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The Four Thoughts of Buddhism


Not a numbers person? You might be after you read this blog. There are a lot of numbers in Tibetan Buddhism: We have the Three Poisons, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Aggregates, the Three Jewels, and the list goes on. At Namchak we jokingly refer to this copious use of numbers as “Tibetan Math.”Spoiler alert: We are going to throw a lot of numbers at you in this blog. That’s probably great news for our mathematicians out there. If you aren’t a numbers person, stay with us. We are not asking you to do any math nor do you have to memorize any of this. This resource is here to help you understand the first of the Four Thoughts of Buddhism, which happens to be packed full of numbers.

Alright, get ready for your “Tibetan Math” lesson. No calculators required.

What are the Four Thoughts of Tibetan Buddhism?

A more descriptive name for these is The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind. When we talk about turning the mind, we’re referring to turning the mind away from all preoccupations like hopes and goals of attaining some kind of comfort and happiness in this life or in a future life. It means turning the mind towards a loftier goal of liberation and enlightenment, beyond worldly experience or worldly happiness.


The first of The Four Thoughts is the contemplation of finding the precious human rebirth. Precious rebirth is specifically defined in Buddhism. Not everyone who is born human is considered to have a precious human rebirth. Instead, precious rebirth refers to someone who has the capacity and the conducive circumstances to engage in this path to liberation during their human life. The Eight Freedoms and the Ten Advantages describe this in detail.

Math Lesson #1:

8 Freedoms
+10 Advantages
The Eighteen Freedoms and Advantages = precious human rebirth

In other words, having these 18 factors means that you have a precious human rebirth which differs from an ordinary human rebirth. The Eighteen Freedoms and Advantages allow you to effectively practice Buddha dharma.

To better understand what a precious human rebirth is, let’s use the Eight Freedoms to learn what it is not.

The Eight Freedoms

1. You’re not born in hell.
Hell in this context means that you’re in so much suffering and torment that you won’t be able to contemplate developing yourself spiritually in terms of dharma practice.

2. You’re not a hungry spirit.
This happens as a result of extreme grasping and coveting, creating an existence of constantly craving things. If you’re in that constant state of craving, you won’t have the desire to transcend ordinary existence or emotions.

3. You’re not born as an animal.
If you’re an animal, you don’t have the communicative ability to develop yourself spiritually.

4. You’re not born as a long-life god.
This is a particular place of meditative concentration where you can stay for eons, and it isn’t productive. At the end of that experience you’ll fall back from that state because you’re in this blankness for such a long time. You have no thoughts, can’t contemplate the dharma or develop yourself spiritually.

5. You’re not born in a place where the Buddha’s teachings have never spread.
You have no access to the teachings of the Buddha.

6. You don’t have wrong view.
Wrong view from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective is a denial of cause and effect, which is the basis of the teachings.

7. You were born in a time or place where the Buddha didn’t come.
An example is 10,000 years from now, it is possible that the Buddhist teachings will have disappeared from this world and another Buddha has not come. That would be a time when you aren’t free to practice Buddhism, because there is no Buddhism. For us, that is not the case, as 2,600 years ago the Buddha Shakyamuni lived on this earth and we have had a constant stream of enlightened beings following in his footsteps.

8. You don’t have the capacity to understand and communicate with others.
If you don’t have the capacity to understand and communicate with others, you are unable to process the teachings of the Buddha.

Math Lesson #2

8 Freedoms
+ X_________
The Eighteen Freedoms and Advantages
X= The Ten Advantages

Being free from those eight states is what’s referred to as the Eight Freedoms, and they are the first set of qualities of what is called the precious human rebirth. To get to eighteen, we need to go through the Ten Advantages. Here is the rest of the equation…

The Ten Advantages
The Eight Freedoms are things you are free from, and the Ten Advantages are the things you have. Within the Ten Advantages, there are the Advantages that have to be complete within yourself, and others that are external factors.

Internal Advantages
1. You are a human being.

2. You are physically and mentally healthy.

3. You’re born in a place where there is access to Buddha’s teachings.

4. You haven’t committed any extremely bad karmic actions.
You haven’t killed your mother, father, or an arhat, haven’t caused a division in the sangha, or harmed a buddha with ill intent.

5. You have faith or belief in the Buddha’s teachings.

External Advantages
6. A Buddha came: not necessarily to your specific place, but in this era.

7. A Buddha taught: When the Buddha first attained enlightenment, the first thing he said was that he discovered a nectar-like dharma which was profound and uncompounded. He believed that whomever he showed it to wouldn’t understand and that it would be better for him to stay under a tree and meditate. The story goes that several Gods in the Hindu pantheon convinced him to share his knowledge with others. The point is that someone could attain Buddhahood yet never share that wisdom with others.

8. The teachings still exist.

9. People are still engaging in the teachings.

10. You have a teacher who is guiding you.

Alas, we have reached eighteen. True understanding of your obvious and not-so-obvious privileges requires earnest deliberation over these Eighteen Freedoms and Advantages. This allows you to realize the rare opportunity you have in precious human rebirth. Khen Rinpoche likes to use this traditional example: If the stars in the nighttime sky are all beings, stars that you can still see in the daytime sky are humans. And if all humans are like the stars in the nighttime sky, then those with the precious human body are like the stars in the daytime sky. That also feels like some type of word problem, so read through it a few times to absorb it.


The second thought is about impermanence and death. Death is certain. Anyone who is born will die, most likely at an uncertain time. That uncertainty makes life even more precious. Often, the contemplation of impermanence in terms of death inspires people to act now and to not waste time. If you believe you have a precious opportunity that could end at any moment, you will want to seize that opportunity.

The Two Types of Impermanence
There are two types of impermanence, coarse and subtle. You contemplate coarse impermanence by looking at the world outside of yourself, your environment, and the living beings within it. In doing this, consider how many places are currently empty spaces but were once thriving civilizations or cities. Observe the changes of the seasons or the weather, and you will see the impermanence of your environment. We think about the beings within the world being born and dying right now. These are examples of coarse impermanence, something that started at a certain point and eventually will no longer exist.

Up next is subtle impermanence. Consider how everything is slowly changing, rising and decaying from moment to moment. Think about the changes in your body from the time you were young up to now. You were a certain way when you were born and it’s a constant process of change from moment to moment to get to where you are now. It’s not as if your 12-year-old self suddenly changed into your 35-year-old self; you were constantly changing from moment to moment. The moment-to-moment change is not observable by the human eye.

The Contemplation of Impermanence
You see this in your mind when you start to meditate, and you realize the mind is fickle with thoughts constantly rising and falling. In practicing the contemplation of impermanence, the goal is to develop a certainty about the nature of things. You
can do this by focusing on the idea of impermanence and the certainty of impermanence. Then in your daily life, observe and take note of impermanence in the natural world around you.


The third thought is karmic cause and result. Karma’s not an issue of judgment, but rather is a matter of the consequences of our actions, both good and bad. It is the natural process of habit-forming to repeating the action you have done, experiencing similar results s, and experiencing or being born into similar situations.

Whenever you perform an action, there are four factors that have to be in place for a karmic action to occur. More numbers, here we go!

  1. You have to have the intention.
  2. You have to know what the object is that you’re doing it to.
  3. You have to do the action.
  4. The action has to actually happen the way you intended it.

The Buddhist teachings go through all the different kinds of results of karma. Karma can ripen on you emotionally, on the type of body you’ll have in a future life, on the place you’ll be born in a future life, etc. An example is if someone was very good at playing a musical instrument in this life, in the next life they might become a beautiful singer. There’s continuity of doing similar action in one life and the next. Thus, it’s beneficial to realize that everything you do has an effect, and that effect can bear on you in this and future lifetimes.

When you understand the process of karma, you’ll be more careful about your physical and mental actions. In traditional Buddhist teachings, the 10 virtues and 10 non-virtues are usually described in terms of what kinds of results actions will bring. We will explore the 10 virtues and 10 non-virtues in a future blog. For example, if you lie, people won’t trust you or take you seriously. Your words will carry no weight and you will not be respected. Conversely, if you speak truthfully, you will build trust, be taken seriously, and be respected. These 10 virtues and 10 non-virtues are not commands from the Buddha but rather are spiritual development guidelines. If you want to bring your mind closer to experiencing true reality, certain actions are conducive to that goal and others distance you from it.


The fourth thought is the contemplation of the faults of Samsara.

What is Samsara?
Samsara is a Sanskrit word which means The Wheel of Life or The Wheel of Existence. In Buddhism this means that your suffering is brought about by karmic actions. As long as you hold to the belief of the self, you will experience the ups and downs of Samsara. This state of fluctuation is considered a type of suffering. Even the states of happiness within Samara are considered a type of suffering. You’ll always be in the cycle of suffering until you get beyond the idea of self.

Meditation on the faults of Samsara is done in order to gain a revulsion to Samsara, so you no longer want to take part in the cycle. There are multiple contemplations to complete in order to fully develop your revulsion to Samsara. We will go through contemplations on the Six Realms of Existence, the Four Sufferings of Human Existence, and four types of suffering.

First, examine the following Six Realms of Existence and think about the kinds of sufferings that exist in each of the realms.

Yes, that means more numbers! In Buddhism, there are said to be Six Realms of Existence:
1. Hell realm: an existence that is trapped by one’s own hate and aggression, which also brings extreme hot or cold.
2. Animal realm: an existence that only seeks comfort and avoids pain is dull and lacks deeper meaning.
3. Hungry ghost realm: traditionally depicted by big bellies and tiny mouths, existence in this realm is burdened by unfulfillable desires and frustration.
4. God realm: a seemingly blissful realm but without awareness of the suffering of others.
5. Demigod or jealous god realm: a realm of discontent and jealousy, always striving for more power and higher positions.
6. Human realm: ability to experience multiple states of mind and the greatest chances of freedom from Samsara.

Contemplate yourself in each realm. Try to feel the suffering in each realm. These aren’t actual locations, but they are ways that beings perceive themselves and their environments. It’s been said that in one day a human can have experiences of all six realms. If you sometimes feel like life is a roller coaster, we would venture to guess that you’ve been exploring realms.

Though existence in the human realm seems the most appealing compared to other realms, It comes with its own difficulties. In developing your revulsion to Samsara, you can also contemplate the Four Sufferings of the Human Existence:
1. Birth
2. Sickness
3. Ageing
4. Death

Within those phases of human life there are other types of suffering to be contemplated.

Types of Suffering:
1. Suffering of not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want, or meeting with things that you didn’t want to meet.
2. Suffering of change: You’re experiencing something that seems pleasant and then that ends.
3. Suffering of suffering: You’re already feeling bad and something else bad happens, compounding that suffering.
4. Suffering of all-pervasive conditionality: As long as you still believe in a self, you perpetuate your existence in Samsara.

Thinking about these types of suffering and karmic actions helps you pursue the wish to become free from Samsara and renunciation.

Renunciation in Buddhism is the wish to be liberated from Samsara. That’s purpose of contemplating the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind. The first two thoughts: The contemplation of the preciousness of human rebirth and impermanence help you overcome grasping at your attachments in this lifetime. That means if you realize how precious this opportunity is, and that you could die any minute, you’re not caught up in the trivial nature of everyday life. It helps you escape the infatuation with your worldly goals and accomplishments in this lifetime.

The second two, the contemplation of karma and Samsara help you to overcome wishing for some kind of fortunate results in future lifetimes. So, if you believe in karma and Samsara, and that everything in Samsara is suffering, you’re not going to try to get just a better situation in Samsara in your next life but will strive to be completely liberated from it.

Want to learn more? We suggest reading The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche.

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