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 | Sitting with Suicidal Thoughts

I’ve kind of touched on the thoughts here in a recent post, but I thought they were important and weighty enough to address a bit more directly rather than abstractly. I’m hoping the vulnerability and sharing of process will support anyone else who needs it as finding the acceptance of friends and family has been crucial to continue sitting through these difficult feelings, whereas those who tell you you’re wrong, confused, or self-involved make it much more painful. I can only hope to give some companionship and feelings of being seen to those who need it.


I’ve honestly dealt with depression off an on throughout my adult life. It’s always around big changes and losses though – not the seemingly random nature of major depressive disorder, more the grief of the difficulties of a human life.

I’ve never really felt suicidal in depression, no matter how empty or meaningless life has felt. Not until this time. I’ve had the deep yearning to die regularly and escalating ideas of suicidal ideation since around mid-summer. It’s hard, and ultimately, it’s scary and tiring. Part of me has to struggle continuously not to sink into the abyss. Honestly, as someone deeply involved in existential psychology, I feel like it has to do with the famous quote: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How” (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning). I’ve personally seen the withering away when a “Why” is lost. In many ways, this is precisely the problem of suicide that Camus lines out in his discussion of the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus. Facing one’s existence and projects in life as meaningless is the ultimate existential angst. It’s facing the feeling that life wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t here. Rather than the Heideggerean state of being verfallen and covering over one’s death, it’s the inverse – staring life in the face and asking why you were even born at all while struggling to find any answer, as any you used to have have dissolved in your hands.

That’s all cerebral, but the experience is anything but – those are just philosophy riffs to explain the experience. The embodied experience is much more raw and crushing. I’ve thought numerous times how great it would be if I had the courage to jump out my window. I even had a sudden urge to stab myself with a knife recently, but ultimately, none of this has ever escalated to the point of having true plans, means, or intentions enough to where I felt I needed help, beyond some time to sit, cry, and be mindfully present for my feelings.

For me, it’s been all pulled forward by having attached to ideas of partnership and love – ideas that I didn’t fully realize were such a strong piece of my identity, desire, and meaning in life. Now, I’m just not so sure of those ideas, and ultimately, I don’t think the answer is to try to find them again with someone else, so it feels as though my life doesn’t really have something to aspire to, to build, to find meaning in.

Speaking of attachment – this is a klesha: clinging. Clinging to those ideas has caused such a traumatic crash of meaning and identity, and it doesn’t seem effective enough to take the existential, well, rather, Nietzschean, approach of building some new meaning/project/values, i.e. creating some new take on love or relationships. Instead, I’ve been inspired by the Buddhist ideas regarding attachment. I’ve tried to sit with the feelings of attachment and let them dissolve. Instead, I try to show up, connect with people, and provide my kindness and compassion for the struggles they go through, and ultimately, every time, it has led to gratitude and sometimes, even, growth in the engagement.

I feel that showing up to these hardest of feelings is like what I’ve posted about previously as a famous quote from Zen that before enlightenment you chop wood and carry water, while after enlightenment you chop wood and carry water. Facing the toughest moments of life is about mindfully sitting in them, realizing that it’s just more life. The world is as it was before. Your perception and emotional reactions are all over the place, but ultimately, the same billions of years of history are before this moment as in the past. The same world is there. It merely seems different because of that Wittgensteinian idea that the world of the sad person is different than that of the happy: i.e. your evaluations of it are different, but the aspects of living your life as a human being in your life and home are the same in the broader sense (this could very much be lined up with Stoic ideas as well, especially Epictetus).

Mindfully being present and being focused on showing compassion for others is a simple and yet deep shift in approaching the mystery of living in an existence that’s always greater and more mysterious than the meanings you find in your personal projects and interpretations. Being present and vulnerable in such a way offers the possibility of seeing life as precious, just as it is, just as painful and heartbreaking as it can be in its most samsaric of moments.

Which brings me to the greatest counter-perspective I can emphasize to that of the suicidal abyss: experiencing life as precious. I’ve recently been thinking of Atisha’s slogan practices from Tibetan Buddhism. The first slogan “First, train in the preliminaries” was key to facing my dad’s death a few years ago, and recent Buddhist classes I’ve been attending have been key to bringing these ideas back to the fore.

There are four “preliminaries”. I’ll attach a photo of a post-it note I wrote years ago with my own take of them to remember them by. It’s on my fridge. I took a picture of it before a recent trip because I was thinking about these suicidal thoughts and the counter effort I’ve been working on in seeing compassion and wisdom to pull me back into this more engaged mindset.

My summary of the preliminaries

I’ll speak of slogan practice more thoroughly in the future (hopefully), but I’ll summarize these points here. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes how rare and precious it is to be born as a human being in a time and place where you can learn the Buddha’s dharma – the truths and wisdom that offer you the possibility of breaking free from the painful reactions that make life so difficult. In a way, this summary of preciousness captures the point of the other 3 preliminaries as well as the Four Noble Truths in one go. A sentient life is one of the pain, disappointment, and suffering of dukkha. It’s one of standard patterns of action, walking through life with the same conditioned ways of re-acting (writing that way because we think of it as action, but it truly isn’t – reactivity is the most passive of ways of being. The only truly active freedom is in being able to sit with challenges and see your inclinations and choose differently in ways that do not continue the reactive patterns of suffering in your life). Waking up to a different way of being requires seeing the opportunity and wisdom that is available to you, embracing it with gratitude, and rethinking your actions based on the outcomes and results you bring to yourself through them (recognizing the 3rd preliminary that all action is karmic), working now to embrace that opportunity because you see your time is limited (recognizing the 2nd preliminary that death is coming), and finally, doing all of this out of the understanding that there is dukkha (the first of the Four Noble Truths which opens the whole Buddhist path before you).

When I think of the samsaric pain of loss and meaninglessness that I’m going through with all the suicidal thoughts attached to them, in other words, when thinking of the fact that there is dukkha, I remember another Buddhist passage I’ve brought up before, the poetic lines from Dogen’s Genjokoan: “Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them” (Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo). Desire and aversion put us at odds with the changing circumstances of the impermanent world around us, but if we recognize those samsaric poisons within us, we can take pause and sit more patiently with the difficulties of life, allowing us to instead continue on with compassion for others and mindful presence for the moment at hand. We may no longer have the flowers of beauty, or we may need to contend with the weeds popping up, but we can be right in this moment, doing our best in it, and giving to all the others who are here struggling with their own pain at the changing circumstances they’re in.


May these words inspire and offer companionship to those who need them.

Gassho!

Cutting Through the Mask

Om mani padme hum…
Repeat again and again…
1000s of times…
Working for the liberation
Of all sentient beings
From Suffering
From Delusion
Goes on and on…

Can you hope to help
If you are still stuck
In your own delusion?
Compassion in action:
Om mani padme hum
Begins with seeing,
How “I” become special
“I” am advanced.
“I” will become enlightened
“I” am nearly a guru!
Such sentiment perpetuates
Delusion, is the core of
Delusion, is the beating,
Black heart of Separation

Suffering begins with
This separation that creates
“Your” mask.
A constructed aegis
To ward off inevitable Death
The black heart of Selfishness
Beats in a network of
Ego’s arterial stories.

Let go of such
Spiritual materialism
Compassion begins:
Cut through your “self”,
Open your heart
Let it beat
The ebb and flow of The Universe,
Tao
, resides in emptiness
Feel that you
And others
Are not two.

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It is a radical method for cutting through the inflation of ego-fixation through the willingness to accept what is undesirable, the disregard of difficult circumstances, the realization that gods and demons are one’s own mind, and the understanding that oneself and others are utterly equal.
-Jamgön Kongtrul, as quoted in “Machik’s Complete Explanation”

When there is no perceived difference
between square and circle,
light and dark in our minds,
we have attained the profound truth of Tao.
Everything in heart should be as one:

Emptiness
Emptiness

-Loy Ching-Yuen, “The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao”