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!

Heartbreak | Poetry for a Pulverized Heart

I’ve wanted to explore the topic of heartbreak and healing through a spiritual lens by riffing on a few of my favorite spiritual texts and trying to make them into some heartfelt poetry. This will be an attempt at that.


Form is emptiness.
Emptiness is form.
Form is nothing other than emptiness.
Emptiness is nothing other than form.
Love is nothing other than heartbreak.
Heartbreak is nothing other than love.
The arising of love is the flux that also flows out into its absence.
With gain is loss. With attachment is separation.
All such dharmas, every dharma, the entirety of the ten thousand things,
Each, no more substantial than dreams.
Each as empty – impermanent and without a Self, an identity that lasts.
As such: “Slogan 2. Regard all dharmas as dreams”.
Each can pop and be gone in the blink of an eye.
Even a life can.

The pulverized heart – pulverized: something crushed into powder: pulver.
It is perhaps the greatest emptiness.
A flux of confusion, hurt, memory, despair, hopelessness,
And perhaps, the last reverberations of a beat:
A small echo of the past and a yearning for it to grow back into life.
None of it solid. None of it stable.
Complete emotional rawness.
Potential opening for vulnerable wisdom – a being-here to sit with.

Form is emptiness.
Emptiness is form.
There is no love. No heartbreak. No connection. No rupture. No gain. No loss. No joy. No grief. No healing. No hurt. No learning. No forgetting. No path. No resolution.
All of it, gone, gone, beyond gone, completely beyond the concept of gone.

And yet…
Form is form. In each moment, just this – the entire universe is this present moment.
Emptiness is emptiness. The goings and comings are being-time; time-being.
We misunderstand them because we don’t understand the beat of time.
For love to last, effort must be put in – the consistency that is accomplished through change.
Be water, my friend.

Seeing clearly is sitting without attachment.
It’s cutting through the grasping onto form, emptiness, and any arising.
It’s severing the ties that hold us to our devils: all being creations of mind.
When heartbreak arises, cut through the narratives, justifications, and demons of ego.
When love arises, cut through the narratives, justifications, and demons of ego.
As should be remembered:
“Flowers fall even though we love them. Weeds grow even though we dislike them.”

Just this.


For reference, this free-form poetry is riffing hard on The Heart Sutra, Dogen’s Genjokoan from his Shobogenzo, some ideas from Mahayana Buddhism in general, particularly the 8 worldly concerns (gain and loss being two of them), The Tao Te Ching, the 52 slogans from the 7 points of mind training (Lojong) in Tibetan Buddhism, and Machik Lapdrön’s The Great Bundle of Precepts (the founder of Chöd and an absolutely radical female monk from the Middle Ages – highly suggested reading).

To end, I’d like to quote three poetic passages from Addiss and Lombardo’s as well as Red Pine’s translations of The Tao Te Ching, as I find them absolutely beautiful and inspirational, and I feel they speak to this problem of duality in experience and how to behave as a Sage who gets to the fundamental aspect of doing well without getting caught in the self-involved pain of trying to jump only from gain to gain to gain to gain.

Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.

Is and Isn’t produce each other.

Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice
After is followed by before.

Therefore the Sage is devoted to non-action.
Moves without teaching,
Creates ten thousand things without instruction,
Lives but does not own,
Acts but does not presume,
Accomplishes without taking credit.

When no credit is taken,
Accomplishment endures.

Tao Te Ching – trans. Addiss and Lombardo; chapter 2

7

Heaven is eternal and Earth is immortal
the reason they’re eternal and immortal
is because they don’t live for themselves
hence they can live forever
sages therefore pull themselves back
and end up in front
put themselves outside
and end up safe
is it not because of their selflessness
whatever they seek they find

8

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned

Lao-Tzu’s TaoTeChing – trans. Red Pine; chapters 7 and 8

Morning Pages | Clinging in Emptiness

I wrote this passage in Morning Pages a few days ago – a practice I’ve been trying to work on again as a means of self-care and continued spiritual development. Personally, this passage really felt like a deep expression of the heartbreak I’m currently going through, but at the same time, it riffs hard on Marcus Aurelius and Buddhism. As such, especially after reading it again and finding it much more cerebral and poetic than the emotional mess I thought it was when I was writing it, I share it here.


Here “I” am. I’m not sure why I write that in this moment, but it feels weighty. Perhaps more accurately, it feels light. I have the slogan in mind to regard all dharmas as dreams (#2) [note: this is a reference to the Tibetan slogan practices of Atisha – a path and practice I’ve been meaning to dig into again. #1 and #2 both helped me through my dad’s passing a few years back]. That includes me. I’m not the same as yesterday, a week before, or 5 years ago as I just saw in pictures. What can I take from this in this moment? Well, it clearly indicates, at the least, that the worries I have now will change. They may grow. They may wither. They may be fully replaced. Also, my body will change – perhaps for the better with more exercise (and a better diet), but mostly, I will continue to fall apart.

What is there to cling on to when all is emptiness? Why am I clinging so hard to a particular outcome? And yet… It’s still worth hoping for. I’m grateful for this moment.


May this give you pause to see the flux of change that is emptiness – the lack of inherent essence to all that is. All dharmas are dreams. However, may it also give you pause to consider what you hold dear and why. I plan on writing more on adapting through change in the next post.

Gassho!