The advantages of cherishing others

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Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given in Boise, Idaho.

  • Creating positive actions
  • Generating bodhicitta
  • Our self-centered mind as the enemy

Bodhicitta 12: The benefits of cherishing others (download)

Think about the disadvantages of self-centeredness. Then, the step after that is to contemplate the benefits that come from cherishing others. Just think, “What benefits come from cherishing others?” Well, first of all, if we start thinking along the lines of karma, cherishing others is the source of all positive motivations. Positive motivations are the source of all positive karma and positive karma is the cause of all happiness.

Man helping another young man with a crutch.

If we want to be happy, we need to engage in positive actions and stop engaging in negative ones. (Photo by Harsha K R)

So, if we want to be happy we need to engage in positive actions. Positive actions are either stopping the negative ones or doing the opposite of the negative ones. Both of those are considered positive actions. What is the motivation for creating positive actions? It is the view that cherishes others. When we cherish others, we don’t speak harsh words to them. When we cherish them, we don’t cheat on them in our sexual relationships. When we cherish them, we don’t covet their stuff. We don’t spend a long time building ill will and maliciousness against them.

When we cherish others it is the source of all the positive actions that we do, and of course, we reap the results of our positive actions. In addition, the other people reap the results of our positive actions. Because when we cherish others, we do things that benefit them, and they are happy. Cherishing others is the source for happiness in the world because it creates happiness for them, and it creates happiness for us.

Cherishing others is the source of a peaceful society. It is the source of a peaceful planet. When we cherish others, we stop harming them – we start caring for them. That is the cause of peace. We don’t create peace by dropping bombs, whether it is physical bombs or verbal bombs. The Buddha was very clear, and we can see from our own lives that hatred and hostility don’t cease by creating more hatred and hostility. They only cease by cherishing others. If we care about peace in the world, we cherish others.

The implications of cherishing others

Cherishing others doesn’t mean that we do everything they want. We have to be very clear about that. We can cherish others and still have very clear boundaries. It doesn’t mean that we do everything everybody wants. “Oh, I cherish you, and you are asking me to do a shady business deal, so in order to be kind to you I’ll do the shady business deal with you.” Come on, folks! That is not cherishing others, that’s stupidity.

People talk about boundaries, and having appropriate boundaries. Cherishing others doesn’t mean we just become doormats and do anything anybody suggests. In fact, cherishing them often means doing things that they don’t like, as you know from when you discipline your children. You have to discipline your children. Otherwise, you are going to wind up with monsters instead of children. So, you discipline your kids out of kindness because you cherish them. You want them to be able to function in society, and you know that if you give them everything they want, they are not going to be able to function very well in society. You also know it’s impossible to give them everything they want.

Cherishing others has a very deep implication because it means doing for others what is going to be better for them in the long run. It does not mean satisfying their temporary pleasures. You don’t give somebody who is an alcoholic more alcohol, saying, “I cherish you and I want you to be happy.” That isn’t it, okay? Often, when we cherish people they may, at the beginning, react against us. Kids don’t like to be disciplined. People don’t like to be told, “No,” that they can’t fulfill all their negative habits. But when we do that out of kindness for them, that’s what actually helps them. It is what benefits them. It is the intention, it is the heartfelt thing, to cherish others. It does not mean that we are the do-gooder who is going to win the next popularity contest. It is really coming from the attitude that cares for their long-term benefit.

If we care, if we really cherish others, we are not going to ask them to tell little white lies on our behalf. If we really cherish others, we are not going to ask them to get involved in our disputes and conflicts. If we really cherish others, we are not going to hook them into all of our crazy trips and games. If we really cherish them, we are not going to insist on always being right. This whole thing about being right. Who’s attached to being right? Yes, it can be a big thing for us. “I want to be right, and I want you to know that I’m right! And I am going to keep fighting until you acknowledge that I am right.” It’s not enough that you just backed down. You have to actively acknowledge that I was right the whole time. We push and we push, and create all sorts of bad feelings, don’t we?

One of my students was telling me that she and her partner were having some disputes, so they went to counseling together, and her partner just kept on going, “She does this, and she does that …” The therapist finally looked at him and said, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be close to her?” I think that made him think. Sometimes what we are doing when we insist on being right is that we are pushing the people that we value the most further away from us. Has this happened in your experience? Sometimes we just have to give up planting our flag on the moon. It is really not so important that it is our flag on the moon.

How cherishing others leads to Buddhahood

Cherishing others is the source of this bodhicitta motivation, this aspiration for full enlightenment. Without cherishing others, it is impossible to be a bodhisattva. Without being a bodhisattva, it is impossible to attain full enlightenment, full Buddhahood. You have never heard of a Buddha sitting there saying, “Oh these sentient beings, what a pain in the neck they are. I wish they would leave me alone. They are always praying to me, they want me to do this, they want me to do that, they want help with this, they want help with that, they don’t do anything for themselves, they just pray to me and expect me to do everything!”

Look at it from a Buddha’s viewpoint. It looks like that, doesn’t it? “All these sentient beings, they’re too much! They are just sitting here praying, ‘May I be rich,'” but they won’t have any responsibility for their livelihood. They are praying to be rich, but they won’t be generous and create the karmic cause for wealth. They are sitting here praying to have realizations, but they won’t sit down and do any meditation.”

You can really see how a Buddha would get fed up. It would be totally understandable, wouldn’t it? Buddha could say, “Look, they give me some squash, they give me some flowers, and then they think they can ask anything they want in the world, and I am suppose to come through.”

But we never hear of a Buddha getting fed up, do we? Buddha’s are just infinitely compassionate, infinitely patient. We keep on being demanding little whimpering children, and Buddhas just keep teaching us and just keep showing us the way, just keep repeating the same teachings over and over again because we still haven’t gotten it yet. We’ve never heard of a Buddha who has been self-centered. The basic quality of a Buddha is somebody that cherishes others. When we think about it we really see the importance of cherishing others for our own spiritual practice.

One way to look at it is: in order to become a Buddha, we have to generate bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is that wish, that aspiration for enlightenment in order to benefit each and every sentient being. That means that our own enlightenment is dependent upon each and every sentient being. When we look at it that way we see how important each and every sentient being is because without that sentient being, we wouldn’t be able to cherish them, we wouldn’t be able to generate bodhicitta, and we wouldn’t be able to fulfill our own spiritual aspirations by becoming Buddhas.

When you see that gnat, when you see beetles on the ground—I was going to say, when you see a dog with mange, but you don’t see that here very often. In India, you see so many dogs with mange. Skinny, mangy dogs. It’s horrible! When you see any kind of being who makes you cringe, whether it is a government official or a non-governmental official.

Whether it is your boss, or your ex, or whoever it is, your neighbor who dumps their garbage in your yard, switch your thought and realize, “I am dependent upon that being to attain enlightenment. I cannot attain enlightenment without that being. In my own spiritual practice, fulfilling my own spiritual aspirations is dependent upon that grasshopper. I cannot leave that grasshopper out of my compassion, out of my cherishing of others. I cannot leave Osama Bin Laden out of my cherishing of others. I am dependent on each and every person.” If you think like this, it really helps to start changing the mind, and to see the value and the importance of cherishing others. We see that it is important for our long-range spiritual benefit, and we see that it is also good for our short-term relationships with other people. If you cherish the people you work with, you are going to get along with them, aren’t you? If you cherish them, you will like going to work and they will like having you at work. If you really cherish your family members and don’t take them for granted, you are going to have a happy family life. If we cherish the other people in society, all the strangers we interact with every day, and really want them to be happy, then we will get along with them.

The importance of knowing the benefits of cherishing others

It is important in our practice to really think again and again and again of the benefits of cherishing others. Because, you see, when we understand well the benefits of doing something, it becomes easy to do it. When we understand well the disadvantages of something, it becomes easy not to do it. That’s why this whole thing of talking about the benefits of cherishing others and the disadvantages of self-centeredness is important to really think about, because if we do, it becomes easy to carry out. If we don’t think about it in our practice and we don’t meditate on it, then that’s what causes this dissonance between what we think and how we act.

That is what causes this feeling of guilt and malaise, that my practice isn’t going well. Have you had that feeling sometimes? We know all these teachings about the disadvantages of self-centeredness, advantages of cherishing others, and then we look at our own behavior, and what do we do? We cherish our friends and we harm our enemies. Just like dogs. Just like animals. That is what cats and dogs, and ants, and tigers, and lions, and elephants do. They help their friends and harm their enemies. We think, ‘Well, that’s what I do. And here I am a Buddhist practitioner, and I am not gaining any progress on my practice, because look how selfish I am.” It’s all intellectual. Then we start feeling guilty because we are such bad practitioners. Have you gotten into that? It’s completely self-defeating.

One of the reasons we get into that whole thing is because we don’t bring our understanding of what is up here in our head down here into our heart. The way to bring them from here to there is by meditating. That is why we think about these things again and again and again, and then when something inside transforms, it becomes easy not to be self-centered and easy to cherish others. Right now, sometimes it is hard to cherish others, isn’t it? It can be hard. But when we really think of the benefits of doing it, it becomes easy.

We were talking earlier about having a precious human life, and the benefit that is afforded to us through having a precious human life, and how it’s important to have a precious human life. A precious human life, by-the-way, is not any human life, but it is one in which we have the possibility to practice the Dharma. How is it that we are going to get a precious human life next time around, instead of winding up in the hell realms, or as a hungry ghost, or as a gopher? How are we going to get a precious human life? It’s through practice.

The things we need to practice all depend on cherishing others. For example, the cause of a human life (not a precious human life, but just being born human) is keeping precepts, keeping ethical discipline, intentionally abandoning the ten negative actions. In order to do that, we have to cherish others, don’t’ we? To abandon the ten negative actions, we have to respect and cherish others and not want to harm them through our negative actions. In order to obtain just a human life in the next lifetime, we need ethical discipline. To do ethical discipline, we need to cherish others. Cherishing others becomes the cause of a good rebirth.

Having a precious human life next time isn’t enough. If you have a precious human life in the middle of a slum in India, it is very difficult to practice. We need to have a precious human life where we have enough material wherewithal to be able to practice. We need a certain amount of wealth. We don’t need extreme wealth, we just need our life’s requisites taken care of. What is the cause of having enough wealth to live and to practice? Generosity is the cause of wealth.

What is the cause of generosity? Cherishing others. When we cherish others then we are generous, when we are generous we create the cause for wealth, when we are wealthy, and I am not talking about large wealth, but when we have what we need, when our needs are met, than it becomes very easy to practice the Dharma. You see, it’s an essential ingredient to our practice.

Another thing that’s important if we want to benefit others is to have a pleasant countenance. I am not talking necessarily about physical beauty, but just having good energy around us, just having a pleasant countenance. That comes from practicing patience. From learning to be tolerant. Why is having a pleasant countenance important for practicing the Dharma? Well, if we want to benefit others, if we want to practice, if we are always going around making frowning faces and having this horrible, unpleasant, miserable countenance, it is going to be very difficult. Nobody is going to want to be around us. How are we going to practice? We come in to the Dharma group and everybody is going to think, “Ugh, that person!” So, practicing patience is important to having a pleasant countenance. How do we practice patience? By cherishing others.

Do you see how all of these things are completely interrelated and intertwined? If we want to develop spiritual realizations we need to be able to do some retreat and serious meditation. Doing that depends on the kindness of others. The kindness of people who benefact us when we do that. Receiving benefactors comes from cherishing others in previous lives. Cherishing others creates the cause for us to have the benefactors so we can do retreats so we can have the realizations. All these things are so interrelated. What I’m getting at is it’s not just our present life happiness, but our ability in future lives to practice, and our ability to create the causes for full enlightenment. All of this depends upon the heart that cherishes others.

Abandoning the selfish mind

What we need to abandon here is this mind that says, “Oh, if I don’t take care of myself, nobody is going to take care of me. And if I take care of others, I am going to neglect myself and I am going to be unhappy.” Do you know that mind? Do you have that little mind whispering back here sometimes? “Follow me. Take care of yourself and you will be happy.” So we go, “Yes, I am going to take care of myself. This is mine. That’s not yours, give it to me.” We think that’s what it means to take care of our self. That’s being self-centered, that is not taking care of our self. If we were really taking care of our self we would create good karma, and we would be generous and we would give something to other people.

The selfish little mind is so overwhelmed with the fear that if I take care of others, nobody is going to take care of me. That mind is really our enemy, because it’s very clear that if we take care of others, they’re going to take care of us. I think there is something here that is quite important to be learned. I mean, you can see karma at work just in our own lives.

Those of you who are parents, you look at your kids and you want your kids to help you when you are old. When you are old, you know you are going to need some help, and you want your kids to be able to help you. You have to look at what kind of example you are setting for your kids about how to relate to parents. You set that by how you relate to your parents. If you relate to your parents with kindness, and you are generous to your parents and you help them with errands and things like that, by your example you are teaching your kids that that’s how kids relate to parents.

If, as a parent, you complain about your own parents, “Oh, my mom is such a pain in the neck. She wants me to do this and that. Dad is always doing this and that. They are so hard to take care of. I just want to put them in an old folk’s home so I won’t have to worry about it anymore.” If you are thinking and talking like that, your kids are learning from you about how to treat you when you’re old and when they’re adults. It’s very obvious, isn’t it? So, this whole thing about, “If I just take care of myself, I’ll be happy,” we see that it is a dead-end road. If, as a parent, you are saying, “I’m just too busy, I can’t bother with my parents,” that is a self-centered attitude. You are going to wind up having kids who think the same way about you. That is what you modeled. That is what you taught them is normal.

That mind that says, “I’d better take care of me because nobody else will,” that mind is a liar. We have already done the meditation about the kindness of sentient beings, haven’t we? We know very well that other sentient beings take care of us. They may not take care of us as much as our ego wants them to. They may not do everything we want, but up until now they have taken care of us in one way or another. This mind that’s always saying, “I’d better take care of myself and forget about others,” now backfires.

Again, this does not mean that we become the self-sacrificing martyr. “Oh, I love you so much I am going to give this up for you because I care about you.” Sometimes as parents you do that for your kids, don’t you? Do you ever have that attitude, as parents, towards your kids? When you get on this big thing, “I’m sacrificing for you, look what I’ve given up for you.” That is just more self-centeredness, isn’t it? Let’s not get into that when taking care of others. Also, because we are beginning level practitioners, we need to take care of others in a way that feels comfortable to us. We need to stretch ourselves a little bit, but we don’t need to pull the rubber band so tight that it breaks. We need to stretch it a little bit.

We help others as we are able. When we see that we are resistant, we nudge ourselves a little bit to push that boundary out and enable us to be more cherishing of others. We don’t push it so much that our ego is going to mount a campaign of self-centeredness back against us. We have to deal very carefully here, because sometimes when we listen to the Dharma we get what I call Mickey Mouse compassion. “Oh yes, I am going to give everything away. I cherish others, so I am going to give everything away.” And then your neighbor gets mad at you because you no longer have garbage cans because you gave them away to somebody who needed them, so your garbage is all over your front lawn. We have to cherish others in a wise manner. We have to do it in a way that feels comfortable, like I said, nudging our boundaries a little bit. And we are all going to have really different boundaries because what is easy for one person to do is hard for another person to do. We have to be familiar with ourselves; what’s easy and what’s difficult, and nudge ourselves a little bit.

Well, I was actually going to finish this whole thing this session, but I didn’t, so let’s have some questions and answers.

Questions and answers

Audience: How do you separate your self from your self-centeredness?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): By realizing that they are two different things. Our confused mind sometimes thinks that we are oneness, union-oneness, with our self-centeredness, that if it’s me it’s selfishness, and if it’s selfishness it’s me. From a Buddhist viewpoint, that is not so. Our mind has the nature of clear light. Our mind is clarity and awareness. Our mind is empty of inherent existence. There is no inherent defilement in the nature of the mind. The conventional or the ultimate nature of the mind is not inherently defiled. Self-centeredness is something that is tacked on. It is tacked on and it’s insidious.

It’s like a virus. This is a good example. When you get a computer, the computer is free of viruses, right? It gets a virus and the virus wiggles its way into your computer system, creating havoc. Is the virus oneness-union with your computer? No. It is separate from your computer. You can get rid of the virus without getting rid of the computer. It’s the same thing; our self-centeredness is something that has wiggled into our mind. It planted itself very firmly, started growing roots, and is like a weed that is taking over the garden. But a weed is not an inherent part of the garden. You can pull the weed out. It’s the same thing, recognizing that self-centeredness is just a thought. It is just a thought. It’s not our identity. It’s not who we are.

Audience: When we separate self-centeredness from our self, can we treat the self-centeredness with compassion instead of thinking of it as an enemy?

VTC: There are different ways. There’s one way of being compassionate with self-centeredness that we should not be compassionate about: “Oh poor self-centeredness, you are not getting what you want. Come back into my mind and I’ll get you what you want.” We should not be compassionate to self-centeredness that way. But we can look at the self-centered thought and say that it is a self-defeating mind, and have some compassion. Actually, what we are having compassion for is our self. Let’s have compassion for our self when we fall under the prey of self-centeredness.

“Oh, look at me, here I am trying to create the cause of happiness, but what do I do? I get side-tracked by the self-centeredness.” Have some compassion for ourselves. This way of treating the self-centeredness with compassion – we have to be careful because is it really the self-centeredness we want to be compassionate towards, or really our self we want to be compassionate towards?

I understand your concern. Your concern is that you don’t want to have a civil war inside. “Oh self-centeredness, you are my enemy!” and feel like you are battling with part of yourself. Is that it? If that is it, then we have not completely succeeded in realizing that self-centeredness is not who we are. If there is that civil war inside, one part of our mind is still feeling if I don’t help me and take care of me, who is going to do it? I have got to hold onto my self-centeredness. If we are having that civil war, we really have not seen it fully as our enemy.

We want to have compassion for ourselves because we fall under the prey of self-centeredness. We don’t want to beat up on ourselves because we mess up, are selfish, and we blow it sometimes. We don’t want to hate ourselves for that. We want to put that onto the self-centeredness. We want to be compassionate to ourselves. How do we be compassionate to ourselves? By freeing ourselves from the self-preoccupation. We don’t want to be compassionate to the self-preoccupation and say, “Oh, poor self-preoccupation, nobody has paid attention to you for so long. Come back, and let’s be preoccupied again.” We don’t want to do that.

Audience: In your daily life when you start beating up on yourself, what do you do?

VTC: You look at that mind, and you say, “Be quiet.” You press that pause button. You say, “I’ve been down that road. I’ve thought like that before.” It’s not like we haven’t thought like that. It isn’t like this is a new creative thought process. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We know where it goes to beat-up on ourselves. We know it’s completely stupid, completely unrealistic, and unproductive. We know that because we have spent some time in our meditation thinking about it and developing conviction that it is. If we haven’t spent that time in meditation clearly seeing it, then it becomes hard to press the pause button because one part of our mind is saying, “But really, I am so bad.”

When we have really spent time meditating on the clear light nature of mind, contemplating emptiness, recognizing that our self-centeredness is not inherently union-oneness with us, when we have really spent that time doing that, then that doubt doesn’t creep in. It’s easier to press the pause button and just cut-out that way of thinking, because we recognize from our own experience that it has absolutely no benefit. It’s like when you have kids. As parents, you know your kids really well. When your kid is starting to get riled up, you know the warning signals. If you don’t cut it now, fifteen minutes down the line they are going to be in a full-blown temper tantrum. As parents you know that, don’t you? You know what the small signals are with your kid. So what do you do when you get that small signal from your kid? You do something about it right then and there. You distract them, you tell them to cut out that behavior, or cut out that way of thinking. You do something to stop it. It is the same when we start beating up on ourselves in our daily life, we tell ourselves, “Cut it out,” in the same way that you tell your child to “Cut it out.”

We can see here the reason why in Buddhism sometimes we have these wrathful fierce-looking deities, because this is exactly what they are fierce and wrathful against. They are saying to us, “Cut it out. Don’t go there, it doesn’t get you anywhere.” Sometimes we have to treat our mind like it is three years old.

Audience: Some people can be very demanding and it becomes very unhealthy. How do you make the distinction between what is healthy to do for others and what’s unhealthy to do for others?

VTC: I think part of it is to examine what you are capable of. Also, to examine what’s most beneficial for the other person in the long run, and to do some contemplation about this. If we were already Buddhas maybe we could do everything for this person, but we are not already Buddhas. Even if you are a Buddha, you still have other responsibilities, other things you have to do in your life. Sometimes what you have to say to somebody is, “I can help you with this. I can’t do that errand for you, but I can give you some information about maybe how you could get it done.” Again, helping others does not mean that you do everything that they want you to do. Sometimes you give them the information on how to do it for themselves, or you connect them with somebody else who can help them. Or you help them work with their mind so they realize that they don’t really need it that badly.

Okay, let’s sit and do some meditation on this now. If you need to wiggle, wiggle. We have talked about some things in these last couple of hours. I think maybe that there is something here that applies to your life. Let’s spend some time doing checking meditation and contemplating this.

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