The four reminders, or four thoughts that turn the mind, are an important preparation for death because they turn the mind from constantly looking outward to finally looking within. As with mindfulness, they provide another way to work with distraction. They bring the key instruction “do not be distracted” to a more comprehensive level.
The four reminders show us that it’s not just momentary distraction that’s problematic but distraction at the level of an entire life. If we’re not reminded, we can be mindless and waste our whole life.
Trungpa Rinpoche presented them this way:
1. Contemplate the preciousness of being so free and well favored. This is difficult to gain, easy to lose, now I must do something meaningful.
2. The whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent. In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble. Death comes without warning, this body will be a corpse. At that time the dharma will be my only help. I must practice it with exertion.
3. When death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always devote myself to virtuous actions. Th inking this, every day I will examine myself.
4. The homes, friends, wealth, and comforts of samsara are the constant torment of the three sufferings. Just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death, I must cut desire and attachment, and attain enlightenment through exertion.
How long should we contemplate these reminders?
Until our mind turns. Until we give up hope for samsara, and realize the folly of finding happiness outside. Most of us spend our lives looking out at the world, chasing after thoughts and things. We’re distracted by all kinds of objects and rarely look into the mind which is the ultimate source of these objects. If we turn our mind and look in the right direction, however, we will find our way to a good life— and a good death. Instead of being carried along with the external constructs of mind, we finally examine the internal blueprints of mind itself.
Take Them to Heart
The significance of these four reminders, as a preliminary practice, cannot be overstated. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche said that if we could truly take them to heart, fifty percent of the path to enlightenment would be complete. These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification—which can only be found within.
Excerpted from “Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from a Tibetan Buddhist Tradition”