In the Prajna Paramita Sutra, Buddha gave us The Eight Similes of Illusion:
Regard this fleeting world like this: Like stars fading and vanishing at dawn, like bubbles on a fast moving stream, like morning dewdrops evaporating on blades of grass, like a candle flickering in a strong wind, echoes, mirages, and phantoms, hallucinations, and like a dream.
Photo by Nathan Nicholson Upsplash
The second of the Four Reminders is impermanence. The Buddha said a lot about impermanence. Here’s another verse:
“The universe and its inhabitants are as ephemeral as the clouds in the sky; Beings being born and dying are like a spectacular dance or drama show.
The duration of our lives is like a flash of lightning or a firefly’s brief twinkle; Everything passes like the flowing waters of a steep waterfall.”
Life is fleeting. Everything changes constantly, transforms itself ceaselessly. We are impermanent; our life breath, especially, is just “like a bubble on a fast-moving stream.” The time of our death is uncertain and unpredictable. Death comes for us all. This life might end at any second. So, impermanence is very real. It’s good to realize that we’ll die, that death is right here just around the corner all the time. Thinking about it in these terms, I feel like I want to use it as well as I can. Realizing that we have an unknown amount of time and that we can’t count on anything can help us realize how precious this life is and fill us with gratitude.
The first reminder—our precious human birth—makes us aware of the opportunities of this life and to develop an appreciation for and value our life. Most of us spend a lot time dwelling on the things that have gone wrong today or yesterday or what might go wrong tomorrow. We think very little of ourselves—as people we have a low opinion of ourselves. We have no idea about our true nature and about the possibility that this life affords us. This teaching is to help us rebalance how we’re looking at our life.
The classic teaching is to look at the eight freedoms to see that we have a fortunate birth. Four are freedoms from non-human states where there’s no chance to practice the Dharma, and four are freedoms from human states where there’s no chance to practice Dharma. Now, this teaching is about rebirth – that our streams of being have been born continuously in different places and times and bodies. But, it’s not necessary to believe in rebirth to have an understanding of how fortunate we are in this present moment of this life. Each of us has had different phases in our lives where maybe we’ll be able to relate to these states metaphorically.
The teaching looks at the four non-human states, which are a life in a “hell realm,” of continual torment and suffering. The realm of the “Hungry Ghost.” This is where beings experience continual craving, frustration and clinging—addiction is like that. The animal realm…these beings have more limitations because the consciousness is limited. The last non-human realm is the celestial realm. A celestial being is born into a realm where there is just complete pleasure all the time. Would anyone practice the Dharma if there was only pleasure? Too busy eating, drinking and sleeping around. So it’s really something to rejoice about, that we’re free from being reborn in that circumstance, because if our mind is really serious about attaining enlightenment, situations of extreme pleasure are just as much of a disadvantage as situations of extreme pain. In this ordinary life, we can’t cope with too much of either. We get totally overwhelmed.
Again, when we’re meditating on all these things, really remembering what it was like to live that way or what it might be like, we can cultivate deep gratitude for our lives and see—experience how precious they are. It’s something to rejoice about, that at this moment, we have heard the Dharma and developed an understanding of Buddha-nature, we realize Karma and the results of our actions, that we have a view that is based in the reality of life.
Shantideva wrote: “These human leisures, opportunities, and faculties are very rare to obtain and easily lost; If one squanders the chance to fulfill the aim of human life, How will such an opportunity arise again?”
And what is the aim of human life? What are we trying to fulfill? The Buddha taught that this human birth is a precious gift because it gives us the opportunity to realize our true nature—empty and luminous, Buddha-nature.
Sogyal Rinpoche writes: “Buddha-nature is simply the birthright of every sentient being. This is what the Buddha brought us from his enlightenment in Bodhgaya, and which many people find so inspiring. His message—that enlightenment is within the reach of all. Through practice, we too can all become awakened. If this were not true, countless individuals down to the present day would not have become enlightened. According to Buddhism, there is no being, human or otherwise, who doesn’t possess some wisdom and some compassion. However bad, however evil, every being has a minimal amount of love, kindness, or compassion, at least for themselves or for one other being.”
The Four Reminders are the most fundamental daily reflections or meditation in Tibetan Buddhism. The Four Reminders are: 1) develop an awareness of the preciousness of this human life. 2) develop an awareness of the reality of the impermanence of all that exists. 3) Karma; develop an awareness of the consequences of all we do. 4) Samsara – develop an awareness of the cyclic nature of life, death and rebirth.
Meditation on these four thoughts can help us develop a more universal perspective on this life from “I, me, mine” to “we, us, ours.” All or our lives are precious, fleeting, the results on our actions and our personal suffering is not unique. The Four Reminders help us find a more lasting happiness, peace, and fulfillment.
Karma Lodrö writes, “First, we contemplate the unique occasion of having attained a precious human birth and determine to use our life meaningfully. Then we contemplate impermanence and death. As long as we have a precious human life, we shouldn’t waste it, because the time of death is uncertain and impermanence is a fact. The third practice that turns one’s mind to the Dharma is contem-plating how to really make use of the fortunate opportunity of having attained a precious human life more fully by accumulating positive karma. One understands that, due to the infallible law of cause and effect, unwholesome and unskillful activities of body, speech, and mind lead to painful results. Fourthly, one contemplates the meaningless propositions of samsara. These four contemplations inspire us to turn our attention towards liberation.”