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Lions Roar : May 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2008 77 willing to constantly be traveling, to be continually engaged— even if you don’t really know where you’re going or care when you get there. Stopping by the side of the road to catch your breath is perfectly fine, as well, but the journey will go on. Presuming that this truth-in-advertising disclaimer hasn’t scared you off and you are still interested in setting forth—or continuing if you’re already underway—you will find it helpful to bring along a few provisions. One of the things you need is some kind of dharmic compass, something that helps you re- main oriented and helps sort out the main road from the many sidetracks along the way. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the daily contemplation of the “four reminders” is one such aide. The preciousness of life is the first reminder. Life is indeed rare and unique, and we should understand that it is not a re- hearsal. We will never have this life to lead again. This is it. It is a one-shot deal, every moment. One breath, one shot, one precious opportunity. A traditional analogy is that it is more difficult to gain a precious human birth than it is for a tor- toise to put its head through a single ring floating in the vast ocean. If we are lucky enough to be here, we shouldn’t waste this opportunity. The precious opportunity that this life presents is also fleet- ing. The second reminder, based on the Buddhist understand- ing of impermanence, is that life is like a bubble; death is real, and it comes without warning. Take it personally. Imperma- nence is not about somebody else. The reality of one’s own death is sobering. However, the point is not particularly to be depressed, or oppressed, by the feeling that someone is dangling a heavy weight over your head, ready to fall on you at any moment. The awareness of death makes this life all the more precious, and it is an incentive to apply the wealth of Buddhist teachings that we come across. Knowing that death is real can also help us to experience that life is real. When you are acutely aware of your life, when you are actually leading it with wakeful mindfulness, you are much more present—which is delightful and somewhat humorous. Precious, fleeting, and also meaningful: the reality of karma is the third reminder. Life has consequences. What we do or don’t do matters. It will catch up with us eventually. Sometimes we act as though we had a pocketful of “get out of jail free” cards, but this is not Monopoly. Our actions are not moves in a game. This is our life, and we don’t get to take any moves over again. There is a tendency toward fundamentalism in some Buddhist circles, or maybe we should just say, within all of us. A simplistic view of karma is that if you think good thoughts, you will do good things, you will be good, and you will be rewarded. On the other side, if you think bad thoughts, you will do bad things, you will be bad, and you will be punished. While it’s easy to impose a simplistic view of good and bad, reality is not that simple. For example, Hitler was a vegetarian. Makes you want to eat meat to- night, doesn’t it? Genuine purity is a purity of mind beyond good and bad. Unless your behavior is utterly consistent, based on a pristine, luminous, and empty mind and boundless compassion, you have to be careful about assigning praise and blame. Yet, karma is infallible. Go figure. In a certain way, that truth is terrifying. However, it is also somewhat comforting. We know what’s coming to us, so to speak, and—somewhere be- yond our projections, our fear, and our self-deception—we re- ally do want to get what’s coming to us. It might be good to pay up. Not in a masochistic way, but simply in the sense that we could face ourselves. We really could, and then we could move beyond. Unless we do face the truth about ourselves, nothing is fundamentally going to change. As well, there is an aspect of relief that comes with the un- derstanding of karmic cause and effect. Normally, we might be tempted to tell everybody, including ourselves, what’s wrong with them all the time or try to correct their behavior—which is quite different from genuinely helping someone. The law of karma says that you can trust that someone will get the feedback they need at some point. This is a little different than thinking, “You’ll get yours.” The point again is to lighten up. We can give situations some space and trust that they contain their own sanity as well as their own confusion. The fourth reminder is that samsara, the confused round of existence that we experience as everyday life, is fickle, flexible, and merciless. It is also painful, vicious, and endless. It’s not really the “good news” we generally want to hear. The Buddhist texts speak of the friendships, successes, and comforts of sam- sara as a feast you indulge in before you are led to your execu- tion. It’s quite a ghastly image, and one feels uncomfortable at being continually reminded of the nature of the world we cre- ate for ourselves to live in. Similarly, some people would rather not know that they are about to die. But if you are interested in the Buddhist path, you have agreed to work with your own suffering and mortality, as well as the larger suffering in the world. We are able to live in a state of denial a lot of the time. The fourth reminder enables us to wake up from our deluded state at least once a day, if we con- template these teachings in daily practice. The truth of samsara is so utterly true that to remind us of it is unimaginably kind. The truly wretched quality of samsara is also the reason CAROLYN ROSE GIMIAN is a free- lance editor and writer who has edited many of the books of the late Chögyam Trungpa, including The Sanity We are Born With. She is also a meditation teacher and co- author of Dragon Thunder, the memoirs of Diana Mukpo, widow of Chögyam Trungpa. For the inspiration for this article, she would like to thank Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. MAY 74-79.indd 77 MAY 74-79.indd 77 3/6/08 11:34:56 AM 3/6/08 11:34:56 AM