As Buddhists we often take it that by practice and training anything can be brought about; however, you actually have to have a proper starting point. You cannot just start anywhere. Something of a Buddhist orientation already has to be present, or the whole thing might become a kind of fantasy. Being able to relate to the world in a proper way and not being full of obsessions that hypnotise you and make it impossible for you to have a sense of vision is absolutely necessary. You then begin to see and appreciate Dharma. At the beginning of the path you must have some kind of vision, but there is room for development. In Hinayana you start by being a human being and perceiving the painfulness of existence and the feeling, the real conviction, that there has to be something more to life than your ordinary experience from day to day, that there is some kind of open quality to life. Starting with a sense of pain, there is a search for meaning of some kind, a further vision that puts the pain into some kind of context. If you are practising in Mahayana, then the necessary preliminary is that you have linked into that pain.
The ordinary preliminaries to all Dharma, which encompass the preliminaries to Hinayana, to Mahayana and to Vajrayana are called the Four Thoughts. The Four Thoughts that touch the heart.
The first of these is del-jor (tib.) human life. Del-jor means freedom and opportunity, truly human existence, where that ‘truly’ aspect of human existence is oriented towards Dharma. Being a human being in this true sense is very basic; eventually you have to become that vision and inspiration.
Secondly, there is always the knowledge that you might die. It seems unfair somehow. You start off on the path and feel very inspired by that, but then might catch some fatal disease or might be in a car with a bad driver and suffer a fatal accident, may get run over killed or just die apparently for no reason. There was a great world opening out before you, and death doesn’t seem to connect to that. The fact that that is always possible means that you cannot afford to lose time on the path. So the second kind of truth, or change of heart that you need to remember is the significance of impermanence and death.
The third is that your actions matter. You should not oppress others; others are in the same boat as yourself. Either they want to realise Dharma if they are practitioners, or maybe they don’t realise that there is anything to understand. But they do search out happiness for themselves, and are not able to do that very well, or if they seem to do it successfully in this life it does not mean that in the future their present actions will make them happy. There is a sadness about that. Although one is a Dharma person, one is perhaps not a hundred percent Dharma person, and one still behaves foolishly and badly towards others and badly to oneself. So one keeps the third kind of thought to do with karma, which just means action, in mind. You don’t have to think of balancing positive or negative but just think of the actions that you do, and how they afflict themselves on others and upon yourself.
The fourth thought is the fact that the whole of conditioned existence is painful in a general way. In order to practise one must be somewhat free of the compulsions of pain, because if too overwhelmed by the pain of conditioned existence one cannot practise, being too obsessed by the pain to be able to do so. But with some kind of gap you can appreciate what pain there is and what potentiality for pain there is, and realise the absolute necessity of helping, not only oneself, but others. It is an understanding of duhkha, the fire of duhkha, the pointlessness of the round of existence, the fire of birth and death, all that is painful.
These are the Four Thoughts; the first is the fact that you were born with a golden spoon in your mouth, and must take Dharma advantage of this for the sake of yourself and others. The second is that you are going to die. Thirdly it matters what you do. And fourthly your mind, body and environment are unsatisfactory, painful, and that this is the fate of everybody. Fortunately all the rest of the Dharma tells you what you can do about this!