The Four Reminders are guided reflections on what Buddhism considers the basic facts of life. Turning them over is a way of reminding ourselves of what we know, but forget and jolting ourselves into activity. Here’s my version of the first of those reflections on the precious opportunity this life offers us

Sangharakshita comments that a person who has a basic acquaintance with the Buddhist teachings probably has all they need to travel a long way down the path. What we lack are emotional equivalents of our intellectual understandings. So we simply forget what we believe to be true because we aren’t, emotionally speaking, wholly convinced by it. It’s easy to be aware, but it’s hard to remember to be aware.

For example, we all know that our lives are finite and will end in death. If you keep that thought in mind it lends urgency to your experience, but we go on acting as if we will live forever. We know suffering is inevitable, but considering the moaning, griping and complaints that accompany our lives, it seems that we allow that to slip our minds as well. Similarly, we know that our actions have consequences, and that we can make choices that affect our future experience. And we know, if we consider things, that we have a precious opportunity in our lives to develop, which it would be foolish to squander. But how do we keep such thoughts at the forefront of our consciousness? How do we remember to remember?

Over the next four days I will be posting my own versions of the Four Reminders: traditional reflections developed by the great scholar-practitioner Atisha, and later Gampopa and Tsongkhapa, who systematised Buddhist teachings into a progressive sequence that they called lam rim, or ‘the stages of the path’. They placed these reflections at the start of the path — the stage they called ‘the hinayana view’ — and taught ways they could be pondered in preparation for other practices.

The subjects of the four reflections are the precious opportunity offered by human life; death and impermanence; karma, or the fact that actions have consequences; and the disadvantages of samsara, or suffering. These might be called ‘the facts of life’ in the Buddhist perspective. They are wake-up calls, jolts to our complacency, articulations of the troubling voice of reality as it speaks through our immediate experience. As we go through them, we are saying to ourselves, ‘Remember, reflect, wake up to the truth.’ The term I like best for these reflections was coined by the Buddhist scholar, Reginald Ray, who calls them ‘the Four Reminders’.

These Reminders are formed into an organised series of observations or reflections that you can turn over in your mind. Many features of the traditional accounts are somewhat alien to people who have not been brought up in a traditional Buddhist culture. For example the section on ‘the disadvantages of samsara’ usually includes lengthy descriptions of the troubles facing non-human beings such as hungry ghosts and angry gods, and there are gruesome accounts of the Buddhist hells. So I have worked out my own version of the reflections which evolved as I turned them over in my mind.

A friend of mine who had been doing these reflections intensively in the course of a long retreat said he just wanted to get a few basic points ‘into his thick skull’ so firmly that they wouldn’t be dislodged, come what may. Even on his deathbed. Even after that. As we turn over these reflections in our minds we can allow ourselves slowly to be convinced by them. Eventually they get under your skin.

1.This Precious Opportunity

Here, now, I have a chance to make something of my life.
I have health.
I have energy.
I have the ability to think and feel freely.
I have enough food and enough money to meet my needs.
I live in a country that free of war, and many of the other difficulties people can face.
I’m not trapped in a negative state of mind like madness, craving, hatred or depression.
All of these things can change, but while I have these advantages I have a great opportunity.

I have had the great good fortune to meet the Dharma.
The Buddha taught it.
It has been practised down the generations.
Thanks to my teachers it has come to my country and into my life in a form I can understand and accept.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet an effective sangha, whose members offer me guidance and friendship.
All these conditions have made the Dharma a presence in my life, and made its practice possible for me.

Am I making use of the opportunity this offers?
How much time I waste!
How much of my life passes in unawareness!
How strongly my habits constrain me!
I would be foolish to waste this chance.
So let me commit myself to practising as fully as I can.

You can find traditional versions of these reflections in Gampopa’s The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Reginald Ray gives an excellent modern commentary is Ray’s comments on the practice in Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism.
Read the other Reminders here