Four Ways of Turning the Mind: Precious Human Life

Enjoy this guide to the Four Ways of Turning the Mind  provided to us by our friend John Wenz from Milarepa Meditation from an ongoing series of  teachings inspired by our retreats with Lama Gursam.

1. This Precious Human Life

 “Oh! This kind of leisure and endowment is supremely difficult to obtain. When we obtain this body, which is easily lost, do not waste it meaninglessly but rather use it to attain the ultimate liberation-joyous result.” From The Preliminary Practices of the Incomparable Drikung Kagyu

“We must develop positive thoughts on a personal and a global level…Buddhism believes we all have potential of enlightenment. We all can be free of Samsara, negative emotions and afflictive emotions – therefore life is precious.“

Yogi Lama Gursam, May 2010 at Makefield Friends Meeting, Makefield, PA for Buddhist Sangha of Bucks County


What follows are a series of exercises which traditionally are a part of what is referred to as “thun mong yin pa’i sngon ‘gro” or in English translation as “The Ordinary Preliminaries”. Specifically the following exercises are the first part of “blo bzhi” or in English “The Four Notions”. These are skillful means in the Mahamudra Tradition to help overcome the negative momentum of unfolding mental factors and to insure spiritual transformation. They are potentially helpful and adaptable to people who are not Buddhist also, and may need mild adaptation.

They are “preliminary” in the sense of “essential”, neither to be skipped over, nor seen as elementary, but as an honest foundation for spiritual growth. How important are the exercises of The Ngondro or The Preliminary Practices?

How important is a good foundation for your future spiritual development? Lord Jigten Sumgon, the founder of the Drikung Kagyu Tradition has said “The Ngondro is even more important than the higher practices.” A contemporary psychologist and Mahamudra practitioner states “Each of the four notions is a specific prescription for changing one’s attitude about everyday life and actions while continuing to go about one’s daily affairs.” p. 74, Daniel P. Brown in Pointing Out the Great Way, The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition, 2006, Wisdom Publications, Boston

Each of these exercises is soundly based upon the traditional practices, and has been mildly adapted to help make them accessible, and encourage deep modern personal engagement. These exercises traditionally are repeated over and over, and provide a sound foundation for advancing to more advanced spiritual practices. Consider each exercise personally not as an intellectual or academic exercise, but as Lama Gursam has guided us – as an exercise of the heart. Consider them each day, over the next month or two as you go about your daily life. How fortunate we are to be together in this quest! How fortunate to have human potential!

Consider how fortunate you are to have the treasure of the Buddha’s teachings available to you. This is only due to your significant good karma!

YOU personally have tremendous potential Right Here, Right Now!

Through the Dharma you may attain spiritual understanding, practice skillful living, and one day attain enlightenment!

How precious is this Human Life – it is through this precious opportunity of being human, that we may eliminate suffering, reduce our afflictive emotions, be able to open our hearts and minds to compassion and wisdom, and eventually attain full enlightenment.


Khenpo Konchong Gyaltsen The Preliminary Practices of the Incomparable Drikung Kagyu, Vajra Publications, Gainsville Florida,1994

Khenpo Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans. Gampopa’s, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Snow Lion, Ithaca, New York, 1998

Jamgon Kongtrul, The Torch of Certainty, Shambhala, Boston, 2000

Khandro Rinpoche, This Precious Life, , Shambhala, Boston, 2003

Daniel P. Brown. Pointing Out The Great Way, , Wisdom, Boston 2006

Lama Gursam “Precious Human Birth”, on line at,2006

Lama Gursam, recording of teachings at Wakefield, PA for Bucks County Buddhist Sangha, 2010

(Any errors are mine, John Wenz – May all beings benefit from the precious dharma! )

Exercise One: How Difficult to Obtain This Human Life

In this exercise you need to contrast your current life with a variety of possible other lives. Each life is viewed as a counterpoint to this one. For this exercise and those that follow to be effective requires serious deep engagement personally, like your own life depended on it!

“An individual who practices Dharma in a half-hearted manner is cheating both himself and others and wasting his human life. In short, if you lack the determination to leave samsara, all the meditation [you may practice in your mountain retreat] will accumulate nothing but a pile of feces on the mountainside! So consider the miseries of samsara and the uncertainty of the time of death. Then, no matter how varied your concerns, narrow them down!” Jamgon Kongtrul the Great in The Torch of Certainty, Shambhala, Boston 2000)

First, establish your motivation. The prayers from the Drikung Preliminary Practices hand-out on pages 3-12: Altruistic Motivation, Long Refuge Prayer, Cultivating the Mind of Enlightenment, The Four Immeasurables, and The Seven Limb Prayer are very helpful as you open the doors to consider the possibility of living in other types of existences. They are also helpful in setting one’s focus for any of the following exercises. In fact not doing them, at least mentally setting you motivation and taking refuge, can lead to difficulties for some of us: depressive reaction to the exercise, difficulty seeing purpose to the exercises, and potentially ineffectiveness – a crumbling foundation for spiritual practice.

Imagine very personally, for at least long enough feeling it with your heart, what it would be like for you being born as:

1. A Hell Being : suffering constantly from heat or cold, so preoccupied with suffering, that no thought of spiritual practice arises for even one moment.

2. A Hungry Ghost: a being so obsessed with food for himself/herself and his/her family that nothing else matters.

3. An Animal: perhaps comfortable, but has not enough intelligence to practice Dharma.

4. A Long-Life God: having all ones desires met, yet attachment to pleasure is so great, you never think of spiritual practice, and then your long life comes to an end.

Compare these existences to your own life now:

1. You are not only concerned with survival needs.

2. You have intelligence to see the value of spiritual practice.

3. You are not so comfortable or so secure to be totally uninterested in spiritual things.

4. You are so fortunate being born as a human – you can potentially practice Dharma.

Exercise Two: Potential Obstacles for Humans in Spiritual Practice

(In this exercise imagine being in each of these problematic situations in contrast to your situation now.)

1. You could be born in a Barbaric Land, where no one has heard of spiritual teachings.

2. You could be born in a Dark Age in History, when no spiritual teachings were available.

3. You could be living in a place where the conflicting views of spiritual thought were so severe that no one could get a clear view or understanding.

4. You could be born or have developed severe disabilities – Cognitive Disabilities, such as Profound Mental Retardation or A Severe Brain Attack/Stroke leaving you with impaired cognitive functioning, or you could have a severe life threatening disease: cancer, severe coronary artery disease, chronic pulmonary disease, or a severe mental illness such as severe depression, a chronic mood disorder, or schizophrenia – such conditions would make it very difficult to practice spiritual teachings or understand them.

Contrast The Situations Above with your Current Life Situation:

1. Seeds of Faith or Interest in Spiritual Growth have been planted.

2. You have sufficient experience in life to see the potential value of Spiritual Teachings.

3. You live in a society that supports Religious Freedom, and Tolerance, if not Celebration of Diversity in Spiritual Practices.

4. You have comparatively ability to cope with your health conditions, physical and mental, to the degree that they do not prevent your ability to seek spiritual growth.

5. Consider your own personal reflections of how fortunate you are in your current life.

Exercise Three: Conditions that Fail to Build an Appropriate Vessel

First, imagine you are too corrupted by the Five Poisons to be able to take sincere interest in spiritual teachings.

The Five Poisons and Some Sample Mind Sets that are Poisoned

1. Pride -How could ancient teachings from a far away culture benefit me a modern American?

2. Desire/ Attachment– What do I need spiritual teachings for when I have such a nice job/ profession, car, house and kids?

3. Aversion – Spiritual people are all hypocrites. I can not stand them!

4. Jealousy– I want people to show respect for me, not to those strange teachers from India or Tibet?

5. Confusion/Bewilderment – What are all those people make such a fuss about Buddhism and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, every one needs to look out for themselves like they do.

Possible Human Conditions that Lead to an Inappropriate Vessel for Spiritual Teachings – A Few Scenarios

1. Being surrounded by friends, who are bad influences ( Money, Power, etc.)

2. A disempowered life of a slave (consider the ‘modern slaveries’ of addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.)

3. A disempowered life of a servant ( consider the person a servant to their credit card, or spending habits)

4. A disempowered life of a victim of oppression ( Refugees, political prisoners, and persecuted minorities – struggling to survive)

5. Being set in a rigorous belief system of family, community, state or society. (Consider Intolerance of differences in contemporary culture)

6. Lazy (Accustomed to the instant automatic computer electronic convenience culture, where all is push button, or you do not want to be bothered.)

7. Bad karma ripens ( The effects of bad habits, or past bad actions arise with consequences due)

8. Some success in spiritual practice, but all for selfish gains ( Spiritual Materialism )

9. Some spiritual growth but narrowly focused to avoid painful experiences, and not as a way to help others. ( loss of potential further benefits of compassionate living)

Compare Your Life Condition Now – Consider Your Good Fortune

1. Opportunity to belong to Bucks County Buddhist Sangha.

2. You live in a country with Civil Rights, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, etc.

3. Religious Tolerance is supported in most of our communities.

4. Spiritual Teachings are available readily, etc. etc. (Please add your own counter points!)

Exercise Four: 8 Conditions under which a Proper Vessel May Lose Their Spiritual Bearings

Could or have any of these been possible disorienting experiences for you?

Have any of these interfered with you spiritual growth?

1. Strong Attachments

2. Ripening of Bad Karma

3. Lack of Concern for Consequences for One’s Own Behavior

4. Lack of Faith

5. Behaving in Non-Virtuous Ways

6. Being Ill-Inclined to Practice

7. Being Unable to Restrain Oneself Due to Karmic Tendencies, or Bad habits

8. Failure to Live Up to Spiritual Commitments

Active Spiritual Practices are Available to Assist with Above Human Experiences including:

1. Building a Sangha of Spiritual Companions

2. Practicing Purification Methods like Ngondro or Vajrasattva Practices, etc.

3. Practicing Teachings on Renunciation, Compassion and Wisdom

4. Seeking counsel and support from other dharma practitioners

5. Talking to a Spiritual Advisor – like Lama Gursam

6. Please add your own, and share with others.

Exercise Five: Consider Five Personal Treasures

(Consider each of these positive personal treasures, how and when they manifested in your own life. Get Nitty Gritty.)

1. Being Born Human – Where, When, and to Who were you born or cared for? Who provided you with such loving care that helped you be here today?

2. Being Born in a Land Where Dharma is Taught – When did you first hear, read, or see about Dharma? When did you attend your first Dharma event? Who was there? Where was it?

3. Having a Sound Body and Mind – What actions have you and others taken to help you be healthy in body and mind? Parents, Teachers, Doctors, Plumbers, Aunts, Uncles, Neighbors, Friends, – Think of those special people who helped your heart and mind to blossom.

4. Having Met a Holy Being – How many holy beings have you met? Who? Where? When? Who has helped you to grow spiritually?

5. Generated Faith in Teachings – What teachings first touched your heart/mind? Who offered these teachings? Where and when did you first develop a “This makes sense.” experience?

Exercise Six: Consider the Treasures Given By Others

(Consider each of these treasures and how and when they impacted your life.)

1. A Buddha appeared in this age. How has his appearance influenced you?

2. This Buddha was inclined to teach. What teachings have meant most to you?

3. These teachings have not deteriorated, but have flourished. Consider the lineage of teachers going back to Shakyamuni Buddha, and also consider the teachers you have had opportunity to learn from.

4. There are many spiritual friends to support the practice of Dharma. Think of all the people who have helped you develop your spiritual practice, and your wisdom, and your compassion.

5. Benefactors have supported the teachings. Consider the many organizations and people who have helped you have access to the precious Dharma – from the organizers, cooks, ushers, drivers, publishers, editors, newsletter writers….sweepers, cleaners….

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