Buddhist Contemplation: Four Thoughts Cheat Sheet

The text we will be studying and contemplating for the next six months or so is perhaps the most highly regarded one in the entire Mahayana Mind Training tradition on Buddhist contemplation: The Root Text of the Seven Points of Mind Training, by the 12th century master of the Kadampa order, Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. This text was in turn based on a text by the 10th century Bengali Buddhist teacher, Atisha.

This Buddhist contemplation text was composed in the spirit of boiling down all the essential aspects of an entire lifetime of spiritual practice into one handy volume – all you ever need to know and practice was put here, with no fluff, just the most essential of the most essential. This text has been practiced and handed down for generations, and has lived up to its billing: all you need to know and do in one concise volume.

The text is composed of seven points, and in all is made up of 59 lines. Each line is pithy and pregnant. I have found it to be incredibly essential, and have studied it and contemplated its slogans for over thirty years since I first discovered it in a book published in 1977, Advice from a Spiritual Friend, by Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargey. I am now on my third copy of the book, as the first fell apart from use, the second was borrowed and never returned, and the third – ah, the third is the new edition published in 1996. I have received teachings on Buddhist contemplation from many teachers, and none were as powerful as the ones taught in this marvelous text.


The seven points in this Buddhist contemplation text are:

1. Train in the preliminaries.

2. Cultivate Bodhicitta, the mind of genuine altruism

3. Transform adversity into the path of awakening

4. Maintain the practice for the duration of one’s life

5. Measure the success of the practice

6. Know the commitments of the practice

7. Know the guidelines for the practice

These seven points comprise a powerful manual for the transformation of your mind and heat.

These seven points are conveyed in this order through 59 pithy lines or “slogans.” For me that’s the raw power of the Mahayana Mind Training Tradition Buddhist Contemplation tradition, their emphasis on training with phrases. As I have mentioned in previous posts in this series, by mounting a transformative phrase on the breath as we go about our day, reflecting lightly on its meaning while we are in the checkout line at Longs – this is how we bring the practice home.

I have been urging you to make up your own slogans in response to the basic ideas presented in the past four posts because I wanted to have you try your best at working this way, because after this post the phrases all are going to come from Geshe Chekawa.

Let’s recap again. This is good to do, as we get another opportunity to reflect on these precious teachings.

There are seven points of Buddhist contemplation that cover everything we need to know and practice, see the list above.

We have just finished Point One – Train in the Preliminaries.

Point One was shorthand for reflect on the four thoughts that turn the mind towards the dharma.


The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind toward the Dharma are:

1. The rare and precious human life of leisure and opportunity.

2. Death and impermanence.

3. The awesome power of our actions.

4. The defects of samsara AKA The inescapabilty of dissatisfaction.


Here is a cheat sheet for Point One, as Geshe Chekawa simply assumes we are familiar with how to contemplate the Four Thoughts.

Deep and integrated contemplation on these for points is what is meant by training in the preliminaries. These contemplations become deep as we sit with them for half of our sitting meditation practice, and when we bring them home by mounting them on the breath as we bop around town and pick up the kids, park the car at the beach park, look at your spouse and see how lovely she or he is, wake up in the morning, or get ready to fall asleep.


Cheat Sheet for the Four Thoughts Contemplation

I. The rare and precious human life of leisure and opportunity

a. There are more than seven billion human beings on the planet; how many have the leisure to pursue a spiritual path?

b. Although seven billion humans seems like a lot, consider the number of insects, or even the trillions of cells and microbes in one human body.

c. Human life is rare.

d. We have this precious gift; it is up to use what we do with it.

e. We often overlook the things that are important to us while we still have them; we only recognize how something is as we are running out of it or are about to lose it, but by then it is often too late to do anything with it.

f. Many, many people live hand to mouth, or are devoured by addictions or trivial concerns, and have no leisure time.


II. Death and impermanence.

a. We are going to die someday.

b. In this moment right now, do you know this?

c. Death and loss are experienced every day in our lives in some way.

d. We never know when death will come to us or to our loves ones.

e. While we may think we have time left, as we grow older subjective times for many feels like it is going by faster.

f. We really don’t have as much time left as we think we do.


III. The awesome power of our actions.

a. Our actions are to a large extent conditioned by conventional models of success or failure.

b. Are we happy with these conventional models?

c. Conditioned actions create results.

d. Every moment we participate in creating the world that exists for us and others.

e. Awareness of our conditioning helps detach ourselves form it and the social model it in some small way perpetuates.

f. Everything matters.


IV. The defects of samsara AKA The inescapabilty of dissatisfaction.

a. Sorrow and discontent and dissatisfaction are inevitable.

b. We just won’t find any lasting satisfaction in the eight worldly concerns of hope for gain and fear of loss, hope for praise and fear of blame, hope for fame and fear of insignificance, hope for happiness and fear of suffering.

c. We suffer from misplaced trust and hope.

c. Seeming pleasures are only so for fleeting moments.


On this last point I love in a poignant way the following uncompromising thought by Milarepa:

Whatever one does eventually brings suffering and is futile;

Whatever one thinks is impermanent and futile;

Whatever one achieves is illusory and futile;

Even if one has it all, it is futile;

The dharmas of samsara are futile.”


I have often heard people say in our meetings that these phrases of Buddhist contemplation are downers and take away our joie de vivre, that doing these makes people feel depressed. That may happen, but that is not the purpose of this Buddhist contemplation.

The purpose of these contemplations is for us to see for ourselves that one true and authentic response to the realities of life is to give ourselves wholeheartedly to some sort of spiritual practice.

And this very practice of the First Point can be done all throughout one’s life, not just at the beginning of our journey. They help us realize that we need to live as truly and deeply as we can as an authentic response to what Norman Fischer calls “the gift and the problem that is our life.”

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  1. Right now I’m concentrating on ‘Death & Impermanence’ as traditionally I’ve always found death a very hard thing to cope with and avoided thinking about it and the reaches it can have over our lives. I guess tackling this will naturally lead me to ‘the awesome power of our actions’ when I begin to examine how I chart my progress by success or failure…both, or neither!

  2. Hi Tom! I’m glad I finally made it back to your blog after a little time away. A week ago, a work colleague passed away in a sudden fishing accident which has shocked us all. I’ve found this cheat sheet in particular very useful in ordering my thoughts through this difficult time and I just wanted to let you know how much it has helped me process things.

  3. Me too Noah…thanks for your support over the years and your participation. Hopefully as we all practice it gets to make more and more sense in our heart. Stay tuned…

  4. Carla, that’s a great interpretation of that line. As far as working with the contemplations goes, I find it quite doable to incorporate them into my sitting sessions, though remembering to come back to them during the consuming course of a day I find challenging.

  5. Cool…I’m inspired. Great “reminders” and now on my desktop. I’ve been trying to get one of our local monks here near Phnom Penh to come to the orphanage where I live to share the basics of the dharma on a regular basis with our 200 plus kids here and the inspiration you have helped provide Tom may actually help me get it done!

    1. Rob, you know you are a true bodhisattva…and I am so happy to hear this. It would be awesome if a monk were to come and give Dharma instruction there for the kids. Imagine the possibilities of contributing to a generation individuals with sincere Buddhist feelings and learning. Thanks again Rob for all you do, and for your on-going participation in this project. It means a lot to me.

  6. Thank you, Tom, so much for the cheat sheet and the review!
    I studied and grew up with the cheat sheets. Contemplating on those 4 thoughts was emotionally loaded and yet freeing experience for me. It all brings me back to the present moment. I feel connected to everybody and everything in a fundamental way as we are under the same laws of existence.

    1. I am glad to hear that this is working for you! That gave me an idea — I should make one new page on this website just for this Seven Pint Mind Training and list each slogan aling with suggested contemplations for it — just one clean “cheat sheet” for the Seven Point text…will try to set this up…thanks and take care..always nice to hear from you!

  7. “3. Transform adversity into the path of awakening”
    This is the key in that it tells me I ALWAYS have a choice. Difficulty will come; suffering will come; samsara will come. It’s all part of life and our human condition. What frees me is my choice to remain serene, to the best of my ability, and to treat EVERYTHING as an opportunity for growth. I can choose my attitude. For me, the “one true and authentic response to the realities of life is to give ourselves wholeheartedly to some sort of spiritual practice.” Choice of my attitude in response to life’s challenges is a major part of my practice.

    1. Yeah, I’ll second that … and ‘ve found it to be a lifetime’s practice. Sometimes it two steps forward, three steps backward…but I just keep trying to see my conditioned reactive patterns…my condtioned “dream life” and try to wake up a little more each day. Thanks for participating Carla.

  8. Action is proof of earnestness. The seeker is she who is in search of herself. To know who you are, you must first investigate and know what you are not. Give up all questions except one: Who am I? Only the I Am is certain. The I Am This is not. At the end of the search, you realize you are Limitless Being. (Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj)

    Thank you for your invitation to join this blog. Namaste.

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