— Michael Erlewine
The “Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind” made an indelible impression on me on contact, but they were really driven home to me by the time I spent as chauffeur for the Ven. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. What can I say; meeting Trungpa Rinpoche was a profound experience, an island of sanity in the crazy sea of my life. I believe that Trungpa was a siddha, a very highly realized being. At least he had me rapt, coming and going, from first to last contact.
His comments to me about the “Four Thoughts” are a perfect example of this. As it turned out, I ended up designing the poster for Trungpa’s lecture in Ann Arbor at Rackham Auditorium in February of 1974. During the time I spent with rinpoche, he commented on the poster I had made for him, which featured a woodcut of a Tibetan dragon, shown here.
Unlike in the West, where dragons breathe fire and are often feared adversaries, in the East they are sacred and often celestial beings. I reproduce below the woodcut of the Tibetan dragon that I used for Trungpa’s poster. As you can see, this is a dragon flying in the clouds, clutching a precious gem in each of its four paws.
Anyway, Chögyam Trungpa looked the poster over and asked me if I knew what the dragon image stood for. I told him that I did not, but had chosen it because I thought it was beautiful and fitting. Trungpa went on to explain to me that as long as the dragon held a precious jewel in each of his four claws, he could fly, but if he dropped even one of them, he would fall from the clouds to the ground.
The implication was that the dragon held the four thoughts that turn the mind toward the dharma in his claws, one in each hand. In a similar way, we need to keep each of the “Four Thoughts” in mind, not just one or two. If we can do this, our mind can progress toward realization of the dharma, but if we drop even one, we fall right back into Samsara, this cyclic world of ups and down.
Well, I took this to heart, just as I took anything Trungpa Rinpoche told me, but it took me some time to realize how important what he pointed out to me was for successful dharma practice. And, over the years, this has come home to me more and more emphatically, in particular the fact that apparently I am such a poor learner that it takes some very upsetting, tragic, or health-related personal event in my life for me to get all that serious about, well, anything.
Trungpa’s advice was that we need to grasp and keep these four thoughts that turn the mind firmly in mind, all four of them at once, for our mind to get right so that we can absorb and practice dharma meaningfully. I pass this story and Trungpa’s advice on to you because it emphasizes that these four thoughts are essential for dharma practice, not only in the beginning, but also in the middle and the end.