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Equalizing self and others

Equalizing self and others

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.

Bodhicitta 10: Equalizing self and others (download)

Now the second method of generating bodhicitta is called Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others. We’re going to start on that one today. Previously we’ve gone through the Seven-Point Cause and Effect to generate bodhicitta. Now we’re going to come back and look at the second method for doing this. This second method is said to be for beings that are very intelligent or they are beings with high faculties. Actually, intelligence isn’t quite the word because it has nothing to do with your I.Q.; it has more to do with your receptivity to the Dharma. Your ability to understand the Dharma doesn’t necessarily have to do with your I.Q. because lots of people have high I.Q’s and are very dumb when it comes to Dharma. Other people are illiterate, but they are fully enlightened Buddhas. So don’t think it has to do with academic things.

Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others—let’s look at the equalizing part. Keep this a little bit different from the equanimity. Remember we discussed equanimity before as a preliminary to both methods for generating bodhicitta. The equanimity was more based on equalizing our feelings towards friends, enemies and strangers, in other words, smoothing out the attachment, the hostility, and the apathy. Equalizing Self and Others—it’s a little bit different because, although it is based on equanimity, in this equanimity we are trying to equalize, or see as equal, self and others rather than equalizing friend, enemy and stranger. With the equanimity of the Seven-Point Cause and Effect method we can get friend, enemy and stranger equal but still feel we’re more important than all three of them. So here in self and others we are equalizing those too.

Young woman meditating.

Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others challenges the ego and the innate sense of self. (Photo by Brett Davies)

We’re going to be hitting some really sensitive points. This is a forewarning because this is going to challenge our very deeply ingrained automatic major reaction to look out for our own benefit before anybody else’s. Not only have we been conditioned in this through our society and our culture, but it’s innate. We’ve been born with it because we have this very strong feeling of “me,” this solid me. Of course, once you have a solid real me that’s the center of the universe, then, “My happiness is more important than others,” and, “My suffering hurts more than others.” We automatically feel that way. Equalizing self and others is going to challenge that—so get ready. (Laughter).

There’s a very nice meditation by my root teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, who was the first one who taught me this. It has nine points that we go through doing the equalizing meditation. The first three points are actually on the conventional level, looking at it from the viewpoint of others. The second three points are also on the conventional level, now looking at it from our own viewpoint. The third three points are on the ultimate level.

Let’s go back and fill in this outline.

Conventional level

First point

The first three points are on the conventional level, how we are in conventional society with all the phenomena, but looking at equalizing self and others through the viewpoint that primarily focuses on others. The first point is that everybody wants happiness and to be free from suffering equally. We all know this in our head; we don’t know it in our heart. We must train our minds whenever we see others to think, “That person wants to be happy and free of suffering as much as I do.” Every time we see somebody think that. It will help you to first get in touch with how deeply you want to be happy and be free of suffering. That’s our main concern isn’t it? From the time we wake up in the morning to the time we go to bed and in our dreams, we always want to be happy and be free of suffering. Get in touch with how deep that is within us and then every time we look at another being think, “That’s the exact same way the other being feels.”

This is an excellent thing to do when you’re in a traffic jam. Think this when you look at other people in cars or if you’re waiting in line, or when you’re standing in an airport waiting to get on your flight. Look at all the people around you and train your mind to think, “They want to be happy as much as I do, they want to be free of suffering as much as I do.” When you watch the six o’clock news and you’re watching the troops, think that about them without taking sides. Think about how everybody is trapped in their karma. I heard dear John Ashcroft is coming to town, think about that for him. He’s just trying to be happy and avoid suffering. I know this may be stretching it a little bit but we have to do it, we have to think this way. Or, if your issue is with Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, think about it in terms of them; they’re just trying to be happy and avoid suffering.

Again, this doesn’t mean that because people want that, that everything they do is right, because people can be very ignorant about ways to bring about happiness and avoid suffering. Just as we see in ourselves that we’re often self-defeating too, aren’t we? We want to be happy and avoid suffering and what do we do? The exact opposite of what’s going to get us happiness and avoid suffering. So, we have some patience with and tolerance for ourselves, and then we’ve got to have patience with and tolerance for others and for their ignorance, too. But when you watch the news, instead of getting all bent out of shape, “Oh, this world is so awful and full of despair and catastrophe and terrorism,” just step back and realize that this is a lamrim meditation about equalizing self and others and developing patience and tolerance and real compassion for them. Everybody wants happiness and to be free of suffering equally. There’s no difference between me and them, no difference.

Second point

The second point is also in terms of others: to avoid having preference over whose happiness is more worthwhile. For example, if you go to the downtown area and you see ten homeless people, they all want to be happy equally, don’t they? Is there any reason to favor the happiness of one over the happiness of another? No, they all want to be happy equally. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an equal capacity to give to all of them. We’re just looking at them right now. They all equally want to be happy. It wouldn’t take much for us to be a homeless person. I’ve been one for 26 years. (Venerable’s laughter) The meaning of being a monastic is that you’ve gone forth from the home life. However, I don’t sit on the streets downtown and beg, I have other ways. (Laughter). The name for a fully ordained nun is gelongma. The literal translation of ge is virtue and long is to go for alms, like to beg, and ma is indicative of a woman. So, it’s somebody who is intent on virtue but lives on alms. I mean, that is the name of our ordination. It’s due to your kindness that I’m not downtown asking for food, but in here asking for food. (Laughter).

Back to the topic. In a way we all are beggars aren’t we? We are all begging for happiness. We’re all equally wanting happiness, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a street person or not. We all equally want happiness. Just as we wouldn’t favor one street person over another in terms of wanting them to be happy, why favor our self over all other sentient beings wanting ourselves to be happy first and others later? It doesn’t make much sense. Because one street person may want Granola bars and another one may want a hamburger, and another one may want vitamins, so they may have different things that they want but they are all equal. Similarly with self and others, we may have different things we want but we’re all equal in wanting and needing things.

Third point

The third point also uses an example. Here the example is people who are sick. If you go into a hospital where all these people are sick, is there any reason to wish one to be free of suffering more than to wish the others to be free of suffering? No. One suffers from kidney disease, one suffers from a collapsed lung, one suffers from diabetes, so they have different ailments but they are all equal in wanting to be cured and be free of their suffering. Similarly, self and others are equal and wanting to be free of our suffering of samsara. The beggar is like an example of people who all want something but even though they may want different things they are equally wanting, there’s no reason for preference. Similarly with self and others, we all want happiness and not only temporal happiness but the happiness of liberation and enlightenment, and we’re all equal in wanting that. Then the other example of patients suffering in the hospital and how they may suffer from different diseases but they all want to be free from their disease and their suffering. Similarly with self and others, we may be at different levels on the path and we may have the suffering of different realms of existence but we all want to be free of the sufferings of cyclic existence. There’s no reason to think that one person’s suffering is more important than another’s. That completes the first three points on the conventional level focused on others.

Fourth point

The next three points are also on the conventional level but looking more from my own viewpoint. The first point is that all beings have been kind to us and so we should help them back. This is one of those things we learned in kindergarten or actually before kindergarten. Spend some time thinking about the benefit we have derived from others. This is the whole meditation on the kindness of others. We can start out thinking how our friends have been kind to us, our friends and relatives. That’s very easy to think about. We think about that not for the purpose of getting attached to them but in order to not take their kindness for granted but to really appreciate their kindness to us. That’s important in our daily relationships, not to take our family and friends for granted but to really appreciate what they do for us.

Then we move on to thinking about the kindness of strangers. This is something we’ve never thought about in our lives, the kindness of strangers. For example, the people that built the roads that we drove on to get here this morning. They’ve been kind to us, haven’t they, because if they hadn’t built the roads we couldn’t have gotten here. Think of the kindness of the people who grew the food and provided the food we ate for breakfast. We didn’t grow our own food, but even if you do have a summer garden you got the seeds from somebody.

If you ate a piece of bread think of how many sentient beings lie behind having a piece of bread. I mean all the people at the store, the checkout counter, used to be box boys but also box girls, box people, the truckers who transport it, the people at the bakery who made it and then the people who made the plastic bag that it was wrapped in, the people who do the accounting for the plastic bag company, the farmers who planted the wheat and all the accountants who do the accounting for the farmers. When you start looking at one piece of bread and everything that it took to make it, it’s not just the wheat, it’s the yeast. But where did the yeast come from? Then you have a whole other trail of sentient beings. When you get into this you can spend an hour meditating on one piece of bread and how many sentient beings lie behind it. If you do you’re going to get a real sense of how interconnected we are and how interdependent we are, and how, in fact, other beings have been kind to us and we’ve received so much kindness from them even though they are total strangers.

Even if our mind pipes up and says, “They weren’t thinking of me when they planted the wheat; they were just trying to earn a living.” To be kind to us, somebody doesn’t have to think of us individually. Receiving kindness from others simply means we benefited from their efforts whether they have the intention of benefiting us or not. “Oh children, I really wanted children to have a piece of toast this morning so I went and I grew the wheat, and I went and drove the truck, and I went and worked in the bakery, and then I drove the truck to the grocery store and put it on the shelf so that somebody could buy it and take it to her house.” Of course, nobody thinks like that! I didn’t expect anybody to think like that, but the point of the matter is that all those people did their work and I benefited because I had breakfast, so they are kind because if they didn’t do what they did you would be hearing my stomach growling right now. And if other beings didn’t make the road to get here I wouldn’t even be here to start with. When we start looking around us, every single thing we have we see how incredibly dependent we are and how much kindness we’ve received.

First some dear ones, then some strangers, now the tricky ones, people we don’t like. Sometimes we get really bogged down, “Well, how about the people who have harmed us, who threaten us, who we’re afraid of. How can these people be kind?” Well, if you think about it, we’ve lived through all those experiences, they didn’t kill us and, even though they might have been quite painful, we’ve all come out of them having learned something quite important. If you think about something that was really disturbing in your life, a painful experience you had, didn’t you come out of it learning something important? Didn’t you come out of it in one way being a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser? You may have also been more cynical but we’re not looking at that part. We’re looking at the part of you that came out wiser and stronger because of having gone through the difficulty. We can see that we do benefit from difficulties, and that difficulty is due to the influence of the person who harmed us. So, in that way they have been kind to us for providing a situation in which we could grow because we can’t grow in the same way with the people who are kind to us.

The people who never betray our trust don’t give us the opportunity to develop the incredible faculty of forgiveness. The people who polish our car never give us the opportunity to generate renunciation for our car being dented or banged up or totaled. When we think about it this way, the people who have harmed us or interfered with our happiness, betrayed our trust, or threatened us, they all in some way or another have given us the opportunity, which we have taken to some degree or another, to develop our own inner strength. The challenge is to train our mind to look at those people and say, “Thank you,” and to really see their kindness.

Let me tell you a story. Have I ever told the story of Lama Yeshe when he left Tibet? This is a really good example of practicing seeing the kindness of others who have done you harm. Lama was probably about 24. Anyway, he was quite young in 1959 when there was the uprising against the Chinese occupation in Lhasa. He had been at Sera Monastery, which is just outside the city, when the fighting started. Many of the monks took their tea bowls, because your tea bowl is your most precious possession, and their little bag of tsampa barley flour and went into the mountains to wait out the shelling. They figured everything would calm down and they would go to Lhasa, to the monastery. It didn’t turn out like that. They were there in the mountains with hardly anything when they heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama had fled for his life in March of 1959. They realized they better get over the Himalayas into India, too. They crossed the Himalayas on foot most of the time. Going from Tibet at a high altitude, where you have warm woolen clothes, where there are hardly any bacteria or viruses because it is so high, into India where your woolen clothes aren’t appropriate at all, and you have no money to buy other clothes, and to where there are tons of bacteria and viruses because it’s a low altitude, and humid, was difficult. They all arrived in India with nothing, and Nehru’s government of India was incredibly kind to all the Tibetan refugees. India, being a poor country, what could they do with tens of thousands of people coming in? Well, for the monks anyway, they put them in Buxa, which is an old British POW camp from World War II. Lama used to say he was in a concentration camp because of that movie Seven Years in Tibet. Yes, I think he might have been in Buxa but it wasn’t Buxa exactly like the movie. Long ago, in 1959, they were all sent there as refugees. They were all sick and they had nothing to eat. Slowly, they kept their monasteries together, and they maintained their traditions, and then eventually Lama went to Dalhousie, India, to live. Then a woman came, a Russian American princess, and helped them to purchase the land at Kopan, in Nepal, and they set up the Kopan Monastery, and all these Westerners came. A network of international Dharma centers started because of that.

It wasn’t an easy transition for Lama; I mean his life was quite difficult. I remember very vividly Lama talking about his experience saying how good it was that he had to become a refugee and leave his homeland because before that he had been studying in the geshe program to become a geshe. When you are a geshe in Tibet you’re very well respected, people give you lots of offerings, and your students take care of you and do everything for you. Lama said, “I would have had a very comfortable life as a geshe. Everybody would have done something. I would teach a little bit and help others, but I would have had a very comfortable life. I would have been very, very spoiled, but because I became a refugee and faced hardship I really learned what practicing Dharma meant.” He said, “When I had an easy life I never really appreciated what Dharma did. It was only when I became a refugee that I really began to understand what Dharma was about.” Then he went like this, he put his hands together and he said, “I have to say thank you to Mao Tse Tung.” Isn’t that incredible? Imagine you yourself leaving your homeland and your family and becoming a refugee with nothing and losing your whole comfortable lifestyle and then saying thank you to the person who was the chief political leader in charge of that. It can be done. Yes, it can be done. Lama is a living example of it. If we train our mind in this way, we can see how free our minds are and how much love and compassion we can have for others. That’s the first point, in the second set of three points, considering how everybody has been kind to us.

Fifth point

The second point in the second set is when our mind trips up and says, “But they’ve also harmed me,” and here we don’t have any memory loss. They did this, and they did this, and they did this, and they did this. I mean, have you noticed we all have our senior moments about some things but we never have senior moments about how others have harmed us? “Oh, I forgot how that person harmed me?” We never say that, do we? When our mind trips up, “Well they’ve also harmed me,” remember that they’ve helped us more than they’ve harmed us. So they harmed us, they are confused and ignorant just like we are, but they’ve also helped us, and, if we considered all of our previous lives, they have definitely given us more help than harm. If you look at how much it takes to keep us alive versus the amount of harm we have, we’ve received much more benefit from sentient beings than harm, probably much more benefit. Our whole life we’ve been benefited much more than we’ve ever been harmed. Just remember that. Because others have harmed us, that’s not a good reason to label them and throw them in the garbage can or to think that their happiness is insignificant, because it’s not.

Sixth point

The third point of the second group of three, is seeing that we are going to die. What use is it to hold a grudge against others who have harmed us? Really think about this very deeply, it’s a very healing point in meditation. Considering that we’re going to die, what good does holding a grudge have against the people who have harmed us? Holding a grudge is when we hold on to our resentment and our hostility and anger for what somebody has done to us. What good is that going to do us, seeing that we’re going to die and what we take with us is not that person? What we take with us is the seeds of all that animosity and how much it is going to influence our death process and influence our next rebirth. Ask yourself, do I want to die with animosity? Do I want to be lying on my death bed and have my mind overwhelmed with animosity because I held on to a grudge? That’s a really painful death, isn’t it? I don’t think any of us want to die that way. If we don’t want to die that way, why live that way? Considering we don’t know when we’re going to die, it doesn’t work to say, “Well, I’m going to hold my grudge until the hour before I die and let it go,” because we don’t know exactly when we are going to die. If the grudge is going to make us miserable at our time of death, isn’t it making us miserable when we’re alive too? Think about this. When we really think deeply, the hostility towards the other person goes away.

I remember one time when I was working at a Dharma center in the community. There was one person who just drove me nuts. She didn’t follow the schedule, breakfast was at 7:30, and she’d stroll in at nine o’clock when we were trying to start cooking lunch. She didn’t follow the schedule, had a big mouth, made too much noise and totally drove me nuts. I had a lot of hostility towards this person. I remember so clearly walking in for teachings and one of my teachers starting to talk about this. Seeing that we’re going to die, what good is it holding a grudge? I just said to myself, “Chodron, what good is it doing you to hate this person?” Of course, I never think I hate anybody so I said, “What good does it do to dislike this person?” Other people hate other people; they have those negative attitudes but not me. I just dislike them. When I really thought about that, she’s going to die and I’m going to die, what good does it do to dislike her? What good does it do to have animosity towards somebody who is bound in samsara and going to die, and what good does it do for me as somebody bound in samsara and going to die? To die with animosity is ridiculous. I just let it go after that. This third point is really thinking that, considering we’re going to die and they are going to die, what good is it holding a grudge?

I can see from those three points also, self and others are equal. We can’t say they are the bad guys and I’m so sweet or I’m the one who’s kind to me and they haven’t been kind to me. We can’t say that when we think deeply on these three points. We realize when thinking about our kindness to our self and others’ kindness to us that actually others have been kinder to us than we’ve been to ourselves. We also realize that it doesn’t do anybody any good to hold unto animosity. In the second set of three, we’re still on the conventional level but looking at the points from the viewpoint of our self.

Ultimate level

Seventh point

The third set of three in this nine-point meditation looks at equalizing our self and others from the ultimate viewpoint. We’re going to ask ourselves, “Are friend, enemy, and stranger or our self and others inherently existent?” If there is an inherently existent “I” and an inherently existent “Other” or an inherently existent “friend, enemy and stranger,” if somebody, by their nature, is that, then no use trying to change it because their nature is like that. But, if sentient beings were by their nature friend, enemy and stranger or if self and others were by their nature self and others, then the Buddha would see that as reality because the Buddha has no obscurations on the mind stream. A Buddha would see that was the reality. But that is not what the Buddha sees. What the Buddha sees is self and others being equal and friend, and enemies, and strangers being equal. From the perspective of a Buddha, if a Buddha is sitting there and one person on this side is punching him and one person on this side is massaging him or one person on this side is criticizing him and tearing him down and one person on this side is saying, “I Love you,” from the point of a Buddha, he has equal care and compassion for both of them. Think about that. From a Buddha’s point of view, a Buddha doesn’t make any distinction between the person who helps and the person who harms because a Buddha’s compassion extends equally to everybody. That’s nice because it means we are never going to be left out.

If you have fears of abandonment and rejection, the Buddha is never going to abandon and reject you. It’s quite nice to know. But also from a Buddha’s side, he or she is not seeing any of those people and himself or herself as more or less important or more or less deserving of happiness and freedom from suffering. The fact that the Buddha doesn’t see there to be this big discernment between self and others on an ultimate level, then we should pay attention because if the Buddha doesn’t see it, it could mean that’s the way it is.

Eighth point

The second point is that if self and others were inherently existent and if friend and enemy and stranger were inherently existent then it would never change, but it does change. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and strangers become both of them. All of these relationships are always changing. There is no reason to think that any of those relationships are inherently existent, because if they were they would be permanent, but they’re not permanent. Again, it doesn’t work to hold one being’s happiness as more important than another one’s because the relationships change all the time. One person we may hold as dear to us as we hold our selves this year but next year not. This year we may dislike somebody and next year hold them very dear, even dearer to ourselves than we hold our self. That’s another reason why, on an ultimate level, friend, enemy, stranger, self and other don’t exist.

Ninth point

The third point of the third set, this one will really get you, is that self and others, just the distinguishing of self and others, doesn’t inherently exist because it’s dependent on the viewpoint. From the viewpoint of me, Chodron is self and Bobby is other. From the viewpoint of Bobby, he is self and Chodron is other. It’s like this side of the valley and the other side of the valley. When we’re standing here, we look at the Owyhee mountain range. That’s the other mountain range, isn’t it? When we’re standing here it’s this mountain, when we look to the Owyhees it’s the other mountain, that mountain. If we go to the Owyhees then the Owyhees are this mountain and looking back around, Boise becomes the other mountain. So what this and that mountain are depends on which side of the valley you are hanging out on. They aren’t inherently existent; it just depends on where you are standing, which way you look at it. It’s the same between Bobby and Chodron; it’s just the difference between if you’re looking at it from the viewpoint here or if you’re looking at it from the viewpoint there, whether you call it “self” or “others.” So what we call self is merely labeled, it exists by merely being labeled. It’s not that there is an inherently existent self, because if there were an inherently existent self, you would all see Chodron as self. Then when you said “I want happiness,” then it would all come to me. (Laughter). You all don’t see Chodron as self, do you? You see? “I” is self because you’re looking at it from the other viewpoint. But it just depends on the viewpoint you’re looking at it from. It’s not an inherently existent self and others.

And now we can get into all kinds of trouble and make up all sorts of things. For example, that this is my body so it’s right for me to protect my body first rather than other people’s bodies, because this one is my body. You see there is something “me” about it, it is my body. And we feel this way don’t we? But, then when we check up, is it my body? Well? The genes came from our mother and father, so part of our body is mom and part of our body is dad. The rest of our body is the result of everything we’ve eaten since we’ve been born. That was given to us by all the farmers. Actually, if we look at whose body it is, our body belongs to mom, dad, and the farmers. It’s only by the process of familiarization that we started to think of this body as me, and became so attached to it.

Now, if that sounds funny to you, if it’s hard imagining that, the psychologists have done lots of studies about babies. Babies really don’t know the difference between their own body and their mother’s body, or between what’s them and what’s others. And babies when they cry, they are frightened by the sound of their own crying. They think that loud wailing is coming from others when it’s from them. They have an innate sense of self, but it isn’t as hard and stiff as our sense of self has become. Adults conceptualize so much more about it. We’ve been taught that this is our body. We’ve learned to distinguish our wails from somebody else’s wails. But an infant hasn’t so much. If we think about that then we see the role in familiarization and habituation. When the sperm was still in dad and the egg was still in mom, we didn’t have any attachment to that sperm and egg, did we? We didn’t look at that genetic material and say, “That’s mine.” It was only after it came together, and our consciousness wound up in the midst of it, that we started saying that this is mine or got more confused and started saying this is me.

It’s actually not, is it? A very interesting thing to do when we eat, because we usually space out when we eat food, is to think we eat a piece of broccoli and we think this broccoli is going to become part of my skin, or this broccoli is going to become part of my eyeball, or this broccoli is going to become part of my little toe, or whatever it is. Because it is, isn’t it? That’s where the cell gets the material to keep on surviving; it is from what we eat.

When you eat the broccoli you don’t say this is mine, and this is me, and this is my body. And we’re not so attached to the broccoli, “Sure, you want a piece of broccoli? Take it.” We’ll even give it off of our own plate. But, that continuity of that piece of broccoli is my body. But why do I get so attached to it when it’s in the form of broccoli? I don’t say those, you know, identify so strongly with that’s mine. When those atoms and molecules become a part of this body, then I identify it as this is me or this is mine. Why? It doesn’t hold together, does it? And here we can see just through the process of familiarization and habit that we’ve become so attached to this body, and so attached to looking at this from the viewpoint of this body. It’s simply because our sense organs are glommed on to this part that we think that there is an “I” inside of our head. There’s no “I” inside of our head. You crack the head open and there’s all this gray stuff that we don’t even want to look at it’s so disgusting. There’s no person in there. It’s just a dependent process that we think there’s a person because that’s where our sense organs are located. We’ve just gotten familiarized with that and then grasp onto it as being an inherently existent me and an inherently existent mine. But, it’s just a process of dependency and familiarization.

If we think about it this way, it gives us a little bit of space to think that it might be possible to equalize self and others and to care for others bodies the same way that we care for our own body, or to care for other’s bodies the same way that we care for our own emotional happiness, because there’s no difference, on an ultimate level, between self, and others. Pain is pain, eliminate it! There’s no big “I,” the owner of it, there’s no big “OTHER” there as the owner of it.

The sameness on an ultimate level doesn’t mean that I’m you and you’re me. We have to be very clear about the difference between being on the ultimate level and the conventional level. Because by saying on the ultimate level there’s no inherently existent this or that, and there’s no inherently existent self, I can take money out of your bank account. If we’re all one, why not? Why can’t I take your credit card and take the money out of your bank account? We have to discriminate between ultimate and conventional levels. On an ultimate level, there’s no inherently existent I or others. On an ultimate level, we don’t say we’re all one, we just say there are no inherently existent self and others. On a conventional level, just like we label this mountain and that mountain depending upon where we’re standing, on a conventional level we can label me and other. We don’t say we’re all one. But we remember that it’s just on a conventional level, and that just on dependence on the viewpoint from which you’re looking at the whole thing. There’s no inherently existent “I” inside this body behind all these sensory organs. There’s also no inherently existent self, and, similarly, behind the other bodies and sensory organs, there’s no inherently existent other. Conventionally we respect each other as different beings, and it doesn’t mean that when I’m filled with self-hatred I can take it out on you, because we’re all one. Or, that we’re all one so you use my bank account and I use your bank account. It doesn’t work that way. Are you clear about this? We always maintain conventional reality, but we just take away the grasping of inherent existence from it, and that gives us a lot of freedom. So, that’s the meditation on equalizing self and others, with those nine points. Let’s just review those nine again.


First, all sentient beings want to have happiness and be free from suffering equally. Then the second one was about the beggars, everybody may want different things but they all want to be happy, so there’s no reason to discriminate between the happiness of self and others, or the happiness of friend, enemy, or stranger. Third is the example of patients who have different diseases, but they are all suffering, and we’re suffering from samsara so there’s no reason to discriminate, self and others, friend, enemy, and stranger in terms of wanting to eliminate suffering.

The fourth point is that all sentient beings have been kind to us. There we meditate on the kindness of dear ones, the kindness of strangers, and even the kindness of those who have harmed us. Fifth, even if they’ve harmed us, the amount of help they’ve given us far outweighs that. Sixth, considering that we’re all going to die, what use is there holding grudges? Those are the six points on the conventional level.

Then seventh, if there were inherently existent self and others, or friend, enemy, and stranger, the Buddha would perceive them, but the Buddha doesn’t. Eight, that if self and others, friend, enemy, and stranger were inherently existent they would be permanent, and there would be no change, but in fact all these things change. And then ninth, is that self and others are dependent upon your viewpoint and exist by being merely labeled; they’re not inherently existent.

I remember when Serkong Rinpoche was teaching this, we were in Switzerland, and Alex Berzin was translating. Rinpoche was so funny because he was talking about especially this last point about this and that, self and others, and being labeled, and so he was just getting Alex all tangled up about, are you self or are you other, and it was hilarious. We were all laughing except Alex. (Laughter). Then he started laughing too. Because Rinpoche was looking ahead of him saying, “Are you self or are you other? You know, because I look at you and you’re other. But you look at you and you’re yourself. So which one in the world are you?”

Are there any questions or comments?

Questions and answers

Audience: Is Buddha nature empty?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, Buddha nature is empty. In fact, emptiness is Buddha nature, or one aspect of Buddha nature is the emptiness of the mind. Put it this way, anything that exists is empty of inherent existence. There is nothing that we can pinpoint that exists inherently or ultimately.

Audience: So, Buddha said that anything that you think that you are, you cannot be.

VTC: On an ultimate level? Definitely. Anything we think we are on an ultimate level we aren’t. And that’s very helpful to think about in terms of all these identities we think up for ourselves. Not only our career identities, but also our self-image: I’m unlovable, or I botch everything up, I’m not worthwhile. Okay? Who’s the “I” that is that? When we search and investigate, we can’t find an “I” that is that. That’s very, very liberating.

Audience: Going back to number five and six, but he’s also harmed me, and I’m also going to die and I don’t want him to suffer and I don’t want him to interfere with my living either, because it’s physical. So, you just keep meditating in that area until it’s just able to fall away?

VTC: We think about that again and again, really deeply. Not just on a superficial level, but we really let that sink in. Really sit there, sit there and imagine yourself on your death bed holding a grudge against that person. Imagine there you are dying with so much hatred and resentment towards that person, and what’s that going to be like dying. Imagine that, dying with that much hatred and resentment. Then come back to where you are now and say, “Is that what I want to happen to me?” Then it becomes real clear, “No.”

Audience: So then it just sort of falls away naturally?

VTC: Yes. Because who wants to hurt themselves?

Audience: Where is that fine line between I am taking care of myself, and I have done this part of the meditation, and I’m clearing myself of that, and I am a victim over here? Where does the word victim come from, fit in?

VTC: We make ourselves into a victim. As long as I hold on to a grudge against the other person, I am making myself into a victim. You’re thinking of it at as, “That person has harmed me, so here I am this inherently existent victim of their harm.”

Audience: This person has taken money from you.

VTC: Here I am this inherently existent victim of that awful person’s actions of stealing, which is the second negative action, and which means you get born in the spirit realm. I hope they get born as a hungry ghost because they ripped my stuff off! And I hate them!

Audience: In other words do you take this to court? Do you go through all the things to get your money back, or do you just be a victim again?

VTC: Let me get to that. First let’s deal with the victim mentality. Okay? I become a victim as long as I hold onto my resentment towards that other person. The moment I let go of my resentment, I am no longer a victim. The first thing you have to do, you were talking about taking him to court, before you even think about that, the first thing we have to do is get rid of our resentment. Then when we are free from our resentment, we look at the situation, and what’s going to be the best way to deal with this situation. If I let it go, what benefit or harm is there to me and the other person? If I file a court case, what benefit and harm is there to the other person? If this is somebody who rips off a lot of people, it might be for the benefit of others to bring it to their attention that this is not cool behavior. If you file a court case with that intention of protecting that person from his own negative actions, and protecting other people from getting ripped off by him, that’s okay. If you’re just looking at it as, “I want to retaliate and get my money, and cause them suffering,” actually you’re going to wind up very unhappy in the middle of that court case and cause yourself a lot more damage. Whether you win or lose.

Audience: You really have to get rid of that resentment first?

VTC: Yes.

Audience: If you can’t do that, then you just don’t file or you don’t go through any further?

VTC: Well, I can’t say that, but the first thing you really have to work on …

Audience: It could take years to do that.

VTC: You could be past the time of statute of limitations. Right. That’s why it’s daily practice. (Laughter).

Audience: So, it’s actually really, really, simple. You do this practice, then after that whatever is left you may or may not do. Yes, but it doesn’t matter.

VTC: Yes! But the thing is having peace of mind is more important. And then if you need to stop somebody from doing harm, in other words having compassion for that person, doesn’t mean that you let them do whatever they want. Okay? If somebody is damaging other sentient beings they also need to be protected from their own negative actions.

You all know I do a lot of prison work. The common feeling in America is that prison is for punishment. If you punish somebody, they are going to transform. All the studies show it doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean from my view, as a person, that we should open up all the prisons and let everybody go. Because for some people self-restraint is very difficult, especially in certain contexts, and they need to be protected from their own berserky mind, and other people need to be protected from their mind. When I say berserky I don’t mean that everybody in prison is berserky, I don’t mean that. You have a berserky mind, too. What I mean is uncontrolled mind, overwhelmed by ignorance, anger, and attachment.

So I see that prisons are for protection for us. Also they are for that other person because they do not benefit from harming others, and if they lack restraint in certain situations it’s benefiting them to have that structured situation where they can’t harm. I think if prisons were constructed with that kind of thinking, it would be a vastly different matter. I got a letter from one prisoner yesterday who was saying to me that he wonders, because he has been in prison several times, if subconsciously he wanted to come back to prison because it provides structure and security for him in his life. And he said “When I’m away from drugs and alcohol, and women,” because he’s in for rape, that’s one of his crimes, and he said, “When I’m away from those, then my mind can focus on improving myself.” He’s admitting, “When I am around especially the drugs and alcohol,” he loses control. So he sees that in some way, I mean prison is no fun, and the prison authorities aren’t really helping him to rehabilitate, but he sees that he needs more structure in his life right now, to help him get a handle on the strength of his disturbing emotions.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.