The Four Reminders

Even after years of dharma practice, it is still quite likely that we will adhere to a strong belief that the world is solid and unchanging. Clinging to the appearances of our world, we take their reality for granted—to the point of completely forgetting the profound dharma we have learned. As simple as they are, the four reminders can reverse our habitual patterns of forgetting the preciousness of human life, ignoring impermanence and death, pretending that the immutable laws of cause and effect do not operate, and chasing headlong after pain in the guise of seeking pleasure. They are the first step in confronting our extreme beliefs about the existence of our world. Each of the reminders brings home the unerring message of change and the opportunity we have to practice meditation and study the teachings of the Buddha in order to gain insight and awakening in this lifetime.

The second reminder—impermanence and death—is especially poignant and direct. When His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa was attending a luncheon at the United States Congress, a congressman asked him, “If Your Holiness could summarize the teachings of the Buddha in one sentence, what would that be?” Without hesitation, the Karmapa replied, “Everything changes.” Similarly, when a student asked Suzuki Roshi to put the entire message of Buddhism in a nutshell, he simply answered, “Everything changes.”

The four reminders have been expressed repeatedly by all lineage holders. Over the years we have translated a number of such liturgies, which appear in the Karma Kagyü ngöndro, Dispelling the Darkness of Ignorance, and Pointing Out the Dharmakaya, all written by the ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje; and in various Nyingma ngöndros such as the Longchen Nyingthik by Jigme Lingpa, the Könchok Chidü by Jamgön Kongtrül, and the Rangjung Pema Nyingthik by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

For several years, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has emphasized our need to do contemplative practice. At the 1999 Seminary, he used the Vidyadhara’s pithy version of the four reminders as an object of contemplation. He also devoted several chapters of Turning the Mind into an Ally to the four reminders, giving instruction on the importance and the method of contemplation.

How do we “turn our mind into an ally?” Through hearing, contemplating, and meditating on the teachings of the Buddha. First we need to hear the dharma, whether in Sanskrit, Tibetan, French, or Polish. We listen with our ears, read with our eyes, and absorb with our hearts and minds. Next, through contemplating, we sink into the meaning of what we have heard. We no longer skim the surface of existence. Rather, we plumb its depths to discover the jewel of dharma hidden there. Finally, in meditation, our mind and the dharma meet, like rock meets bone.

The four reminders expose the bone-jarring experience of our daily life, which we usually try to pad with material comfort. They lead us away from our preoccupation with avoiding pain and seeking gain, and guide us toward seeing the true nature of our mind and our world. Then, having glimpsed things as they are, we are inspired to devote ourselves to benefiting others.

In early 1974, the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche composed the following text of the four reminders in response to the need of his students, who were just beginning the Kagyü ngöndro practice. It was likely composed in English, based on traditional sources, since the Tibetan texts for the ngöndro were not available to him at that time. This last year, we reprinted this, along with the Kagyü ngöndro text version, as a one-page liturgy for contemplation. Here is the Vidyadhara’s composition, along with our translation of another presentation of the four reminders from the Könchok Chidü by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye.


Four Reminders

Joyful to have
Such a human birth,
Difficult to find,
Free and well-favored.
But death is real,
Comes without warning.
This body
Will be a corpse.
Unalterable
Are the laws of karma;
Cause and effect
Cannot be escaped.
Samsara
Is an ocean of suffering,
Unendurable,
Unbearably intense.
Composed by the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
© 1974 by Chögyam Trungpa


To urge the mind to the dharma, the contemplation of the difficulty of obtaining a free and favorable human life:

This free and favorable life, very difficult to obtain,
Brings the accomplishment of the purpose of human existence.
If the benefits are not achieved now,
How will such an opportunity arise later?

The contemplation of impermanence and death:

The three worlds are impermanent like the clouds of autumn.
The birth and death of beings are like a drama you are watching.
The life of beings passes like a flash of lightning in the sky.
It goes quickly, like water tumbling down a steep mountain.

The contemplation of karmic cause and effect:

When their time comes, even sovereigns pass away,
And enjoyments, loved ones, and friends cannot follow after.
But wherever beings are, wherever they go,
Karma follows after them like a shadow.


The contemplation of the faults of samsara:

Through the power of craving, becoming, and ignorance,
Beings circle helplessly through the five realms
Of humans, gods, and the three lower existences.
It is like the spinning of a potter’s wheel.

The three worlds blaze with the sufferings of old age and sickness.
There is no protection here from the fiercely blazing fires of death.
Beings who arise in this world are ever deluded.
They are like bees trapped in a vase, circling.

Those are the spotless words of the perfect Buddha. Contemplate them thoroughly as you chant.

Excerpt from The Blissful Path to Liberation: The Liturgy for the Preliminaries Drawn from The Ornament of the Mind of Guru Padmakara, The Practice Manual for The Very Profound Sacred Great Perfection Sadhana of the Embodiment of the Three Jewels (Könchok Chidü ngöndro) by Jamgön Kongtrül the Great

© 1996-2000 by the Vajravairochana Translation Committee