The fourth preliminary is the contemplation on suffering. The key point is that there is no place within the realm of samsara, or conditioned existence, that is free from suffering.
There are several implications to consider when contemplating suffering. First is the truth of suffering. The first teaching that the Buddha gave upon attaining enlightenment was on the Four Noble Truths- the truth of suffering, truth of the origin, truth of cessation and truth of the path. Within the truth of suffering there are three types of suffering that the Buddha mentioned- the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change and all-prevasive suffering.
We are all very familiar with the suffering of suffering. This is the gross level of suffering that we experience throughout our lives- physical pain and loss, the diversity of negative mental states, and the never ending cycle of aging, sickness and death.
The suffering of change is a little more subtle. It is the suffering that is associated with periods of happiness or pleasure. This type of suffering refers to the tendency of the good times in our life to revert to suffering. The common metaphor to portray this type of suffering is that of licking a razor blade with honey on it, it tastes so sweet but we do not realize that we are cutting our tongue because the blade is so sharp. We all have examples of this type of suffering in our own life- the new job that turns out to be a bad work environment, a spoiled relationship, a hangover after a fun night with friends. What distinguishes whether or not these positive experiences we have in life revert to suffering? Is it the object or event itself? Or is it our own mind, hopes and expectations?
All-pervasive suffering is the most subtle level of suffering. It refers to the latent potential for suffering to manifest in our life because of our own ignorance, ignorance of the true nature of reality and our true nature. It is because we misconstrue phenomena with identity, fixating on characteristics and investing them with meaning that is not inherent to them that we experience an endless round of suffering. It is by getting caught up in the twelve links of dependent origination that we continually experience the all-pervasive nature of suffering.
The second implication is that no matter where we are born in samsara we cannot escape suffering. It doesn't matter if we are born rich, famous or beautiful. We cannot get promoted to a job that has no suffering, we cannot move into a bigger house to be free from suffering and we cannot find another partner that is going to be perfect and never cause us pain or sorrow. If you are not convinced of this then you should waste a day or two of your life to watch reality TV (This will be the last time I ever suggest people watch reality TV).
The third implication is that it is we who continue to invest in the suffering of samsara. It is our thoughts, choices and actions that continue to turn that wheel.
When we understand the truth of suffering and that we cannot escape it as long as we continue to invest in conditioned existence, then we come to embrace the larger scope. As long as we place our refuge outside of us there is no lasting happiness to be found. If we place our refuge in people, places or things outside of us we will have no protection, no shelter, we will constantly be reaching out with empty hands hoping that something comes our way.
We must rely on an authentic refuge, one that is able to free us from this wheel of samsara. As an outer refuge we rely on the Buddha as the supreme teacher, the Dharma as the supreme teaching, and the Sangha as the supreme support. As an inner refuge we rely on our own Buddha mind or the capacity to attain liberation, our own experience of the Dharma as the path, and the Sangha as our companions on the journey.
Having embraced the larger scope we then come to a decisive experience of suffering, which is best summarized by a verse composed by my own root guru, Younge Khachab Rinpoche:
We are endowed with this precious human life,
and have met with the Dharma.
The world and inhabitants
are impermanent, like a water bubble.
At death, only my dharma practice
will be of any benefit.
At death, there is no freedom,
and the winds of karma take their course.
Therefore I shall devote myself
to abandoning negative acts
and cultivating positive ones.
All the illusions of samsara
entrap my mind with the three poisons.
Realizing the faults of conditioned existence,
may I practice renunciation and strive for enlightenment.
This concludes the contemplation of the preliminary practices. It is of tremendous value to return to these again and again, for they are the source of much wisdom on the path.