The Four Reminders of Buddhism
Often called the four reminders or the four reversals, these contemplations are a crucial preliminary practice that prepares the mind to renounce worldly pleasures and seek authentic gratification within. They are taught in the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma ngondros as well as in our own retreat curriculum. We encourage you to explore these dharmas and to meditate on them deeply.
1. The Four Truths
The Four Noble Truths are the core of Buddha’s teaching. The first is that suffering exists, a state of being common to all human existence in the world of rebirth called samsara. It can take many forms, but essentially it is anything that does not bring us satisfaction or happiness. This includes any experience that is unpleasant or unsatisfactory, and even things like aging, sickness, death and separation from those we love. In Buddhism, this is referred to as dukkha.
The second noble truth is the truth of the cause of suffering, which is rooted in craving conditioned by ignorance. The third noble truth is the truth of the end of suffering, which can be achieved through complete cessation of suffering or nirvana.
The fourth noble truth is the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering, which is known as the Noble Eightfold Path. These are the steps that need to be taken to achieve nirvana, a transcendent state free from suffering and the worldly cycle of birth and rebirth.
2. The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are the core of Buddhism. They identify suffering, explain its cause, predict its end and suggest a cure. Like any good physician, Buddha aimed to find the root causes of suffering and its maintenance, and then to eliminate them once and for all. The first truth is that suffering exists. The second truth identifies the causes of suffering. The third truth gives a prognosis and the fourth gives a solution. Rather than being a negative world view, Buddhism is actually very pragmatic, and focuses on identifying reality accurately.
The first truth is that there is suffering (dukkha in Pali and Sanskrit). This doesn’t mean that ordinary life is nothing but misery; however, it does imply that even happiness is unsatisfying because all things in this universe are impermanent and not permanent. This includes everything from aging to sickness to death. It also includes the notion that there is no fixed self.
3. The Eightfold Path
The fourth Noble Truth charts a path that a man can follow to end suffering and achieve enlightenment. This path is called the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight elements of this path are: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness and concentration.
The goal of this path is enlightenment, which is called Nirvana. This enlightenment is a spiritual state that is free from worldly suffering and our cycle of birth and rebirth.
The first step on the Noble Eightfold Path is “right understanding” (Samadhi). This means a clear, unbiased understanding of the nature of reality and the causes of suffering. It also includes a deep and penetrative understanding of all Buddha’s teachings. It is the foundation for all the other aspects of the Path. This understanding is achieved by meditative concentration. This concentration is developed by training in ethics, meditative practice and wisdom. It is this understanding that allows one to break the chain of karma and attain liberation from suffering.
4. The Path of Compassion
Buddhism offers a realistic view of life’s problems and an optimistic hope of solving them—in this lifetime. It is practical in its approach to putting an end to suffering and the cycle of rebirth, and it is also spiritually aspirational, providing a path that leads to enlightenment (bodhi).
A key aspect of this buddhism is compassion—a genuine wish for everyone’s happiness. The meditator exercises this with all living beings and makes no distinctions based on caste, color, or class. This is the kind of compassion you see practiced by those in secular organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International.
A compassionate person goes far beyond that, though. He or she devotes infinite future lives to benefitting all beings, even if it means they never achieve Buddhahood themselves. This is the buddhism of bodhisattvas, who are often seen in stories of past lives performing extreme acts of kindness such as cutting up their own flesh to feed to a starving tiger.