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!

Intricate Interdependence

Thich Nhat Hahn, the renowned Zen teacher, has described the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and interdependence (which he calls “interbeing”) by saying that to examine a flower, you have to see the existence and interconnection with the entire universe, indeed see its history as well:

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.
– Thich Nhat Hahn, The Island of Self; The Three Dharma Seals (retrieved here)

These concepts are so profound and simple yet so difficult to express. I feel like conceptual thought experiments can get us partway there, but to really feel the wonder of it takes some extra insight that is honed through meditation, as the consistent experience of seeing ourselves as separate things in a world of objects separate from ourselves limits and guides our normal, everyday perception. Meditation is needed to shake us out of this frame. In a sense, it takes a slowing of the discursive mind’s analytic thought processes to really just sense things as they are.

An example from my recent life: I came down one morning to make some coffee after having finished a morning meditation session. I picked up a knife from the drawer to scrape the coffee grounds off the sides of the grinder, and as I saw the knife and touched it, I suddenly was aware of its intricacy and the long history of civilization, development, and design behind it. Small bubbles protruded out along the edges of the hilt; these caught my eye, and I thought of the aesthetic design and metallurgy behind these decorations as well as how this wouldn’t have been mass-produced only a few generations ago. My mind exploded even further, thinking of recent books I’ve read about the history of the Earth’s mass extinctions and the epically long oceans of time that are behind the world we live in/on and the species that currently inhabit it, as well as how they’re related to this momentary brilliance of tool-making. These results of eons of evolution are both creator of the tool and the food for which the tool is utilized — neither of which would be without everything that came before. Even just a simple knife in my kitchen drawer implicates the entire history of the creation of knives, of buildings, of drawers, and other cultural conventions/industrial standards around design, metallurgy, and culinary etiquette as well as the entire development of civilization, the evolution of the human race, and all the forgotten biological and cosmic events that led up to now.

A few years back, I read a book that described the symbolism of the famous calligraphy circle from Zen Buddhism: the enso. The zen monk explained that it isn’t showing a border between inside and outside or a process of completion; rather, it’s supposed to indicate everything. All is buddha-nature. All is included. All is interdependently shown in the circle.

4603505066eb21807dfb045e2f27def1

A fractal enso? Cosmic interdependence?

These concepts go against so much of our standard operating procedure of discernment, but there is great wisdom in the flash of insight that our independent distinctions are cuts between the intertwined chiasm (to borrow the wonderful term from Merleau-Ponty) that is existence (note: the etymological roots of “de-cide” are to cutting off or cutting away. The same applies to the German: “ent-scheiden”).


May this offer a flash of insight into interdependence to all who read it.

Gassho!

Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 1st Precept: Peace

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

Now:
Peace
Faith
Gratitude
Actualization
Compassion
– My shortened mantra of the precepts


In this post, I focus only on the first of the five precepts. I spoke about “Just for today/Now” in my “Precursor” post. I recommend reading that post before reading further if you haven’t already. That post sets up the background for the discussions of all the precepts. Just for today (Now) is the injunction that stands before all the precepts and applies to all of them.

We should recall that Usui-sama, the writer of the precepts, was a Tendai Buddhist priest. This is important, as I would say that the first precept is the beginning of the Buddhist spiritual path, and the last is its culmination in terms of practice. When I say this, I mean in terms of the Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) tradition of Buddhism, a subset of Buddhism that includes well-known schools such as Zen and Chan Buddhism. This tradition focuses on the way of the Bodhisattva, spiritual warriors who focus their efforts on the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering.

The beginning of practice is cultivating a presence that supersedes the cyclic suffering of samsara (ordinary existence; the counterpart of the enlightened existence of nirvana–an awakened state that overcomes suffering). One of the Buddha’s core teachings is the Three Marks of Existence (also called the Three Seals). They are: impermanence, suffering, and selflessness (Not-I). First of these, impermanence–everything changes. Nothing is static. From a scientific viewpoint, we could state this in terms of the second law of thermodynamics: the tendency for entropy to increase in a system. This means that the heat energy in a system changes over time. This is a law of physics. From these tenets, even atoms will break down trillions of years from now. Even that fundamental building block will change.

In our lives, we face change all the time–the weather, our physical appearance, comings and goings of loved ones, illness, birth, death, and even the basic bodily functions of breathing and our hearts beating from moment to moment. Change causes suffering for us in a couple ways: we go through life in a distracted manner and fall into changes we could have avoided because of this ignorance. With mindfulness, we can be in sync with our environment and flow with it rather than cause distracted changes which are painful. Also, despite the fact that all changes, we cling to things. We try to hold on to what we want and avoid what we don’t want. Most of all, we cling to habits and anything to bolster a sense of a permanently enduring self. We cling to the masterpiece of our creation that is the ego. This clinging to desired permanence and the unmindful engagement of a distracted mind with the world lead to suffering–the second of the Three Marks of Existence.

The third mark is selflessness (Not-I). Its the counterpoint to the clinging of ego. With mindful presence, we can experience phenomena as they are. If we attend to them in such a way, we can see them as impermanent arising. They come into being, grow, flourish, wither, and dissipate. None of them is constant. None of them endures. Noticing this reveals the oneness of all phenomena and their inherent emptiness. We can see that the separation and permanence of “I” is my own confused perception and desire to resist change. Everything, including the “I” of ego, is empty, “self”-less.

This realization leads us to a hidden gem, a fourth mark that is sometimes added–peace; we could call this realization the opening of the gate to nirvana. This peace comes from seeing our place in the world (or better said–seeing the world as it is, not as we want it to be): from actively engaging on the path of liberation beyond suffering. There is much that can be said about this path which would necessitate a deeper discussion of the Four Noble Truths. For that, I suggest reading Chögyam Trungpa’s book: The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation. I’ll focus on the fact that the path is mindful presence, facilitated by regular meditation. This gets us past the three roots of suffering: desire, aversion, and ignorance (think of the comments above about changes we want and don’t want–desire and aversion–as well as the distracted engagement with the world–ignorance).

These considerations about the Four Marks of Existence (Four, rather than three, as we have added Peace as the culmination of the Three Marks), returns us to Usui’s precepts, particularly the first precept: “Don’t hold onto anger” — “Peace“. He is offering a Buddhist meditation. You are asked to mindfully attend to these precepts twice a day while doing “gassho” as per his instructions. You focus on doing them well for today only (or for now in each and every instant). You then attend to not being angry. This is the first step on a Buddhist path to enlightenment. The heart of the Hinayana (the Lesser Vehicle) tradition is not doing harm. To achieve this, anger and pursuing an ego-driven idea of my goals from it are put aside (cognitive psychology shows that anger comes from the obstruction of something we want–think of a traffic jam keeping you from getting where you want to go; in such cases, you act out in anger, and this anger is meant to clear away those obstructions to get things back on the desired path). Not getting angry entails letting go of your own story and opening yourself up to whatever is here right now (even that traffic jam). This is how you do no harm, and this is how you begin working toward compassion, the fifth precept; to realize compassion and to let go of anger, you have to step beyond I, me, and mine. From a different, perhaps more familiar perspective for the standard Reiki student, if you are going to be a conduit for universal energy, surely the first step is opening to it and realizing that there is no separation to begin with: this is also a letting go of “I”, me, mine, my truth, my story, my goals, etc. This letting go of self and opening up to existence is realizing the mark of peace.

Let go of anger. Realize the peace that exists beyond your “self”.


As an after-thought, I thoroughly disagree with the understanding of the first precept in The Spirit of Reiki given by Walter Lübeck . The point is not to harness anger for positive personal ends. Perhaps, you could say the point is to transmute anger into peaceful enlightenment, but it isn’t about “me” and “mine” at all. Quite the opposite. First of all, I think that anger comes from desire, not fear (fear is the opposite of hope, not desire. This is commonly confused, and these are all closely related. I hope for what I desire. I fear that which I do not want to happen. Hope and wanting are closely related as are fear and aversion, but they aren’t quite the same). Overcoming the negativity of anger results in our personal healing, but in taking up a spiritual path, it isn’t about me. It’s about healing everything and realizing that all is more important than I. Here again, the precept of peace points toward the Mahayana method at the heart of the Bodhisattva way: compassion.

May this help you find peace.
Gassho!

Previous Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – Precursor
Next Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 2nd Precept: Faith