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The disadvantages of self-centeredness

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.

  • The mind as the continuity of consciousness
  • Self-centeredness as the cause of negative actions
  • Egocentric view as the hindrance for attaining liberation and enlightenment

Bodhicitta 11: The disadvantages of self-centeredness (download)

At the beginning of teaching sessions we generate the perspective of really appreciating our opportunity to listen and to practice the Dharma. This is not our usual perspective on life. We usually have a very strong feeling that there’s only this one life. But from a Buddhist perspective, there is not just this life. If there were just this life, then there would not be much purpose to anything. If it’s just this life and after it, there’s nothing, then when we have problems, ending them by suicide would make great sense. I think that’s what many people who commit suicide think: “I’ll end my suffering by ending my life.” But, it doesn’t work that way. We have some feeling that killing ourselves isn’t the solution to our problems. We want to keep living don’t we? But if there were just this life, then life wouldn’t make much sense or have much purpose, because after you died there would be nothing: zip, blank, and forget it.

Continuity of consciousness

If we look closely at what the mind is and see that there is a continuity of consciousness that goes through this life and then goes into future lives and we look at the significance of that in terms of how we spend our time and what we do, then we get a very, very different perspective. It pulls us out of this incredible attachment to just the happiness of this life because we see that it is not just this life. There are many life times and this life time, as they say, is like a flash of lightning in a dark sky. It goes by very, very quickly. Lightning doesn’t last long. When we have this perspective of one rebirth after another rebirth, fraught with so much dissatisfaction and confusion, then to have a precious human life in which we have the opportunity to hear the teachings and practice becomes very, very special and very, very meaningful. When set in the perspective of multiple lifetimes, many of which are spent in realms where it is impossible to practice, where it’s impossible to even hear any words of Dharma, then we really appreciate what is happening now in our lives. We begin to see how precious it is and how important it is to really put our energy towards liberation and enlightenment.

Recognizing the importance of the Dharma

When we die, this opportunity in this life is over. We don’t know what our future rebirth will be. If we look at a lot of our actions and do a little mental tabulation of how many actions we have done with a pure motivation, such as genuinely caring for others, and how many we have done where our basic interest has been only ourselves, then it becomes a little bit clearer. Have we created a lot of positive karma? Have we imprinted our minds with good seeds or have we just basically been looking out for me, I, my and mine by helping our friends and harming our enemies? What are the effects of that going to be, not just on this life but when we die? In our future lives, what are the effects?

When we seriously think about this and look at our lives, our aspiration to practice the Dharma becomes much stronger and we begin to see that practicing the Dharma isn’t just something that we do to feel good. It does bring the by-product of feeling better, but we are not practicing “feel-good Dharma.” You go to the gym to feel good and you go to the movies to feel good, so you go to Dharma class to feel good. It’s a kind of entertainment, you know. The teacher is supposed to crack some jokes and be rather pleasant, and things like that. When we really begin to understand the situation in which we live, we see that it is not just “feel-good Dharma”.

We are not just doing this as a hobby or as something that only helps us with our stress and our emotional travails in this life. We’re doing this because it really is much more important than anything that we say is life threatening or life endowing. When something is really important we say it is life threatening or urgent. Practicing Dharma is even more important than that because when we lose this life, we’re going to get another one. If we lose the Dharma and we wind up in a realm or in a life where it’s impossible to practice, then we’ve really lost a lot. For that reason we’re doing this with quite a noble motivation, not just to feel better now and be a little bit more peaceful, but to really try and get ourselves out of this predicament of cyclic existence. It’s important to think like this and to really have the proper perspective.

I think when Alex [Berzin] was here he told you we coined the term “Dharma lite.” “Dharma lite” is feel-good Dharma. You know, “Dharma lite” makes you feel better, you’re not so stressed out, you’re not so angry, that’s it. That’s good, it’s beneficial, it’s better than being stressed out and angry, isn’t it? It’s still “Dharma lite” and that in itself is not going to get us out of cyclic existence. We really have to engage in a much more profound practice and really take the Dharma perspective more seriously.

Review of previous week

We’ve been talking about the ways to generate bodhicitta, that loving, compassionate aspiration to become a Buddha in order to benefit all beings most effectively. There are two methods to generate bodhicitta: The Seven-Point Instruction of Cause and Effect and then Equalizing and Exchanging Self with Others. We finished the first method and last week we began the second method of Equalizing and Exchanging Self with Others. We talked last week about Equalizing Self and Others and the nine points of meditating on that. Did anybody do that nine-point mediation during the week?

It’s important when you get these teachings to take them home and meditate on them because that’s the way they really will have an impact on your heart and mind. We were talking last week about everybody equally wanting to be happy and nobody wanting to suffer. We gave the example of ten beggars all wanting happiness and that it’s unfair to discriminate against this or that beggar because they all want happiness. Sick people all want to be relieved of their suffering and it’s unfair to discriminate among them. We talked about how others have been kind to us and even if sometimes they’ve harmed us, their kindness far outweighs the harm. Considering that we’re going to die, it doesn’t do much good to hold any grudges anyway.

We talked about how self and others are conceptually designated phenomena. If self and others weren’t dependent on designation and labeling, then the Buddha would see inherently existent self and an inherently existent other. The Buddha doesn’t see that. We also contemplated that these categories of self, other, friend, enemy and stranger are also transitory, changing all the time. Then to me, the point that really gets it across is the example about this side of the valley and the other side of the valley or this mountain and the other mountain. From the point of view here, this is self. From that point of view over there, it is other. When you think of “I”, that “I” is labeled on what I consider as other, and your other is labeled upon what I consider me. Whether self or other, these are conceptually created and exist by being merely labeled, depending upon which reference point you have. Whether you are on this side or whether you’re on that side, whether you’re here on this mountain or there on that mountain, because if you’re there on that mountain, that mountain becomes this mountain and this mountain becomes that mountain.

It’s the same with self and others. These things are not inherently existent and hard and fast, they are dependently arising. Thinking about that can really make a very strong impact on the mind. We begin to see that all this clinging to self is really clinging to something that is fabricated by our garbage mind. Garbage mind is a term that Lama Yeshe invented, meaning all our wrong conceptions in our minds. You won’t find it in a Buddhist dictionary.

Disadvantages of self-centeredness

This week we’re going to go further into the rest of the meditations in that sequence. We talked about equalizing self and others, we are now going to talk about the disadvantages of self-centeredness, the advantages of cherishing others, exchanging self and others, and then the taking and giving meditation.

Turning to the disadvantages of self-centeredness, we all agree that being selfish is not so good. We all agree on that on an intellectual level, don’t we? When we encounter people who are very selfish and self-preoccupied it is really hard to deal with them. We all agree that self-centeredness is really not so good. There is one exception. Our own self-centeredness is okay. When we have to be around other people who are self-centered, their selfishness is really a drag, but our self-centeredness is just self-protection, taking care of ourselves, making ourselves happy. We have all sorts of ways of justifying our own self-preoccupation so that it doesn’t seem selfish, because nobody wants to think of themselves as selfish. We don’t want to think of ourselves as selfish people, do we? No, those other people are selfish. We are very nice; we’re good Buddhists, right? Buddhists aren’t selfish, just those other people are. “But I really can’t help you now because I have so many things to do and I can’t give a donation to your charity because I just bought my fifth bicycle and, you know, I’m sorry I can’t go visit Aunt Ethel in the hospital even though she’s really ill and it would help her, because my favorite TV program is on tonight, etc, etc.” Do you see how we create this exception for ourselves and we justify everything we do in terms of our own self-centeredness?

When we look at the disadvantages of self-centeredness, that helps us cut that thought and not fall prey to all these rationalizations. Now, when I’m going to teach about the disadvantages of self-centeredness, the thing that is important is to not feel guilty about it. Feeling guilty because you are self-centered is also self-centered. Having regret because we’re self-centered is appropriate because when we have regret we see the damage that we have done. When we have guilt, we are too wrapped up in ourselves to really get anywhere. We get stuck in hating ourselves and putting ourselves down. It’s very important not to start hating yourself because you are self-centered. That just compounds the problem. That’s why we talk about the disadvantages of self-centeredness because then we come to see self-centeredness as our enemy. We recognize that we are not union-oneness with our self-centered attitude, that it is something that is glommed onto us. We can put it over there and turn to it and say, “It’s your fault” and blame it.

Young man sitting on window sill, staring out window.

The bigger deal we make out of everything that happens to “me,” the more confused our life will become. (Photo by Matthew Benton)

What are the disadvantages of self-centeredness? Well, first of all in our ordinary lives, we see that when we’re very self-centered we make a big deal out of everything that happens to me, and the bigger deal we make out of everything that happens to me, the more confused our life is, because we become so super sensitive. “Oh, somebody didn’t smile at me the way they usually do, I wonder what that means,” and we start reading all sorts of stuff into it. “Oh, they didn’t copy me on an e-mail. I think they are going behind my back and are cutting me out of this process.” We become so super sensitive that we start projecting motivations on to other people. This comes from our own self-centeredness. We don’t get so upset when another person doesn’t get copied on an e-mail. We don’t get so upset if somebody else isn’t greeted with a fantastic hello in the morning. The self-centeredness makes us so super sensitive. We don’t like to be criticized. We don’t like to have any feedback. Whenever anybody gives us any negative feedback we become defensive, get angry and attack back. We defend ourselves or we shut down and say, “Oh I just won’t get involved. I’ll let other people do it”, and we back away. All of those reactions come from self-centeredness because we don’t like to hear things that seem like an assault to our ego.

Even if the other person doesn’t intend to assault our ego, we take it that way because of the self-centeredness. Then we get defensive, and when we’re defensive, we get upset at the other person. Then the other person gets upset back at us. Many conflicts start because of that. This happens on a personal and an international level. You can clearly see our country’s foreign policy as an example. We keep getting ourselves into jams because we are very self-centered as a nation. We can see that every nation looks out only for itself and doesn’t have a bigger picture, and so many conflicts begin and are sustained because of that. Self-centeredness functions on all kinds of different levels. It makes us super sensitive and creates a lot of the conflicts in our lives.

In fact, when you look back on your life, in every conflict that you have had, was self-centeredness involved in it in one way or another? This question can be very good for meditation. It’s your homework assignment. Go back and just review some unpleasant experiences that you’ve had and contemplate to what extent self-centeredness was involved in them, in getting yourself into that situation and in how you acted in that situation. This is very interesting to explore.

Self-centeredness is also what lies behind all of our negative actions. When we do the meditation on karma and on the ten destructive actions, we think about killing, stealing, unwise sexual conduct, lying and disharmonious speech, harsh speech and gossip, coveting and ill will and distorted views. Whenever we start contemplating how we get involved in those ten we see that it all comes back to self-centeredness. Think about it. Is there anybody here who has never stolen anything? This includes times that we’ve stolen, cheated on taxes, not paid fees we’re supposed to pay, all sorts of things. Did we do that for the benefit of others? No, we did it for our own benefit. We’ve all taken life and killed, haven’t we? We’ve killed mosquitoes, bugs, beetles, roaches and all sorts of animals. Maybe we’ve eaten live sea food, had it dropped in the hot water for us. We’ve all being involved in killing. Did we kill out of benevolence and kindness? No, killing is out of self-centeredness. Look at harsh speech. We say something really hurtful to somebody else, is that done out of kindness or out of self-centeredness? When we go through and look at our own actions it becomes really apparent.

When we think that all these actions put negative karmic seeds on our mind stream and that these negative karmic seeds influence what we’re reborn as, what we experience when we’re reborn, what kind of habitual tendencies we have in our future lives, then we see that, even though it may seem that we’re hurting somebody else with the harmful actions we do now, the real victim is also ourselves, because we experience the karmic results of the actions that we’ve done. The karmic results we have to bear are actually much heavier and more intense suffering than what the other person experienced. Whenever we create harmful actions we’re actually harming ourselves much more. When we see that the harmful actions we do are motivated by self-centeredness, then we see how this self-centeredness is sabotaging our own happiness by making us create more and more causes for unhappiness. Are you getting it? Is this clear?

This is quite an important thing to think about. Whenever we have misery in our life, instead of asking why me, once we know the Dharma we know very well why me. It’s completely obvious, why me. Why me? Because I created the cause. What was the cause? My harmful actions. What made me create those harmful actions? My own self-centeredness. When you’re a Buddhist you don’t need to ask “Why me?” It is very clear. The point is if we don’t like the result let’s stop creating the cause for it. This is a real cause to get our lives together. When we feel this very strongly, then we turn to this self-centered attitude that’s over here whispering in our ear, and we say, “Look, you’re the cause of my suffering. Be gone with you. Get away, I don’t want to have anything to do with you because you’re causing me suffering.”

The self-centered mind hinders our Dharma practice

People are always complaining because they can’t practice Dharma as well as they would like. “Oh, I can’t practice because it’s so hard to meditate; the kids are making so much noise in the morning. Oh, I can’t practice because I have to go to work. Oh, I can’t go to retreat because I have to go to work. Oh, I can’t sit and read a Dharma book because I have to manage my stocks tonight. And I can’t go to Dharma class because I have all these social obligations to take care of.” I thought of actually writing a book entitled, One Thousand Two Hundred Fifty Eight Excuses Why I Can’t Practice because we have one excuse after the other! Who gets hurt? Who experiences the disadvantages when we don’t practice? Who is the primary recipient of the disadvantages of not practicing? It’s me, that’s who.

What is it that keeps me from practicing? It’s my self-centered mind, so self-centered mind is sabotaging my own happiness. It’s one of the chief obstacles to our attaining liberation and enlightenment, because it’s that self-centered mind that keeps us so involved in just our eight worldly concerns, caring for our money, possessions, reputations, praise and sense pleasures and fending off anything that interferes with those. It really sabotages our Dharma practice.

When we see this, we really begin to identify self-centeredness as our enemy. At that point there is a very effective practice. Once we’re very clear that self-centeredness is our enemy, then when we are experiencing misery we can look at self-centeredness and say, “It’s your fault! All the misery goes to you, buddy!” We give all of our problems, all of our misery to our self-centeredness and we rejoice, because our enemy, the self-centeredness is suffering. It’s a really neat meditation when you separate yourself out from your self-centeredness. The self-centeredness is our enemy. I’m having some hindrances and things aren’t going the way I want. It seems people are piling problems up on me. I’m miserable, so I take all that misery and I give it to the self-centeredness and I say, “Here you experience it, because you created it.”

In fact, I can say other people please harm me even more, because when you harm me, I’m going to give it to my self-centeredness and it will harm her. She’s my real enemy, so let’s destroy her or him. It’s a really effective way of thinking. When you do this it makes your mind stronger and able to bear hardship. For example, I do this practice when people talk badly about me behind my back. Can you imagine the nerve they have? Talking badly about me, sweet, angelic, good intentioned, almost perfect me! You know, it’s terrible that they would even do such a thing, talk behind my back. Somebody criticizes me and I think “ugh” when I find out they’re criticizing me behind my back. How is that possible? The universe should not allow people to talk badly about me behind my back. This is totally unacceptable and it’s unfair and I’m taking it to the Supreme Court! Then we just get so stuck in this kind of story.

Then I realize the cause of other people talking badly about me behind my back is my own self-centeredness. I’ll give all this turmoil to my own self-centeredness and use it to harm that, because that is what’s harming me. Actually, I can then think that it’s kind of good to get criticized behind my back because it destroys that self-centeredness. When I turn the pain on the self-centeredness, it destroys it. It’s good I get criticized. Actually, I can think, criticize me more.

I am only saying this as a meditation technique, I don’t really mean it! The point is to say it and really mean it. To say it and mean that, really, it’s very good for me to get criticized because it points out my self-centeredness and it enables me to do something about it because that’s my enemy. You see, if we are really practicing the Mahayana path with bodhicitta when we get criticized, then we are very happy. When we have suffering, we’re very happy. When things don’t go our way, we’re very happy because we give all the hindrances to our own happiness, to the self-centeredness. It’s very, very helpful to contemplate all these disadvantages of self-centeredness. If you think about this in depth and really look at your life in terms of this, it will help you to resolve a lot of psychological issues and make your mind much stronger.

Just to give you an example of how I used this to help with some of my psychological stuff, I spent a great deal of time as a young person thinking that my parents didn’t accept me as I was. They wanted me to be somebody different. Did anybody else have that going on in their mind? Why can’t people accept me the way I am? Why is it that they always seem to want me to be something that I’m not? I spent a long time being really upset that they didn’t accept me the way I was. Then one day when I was meditating I realized that by my saying that, I was not accepting them for who they are. They are people who don’t accept me for what I am. I’m not accepting that there are people who don’t accept me for what I am. I want them to be different. Do you get what I mean? I wanted them to be different. I wanted them to think in a different way, to act in a different way, to do this and that in a different way. Who was not accepting who? Then I began to see that not accepting my parents was the cause of me experiencing so much suffering. If I accepted them as people who are limited beings, who, of course, want their children to be different than they are, then I wouldn’t be so upset, because I would accept them for being like that. I would see that it’s natural, and seeing that it was my own self-centeredness that was creating the whole psychological mess, then I just accepted that they are like this, and I accepted them for being like this. Then I could stop worrying about it all.

Parents do what parents do. One of the things they do is want their kids to be different, as all parents know, don’t you! How many of you have kids? Don’t you all want your kids to be a little bit different than how they are? You have so many ways and suggestions to improve them! Of course, you are just doing what parents do! Why shouldn’t our parents do what all parents do? When we accept this, then somehow there is so much ease in the mind. Think about the disadvantages of self-centeredness. Then the step after that is to contemplate the benefits that come from cherishing others.

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.