1. The Common Preliminaries

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THROUGH PRACTICING the common preliminaries, you develop the motivation to focus your time and energy on meaningful endeavors. These preliminaries are a set of contemplations that help you transform the way you engage with and experience the world. They are called “common” because they are based on ideas that are shared with all Buddhist traditions.

The common preliminaries consist of contemplating and meditating on four different topics: (1) the difficulty of acquiring this life with its opportunities and resources, (2) death and impermanence, (3) karmic cause and effect, and (4) the faults of saṃsāra.


Namo gurubhyaḥ

In order to practice the excellent Dharma correctly, one must abandon wandering.

The first object of meditation is the fact that this excellent foundation,


which is endowed with the eight opportunities and ten resources,

is difficult to acquire, and since it is extremely beneficial,

it is just like a wish-fulfilling jewel.

The world is full of distractions. There are endless calls for our attention. As the verse states, if you wish to practice Dharma correctly, then you must give up wandering, allowing your precious time to be led and dictated by distractions. We must remain mindful to prevent our life from being guided by the pushes and pulls of mundane life. If we are not careful, all the various endeavors of worldly life will distract us from our Dharma practice.

One of the first points that a Buddhist practitioner is guided to contemplate is how fortunate they are. I know that life is not always easy, and it is certainly never perfect. Indeed, the focus of subsequent contemplations will include the hardships of life. But at this point, we are bringing to mind all the excellent conditions that we are fortunate to have in our lives. When you spend the time to meditate on the things you can be thankful for in your life, then you begin to appreciate that your life is truly a precious opportunity. This insight provides the motivation to use your opportunity wisely and to ensure that you are spending your time on the most meaningful endeavors. In short, the goal of this contemplation is to spark within you the inspiration to practice Dharma.

The verse above presents the traditional way of going about this contemplation, which is to reflect on your human life as an excellent basis for practicing Dharma since it is endowed with eight opportunities and ten resources. This list of opportunities and resources is a technical way of talking about the opportunity that this life affords us.

In Buddhist texts, we are advised to reflect on the fact that, as human beings, we have eight kinds of opportunities, or eight kinds of freedom, because we are free from rebirth in eight states in which one is unable to practice the Dharma:


1. in the hell realm

2. in the hungry ghost realm

3. in the animal realm

4. in the god realm

5. in a barbarian land

6. with incomplete sense faculties

7. in a place where wrong views prevail

8. at a time when a buddha has not come

In addition to being free from these eight kinds of unfortunate rebirths, there are also ten kinds of resources that we have in virtue of being born as a human in this world:

1. We have been born in an era in which a buddha has come.

2. We have been born at a time when a buddha has not only come but has taught the Dharma.

3. The teachings have survived to the present time at which we live.

4. There is a community of people who follow the teachings.

5. There are favorable conditions for practicing Dharma.

6. We have been born as a human being.

7. We have been born in a developed society.

8. Our faculties are intact.

9. We are able to make a living practicing right livelihood.

10. We have faith in the three collections, or the tripiṭaka, of Buddha’s teachings.

The eight kinds of opportunities as well as ten kinds of resources are very difficult to acquire, and are like a great, beneficial gift.

Sometimes the Buddhist texts can be very technical, but here the essence of the contemplation is to reflect on all the forms of freedom, opportunities, and resources that you enjoy in your life. You are so fortunate to have this life. What will you do with it? How will you choose to spend your precious time?


In particular, by relying on Vajrayāna,

this vajra body, which is endowed with the six elements

for attaining enlightenment in a single lifetime, is even more rare.

This text is aimed at guiding Vajrayāna practitioners in particular, and in the tantric texts of Mantrayāna it is explained that we all have a vajra body, which is a spiritual body that is subtler than our physical bodies. These texts explain that we are fortunate not only because we have this precious human rebirth, but also because we have this vajra body, which is considered even rarer and more precious than the physical human body. This is because the vajra body possesses the six elements, which enable the attainment of enlightenment within a single lifetime. These six elements are the four of earth, water, fire, and air, together with space and consciousness. In the technology of the Vajrayāna system, these elements of our subtle body are utilized in visualization and yogic practices that provide a quick and powerful path to awakening.

We are incredibly fortunate to have encountered the Vajrayāna teachings. The Buddha said that there may be no tantric teachings for many eons at a time, so having the opportunity to listen to and practice the Vajrayāna teachings is extremely rare and precious.

Moreover, [this precious human rebirth] is difficult to acquire

in virtue of the three of cause, example, and number,

and even if it is acquired, it is extremely easy to die.

Thus, from now on, one should strive at meditating on the genuine, excellent Dharma.

Here we are given these strategies for contemplating the rarity and difficulty of acquiring a precious human rebirth: the causes, an example, and the number.

The first strategy is the causes. It is said that there are many different types of rebirth and that to be born a human being with all 21the freedoms and resources to practice Dharma is extremely rare and difficult because it requires the accumulation of an enormous amount of positive karma in previous lives. It is quite amazing to be reborn as a human if you think about the vast amount of merit that is required for such a life. Moreover, in most of one’s previous births one is likely to have been occupied with striving for relief from pain, escaping danger, or absorbed by the intoxication of the god realms, all of which make efforts at accumulating positive karma almost impossible.

“The example” refers to a famous story in the Buddhist texts that describes how rare it is to be born human. A blind turtle lives deep in the ocean, and every hundred years or so, the turtle rises to the ocean’s surface to take a breath. On this vast ocean floats a small golden yoke. Now, consider what might be the chances for the turtle to rise up and poke his head through that golden yoke? It is said that the chances of attaining a human rebirth are about the same as the blind turtle rising up and poking his head through the golden yoke. Contemplating the difficulty of acquiring a human rebirth in terms of this example, or metaphor, is the second strategy for meditating on the rarity and difficulty of acquiring a precious human rebirth.

The third strategy is to contemplate how the number of sentient beings—even just those we can see on this planet—is incredibly large, and the proportion of living creatures that are human is incredibly small. Considering these numbers alone, the odds of obtaining a precious human body with these eight opportunities and ten resources are extremely low. This is contemplating in terms of number.

Not only is a human rebirth incredibly rare and difficult to obtain, but even if it is obtained, life is extremely delicate; it does not take much to die. Therefore, we should think, “From now on, I will strive at practicing the pure Dharma.”


Having reflected upon our opportunities and resources and understanding how rare and precious our lives are, we then move on 22to the second of the common preliminaries, which is meditating on impermanence and death.

All conditioned phenomena—external and internal, the environment and beings—

are impermanent, even momentarily, in accordance with the four ends.

If we look at the variety of things and living creatures in the world, one thing we will discover is that they are all impermanent. Look at the things around you: is there anything that will remain forever? What about your home and possessions? What about your thoughts and feelings? What about your family and friends?

In the verse above, “external” refers to all the objects in the world and “internal” refers to the mind. It becomes obvious upon reflection that all these things are impermanent. However, it goes deeper than that. All these things are not only impermanent, but they are also momentary. This means that they are not only impermanent in terms of gross impermanence, like a car that inevitably breaks eventually, but they are changing moment by moment—they do not remain the same even for a second.

The text encourages us to contemplate impermanence in the context of the four extremes. This means we should reflect on these facts: (1) once you are born you have to die, (2) whatever you acquire you will eventually lose, (3) whoever rises to the top will eventually fall, and (4) whoever you meet with, you must ultimately be parted from.

In particular, the lifespan of beings is

like a butter lamp in the midst of a windstorm

and like a water bubble.

Indeed, I will certainly die;

the time of death is uncertain, yet death will come soon.

There are many conditions for death,

and though I may not want to, I will die nonetheless.


There is no one whatsoever who has been able to overcome death.

When I die, I will continuously experience unbearable suffering,

and at that time, there is no refuge apart from the excellent Dharma.

Therefore, I should control my mind, develop disillusionment,

and with a strong sense of urgency, throw myself into the practice of virtue.

Do you know anyone who is immortal? I’m guessing that the answer is no. It is very unlikely that you will be the first exception, the first person to live forever. Dying is part of the natural order of things. Our lives are extremely delicate. The conditions required for life are feeble and there are so many things that can end our lives.

There is something very powerful about combining these two contemplations: reflecting on all the things so wonderful about your life, and then contemplating the impermanence of this precious life. The goal of combining these is to create an orientation to the world in which you are highly motivated to do something meaningful with your precious life and to start now because you understand that this opportunity might not be available for long—it might even be gone tomorrow.

We should recognize that there is no time to lose, and because of this we should develop a feeling of weariness toward useless and meaningless activities. We should recognize the urgency of this situation and develop an attitude that is motivated toward devoting all of our spare time to the practice of what is meaningful and beneficial to ourselves and others. The Buddhist masters say that the possibility of a good death, one that is not plagued by regret, is provided by having lived a good and meaningful life.



Having reflected upon death and impermanence, we next contemplate the forces that determine the experience we will have after we have died. The third contemplation is a meditation on karmic cause and effect.

After death, like a butter lamp whose oil is depleted,

I will have no power over where I am born.

Without any control, I will certainly follow my karma.

In general, all the variety of appearances of happiness and suffering

are said to be the results of virtuous and nonvirtuous karma.

Moreover, one should contemplate in detail how,

due to engaging in the ten virtues, one will be reborn in the higher realms,

and due to engaging in the ten nonvirtues under the control of mental afflictions,

one will be reborn in the lower realms.

In short, the results of my own actions will never disappear,

but I will certainly experience them.

Therefore, I should strive at the proper way of

adopting virtue and discarding vice,

and investigate my own mental continuum.

During the moments after your death, you will be propelled toward another life by the force of karma. Most people do not have the capacity to intervene in the death process to influence where they will be reborn. The journey after death is not like your last planned vacation. Instead, it is as if you find yourself on a plane heading toward an unknown destination, based on a ticket you accidentally purchased a long time ago. At the time of death, you are forced to follow the results of your karma: 25whatever physical, verbal, or mental actions you have undertaken in the past. This is because once a cause has been put in place, the result will never simply disappear; instead it must come to fruition at some point in the future. If you cultivate the habit of engaging in acts of virtue, then you will attain the happiness of the three superior rebirths in the human, demigod, and god realms. Alternatively, if you commit actions of nonvirtue, you will be reborn in the three lower realms: the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm, and the hell realm.

So, rather than panicking at the time of death, worrying about what is happening, what will come next, and what you might do about it, it is better to act now by paying close attention to the conduct of your body, speech, and mind as you go through your day. We should make efforts in right conduct, and look inside, contemplate, and analyze to ensure that we are acting in accord with our values.


Having contemplated the fact that all our experiences of happiness and suffering are the result of our past actions of virtue or nonvirtue, we next reflect on the fact that even if we spend our entire life engaged in virtue and are reborn into a life with wonderful conditions, any birth within saṃsāra will always be characterized by suffering and dissatisfaction. So, the final contemplation of the four common preliminaries is meditating on the faults of saṃsāra.

Wherever one is born among the six classes of beings

within the three realms of saṃsāra,

One will be thoroughly and continuously

oppressed by the three kinds of suffering.

Moreover, one should contemplate how one will experience

these forms of suffering intensely and for a long time:

the suffering of heat and cold as a hell being,

the suffering of hunger and thirst as a hungry ghost,


the suffering of eating one another as an animal,

the suffering of birth, old age, sickness, and death, etc., as a human,

the suffering of quarrelling as a demigod,

and the suffering of dying and falling from the status of a god.

In order to understand how even the most excellent lives in saṃsāra can still be considered to be characterized by suffering, we need to understand that the Buddhist concept of suffering does not simply refer to physical pain or mental anguish. Buddhist texts explain three different types of suffering: (1) the suffering of suffering, (2) the suffering of change, and (3) all-pervasive conditioned suffering.

The “suffering of suffering” refers to the unpleasant feelings, such as physical and mental pain. The “suffering of change” is a little counterintuitive, because it actually refers to pleasant feelings. This is because pleasant feelings are not stable and are, in a sense, only the beginning of the dissatisfaction that inevitably follows. Let me give you an example. Imagine that you have been sitting on an airplane for a very long flight and having just landed you are able to stand for the first time in hours. As soon as you stand up, it will feel like such a pleasant relief. Now, imagine that having arrived, you are asked to wait in a long line at customs, there is nowhere to sit, for some reason the line is not moving, and you now have to stand for what seems like hours. The happiness of standing has now changed into the suffering of standing! This is an example of the suffering of change. If the things that give us pleasant feelings truly had the nature of bestowing pleasant feelings, then we could always rely on them as a basis for happiness. Unfortunately, even the pleasant things of saṃsāra cannot be relied upon for genuine and lasting happiness.

The third kind of suffering, all-pervasive conditioned suffering, refers to the five aggregates and their relationship with suffering and saṃsāra. It is because our bodies and minds are under the influence of fundamental ignorance, negative emotions, and past karma that we suffer. 27The root of saṃsāra is our fundamental ignorance about the true nature of ourselves and the world and about the true causes of happiness and suffering. It is due to that fundamental misunderstanding that we unwittingly and inevitably continue to create the conditions to suffer in the future. Within the three realms, no matter which of the six classes of beings one takes birth as, there is no corner in which we can hide from suffering. For instance, hell beings continually suffer either cold or heat. Those reborn as hungry ghosts always suffer thirst and hunger. Those reborn as animals experience the suffering of being preyed upon. Human beings suffer the experiences of birth, old age, sickness, and death. If you are born as a demigod, you are always fighting. In the higher realms, there is said to be a jambu tree, which is a wish-fulfilling tree that produces delicious fruit. The trunk is in the demigod realm, but the fruit is in the god realm, and so the demigods are never able to enjoy it. They are continually jealous and quarrelling with one another, and never content. The gods are always happy, until it comes time to die, when they have five signs that tell them where they will fall, and they experience extreme torment at being forced to fall from the pleasurable status of a god to a lower rebirth. This story is meant to convey that no matter your conditions, no matter how rich you might be, there is no place in saṃsāra that is free from suffering. The three realms of saṃsāra are like a wheel of suffering, which cycles and repeats again and again, and all are pervaded by suffering.

Even the slightest appearance

of pleasure or riches within saṃsāra

should be abandoned like poisoned food.

Now is the time to strive at the method for

definitely liberating oneself from saṃsāra, which is like a fire pit.

No matter where you go, if you carry your ignorance, desire, and aversion with you, then you are sure to suffer. From this perspective, whatever you see as happiness within saṃsāra is very minor, insignificant, 28and transient. You should understand that all these pleasures are like poisonous food, which one may enjoy in the moment, but which will soon turn to pain and suffering. Thus, you should reject these superficial pleasures just as you would throw away poisoned food. Saṃsāra is like a fire pit in that there is no genuine relief to be found while within it. Thus, you should contemplate that now is the time to find a method to free yourself from saṃsāra.

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