually wrote on this slogan a while back when writing about struggling with suicidal thoughts. That post had some good insights, but I thought it worth returning to this slogan with the purpose of intentionally grouping and setting off the slogans and to pay this slogan the respect it deserves.

Honestly, that in itself is easily overlooked. I have five commentaries on the slogans, and many skip past this in a very brief description. Pema Chödrön doesn’t even address the four parts of the preliminaries, and Trungpa doesn’t speak much further to them than that and tying it to guru practice, but in that regard he is right in line with the scriptural master, Jamgön Kongtrül. Dzigar Kongtrül, on the other hand, as well as Norman Fischer, speak at length about the four preliminaries and the full reason why they are crucial for us to understand in moving forward in Lojong practice. They are the mindset needed to cultivate bodhicitta and walk the path of the bodhisattva.

This slogan is the first and only slogan associated with the first of the seven points of mind training.

The descriptions I’ve read for this slogan break down “the preliminaries” into four parts. I summarized them in my own words years ago and still have the post-it note I used at the time to do it. It’s on my fridge (and is pictured in the other post). I’m going to take this as a chance to revise and express them again in the hope of capturing more nuance and empowering them better in my own words for my own understanding.

  1. Human life is an especially rare and precious gift; a human life able to encounter and practice the dharma even more so
  2. We here must die, and we know not when
  3. All action, speech, and thought are entwined with results: all action, speech, and thought are karmic
  4. Samsaric existence is one of dukkha

I had intended to really tie aspects of the Dhammapada into the last of these, but I just did it with 2, 3, and 4. In reading through these and thinking about how to present them here, I decided I think it’s better to reorder them for a structure of mindset, and I hope this will become clear below.

I propose we approach these in the order of 4,3,1,2. The reason to start with 4 is that it represents the entry point to the entire Buddhist path. It’s a marker that points to the first of the Four Noble Truths, and thereby all of the Four Noble Truths. Some summaries of Buddhism emphasize the importance of this teaching, as it’s the first teaching the Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment, and it’s his diagnosis of the spiritual/existential problem of human life and the cure for said ailment – the eightfold path. In a sense, it’s his greatest moment of being a medicine Buddha, and it is accurate to claim that it is the summary of all of his teaching.

Furthermore, in recognizing and accepting the Four Noble Truths as a starting point, a practitioner should also be compelled to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, which is key in moving forward with the mindset of the other preliminaries and the later slogans’ focus on bodhicitta. This preliminary is the starting point: one must recognize there is a spiritual problem to address in order to undertake the spiritual journey like the Buddha and become a bodhisattva oneself. Without this first step, the other preliminaries and, honestly, Buddhist practice in general don’t have much purpose behind them.

We should look at 3 next because it is another foundational basic of the Buddha’s teachings. The opening lines of the Dhammapada, not to mention most chapters throughout, emphasize that mind precede action (whether speech or bodily action) and that the results following the mind’s intentions match those intentions – either pure or impure. In other words, action, speech, and thought is karmic: it is a chain of cause and effect, and intention and view inform the cause and thereby influence the effect. In a sense, as karma is often expressed in metaphors like seeds and giving said seeds sustenance to grow through subsequent repeated action, we could summarize with “You reap what you sow”, but this also applies to thought patterns and worldviews – you strengthen them through repeated intention, thinking, doing, and speaking. This addition is what makes the Buddha’s teaching a bit more nuanced and profound. Hence, the concept of taming the mind through meditation and focus on ethics (i.e. pure intention and action) – meditation brings mental concentration, which strengthens the intentions and mindfulness to continually choose to enact pure thoughts and speech. Recognizing the laws of karma (cause and effect as described above) at play in our lives is another core realization needed to begin the Buddhist path. These first 2 reordered preliminaries are basic premises without which, one cannot even begin.

Now, let us look at the first of the preliminaries. This is the one I’ve struggled with the most in recent times. When struggling with dukkha in the most painful physical, mental, or emotional anguish, it’s hard to see life as a precious gift. However, the commentaries make it clear just how many animals are out there who are not human. This science article and graph makes it clear that humans are only a small part of the animal biomass on Earth. If one were to be any animal, it’s statistically unlikely to end up as a human (clearly, this plays along with ideas of reincarnation, but let’s just go with it for now). Furthermore, as we’ve already said, dukkha is the spiritual problem of existing as a sentient being. Human beings are the only sentient beings with the awareness and attributes to both realize this and work towards nibbana. Beyond that, one must be sound of mind as well for those attributes to truly apply. On top of this, it’s even more fortuitous to be born in a time where a buddha has realized and spread teachings on the dharma. Even more fortunate: to have access to said teachings – for instance, the Buddha lived roughly 2500 years ago, but his teachings only have become widespread and understood in the West in the last few decades. Even now, just being born in certain areas or cultural milieus might forever cut one off from the opportunity to encounter these teachings. As such, having the opportunity to take up the eightfold path and quench the suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha) really is a precious gift that cannot be taken for granted. Being aware of this capability and opportunity as rare and precious should spark inspiration and gratitude.

Finally, let’s look at the second preliminary. It’s easy to lose sight of how another set of Buddhist teachings apply to our lives: the marks/seals of impermanence and anatta. I chose “we here must die” out of a favorite translation of some of the early lines of the Dhammapada (Fronsdal’s translation). I’ll quote them briefly again:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

The Dhammapada, trans. Fronsdal, (5-6)

There is no permanent, ongoing “I”. Our time is limited. Standard Buddhist thought grew in a culture with a deep metaphysical background of reincarnation, but even if we buy that, this particular life could end at any time. I could die before even finishing this post from some unforeseen accident.

If we really take this to heart, we can understand the importance of authenticity to our existential projects in Heidegger’s Being and Time. I use this as a contrast to emphasize the motivation. In Being and Time, Heidegger posits that Dasein (human beings) live in a state of distraction from our own mortality. We live with the reality of our finitude out of sight and out of mind. As such, we are always already fallen away from our true potential for authentic revelation of a fully human life, except when existential crises wake us up to the truth of our mortality and we work towards it with resolution. This stance ultimately riffs on other aspects of ancient Western philosophy, even just summarizing it now, I can hear echoes of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics in Heidegger’s position. The point in this summary: there is something to this. We don’t generally see that our life is always already a possibility that could shift to impossibility at any moment. We don’t live this way. To some extent, a full-hearted focus on mortality like that would make the mundane efforts of life inconvenient, but on a greater level, there is an anxiety of facing the big unknown of death in our self-distraction. This preliminary is telling us to remind ourselves again and again as groundwork for our spiritual efforts. Why? Like Dasein’s existential authenticity that comes through resolution towards death, embracing our impermanence, even the flux that there is no permanent self day to day, makes us see that all we have is this moment, so we must practice now. We must work on generating compassion and wisdom now. There is no other time, and there is no guarantee that we’ll have another chance to take up the precious opportunity we summarized above. Time is of the essence – the present moment is the only essence, and it’s empty.

If one focuses on these four preliminaries, the impact can be profound. It truly sets the mind in a different view. They act both as some key facts to set one’s perspective and some points of inspiration to put in effort. I had just started studying them when my dad died, and the fact that I had been focusing on these preliminaries for a few weeks beforehand helped me shift through that transition more gracefully than I would have otherwise. In writing this to better explain them all and inspire others, I find myself settling into the mental framework again for moving along to the next point of mind training. I hope you will come along with me.


May this summary explain why the four preliminaries are a crucial first step in training the mind and generating bodhicitta. May it inspire others to research this practice as well (I’ve linked books by different authors on this text above in the initial paragraphs).

Gassho!

Reevaluation | Doubt, Patience, Purpose

Recently, I have thought about gratitude a lot. I know it’s crucial to a healthy mindset, and at times about a year ago, I had a fair amount of it, even as things felt like they were falling apart around me. Now, not so much. It’s all I can do to hope that my life will make sense again some day. Every day, I feel like I’m waiting to die, and the only gratitude I have for the last couple years is the clarity of boundaries I need to uphold for the future and for the friends who’ve shown they care when I have felt utterly worthless.

A tarot reading recently brought this into focus. It showed two paths forward for a question – one was trying to find gratitude and convince myself that those perspectives were valid. The other was sitting patiently in confusion, in mourning, in meaninglessness and despair, sitting with the feelings of doubt — being intimate with the mysteriousness of being rather than trying to explain it away. The second of the two actually looked like the more positive long-term path, and ultimately, it made me feel more at ease with a sense of failing my own values.

How so? I doubt everything – I doubt there’s any point to existence, the full-on absurd of Camus as a felt existential experience. The key with that comparison is that the task is then on me to affirm and create my own purpose. That seems impossible. More daunting, and more painful, I doubt ideas of the dharma. In my best days, I feel like showing up and doing well for myself and others is all that matters, understanding that we all share the pain of samsara, but at times, the nihilistic overtones in my perspective make me wonder if that’s even true, if it all washes away in impermanence.

However… I hold to the idea that those doubts are precisely the strongest possibility for seeing clearly and really feeling compassion and wisdom fully. I’ve remembered that Zen emphasizes doubt as crucial to breaking through to enlightenment, and Dogen emphasizes a chiasm of intimate intertwining between delusion (doubting the dharma in this case) and enlightenment. My own feelings of doubt are rooted deeply in personal loss, and when I really pause, I can’t help but see the impermanence of it all – love is empty. It’s a passing construct like all the rest that exists, and as a Buddhist nun I know speaks about such things regarding gain and loss, “How could it be otherwise? Nothing is more natural.” As such, why do I cling???????

All I do know is that showing up for others teaches me time and again that my own pain is not separate from the human lives around me all the time. It’s easy to fall into your own ego narrative, but when you see the passing of time and the confusion and pain of others, it’s easier to be patient with their own selfish treatment towards you as their own delusion from a misunderstanding of time and life, of dharma, as well as to see your own moments of being lost rather than skillful, and furthermore, it’s clear that those moments of seeing clearly and helping others are the most fulfilling, even when life seems meaningless. I hope that continuing to invest in this and to take up practices like meditating on the brahmaviharas, which feels right, will grow the seed of new purpose through the nutrients of patience, growing in the rich soil of doubt – just as the lotus grows in the muddy water

Here are a few quotes that I hope will fit with this – first a quote regarding the Tibetan slogan practices and the cultivation of bodhicitta. I find the Tibetan practices some of the best at overturning our understanding and valuation of self.

How bodhicitta works is very simple. When we look outward and see how much all other beings are suffering–even though they want to be happy just as much as we do–then our care for our small, individual self naturally transforms into care for a much bigger “self”. We grow from having self-care to universal care. Right away our own suffering becomes smaller. It doesn’t instantly and totally disappear, but diminishes naturally and progressively as we free ourselves from attachment to the small self. When the sun shines, it absorbs all the light of the moon and stars into its brightness. Similarly, when we have bodhicitta, the brilliant light of our universal love and care outshines and absorbs our concerns for this one individual.

– Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, The Intelligent Heart: A Guide to the Compassionate Life, p. 12-13

Once again, I’m going to throw in Dogen’s Genjokoan, but I’ll use another translation this time, regarding self-involvement, buddhahood, delusion, enlightenment, and practice:

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.
Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realizations and those who are in delusion throughout delusion.
When buddhas are truly buddhas, they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.

– Dogen, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (Genjokoan) in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobogenzo), trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi, p. 29

Finally, Mumon’s commentary on the famous first koan of the Gateless Gate (the Japanese/Zen version of the Chinese/Chan originals) emphasizes the importance of doubt for breaking through and having a great experience of kensho. Aside: I’ve actually written previously about this wonderful koan in relation to a heavy song by my favorite band here.

For the practice of Zen, you must pass the barrier set up by the ancient patriarchs of Zen. To attain to marvelous enlightenment, you must completely extinguish all thoughts of the ordinary mind. If you have not passed the barrier and have not extinguished all thoughts, you are a phantom haunting the weeds and trees. Now, just tell me, what is the barrier set up by the patriarchs? Merely this Mu (Z note: the key word of the koan that means “nothing”) — the one barrier of our sect. So it has come to be called “The Gateless Barrier of the Zen Sect.”

Those who have passed the barrier are able not only to see Joshu (Z note: the master in the koan) face to face but also to walk hand in hand with the whole descending line of patriarchs and be eyebrow to eyebrow with them. You will see with the same eye that they see with, hear with the same ear that they hear with. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful joy? Isn’t there anyone who wants to pass this barrier? Then concentrate your whole self into this Mu, making your whole body with its 360 bones and joints and 84,000 pores into a solid lump of doubt. Day and night, without ceasing, keep digging into it, but don’t take it as “nothingness” or as “being” or “non-being.” It must be like a red-hot iron ball which you have gulped down and which you try to vomit up but cannot. You must extinguish all delusive thoughts and beliefs which you have cherished up to the present. After a certain period of such efforts, Mu will come to fruition, and inside and out will become one naturally. You will then be like a dumb man who has a dream. You will know yourself and for yourself only.

Then all of a sudden, Mu will break open. It will astonish the heavens and earth. It will be just as iff you had snatched the great sword of General Kan: If you meet a Buddha, you will kill him. If you meet a patriarch, you will kill him. Though you may stand on the brink of life and death, you will enjoy the great freedom. In the six realms and the four modes of birth, you will live in the samadhi of innocent play.

Now, how should you concentrate on Mu? Exhaust every ounce of energy you have in doing it. And if you do not give up on the way, you will be enlightened the way a candle in front of the altar is lighted by one touch of fire.

– Mumon, The Gateless Gate, trans. Koun Yamada, p. 10

Two last notes: Hakuin, a Zen patriarch, is quoted as saying, “The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening,” although I’m struggling to find a solid source for where he said this, but the idea is clarified well here in this article from Tricycle about great doubt in Zen, written by the very translator for The Gateless Gate above. Furthermore, Yamada Roshi, said translator, is summarized as seeing Zen practice as such in the foreward to his translation: “Genuine fruit of Zen practice, he repeatedly maintained, is manifested when a human being is able to experience an emptying of one’s ego, and truly live out one’s humanity with a humble heart, at peace with oneself, at peace with the universe, and with a mind of boundless compassion” The Gateless Gate, p. xii. I think that’s a fantastic inspiration to close this with and a guiding aspiration, one I didn’t have when I started to fumble through writing this post. It’s a happy accident, the best thing that I could find in writing this.


May this inspire others to break through their perspective with great determination and great doubt.

Gassho!