Exchanging self and 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.

  • Disadvantages of self-centeredness
  • Benefits of cherishing others
  • Compassion as the cause of happiness

Bodhicitta 13: Exchanging self and others (download)

We’ve been talking about the two principal ways to generate bodhicitta, the enlightened aspiration: One was the Seven-Point Instruction of Cause and Effect, and the second one was Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others. We’re doing the second one now. Last time, when we talked about this second way, Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others, we began with the equanimity meditation; that was the other technique. Then, we equalized self and others. We acknowledged that everybody wants happiness nobody wants suffering and we’re all totally equal in that respect, so there’s no reason to favor ourselves and forget about others. We thought about the disadvantages of the self-centered attitude that’s always thinking, “Me, me, me, me, I want, I need, I have to have, I must, I, I, I,” and the benefits of cherishing others. That’s what we did last time.

Self-centeredness: the cause of all our suffering

I just returned from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in New York, and one of the texts that he was teaching was The Seven Point Thought Transformation. In the second point of that text, two of the lines are: “Banish the object of all blame into one;” and the second line was “Remember the great kindness of all.” “Banish the object of all blame into one” is to see that all our suffering and happiness comes from the self-centered thought. Remembering the great kindness of all is to open our hearts and be aware that we have been the recipient of a tremendous amount of kindness from friends, strangers, people we don’t like, everybody. The first thing His Holiness covered in that talk, those two lines, he said, “Well, that sums up the whole thought training teaching so we’ll end here,” because it was at the end of the day. The next day he came back to those two lines and he started explaining them, and as he did so, he started to cry and the whole auditorium was hushed because his Holiness was feeling so much how true those two lines were. It’s quite remarkable to see your teacher cry, somebody like His Holiness. It really emphasized the importance of those two things: remembering that the self-centeredness is the cause of all our own and others’ suffering; and remembering the great kindness of all beings and therefore cherishing them, wanting to work for their benefit.

The step after that is where we actually exchange self and others. At this point we are so convinced theoretically that self-centeredness is the cause of all suffering, and I say theoretically, because we might say that’s all up here but we don’t really live as if self-preoccupation is the cause of suffering, do we? When you look at your life, do you make decisions and choose what to do based on the thought that self-centeredness is the cause of suffering? No, we don’t. I mean, let’s be honest about it, okay? Yes, and do we base decisions on the thought that’s really cherishing others? Remember cherishing others is different than feeling guilty about being selfish and taking care of others because we feel obliged or because we want to get brownie points, to win their favor, or make them feel indebted to us or something like that. It’s different, those things are different. Of course, the intellectual understanding comes first. Then it’s only by repeated introspection and meditation that we bring the understanding from here into our heart.

I think it’s important that we are very honest about where we are, because if we’re not, we get what I call “Mickey Mouse bodhisattva,” you know, like “Oh, yes, I cherish all beings more than myself and I really care about them.” If we really think we’re doing that what happens is we get manipulative, and then we start getting angry at all those uncooperative sentient beings who don’t realize how we’re working for their benefit. I think it’s good to just be honest about where we are at, and through that honesty we can start to transform the way our mind functions.

Exchanging self and others

Person in meditation.

Previously the one we cherished most was “me.” We exchange that and now the one we cherish most is going to be the other. (Photo by Hartwig HKD)

So, based on some sort of understanding of the disadvantages of self-centeredness and the benefits of cherishing others, we then did a practice called Exchanging Self and Others; though exchanging self and others doesn’t mean I become you and you become me. Okay, it doesn’t mean that my bank account becomes yours and your bank account becomes mine, and that your house becomes mine and that my house becomes yours, because then you’d be living on the street. Exchanging self and others doesn’t mean that we take each other’s stuff. What it means is that previously the one we cherished the most was this one “me,” so we’re exchanging that and now the one we cherish most is going to be others. Previously we used to look at others and go, “Yes, we’re okay but they’re next best, first is me.” Now, when we exchange self and others we look at our own happiness and we say, “Oh, yeah that’s nice, but it’s second best, first is others.” We’re exchanging who it is that we focus on and care the most about. This doesn’t mean that we negate ourselves. It does not mean we become martyrs because of all of those things. If we negate ourselves and don’t take care of ourselves we become a big burden for other people. That’s not very compassionate. And if we become martyrs, there is tons of ego involved in martyrdom. Giving one’s life with a real altruistic intention is very different than becoming a martyr, especially with the present connotation of martyrdom. So, it simply means that we’re opening the scope of who we consider important and really cherishing others.

His Holiness had us do this very little nice exercise because the ego is very resistant of exchanging self and others, you know. “What do you mean care about others the way I care about myself, no way!” he said. Especially for those of us from democratic countries who believe in majority rule. If you think how many there are of me, there’s one person who’s me. How many others? Countless. So, if we’re going to have a vote over whose happiness is more important, one person, “me,” or countless minus one, it is the others who are the democratically elected recipients of who we cherish the most. It’s very clear. If you look at it that way it really makes some sense. I’m only one person and there are all these countless other beings out there. It actually does make more sense to really cherish them and be aware of their happiness and suffering. Of course our mind puts up a big battle for doing this. We don’t like that and we come up with all sorts of doubts about the practice.

Overcoming our doubts

Shantideva in chapter eight of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way [of Life} teaches this practice and he voices, in the verses that he writes, the various doubts that our self-centered mind makes up about why it is impossible to exchange self and others. I just want to abbreviate these a little bit for you. Take your self-centered mind and imagine it as an external person. Give it a face. You need to think of it in whatever form you like: a person, a monster, a blob. Imagine that our self-centered mind is saying “Others suffering doesn’t affect me so why should I work to dispel it.” It feels good, doesn’t it? I mean, other people’s suffering doesn’t affect me, what should I care? They should pick themselves up by their own boot straps. I read Ayn Rand and I firmly believe that. You just work for yourself and that way the world turns out better. So, why should we work to dispel others’ suffering? Well, one reason is that we’re interrelated and that others’ suffering affects us, and I think this is why His Holiness says that if you want to be selfish, be wisely selfish and care for others. Because if we only work for ourselves and forget about others, we’re going to be living in a society with a lot of other unhappy people, and what do people do when they are unhappy? They crash jetliners into the World Trade Center, they break into our homes, they do whatever it is, they write graffiti on the walls. I remember years ago living in Seattle and there was a bill up for property taxes that would go to the schools, and people without children didn’t want to pay more property taxes to have more schools and increase the after-school recreational activities and educational things. And these people were just thinking me and my money, and the people who have kids they should pay for this but when kids don’t have education and they don’t have recreational activities, what do they do? They get into mischief. Whose houses are they going to break into? The houses of the people who didn’t vote for the bond to give more money to the schools. So, it becomes totally self-defeating when we only work for ourselves. Why do we want to put more money into building prisons but we don’t want to put money into prevention? We have to think about this as a society if our approach is correct to really creating happiness for ourselves and others. Our interdependence is one reason why we should take care of others and we should work to dispel others’ suffering.

Another reason is that the difference between self and others is something that exists by being merely labeled. Remember, we did these things before on the basis of these aggregates, this body and mind here on this cushion. We say “I” or I say “I.” And on the basis of that body and mind on another cushion I say “other.” But of course, each person in this room thinks of their own aggregates and says “I,” and looks to me and everybody else and says “other.” So, who’s the inherently existent “I” and who’s the inherently existing “other?” There isn’t any, because it depends completely on what you happen to be labeling. It’s like the example of this side of the mountain and that side of the mountain. That side of the valley and the other side of the valley depend upon where you are. We’ve just become very familiar with labeling “I” in dependence upon these aggregates but we could become equally as familiar by labeling “I” on the basis of other people’s aggregates. So when we see somebody else experiencing physical and mental suffering, just start to think “I’m unhappy” or “I’m in pain” because from the viewpoint of the person who’s experiencing it, s/he is saying, “I’m unhappy” or “I’m in pain.” If we familiarize ourselves with a new way of labeling and get very familiar with it, we can actually train our mind to care as much about others as we now care about ourselves. Those of you who have kids know that when your child is unhappy, when your child is sick, you wish you could exchange their suffering with your happiness, it just comes naturally. It’s because you’re labeling “I” on the other aggregates and cherishing them, the aggregates of the child. So, it’s possible to so closely identify with others in this way that we can really cherish them without having some kind of ulterior motivation, without painting on something, or having mental gymnastics, or doing manipulation, but genuinely, honestly, cherishing others.

So, let’s go back to the question of why should I dispel their suffering if it doesn’t harm me? Well, it’s only because we cherish this body that we can’t bear to see it harmed, and that cherishing that we have for our own body exists under the influence of ignorance which is the grasping at an inherently existing “I” and an inherently existing body. That grasping is the source of cyclic existence, so when we fall prey to it and are so attached to our body in that way, we’re just creating more and more suffering for ourselves because we’re acting out of that misconception that thinks there is a real “I,” there is a real solid body. When we look at it that way we see that, yes, it does make sense to care about others’ suffering even though it doesn’t directly affect us.

In Shantideva’s dialogue, the mind makes up another reason, it’s more petulant. Our ego is this petulant thing that says, “But others suffering doesn’t harm me! Why should I care about them?” We’ve probably said this. If you watch a three year old, it comes out of their mouth. We’re more sophisticated and pretend we don’t think like this. Well, if that’s true that others’ suffering doesn’t harm me then why do we work for the happiness of the old person that we’re going to become because the old person we’re going to become isn’t us? You’re getting what I mean? We’re just saying, “I want to be happy, why should I care about anything else other than me?” Well, the old person that we’re going to become isn’t the “me” who we are right now, it’s somebody else. Isn’t it? Is it you or is somebody else? Yes, are you feeling the suffering you’d feel when you’re an 80 year old right now?

Audience: No, but still I’m going to be me.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): But you don’t even know that you’re going to live that long?

Audience: I know that.

VTC: You know. So, you don’t even know that 80 year old is going to come into being. You don’t even know if the you at 80 years old is going to exist. But you work very hard for his happiness, don’t you? You save money, you plan your retirement, you make sure you have health insurance. That person that’s 60 or 80, or whatever you want to be, may not ever actually exist. But we cherish him or her very much and work very hard for his or her happiness but you know, maybe they don’t even exist, but that makes sense to us, doesn’t it? To work so hard for that person in the future who may never even exist? So, that person in the future that’s not us, that’s not us. If you got up and looked in the mirror and saw yourself, saw this 80-year-old person, would you say “that’s me?” No way, you’d say “That’s not me?” Wouldn’t you? If you went and looked in the mirror, and there’s a mirror right now. We’ve all stood up and looked in the mirror and you had this old wrinkled face with white hair or absence of hair, drooped-over body or whatever, would you say that’s me? No.

Audience: Who else would it be?

VTC: You’re not 80 yet, Erik. You still have a ways to go. How old are you Henry?

Henry: Sixty-eight.

VTC: You have a ways to go then too. So, if we saw that 80-year-old person, we wouldn’t say, “That’s me? That’s somebody else,” and yet we cherish that person, we work very hard for his or her welfare, but that’s not us. Similarly, when our foot steps on a thorn the hand reaches down and picks the thorn out of the foot instinctively. Doesn’t it? The hand doesn’t go through this thing that if, you know, “I’m a hand, that’s a foot, why should I help the foot? Stupid foot, why weren’t you looking at where you were walking.” The hand doesn’t go through all this blaming and guilt trip, “Dumb foot, again, you stepped on something and I have to bandage you up. Look at how kind I am to you taking care of you, you stupid incapable foot yet again, so you better remember how kind I the great glorious hand, am.” The hand doesn’t go through that kind of trip. The hand just pulls the thorn out. But they are “other” aren’t they? The foot and the hand, they are “other.” They aren’t the same thing yet, one helps the other. Why? Because we conceive of them as being part of the same organism, our mind puts the hand and the foot together and makes it part of the same organism. In the same way if we stopped focusing so much on the individual “I” and thought more of the collective, that we are one group of sentient life, then helping another part of that identity becomes like helping our self, in the same way the hand helps the foot and doesn’t think twice about it.

Is this really “my body?”

Now if the mind says but, “It’s still my body and I have to take care of my body,” well, what’s mine about the body? If you cut it open do you find a big “me?” If you laid out all your organs, a couple of kidneys and an intestine, and a big and small intestine, the eye balls, and some spleen, you know, you laid them all out. Would you look at that and say, “That’s mine, that’s me?” You’d say “yuck,” wouldn’t you? So, what’s mine about this body? And if we look at the fact that, genetically, half of the genes came from our mother and half of the genes came from our father, then it’s actually our parent’s body isn’t’ it, it’s not our body? What are we doing labeling “I” and “mine” on this body? We should be labeling “Mom’s and Dad’s body” because it came from them, didn’t it? The genes are theirs. Or maybe we should label it the farmer’s body because all the broccoli and tofu and everything else we ate came from the farmers. If you eat meat you should call it the cow’s body because your body is a transformation of the cow’s body or the chicken’s body or the fish’s body. So, how can we label it my body? There’s nothing “my” about this thing. It all came from other people and yet we see by the power of just familiarization and the power of self-grasping, our idea of this being “my” body becomes so strong. It becomes harder than a diamond doesn’t it? Yet, that’s something completely invented by our mind because there’s nothing “my,” “mine,” about this body. This body actually belongs to others. But, it’s still mine? Well, you know really it’s not, there’s nothing about it that’s ours.

It’s like thinking that money belongs to me. Were you born with any money? Did you come out of your mother’s womb with a fist full of dollars, you know? We didn’t, we came out of our mother’s womb totally broke. Any money we have now is because other people gave it to us. Don’t we? So, the money actually belongs to other people. It’s not my money. Everything we have, your clothes, your house, your car, anything you have, you have because somebody else gave it to you. You didn’t come out of the womb with all these things. So, in the same way, yet with all these things we label them “mine.” So, the same with our body, we only have it because other people gave it to us. The farmers gave us the food to eat, mom gave half the genes, dad gave the other half of the genes, so why are we making such a big deal about this is “mine” and making it so solid and holding on to it as my identity? It doesn’t make much sense.

When you think about this you can get this feeling that it becomes a little bit easier to make the exchange of self with others because there is no real me here to start with. So, this is why this technique of Equalizing and Exchanging Self with Others is said to be for the bodhisattva, for somebody of higher faculties. The Seven-Point Instruction of Cause and Effect is for somebody of more modest faculties because exchanging self and others is getting us into a whole understanding about emptiness, isn’t it? And how the body, the mind, the “I,” the “mine” are all empty, so that’s why it is for those of higher faculties. So, when we dispel this difference between “I” and “others,” by realizing that they aren’t inherently existent, we come to see that suffering is suffering no matter who’s it is and is something to be dispelled no matter who’s it is, and happiness is happiness no matter who’s it is and is something to be worked for. So on the basis of that, changing who we care about the most, “I” and “others,” becomes much easier to do.

Why should I take on more suffering?

Now, the mind keeps making up more excuses about why we can’t exchange self and others and it says, “Look it’s just too much of a burden to cherish others like I cherish myself. Why should I take on more suffering than I already have?” Makes sense doesn’t it? I mean, I’m already overwhelmed by suffering, don’t give me more!” Well, why, why should we do it? Because caring only about our own suffering creates the cause of more suffering and generating compassion and caring about others creates the cause of happiness. So, actually when we care about others’ suffering we’re creating the cause for happiness and not the cause of suffering. Then, somebody is going to say, “But when my child or my dog or my friend is sick and I see them suffering, or if I watch TV and I see what’s happening in Afghanistan and I see somebody suffering, that causes me pain, so why should I care about others’ suffering? Caring about it, just seeing it causes me pain so why shouldn’t I just block it out, not care, not look at others’ suffering, not caring about others’ suffering because it just creates more pain in my own heart?” The answer to this at this point is that we’ve misunderstood a little bit about compassion and we’ve gone from compassion to a sense of personal distress. I remember being at one of the conferences of His Holiness with the western scientists and one of the psychologists was explaining about this because compassion is focused on the other, personal distress is focused on our self. So if I see you suffering and I get unhappy because I can’t bear to see you suffering, what’s my mind focused more on, you or me? Me. So, we’ve fallen into personal distress at that point. If we stay focused on the other, it means that we can still have empathy but we don’t let ourselves get bummed out by the suffering of the world. Why? Because we see that suffering only exists because the cause of suffering exists and that isn’t a given, that suffering can be eliminated. So a bodhisattva, even when they see others suffering, which can be distressing to see, doesn’t go into personal distress because they see that the suffering can be stopped. It may not be able to be stopped today or tomorrow or even this life time, but a bodhisattva knows that suffering isn’t pre-programmed and a done deal that’s going to exist forever.

When we look in these kinds of ways, it’s good to let these doubts surface in our mind and I think that’s really Shantideva’s skill when he wrote that section of the book. You know, letting all the doubt surface in our mind about, “Why should I care about others?” and, “Why should I exchange myself and others? What kind of stupid ridiculous thing is this?” Let those doubts surface and then use our analytical wisdom to investigate the doubts and see if they have some kind of reasoning behind them or if they’re basically self-centered constructions or conniving of our own mind that doesn’t want to really own up. This meditation of Exchanging Self and Others is very nice and it can bring up a lot of stuff but, like I said, that’s good because then we really can look very, very deeply and understand how our mind works and bring to the surface a lot of preconceptions that we have and didn’t even recognize that we had. And that’s good because that’s when we start investigating them.

The next step in the meditation after we’ve exchanged self with others is to meditate on taking and giving.

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