If we continue to cherish only ourselves, we will always be afraid. Our self-concern makes us worry about what might happen, even when nothing is threatening us. We are terrified by snakes and scorpions, which are, in fact, quite minor causes of fear. To alleviate our hunger and thirst we cause the death of many creatures.
Greed in our search for prosperity and happiness makes us ruin forests, rivers and mountains, and even when we are not doing it ourselves, our many needs and desires insure that others will continue to exploit these natural resources without thinking about the long-term consequences. When we destroy the habitat of non-humans, such as certain kinds of celestial beings and nagas, they respond by harming us, causing disease, conflict in the home and other troubles. Clearly a radical change in our attitude is needed.
Attachment to our body and self makes us cling to our wealth and think, "If I give this away, what will be left for me?" Such an attitude is responsible for all our problems, while the thought, "If I use this, I'll have nothing to give to others," is responsible for all joy and well being. If we strive for fame, praise and respect, we will be reborn as some inferior creature or a person whom others despise. If we insure that others receive praise, fame, service and regard, it will lead to a good rebirth in which we enjoy status, a good appearance and others' respect. If we exploit others for our own benefit, we will be exploited and manipulated in another life, but if we use our physical and mental resources to care for others, we will also be taken care of, not only in future but also in this life.
Without reversing our present attitudes towards ourselves and others, we cannot attain enlightenment. We might think, "Well, so what?" But at the same time we don't want to remain in our present condition, experiencing unhappiness and suffering. By considering all these points carefully, we will realize that making this switch in our attitudes is possible. This is what "exchanging self and others" means.
In his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path Je Tsongkhapa first defines what is meant by "equalizing" and then explains how to cultivate this state of mind. He encourages us to persevere with thinking about the disadvantages of not cherishing others and the great advantages of doing so, as a way to develop greater enthusiasm. He defines what exchange of self and others means, describes the main obstacles that prevent us from making this switch and how to overcome them. As a result of deeply contemplating the faults of self-concern and the benefits of cherishing others, this reversal will come about automatically.
However hopeless the condition of living beings may appear, they all have the capacity to become free from suffering and to enjoy happiness because of their inner potential and the purity of their nature. Though we may really wish to remove their suffering and give them happiness, what we are able to do at present is extremely limited. From this we see how important our own enlightenment is. Our hope to become enlightened will only make us act if we are convinced that it is really possible to overcome our faults and limitations and to develop our full potential. We must understand what enlightenment entails, realize that we have the ability to attain it and then resolve to do so. Others' wellbeing is our primary reason for doing this, but enlightenment is also the full flowering of our own potential. As long as we think it is sufficient merely to stop our personal suffering, we will not aspire to gain the wisdom body of an enlightened being.
What are the obstacles to exchanging self and others? At present we see our own self, the basis for our personal happiness and suffering, and the self of others, the basis of their happiness and suffering, as quite unrelated, rather like blue and yellow, which can be taken to mind without reference to each other. Because of this we are not concerned about their happiness and suffering, while our own condition is of immense importance to us. Though we and they are of course different, we are nevertheless connected. It is impossible to conceive of "self" except in relation to "other," just as "this side" only makes sense in relation to "that side" and vice versa. They are mutually dependent. "This side" is only this side while we are here, but when we get over there, our perspective has changed. Neither self nor other are inherently existent. What am I, self or other? Both thoughts are valid in relation to me.
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We may think others' suffering doesn't hurt us so why should we bother to alleviate it. If this is the argument we use, there are two analogies which can help us to change our attitude. Why should we do anything to alleviate the suffering we will experience when we are old, such as saving money or buying insurance policies, because that suffering doesn't affect us now? Why should our hand do anything to help when we have a thorn in the foot? After all the thorn isn't hurting our hand. We shouldn't be too quick to dismiss these examples. Exploring them in meditation can help to bring about a change in our way of thinking.
Will understanding the true nature of the self stop our longing for worldly happiness and bring about a transformation in our attitudes? There are many levels to understanding the true nature of the self. Even a recognition that the self undergoes change moment by moment will dramatically decrease our preoccupation with the things of this life. Because of our clinging to the self as enduring and unchanging, we waste our energy on trivial concerns and neglect what is important.
If we don't correctly identify what is poisoning our life and instead nurture it, happiness will continue to elude us. We have it the wrong way round. If someone asks why we are unhappy, we have a long list of people and circumstances to blame. Very few of us will point to something within. The law recognizes the harmful effects of the disturbing emotions only in their crudest aspects when they lead to blatant dishonesty rape, robbery, violence and murder. Nobody but a true spiritual practitioner will mention the need to uproot those disturbing emotions in all their forms and yet, if we are honest, we must admit how upsetting they are and how much misery they cause us. No matter how luxurious our surroundings, these emotions will prevent us from enjoying comfort and from getting a good night's sleep. And even if we do sleep, we wake up miserable in the morning. How much happier we and those around us would be if we could stop the grosser manifestations of these emotions.
Our self-concern makes us consider even minor discomforts unbearable. Reversing this, our aim is to become as sensitive to others' slightest suffering as we are to our own. To prepare the ground for this, we contemplate the faults of selfishness and the benefits of cherishing others, so that we can develop a real wish for change and identify the obstacles which stand in its way.
A healthy interest in our own welfare is fine, but far from accomplishing our well-being, our exclusive concern with it has simply produced endless suffering. We can observe how hard humans and animals try to find happiness and yet they all experience suffering. We fail to find happiness because we use the wrong methods. Our selfishness cuts us off from present and future happiness but we don't recognize this as the real obstacle. We don't blame our misconceptions and egoism but instead blame others.
We magnify the importance of the self and our own happiness and have unrealistic expectations. Our reputation means a lot to us. We may want to be known as a good meditator, a fine scholar, or as someone who is always kind, generous and helpful to others. To accomplish this we are often prepared to act negatively and emotions like pride, envy, disdain and competitiveness arise easily. We cannot bear to see others doing well in any way and a single word or look can make us burn with rage.
We are most reluctant to admit our faults, but until we can face our own imperfections, our study and practice of the teachings will not bear fruit because egoism is in conflict with the teachings and with decent human conduct. We easily observe such behavior in others but think we are fine just the way we are. Unless we recognize the same pattern in ourselves, we will not benefit from the teachings nor from the presence and care of our teachers. When friends offer us useful advice and point out our faults, we see their criticism as interference and refuse to accept advice. Our response antagonizes others and we soon find ourselves at odds with those around us. Before very long it seems as if the whole world is hostile. We feel more and more isolated and friendless. All this happens because we do not value others and think only of ourselves.
We all know the kind of people who are so preoccupied with themselves that they talk of nothing else. They don't purposely ignore one, but their minds are totally taken up with their own experiences and activities. Between countries, between members of a community, within the family, between teachers and students, mutual respect and consideration are of greatest importance.
If we had invested as much energy in alleviating others' suffering and giving them happiness as we have in the pursuit of personal happiness, we would have accomplished our own and others' well-being long ago. There isn't a shred of doubt about this. Instead all our effort has been wasted and futile.
Now resolve not to continue like this. Think, "May I be clear now and in future about the true identity of my enemy. May I always bear it in mind. May I prevent all future selfish thoughts and actions and may I stop all my present selfishness now." Only by expelling our misconception of the self and our selfishness can we truly fulfill our human potential. We should take pride in combating our selfishness. Once we get rid of it, it will automatically be replaced by concern for others.
There are two parts to our minds: the part responsible for all our troubles and disasters and the part which brings all happiness. To transform we must distinguish clearly between them. Acting to prevent self-concern from arising, stopping any manifestations of it as quickly as possible, cultivating new forms of concern for others and strengthening our present expressions of it will bring about the change we desire. If we are bored by this list of the faults of selfishness, it is because we have no real desire to change our ways, but instead want to hear something new and exotic.
The crux of these instructions is constantly to try not to be influenced by attachment to "our own side." We are training ourselves to give everything -- our property, body and positive energy -- without any hope of reward or return. If we hope for anything in return, even a good rebirth or enlightenment, it is just like a business transaction. Making a small outlay we hope for large returns. If we could learn to be as generous as Bodhisattvas, we would find that all our needs are met.
As beginners we must practice in imagination sincerely giving everything to others and dedicating our physical, verbal and mental actions to their service. In practice we shouldn't overreach ourselves but do what is within our capacity. Nor need we feel compelled to do everything others ask of us. It is important to protect ourselves, for if we are weakened, we can help nobody. At present we are as fragile as a bubble and don't have much stamina.
Having promised everything to others, we must serve them faithfully and must not wrong them by looking at or speaking to them in a hurtful way, nor by thinking harmful thoughts. Any self-serving impulses we notice, we should try to stop at once, for these are the cause of all our troubles.
Who can criticize this practice? We may feel it is too difficult for us, but if we make an effort to begin, gradually we will be able to do more and more. Admiration for such conduct, feeling inspired by it and making prayers that one day we will be able to act like this ourselves is the first step. Do we learn about such things in school? Most of us think we are quite clever and capable. This is a good way to use our intelligence and aptitudes.
By seeing the enormous drawbacks of self-centeredness, we will develop the ability to see all beings as lovable. As soon as concern for others becomes constant and spontaneous we have made the switch.
Although our aim is to see all living beings as lovable, it is undeniable that at present we do not see them in this way.
We have so many different fears, all of which are rooted in self-concern. If we can let go of that, our fears will diminish. To overcome this self-concern and our misconception of the self we need to develop the conventional and ultimate altruistic intention. This is the best way of overcoming all fears, for if we appeal to some external force, we may find ourselves even more frightened and in a greater tangle.
How to develop altruistic intention.
There are eleven steps: equanimity, recognizing all beings as our mothers, remembering their kindness, repaying their kindness, equalizing self and others, recognizing selfishness as the enemy, seeing the benefits of cherishing others, giving to strengthen love and taking to strengthen compassion, both of which are combined with the thought of exchanging self and others, the special wish and the altruistic intention.
The Bodhisattva Vow
by Geshe Sonam Rinchen
(edited and translated by Ruth Sonam)
About the Author
GESHE SONAM RINCHEN was born in Tibet in 1933. He studied at Sera Je Monastery and in 1980 received the Lharampa Geshe degree. He is currently resident scholar at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, where he teaches Buddhist philosophy and practice, mainly to westerners. He has also taught in Japan, Australia, Great Britain, South Korea, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland. He is the author of several books.