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!

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