In the Lojong Trainings of Tibetan Buddhism, a series of aphorisms is used in training the mind to expand beyond it's usual conditioned patterns. Operating as mental reminders to frame our experience in particular ways -- both on and off the meditation cushion -- these 59 slogans, arranged in 7 main points, can be quite helpful in cultivating an open heart and a clear head.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Starting Where You Are: First, Train in the Preliminaries

A Disclaimer:  The Lojong Teachings emerge out of Tibetan Buddhism and have been passed down from guru to student for about a thousand years.  Except for a couple of weekend gatherings at Deer Park with Geshe Sopa and evening's talk by the Dalai Lama in a huge auditorium in Madison, Wisconsin years ago, I have never been in the Presence of a Teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition let alone formally studied with one.  Furthermore, I am not now, nor have ever been, an authorized teacher -- except by the State of Illinois as a high school social studies teacher back in the 1970's.  That certification expired long ago.   (Read Full Disclaimer )

If you want to circumvent my ramble and cut to the chase, Pema Chodron's version of the  First Slogan of the Lojong Teachings is in large print below. 

"If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, 
then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them. 
True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate 
than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings."
I had practiced meditation, attending handful's of intensive retreats in various traditions for over 35 years by the time Betsy handed me a copy of Pema Chodron's Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living nearly ten years ago.  Longtime Director of Gampo Abbey, a student of Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron had me hooked with the very first sentence of the Preface:


Although I had certainly experienced a number of "heart openings" over the years, both on and off the zafu, I poured through Start Where You Are to discover a new approach to the Practice, a new way to examine the nature of heart and mind, and --more importantly -- a systematic method to approach the deep conditioning that separates us from one another and our own True Nature.

As well as offering forth guidance on two forms of sitting meditation, Shamatha-Vipashyana and Tonglen, the 59 slogans of the Lojong Teachings offer a means to approach our lives in a way that cultivates kindness, clarity and compassion.  Organized as 7 main points, I think that anyone who explores them and takes them to heart is in for a very interesting,  perhaps sometimes heartrending, but profoundly heartwarming, adventure toward the One Love we share.

Slogan 1: First, Train in the Preliminaries.

Interestingly, in Start Where You Are, Pema doesn't refer to the traditional "Four Reminders" that are considered to be the "preliminaries" in this Tibetan tradition.  Instead she refers to the basic Shamatha-Vipashyana meditation practice as the fundamental foundation of the Lojong, the quality of consciousness involved as both the means and ends of Practice. (Fair enough, although I have a dear friend who doesn't Sit that has still found great value in Pema's Lojong teachings.)

In other works though, Pema does offer forth her understanding of the Four Reminders.  Here's her version of the elements of Slogan 1:

"In your daily life, try to:
     1) Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life.
     2) Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone.
     3) Recall that whatever you do, whether virtuous or not, has a result; what goes around comes around.
     4) Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will suffer. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don't want does not result in happiness. "
 In Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings of the Practice of Lojong, Zen Teacher Norman Fischer entitles his chapter on the first slogan, "Resolve to Begin".  If we actually do take these four reminders to heart a commitment to the work to be done can become pretty obvious.

Along with the Bodhisattva Vow, I think this is Mahayana Buddhism in a nutshell.  With these Reminders, we are called to step up to the plate and squarely face the reality that the absolute Preciousness of this Human Life Dances across the Abyss of our Inevitable Demise.  We are also called to consider that Karma is actually the way it works, and to see for ourselves that undo self-importance, and continually obsessing on trying to control things to our advantage hasn't really made us happy.   

Then what?

Pema Chodron
With Lojong Practice, we are called to carefully and gently examine the nature of our own experience, to awaken our hearts to the immensity of our shared human condition --from the inside out.  As we slowly learn to let go of the incessant storylines that run through our heads in ego's fear- laden attempt to create a solid, secure reality where none exists, as we learn to stay Present to our actual experience more and more, the world shifts.  Slowly releasing the armor around our hearts, we learn to actually 'lighten up"and not take ourselves too seriously.  Touching our True and Tender Heart, we  may even find ourselves more able to actually "Love our neighbor as ourselves", perhaps even "Love our enemies" -- our own "demons" included.

If more of us would try this out, we might even survive as a species on this old suffering planet.

I can't think of anything better to do.  How about you? 

Originally Published, April 9, 2014


  1. Time for me to dive into the 4th Reminder and linger a while. The Universe is presenting me with so many opportunities to practice something other than my habit of "fight or flight'. I hear Pema's soft voice from the "Getting Unstuck" c.d. saying over and over, "Just stay". :)

  2. Thanks for chiming in!

    Pema's Teachings have been a gift to a whole lot of us. It is such an exquisite, and appropriately paradoxical, Truth that the pith instruction for the Ultimate Freedom of Movement, for getting unstuck, is to "Just Stay!"

    I love it when that happens!

  3. Posted to Monday Morning Mindfulness and re-posted here:

    Anonymous said...

    "I resonated with what you said about society telling us "don't be sad" (or afraid, or nervous, or angry, or anything "negative"). In my recent thoughts about death as simply something that IS, I've started to realize how conditioned I am to avoid even the thought of death. In a totally curious and exploratory way, I've started occasionally looking at the people around me and realizing that each of them will die, as a way to help me realize that someday I, too, will die.

    I'm amazed that avoidance of death has taken such a strong hold in wealthy American culture, the same culture that tells us to "live life to the fullest." We can really only live life "fully" through a willingness to look at everything. We can't expect to avoid anything "bad" and also experience everything "good" to its full extent. "
    April 19, 2014 at 5:12 AM

    Lance Smith replied...

    Well said, Friend.

    I think this the Heart of the Matter. Our willingness to embrace fully the Reality of Life/Death, with the entire range of feelings and thoughts is the Key to True Compassion and the Gateway to the One Love we all share.

    (I'd like to share your post and my response on A Layman Looks at Lojong as well.)
    One Love,
    April 21, 2014 at 9:28 AM