The Four Foundations

(from Transformation of Suffering and Jewel Ornament of Liberation)

by Venerable Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche

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Before we actually start studying how to practice refuge, it is very necessary to understand the Four Foundations. Without them being well-established in the mind, it is difficult for us to cultivate pure motivation, to have a sincere sense of taking refuge in the Triple Gem and to continue to study and practice the Dharma towards enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is because without them, we are still attached to samsara.

In the Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa mentions that since we have been in samsara from beginningless time, we must have been born as a human being on some occasion. We must have met some spiritual teachings and studied them during that time. So why are we still in samsara? Why couldn’t we free ourselves from this state of suffering? Because of the four basic obstacles, we continue to wander in the samsara.

The four obstacles are first: Attachment to this life or next life.

Most of us are attached to this life. We always put our time, energy and everything for the success in this life. We may talk about spiritual matters, or meditate or recite mantras, but very few actually work towards enlightenment. People talk about dream yoga and spiritual healing power, but what are they talking about? They are thinking of how to gain more comfort in this life. All these different things we use are solely for this life’s benefit. So investigate carefully and see for yourself, no matter whether it is material or spiritual activity. That way of thinking is called "attached to this life," and it is an obstacle to freedom from samsara.   Some people look farther ahead and are attached to the next life. They think this life is okay, but they want to be more successful in their next life. They want to be born in some better place or situation, so it’s still an attachment to samsara. Of course, that causes them not to be free from samsara.

Second, laziness or ill-directed samsaric activities

Besides laziness or ill-directed samsaric activities, there are those who only have self-cherishing and work for self-liberation. They are satisfied with less than full enlightenment and do not become completely liberated.

Third, attachment to the pleasure of existence

Fourth, Not knowing how to achieve enlightenment.

We frequently talk about spiritual matters, but to carefully investigate what samsara is and what enlightenment is – and how to free ourselves from samsara is very difficult.

These are the four basic obstacles that cause us to wander in the samsara from beginningless lifetimes until now. This is a very important subject to understand, investigate, and put into practice. The four antidotes to these are to be contemplated:

First, the antidote to attachment to this life is the contemplation of impermanence. Second, the antidote to ill-directed activities and to laziness is the contemplation on the rarity and fortune of attaining a precious human life which is endowed with leisure. Third, the antidote to attachment to the pleasure of existence is the contemplation of the faults of cyclic existence, namely suffering of samsara and the inexorable karmic causation. Fourth, the antidote of not knowing how to attain a meaning life is to contemplate on the methods of attaining liberation, starting with taking refuge in the three Jewels-- Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Impermanence is one of the best subjects to be mindful of. It is a very profound teaching. Some people think this is elementary and that only the higher teachings like mahamudra, dzogchen, and high tantra are profound. But impermanence is much more profound and important than any other teaching.

When you really have a sense of impermanence and when somebody causes you a problem, you will say this in your mind, "Oh, it is momentary. It will change. Why should I be upset?" When we are attached to some object or good things and when we have impermanence in the mind, we will see them as temporary, momentary like a rainbow. So, these teachings make the mind more stable.

You can look at impermanence from inside and outside. From outside, see how many great spiritual teachers and political leaders have lived; read the history of each country and see. Now, no one, nothing exists. All are gone. Even Buddha, who achieved the highest enlightenment, who had the complete form of wisdom and compassion, also passed. We can see it here and now also. Usually our mind is not staying with us; usually it is somewhere else, always projecting here and there. That makes it difficult to be aware. If the mind stays where the body is, then maybe it is a little easier to be aware of these things.

In the Madhyamika text, there is an analysis of coming and going. Basically, this goes to the idea of impermanence. What is really coming or going? Can there really be any coming or going? It is because what is gone, is gone; it does not exist here and now. How can we say that it exists? The future is coming, but it has not come yet; it is not here and now. So, how can we say it exists? So then, how can we say that there is coming and going? It is like a beautiful "sky flower". It sounds so good but it does not exist.

This analysis makes a very subtle mind. Like when you move rosary beads on a mala, that which is already moved, is moved; that which has not moved is not yet moved. There is no in between. If you analyze carefully, that is impermanence. In the mind, a thought is a thought; once it is gone, it is gone. When you think again, it is not just the previous thought, it is a new one. What was thought is gone; a new thought has not come yet. So in between, there is nothing. This is the teaching of mahamudra. Impermanence is a very profound teaching. We should meditate on this very subtle state.

When we keep the sense of real impermanence in the mind, it helps to free us from ignorance. It helps to free ourselves from aversion, anger, hatred and resentment as well as attachment, desire, pride, and jealousy. It helps to center the mind at one place. Eventually, when one is aware of it more and more, one eventually have the ability to realize the mahamudra teachings. Impermanence allows us to realize that everything is of a temporary state, ever changing; momentary and nothing is substantial, solid or concrete. That is the start of mahamudra and a very profound teaching.

Buddha-nature pervades all beings. Through investigation of phenomena, we can see that all things and phenomena are interdependent and their nature is emptiness. Therefore, Budddha-nature pervaded to all sentient beings. The suchness of that nature, the way that it is, or the mode of abiding, is the same. This means that no one is better than another – all are the same. Whether in a Buddha state or state of sentient beings, they are no different. For these reasons, Buddha-nature – the essence of enlightenment – is understood to be pervaded to all the sentient beings. The fact that Buddha-nature is pervaded to all sentient beings, is not enough to achieve enough to bring us to enlightenment. We have to have a special gift of intelligence to understand this reality. For that reason, the precious human life becomes most important.

Take the hell beings as an example. Even though they have some awareness, they are so tortured, so overpowered by all their suffering, that they have no opportunity to study or practice. We can see this in ourselves. When our minds are overpowered by suffering, there is no place to meditate. Animal realms have no special gift of intelligence or mental power. If you put gold in front of a dog, and say, "this is precious and you should keep it, " he will just smell it and run away. He has no sense that one thing is more precious than others, no matter how smart a dog is. Animal realms do not have the special awareness as human beings have. If our special qualities are utilized in the best way, we can free ourselves from the entire samsara. Therefore, human life is precious.

Now, if we use it in a wrong way, maybe, we may do worse than an animal. Human beings can destroy the whole world, which animals cannot do. We have such power that one can either benefit countless sentient beings or make countless sufferings for beings. This kind of Dharma study then becomes very important, crucial for all human beings to understand.

Compare the number of human beings to the hell realms or hungry ghosts. Even though we do not see them, they are much more numerous than the animal realm. Compared to the animal realm, human beings are so few. See for yourself. Go outside and take a handful of earth and see how many bugs there are. So many, we cannot count them. We can count approximately how many human beings are on this whole Earth, but we cannot count the number of animals. Now, just see how can these smaller animals like ants become human beings? To be reborn as a human being does not just happen without cause or for the wrong cause. It has to be from a complete cause. So how can animals get the opportunity to do precious, virtuous deeds? Very rare, very few. Therefore, we have to investigate and be aware, then we can appreciate our precious human life. So it is very important to be aware of the precious human life that we have and see how precious it is. Precious means that from this opportunity, we can free from samsara and can benefit limitless sentient beings. This is called precious.

We have a tendency to create negative causes and conditions without much effort – it is very easy to go that direction. Now we have to make a lot of effort to do some good things. Even to recite one mantra, you have to be a very strong person. So it is much easier to be born in the lower realms than to be born in human realm.

There are three conditions of human life: luxurious, precious, and poor. Some people are born in a very good condition and they live in that good condition, and have no sense of Dharma study. If you explain about Dharma, they will say, "Oh, that is good, but I am not the kind of person to do these things." So they have no chance. Another kind is that they are born in difficult conditions and continue to live in that and die in that. In that case, even when you talk about Dharma study, they are not interested at all. So that is why even though they are human beings but their lives are not necessarily precious.

Now let us look at those who have a specially gifted mind (it does not matter if they are born in a good condition or not). When they see the Dharma, and understand the Dharma, they feel that Dharma is the most important thing to do. They are fully interested and want to put their time and energy in that, that is called precious human life.

That is very rare. Even though some may have interest in Dharma and want to study, practice, they have no opportunity because of circumstances. That is an obstacle for Dharma study. For these reasons, having a precious human life and the opportunity to study the precious Dharma is very rare. We cannot buy that from anywhere. It has to come from our own effort. It is most important to be aware of that we have such an opportunity. We should rejoice that. This does not means a sense of pride, rather just think how wonderful it is, what a great opportunity we have. We cannot buy from any other place. This is the inner strength that we have developed from many other lifetimes. We must utilize it fully.

Once you are aware of this, there is no chance to be lazy. Laziness is very powerful. So because of that, it is necessary to be aware of impermanence. Now I have such a precious human life, such a great opportunity, but it is not permanent. No one can stay here forever, so I should not waste this precious human life.

Here are some examples given to overcome laziness. If our clothes are caught by fire, would we just stay there and let them be caught by the fire? Similarly, when laziness comes, we should try all ways to overcome it. If a snake comes on your lap, how urgently you will stand up and shout! Similarly, when laziness comes, we should do like that. There are different types of laziness: laziness because of attachment to worldly pleasures; laziness because of looking down on oneself; laziness because of attachment to samsaric activities. Looking down on oneself is saying, "Oh, I am not a good person. I do not have enough intelligence or I cannot study or practice Dharma well." When that time comes, we should encourage ourselves by recollecting that we have a precious human life. Think, "I have the Buddha-nature, which is the basis for enlightenment. So if I make effort, why shouldn’t I do it?" When we are attached to this life’s activities, consider what real essence is there, especially at the time of death? No benefit is there, so my time and energy should be used to achieve enlightenment. Work with that.

The suffering of samsara

In general, the nature of samsara is suffering. There are three types of suffering – pervasive suffering, suffering of suffering and suffering of change. An example of the suffering of suffering is physical suffering such as old age and sickness. Pervasive suffering can be perceived by bodhisattvas who see no true peace and happiness in samsara. When we do not get what we want and get what we do not want, we suffer. Even when we do get what we want, we still suffer from ignorance, afflictive emotions and so on. Without the understanding of the nature of suffering of change, our grasping for happiness will only lead us to more suffering of one kind or another. Unwilling to acknowledge the impermanence and illusory nature of happiness, we throw ourselves yet more intensely into the struggle to get more. Thus, we wander through countless lifetimes, just as we wander through this present life.

The nature of all the six realms in samsara is suffering. There are suffering in the hell realm, hungry ghost realm, animal realm, human realm, demi-god realm and god realm. No matter where we are born in these six realms, we are mired in a state of suffering. Suffering is bound to come – suffering comes like the flames of fire or the waves of the ocean. In the hell realm, we are tortured by fire and cold. In the hungry ghost realm, we are racked by starvation and thirst. Animals are tormented by their own stupidity, by the cruelty of eating one another. Human beings suffer from physical and mental sufferings. The demigods suffer due to constant fighting and jealousy. Those in the god realm suffer because of their heedlessness. The suffering of these six realms can be understood in psychological as well as literal terms. As human beings, of course, we do not suffer in the hell realm at present, but very hot weather makes our environment so unbearable that we experience some of the suffering of hell. Winter with its snow and ice, makes us feel some of the suffering of the cold hell realm. Even a short period of cold seems to last a long time. When our minds are completely overwhelmed by desire, anger, or hatred, these emotions feel like the hell realm. If we lack food and drink, we get so thirsty and hungry that we feel like hungry ghosts. Sometimes our minds get so foggy that we feel stupid and do not know what to do or say, as if we were suddenly stuck in the animal realm. When good things happen to people, we do not like it, such unbearable envy hits us so that we cannot bear the feeling inside, similar to that of the demi-god realm. Lastly, pleasant weather and surroundings bring us such peace and comfort that we feel supreme enjoyment, as if we were in the god realm. All of these psychological experiences are momentary and are linked respectively to the six realms.

In samsara, there is no lasting peace and happiness. This is why Buddha said that once we know suffering, there is no more to know. Once we have this understanding, we will know how to escape it – otherwise, we may only be creating more suffering. Therefore, it is very important to investigate the suffering and how it manifests. As a preliminary, imagine that all of the suffering which we unthinkingly create, is building an afterlife experience which we, as its creator, must then inhabit. It does not matter that we are ignorant of what we are creating, we must still face the responsibility of our creation. We can see that ignorance, which is the source of samsara, is not a desirable state in which to remain; it obscures how our negative actions lead us into a wide variety of negative, or hell realm, experiences. Suffering is not negative because it leads us to seek enlightenment and to avoid the cause of suffering, which we might otherwise never understand. With too much suffering, we cannot study or practice the Dharma, but some suffering is necessary. This suffering helps to lower our pride and arrogance. It helps us to develop loving kindness and compassion to all sentient beings and to ourselves. It helps us to be aware of the karma causes that contribute to our suffering. This suffering helps us to renounce the samsara and to work towards complete liberation, enlightenment.

Inexorable karmic causation

Karma is not just an ancient belief that comes from tradition or culture. It is the law of the universe, the mode of abiding. Karma means action, action which sets off the cycle of cause and effect. There is a cause and effect of samsara and a cause and effect of nirvana. All existing phenomena manifest from causes and conditions. While positive karma comes from positive causes (virtues) and yields relative happiness, peace and harmony; negative karma comes from negative causes (non-virtues) and yields suffering. The three non-virtues that relate to the body are taking life, taking things from others which do not belong to us, and sexual misconduct. Four non-virtues relate to speech: lying, divisive words, harsh words, and idle talk. The last three non-virtues relate to the mind: covetousness, harmful motivation and wrong views. The ten virtues are just the opposite of the non-virtues, for example, prolonging life, generosity and so on.

Our karma will be played out by ourselves alone. Nobody else can enjoy it for us; nobody else can endure it for us. The equation balances: virtue yields joy; non-virtue brings suffering. This principle is called the mode of abiding. Karma is inexorable. Even bodhisattvas must experience the results of their actions. If even highly realized masters have to endure their negative karma, how can we expect to escape the karma that we have generated over so many lifetimes? Our karma follows us; it is a part of us. A bird in the sky does not cast a shadow, but as soon as the bird alights on the ground, his shadow appears. Karma is that shadow. Even a grain of karma, positive or negative will increase; it will bring many, many results. The seed of the Negroda tree is as small as a mustard seed, but it yields a tree that can shelter five hundred people. Similarly, even a little karma will yield far-reaching results. So be careful of all the karma you create, positive or negative, and encourage yourself to do virtuous deeds, even if it is reciting only one mantra or purifying the smallest negative karma. Be especially mindful of motivation because, it too is an element of karma. When our attitude is altruistic, then no matter what we do, our actions turn virtuous. Conversely, we may perform a virtuous action, but if our mind is overpowered by afflictive emotions, then that action turns non-virtuous. So motivation becomes actions, just as seed becomes fruit. If the seed is toxic, its fruits will be poisonous.

Is suffering the only way to purify the poison of negative karma? Meditation, visualization and prayers would help to purify the negative karma. Milarepa, one of the greatest Buddhist saints, mastered purification techniques and passed it on to his disciples. Milarepa said, "If everybody saw the nature of suffering and the constitution of karma-causes as I have seen, then they would have the chance to attain the Vajradhara state, complete enlightenment, in one lifetime. When I was young, I committed such heinous acts that, if I had died without purifying them, I would have been cast into the hell realms. So, I decided to trust the principles of karma and impermanence, devote my life to Dharma practices, and achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime. Imagine, if all sentient beings wanted to realize their opportunity to become Vajradhara, they too would study and practice the Dharma with great devotion." We should take his teaching to our heart. Be mindful every moment. If a negative thought or action arises, even if only in a dream, renounce it and do a purification practice. If there is a positive thought or wholesome deed, rejoice. In the morning, pray that "Today, I will try to develop virtuous thought and action." At night, before going to sleep, avoid negative thoughts. Recollect your day, and if everything went well, rejoice and dedicate it like this: "By this virtue and action, may all beings achieve enlightenment and escape from suffering." Such practices transform suffering. We do not have to suffer hopelessly. Like Milarepa, we can practice the precious Dharma and become bodhisattvas who benefit all sentient beings.

Taking refuge

Now, to free oneself from the cycle of samsara, one has to have a special wisdom, a method, a "way". We start with taking refuge in the three jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha was the one free from the entire cycle of confusion and ignorance. He was the one who saw suffering itself and the cause of suffering, who achieved complete wisdom and compassion. So, to become Buddha, to attain Buddhahood – the fully awakened state becomes our goal. Now, to achieve Buddhahood, what should we do? We have to study the Buddha’s teachings, Dharma. Dharma is the ultimate peace, unsullied by the afflictive emotions and it is the cessation of all suffering. Dharma is the path that explains what samsara is, how to free ourselves from samsara, how to purify all obscurations and to perfect wisdom and compassion and to achieve enlightenment, so we take refuge in the Dharma. Then when we study and practice, we get the inspiration from the Sangha. Sangha refers to those highly achieved bodhisattvas who are committed to work towards enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. There are many highly realized teachers who have studied and practiced Dharma and achieved realization. In the real sense, taking refuge means that we apply these examples and teachings in our lives. We can take refuge in bodhisattvas such as Chenrezig and Tara. With great faith and devotion, we are following their examples to give us protection and to inspire us to develop wisdom, compassion and strength in our mind. Only by applying the teachings and practice with great effort, can our obscurations and habitual tendencies be removed.

We do not think of refuge as merely a preliminary practice. Refuge practice encompasses all Buddha’s teachings – deities, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, Vajrayana practices, Mahamudra, Dzogchen, all the higher views and methods of the Dharma. By taking refuge, we shun non-virtuous thoughts and actions and receive blessings. Milarepa’s life is one of the most inspiring examples of the power of refuge to transform an existence. One day, a group of disciples approached Milarepa to ask for teachings, which he granted, speaking to them of refuge and its beneficial effects. Then the disciples asked, "Are these your own refuge and mediation practices?" Milarepa replied, "Yes, I gained great comfort from these practices. You too, without doubt or hesitation, should take refuge in the Three Jewels." He then sang these songs about refuge and how to remind themselves of Dharma practice:

I prostrate to the saints and lamas.

The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – these three are the outer refuge. I gained great comfort from them. It would be good if you also took refuge in them.

The Lama, Yidam, and Dakini – these three are the inner refuge. I gained great comfort from them. It would be good if you also took refuge in them.

Chakras, Pranas, and Bindus – these three are the secret refuge. I gained great comfort from them. It would be good if you also took refuge in them.

Appearance, emptiness, and inseparability – these three are the ultimate refuge. I gained great comfort from them. It would be good if you also took refuge in them.

If you do not take refuge in what protects you from suffering, then the rain of the day and night will fall into the rotten house of the illusory body, the passing months and years will torture and destroy the rotten house of this illusory body. So now is the time to prepare for a joyous path.

Death moves like the sun in the sky – no matter how far you go, death comes closer. I have not seen anyone escape by running away.

When we see death of a virtuous one, that death is a master reminding of virtue. We should see the joy in this moment.

When we see the death of a non-virtuous one, that death is a master reminding us of sin. We should see then what remorse is.

When we see the death of a rich person, that death is a master showing how wealth is shared. We should see then what generosity is.

When we see the death of an old person, that death is a master showing life’s impermanence. We should see then how much sadness there is.

When we see the death of a youth, that death is a master showing life’s uncertainty. We should see then just how much diligence we should have.

Generally, we feel joy and happiness in having parents – what can we do with the suffering of the orphan?

The warm and smooth inner skin of suede – how can we know what it is like if we have not worn it?

The misery dispelled by the farmer’s harvest – how can we profit if we do not work?

The horse is swift – how can we imagine it if we have not ridden?

The happiness of practitioner’s lives how can we know about that if we do not practice the Dharma?

We should practice generosity by sharing our provisions.

Practice meditation by reducing sleep.

Recollect the suffering of the lower realms.

Practice the holy Dharma by contemplating suffering.

Thus he sang this song. All of Milarepa’s disciples were then so deeply moved and inspired to practice the Dharma that many made a commitment to practice for the rest of their lives.




Immeasurable numbers of canopies, banners, pennants, drapes, nets, statues, lights, flames,
clouds, seats, parks, shelters, lands, mountains, seas, rivers, trees, robes, lotus blossoms,
and palaces, all made of jewel crystals...
I present to Buddhas, may all sentient beings be aspired to cause all worlds to become purified and
attain emancipation, abide in the stage of the ten powers and attain unhindered understanding of truth;
to cause all sentient beings to be fully endowed with bases of goodness, to gain complete self-mastery,
to have minds as infinite as space, without going anywhere, entering all land, passing on good ways.

Last updated on 2002-09-15.