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Equalizing self and others

Equalizing self and others

A series of commentaries on Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun by Nam-kha Pel, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa, given between September 2008 and July 2010.

  • Completing the explanation of equalizing self and others
    • Looking at things from the ultimate viewpoint
  • Disadvantages of self-centeredness
    • The instruction from the root text is: “Banish the one to blame for everything.”

MTRS 24: Equalizing and exchanging self and others (download)


Let’s start by cultivating our motivation and rejoicing at the opportunity that we have to listen to teachings. Let’s rejoice that between last week and this week we haven’t been born in the lower realms or lost our precious human life. And we haven’t been so distracted by other things going on in our worldly life that we’ve forgotten about the Dharma since then, so we have the opportunity to listen and to contemplate.

This opportunity is nothing to feel arrogant about, but rather to feel fortunate about having and not take for granted. Therefore, let’s really have a strong intention to make good use of it. Let’s do something other than just continuing the same old suffering as usual, the same old “I”-grasping as usual, the same old self-centeredness as usual. Let’s instead have a strong determination to transform our motivation to one that benefits all beings, and then to want to attain enlightenment so that we can do that most effectively.

So, let’s generate that intention with a real feeling of care, affection, love and compassion for others. It’s not just with putting up with them, but instead, genuinely caring about what happens to them and wanting to work for their benefit.

Equalizing self and others: conventional level

Last week we were talking about equalizing and exchanging self for others, Shantideva’s method for generating bodhicitta. We were talking about the equalizing part, and we got through the six points that have to do with the conventional level. What was the first point?

Audience: Everybody wants happiness and to be free of suffering.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Everybody wants happiness and to be free of suffering, equally. Second point?

Audience: The ten beggars.

VTC: The example of the ten beggars—everybody wants something, so why should we discriminate amongst them thinking one’s happiness is more important than the other? Third point?

Audience: Wanting to be free.

VTC: Okay, so the ten patients who are all suffering and wanting them to be free, equally, from our side. And then, the next point?

Audience: The kindness of others.

VTC: Okay, everybody’s been so kind to us. Do you really believe that?

Audience: Some days.

VTC:  Some days. Not everyday?

Audience: Not every moment.

VTC: No? Do you believe you’ve been kind to others? Oh yes, I’ve been very kind. Have they been kind to me?

Audience: No.

VTC: That’s interesting. We live in a place where we’ve been so kind to other people but nobody’s been kind to us. I wonder—all those people who think they’ve been kind to other people, who have they been kind to? [laughter] Because nobody seems to have received much kindness. [laughter] Very interesting, huh? Okay, and then the fifth point?

Audience: We received more help from harm.

VTC: And what’s that in response to?

Audience: They’ve been kind but….

VTC: Yes, okay, so they’ve been kind but they’ve also done … okay? And then the sixth point?

Audience: We’re all going to die.

VTC: Okay, since we’re all going to die, what use is there in holding a grudge? That’s an important one to really think about very seriously because when we hold a grudge, that’s setting ourselves up to die with anger. What happens if your mindstream is dying with anger manifest in it?

Audience: Lower realm.

VTC: Lower realm, okay. What kind of karma do you create when your mind stream has a grudge?

Audience: Negative karma.

VTC: You’re creating negative karma. Grudges are really bad deals for us because we’ve created negative karma as we’re living them and holding onto them. And then if they manifest at the time of death then they act as a cooperative condition for our mind to be attracted to a horrible rebirth. So, it’s really important because some grudges are really bad; we can really identify them. But every day we go to bed with some residual anger at somebody. That’s a grudge, isn’t it? Yes.

 Even it’s just a little bit of anger because of some small thing somebody did to us today. Because what’s a grudge? A grudge is holding onto the anger, not letting it go. And if we hold on to enough of these small angers, they become a huge court case against the person. And then it’s really horrible. So, it’s important to forgive other people, and forgiving other people means letting go of our anger towards them.

It doesn’t mean what they did was okay. It just means deciding in our mind that we’re not going to be angry about it anymore. Now, why should we be angry about it? “They did this, and they did this, and they did this.” Okay, but why should you be angry about it, especially when it’s not happening now?

Audience: Reinforces the “I.”

VTC: It sure does. It reinforces our sense of “I.” It makes it very big, and it creates an identity as a victim, okay? “I am this person. This is my identity as someone who has been mistreated, abused, unnecessarily blamed, da da da da da, by so and so.” We adopt that victim mentality, and that poisons our entire life. So, it’s something to be quite careful about, because sometimes we feel like we’re holding onto the grudge in order to punish the other person. Our grudge doesn’t punish them. They don’t even know what’s going on. Our grudge punishes us.

And it’s so sad when you see grudges going on in families—generation after generation after generation. And grudges have caused so many ethnic wars, so much ethnic strife. It’s because of grudges over things that happened centuries ago. So when you hold on to this kind of grudge, you just teach your children to hate. Is that what you want to teach your kids?

We also have to look at the hatred that we’ve inherited in our family. Maybe there have been grudges held in our family that we’ve heard about since we were little—against some family member, or against some other person in the community, or against some other race or religion, or ethnic group, or nationality. All these things that we’ve heard about since we were kids, that somehow got internalized and that we carry with us, these grudges are really poisonous. It’s very important to identify them.

When you were doing retreat did you notice some of these grudges surfacing? Did you find out that you were still mad at people that you thought you were no longer mad at? I remember when I did Vajrasattva many years ago, and I realized I was still mad at my second-grade teacher for not letting me be in the class play. That’s pretty pathetic, isn’t it? But that’s what the child mind does. And then the adult mind just gets mad at some equally petty thing but has a bigger reason why it’s not petty.

It’s very important to be on top of these kinds of things because it’s very difficult to have love and compassion for people that we’re angry at, and we all want to cultivate love and compassion. But how can you wish somebody will be happy—the definition of love—if you’re angry at them? Being angry, you want them to suffer, so that’s totally opposite. How can we want that? It doesn’t work. So, if we’re saying, “I want to cultivate love and compassion,” but at the same time cultivating hatred and grudges and resentment, we’re sabotaging our own spiritual practice. That’s something to really pay attention to, because these things are very sneaky.

Equalizing self and others: ultimate level

Now we’re going to go to the last three in the seven points of equalizing self and others. The last three points are looking at things from the ultimate viewpoint. So, here we’re going to start bringing in more of the perspective that things do not exist in the way they appear. The first point under this is that if there were real, inherently existent friends, enemies and strangers, like our mind believes, then the Buddha would see them.

Buddha is omniscient, right? Buddha doesn’t have any mistaken consciousnesses, not one single mistaken consciousness. So, if there were people who were inherently friends, inherently enemies, inherently strangers—in other words, people who were inherently worthy of our attachment, worthy of our anger, and worthy of our apathy—then the Buddha should definitely see those same people as friends, enemies and strangers.

Buddha doesn’t. In fact, if on one side there’s a person making offerings, giving him a nice back rub, doing nice things, and on the other side there’s somebody else swearing at him and beating him, the Buddha feels equally towards both these people. Isn’t that amazing? On what basis can he feel equally towards them if one’s helping and one’s harming? Well, it’s because he’s not looking at the superficial help and harm. He’s looking beyond that. He’s looking into everybody’s heart and seeing that they’re all just trying to be happy. They’re all trying to be free of suffering. They don’t know the causes of happiness or the causes of suffering, so they’re just doing the best they can. Why have hatred and attachment toward them?

The Buddha’s able to see that these categories of friend, enemy and stranger are completely constructed by our judgmental, self-centered mind. They are totally fabricated by our mind, and on what criteria? Somebody does what I like—they’re a friend. Somebody does what I don’t like—they’re an enemy. Somebody doesn’t do either—they’re a stranger.

That’s the only criteria. Why are people your friends? They’re nice to me. They give me presents. They make me feel good. They have the same political views I do. They agree with my ideas. They encourage me when I feel down. They’ve been kind to me. It’s all about me, isn’t it? One hundred percent! Not just ninety nine percent—one hundred percent! That’s the reason behind the attachment.

 And why do we find other people disagreeable and enemies? They don’t do what I want. They haven’t been kind. They’ve interfered with my happiness. They don’t give me presents. They swear at me. They discourage me. They put me down—or they hurt the people I’m attached to. It’s the same old thing. It’s all about me, isn’t it? So, those are our reasons for resenting other people. And for being apathetic—they don’t do anything towards me, so they aren’t even worthy of notice. That’s kind of the way it is, isn’t it?

Did you think about the people in Benares today? Anybody think about the people in Benares? The people in Petanko? People in Chiang Mai? Do we think about other living beings? Did you think about all the fish in the ocean today, what they’re experiencing? Did you think about all the insects in Nepal? Do you see? There are all these living beings, and they have this feeling of “I” like we do. Their whole world revolves around them. To us, they’re totally non-existent. We don’t even think about them. It’s as if they aren’t even sentient beings. They’re just maybe numbers, or they’re part of this “all sentient beings” that we work for, but we don’t really think of all sentient beings. We really have to look past that.

Disadvantages of a judgmental mind

Audience: I find it really easy to have a sense of loving kindness towards non-human sentient beings. And it’s more challenging to feel compassion for humans.

VTC:  Oh, definitely! We go outside and the turkeys, the kitties, the squirrels, the chickadees, they’re so cute. We have so much compassion for all the animals. But human beings—that person who ate that chocolate chip cookie that I didn’t get, that person who didn’t do their chore—we get so mad at them. We’re so judgmental. We have so many criteria about how everybody else should act and how they should be and how they should treat us. Our mind is just full of “should.” And then of course, other people don’t do what we think they should do. How terrible they are! And so we just kick them out of our field of love. So, let’s say we have a room that we have all sentient beings in because we love all of them, and then as they do things that we don’t like, we show them the door. Finally, who’s going to be in that room with us?

Audience: Nobody.

VTC: Nobody. We’re going to be sitting in that room alone with all of our hatred and our judgmental mind because we have kicked out everybody else. Because they haven’t met our perfect, immaculate, pure expectations of what they should be. So, who’s suffering because of this?

Audience: We are.

VTC:  We are. We think we’re punishing others. “Oh, you didn’t treat me properly. I’m going to show you—I’m just going to ignore you. You didn’t treat me properly. I’ll show you—I’ll talk about you behind your back.” We think we’re punishing people. Are we punishing them? No. Who’s experiencing the negative effects of our anger, our hatred, our resentment? We are. Similarly, somebody else talks badly behind our back, who’s experiencing the negative effects of that?

Audience: They are.

VTC: Are you sure they are? Aren’t we experiencing the negative effects? “They’re talking bad behind my back. How dare, they! My reputation is going to be ruined, and if my reputation is ruined then I won’t have a job, and I won’t have a partner. And I won’t have friends. I’m suffering because they talk behind my back!” That’s what we tell ourselves, isn’t it? Do we really believe that they’re the ones suffering when they talk badly about us?

Audience: Are they talking about us, or are they talking about themselves?

VTC: Yes, they’re mostly talking about themselves, but we think they’re talking about us. So, when we find out somebody’s criticizing us behind our back, it’s important that we take time to think about how much that person is suffering, that they are sabotaging their own happiness by talking badly about us. And it’s helpful to really think about that so we don’t hold any grudge against them or fall into our old mindset of, “If they talk bad about me, I’m going to suffer because I won’t have da dee dah dee dah dah dah….” Do you see how we have different double standards about things, how we interpret everything through the perspective of “me?”

In Dharma we’re trying to transform that. “I’m not punishing anybody else by ignoring them, by being angry at them. I’m punishing myself. When they’re talking badly about me or ignoring me, they’re the ones who are suffering, not me.” This is totally opposite of the way we usually feel. That’s why it’s called practicing Dharma. If our usual perceptions were to be trusted then why do we need to practice the Dharma? If our usual perceptions are 100 percent accurate, if our usual emotions are 100 percent justified, then there’s no need to practice Dharma because we’re already perceiving reality and having suitable emotional reactions. It’s true, isn’t it? 

When we come to Dharma, we have to come with the perspective of, “I need to change, and I need to question my own perceptions and emotions.” If we come to the Dharma with the viewpoint of, “My opinions are right,” then how can we ever learn the Dharma? Our opinions are already right. So, even if the Buddha comes to us and says something we don’t agree with, we say, “What kind of teacher are you? You don’t know anything, buddy. My ideas are right.”

So, then what happens? We’re really in a pickle, aren’t we? Even if the Buddha appears in front of us and tries to help us, we think, “He’s nuts because his opinions are different than mine, and he doesn’t treat me the way I think I should be treated. Buddha has five million disciples, but he doesn’t pay any attention to me!” That’s the way we think, don’t we? “If Buddha only appeared in front of me with his magical powers then I would have faith. What kind of Buddha is he that he doesn’t do this so that I can have faith?”

That’s the way we think. So, if we’re really attached to our own opinions, then it’s useless to practice the Dharma because we’re already right. And if things exist as they appear to us, and if all our emotions are the only possible way to feel and the right thing to feel, then who needs the Dharma? We’re already right, so we must already be enlightened. Then why are we so miserable? (laughter) Something is wrong in this picture. If we’re really as right as we think we are then why are we so unhappy?

I remember a story of when a couple went to therapy and the therapist said, “You can either be right or you can have a good relationship. You have a choice!” There are two choices. You can be right, or you can have a good relationship. What do you want? That’s it, isn’t it? If we cling to being right all the time, we’re not going to have very good relationships. So, when we hear in the thought training teachings about giving the victory to others, this is what it means. It means silencing that self-centered thought that is always saying, “I am right and the world should recognize it.”

So, the first point here is that the Buddha doesn’t see any real friends, enemies and strangers. These do not exist in the perspective of the Buddha, and the Buddha has no mistaken consciousnesses. If we see an inherently existent friend, enemy and stranger, or an inherently existent person worthy of our attachment, worthy of our hatred, worthy of our apathy then we should compare our cognition to that of the Buddha.

The second point is that if friends, enemies and strangers were inherently existent—if the object of attachment, the object of hatred, the object of apathy were inherently existent—then they couldn’t change. The person who is now a friend would always be a friend. The person who is now an enemy would always be an enemy. The person who is now a stranger would always be a stranger. Is this the way it happens? No!  I think international politics are a scream when you look at that. The U.S. used to support Osama Bin Laden. Isn’t that amazing? Then we were fighting Germany sixty plus years ago, and now Germany is our best friend. And in our parents’ generation, we were fighting with Japan, and now Japan’s our best friend. It’s just amazing how things change in international politics.

Similarly, they change in our own personal relationships, too, don’t they? People we were best friends with, who we loved, now we don’t even speak to because we’re so mad at them or because they’ve become strangers. Or people who were strangers have become friends or enemies; enemies have become friends or strangers. Everything changes. But if friends, enemies and strangers were inherently existent, then these relationships would be cast in concrete and unable to change. Why? Because something that is inherently existent does not depend on other factors.

Something that is inherently existent is independent, and something that is independent does not depend on other factors. Something that does not depend on other factors doesn’t depend on causes and conditions. Something that doesn’t depend on causes and conditions cannot change. It is fixed. And no matter what changes around it, it cannot change because it isn’t influenced by causes and conditions. That is not our experience, is it? Things are so changeable all the time.

Then the third point is one I really like because up until now, we’ve been talking about friends, enemies and strangers—once in a while including our self in there—and asking, who is more important, me or the others? We often tend to keep it nicely outside. Maybe we can equalize friends, enemies and strangers, but who is more important, me or others? I am.

This last point actually hits on that, but before I get into it, His Holiness always talks about a conventional way of thinking about who is more important that is helpful. If we were to have a vote about whose happiness is more important, who do you vote for? Whose happiness is more important? If we were really being democratic, we would vote for all sentient beings minus one because of the power of the majority. But who do we actually vote for? Me! And yet, we go around saying we believe in democracy.

We don’t believe in democracy. We believe in a dictatorship with ourselves as the dictator. But if we really believed in democracy and we were to have a vote, whose happiness is more important—one person or infinite sentient beings minus one?  Infinite sentient beings minus one! So, how can we justify going through our life saying, “Me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me! I’m most important! Everything has to be the way I want it to be!” That doesn’t make sense!

“I” and “other”

To get back to the third point, if self and others were inherently existent we could say, “I am more important because I am inherently me, and others are less important because they are inherently other.” But that can’t be the case because self and others depend on each other. In other words, we can’t identify self without identifying other. And we can’t identify other without identifying self. Those two things depend on each other.

It’s like this side of the valley and that side of the valley. You look across the Abbey, we have Spring Valley Road. There is Spring Valley, and we have mountains on the other side. There’s this side and there’s that side. But, if you went to that side, which would be this side—that side would be this side, and this side would be that side. So, is this side this side or that side? It depends. When you say, “I want happiness,” where’s that “I” that wants happiness? It feels like there is only one “I” and everybody else is “other,” doesn’t it? But from the viewpoint of others, that is “I,”and we are “other.” So, are we “I” or are we “other?” Am I “me” or am I “other?”

I remember when Serkong Rinpoche was teaching this because that’s who I learned this from. Alex was translating, and this whole thing about this and that, and self and others was making us all roar with laughter because Rinpoche kept asking, “Are you I or are you other?”  And Rinpoche would say, “You don’t know who you are?” He was asking, “Are you I or are you other,” and he was telling us to really look at it.

Why when we say the word “I” do we put so much emphasis on this set of aggregates? Why do we even say, “This set of aggregates,” when from the perspective of everybody minus one, it is that set of aggregates? And from the perspective of everybody minus one, it’s “other”; it’s not me. When we’re trying to decide who’s more important, me or other, am I really some inherently existent “I,” so that when I say, “I’m more important,” it always refers to these aggregates? From the perspective of others, “others” refers to others’ aggregates. So, when we say, “I want happiness,” it could be everybody minus one wants happiness, couldn’t it?

That’s exactly the philosophy behind exchanging self with others. You just exchange where you label “I” because you realize that “I” is merely labeled, and “other” is merely labeled, and so on. This set of aggregates could just as easily be that set of aggregates. It could just as soon be “other” and not be “I.” And from the majority view, it is “other”; it’s not “I.”

 Then why, when we say, “I want happiness,” does it just refer to these aggregates? And when we say, “others”—“Others want happiness” or “Others aren’t quite as important”—it refers outside. Why doesn’t it refer to this one? Because “I”and “others” are equally labeled in dependence upon the perspective, just as this side of the valley and that side of the valley are labeled dependent on the perspective.

It’s very interesting to think about this one, especially when you have some pain—because when we have pain, the mind goes, “I’m suffering. I...” There’s a strong feeling of “I,”isn’t there? “I’m suffering.” This huge “I” is suffering. But from the viewpoint of everybody minus one, somebody else is suffering. Imagine lying there when you’re sick and saying, “Somebody else is suffering.” Can you imagine that? Can you imagine looking at your own body as somebody else’s body that is uncomfortable? Somebody else has hurt feelings. It’s very interesting. What would happen if you said that somebody else’s feelings are hurt?

Audience: You get a lot of space.

VTC: Yes, you get a whole lot of space, don’t you? But as soon as you say, “My feelings are hurt,” there’s no space at all. “Somebody else’s feelings are hurt? Oh, that’s too bad. They’ll get over it. Won’t they? Yes. People always get over hurt feelings. It’s not a big deal. They’re just being too sensitive. Somebody else is just being too sensitive, too easily offended. They’re just interpreting everything from a very self-centered view. Just give them a while to calm down. They’ll come to their senses and see their perceptions are totally off the wall.”

That’s what we think about other people, isn’t it? Well, try applying “other”to this set of aggregates. “Oh, somebody’s in a bad mood today. Who cares? I’m going about my business. If they want to be in a bad mood, let them be in a bad mood.” Somebody else’s stomach hurts—”Oh what a pity! What’s for lunch? I’m in a good mood. I’m not going to let their stomach ache bum me out.” Try thinking like that. “Oh, somebody else didn’t get what they want? Oh, that’s too bad! What else is new?”

So, we just exchange the “I”and “othersbecause they’re merely labeled. You just exchange it. And then with how we usually think about others, you start thinking that way about yourself instead. “I want to be happy”—Oh wow, there are so many “I”s that want to be happy. So then we start looking at everybody’s “I”s when we say, “I want to be happy.” It means everybody else.

 “I don’t want to work overtime today; somebody else can work overtime”—except, the “I”is your colleague, and the “somebody” else is you. “I don’t feel like cleaning the toilet; it’s not my chore. Somebody else can clean the toilet”—so we get up and do it because we’re somebody else, aren’t we? You’re going to say, “Oh, this is not psychologically healthy. [laughter] This is dissociating.” You’re a therapist; you know what they’re saying—”Oh, you’re dissociating. You’re confused. You don’t know who you are. You don’t have a big enough sense of self.”

No, it’s not dissociating. This is done for a specific reason, and it’s done with wisdom. It’s not done because of psychological problems. This is done with wisdom, realizing that I and others are just completely labeled. 

To come back to the text, we’re on the subheading that says,

What is to be given up by contemplating the disadvantages of selfishness.

Here is one of the phrases in the mind training:

Banish the one to blame for everything.

That’s something we should remember, “Banish the one to blame for everything.” Let’s say there’s one thing that is the source of all your problems, that is making you continually miserable. That’s what you’re going to banish, isn’t it? Banish the source of all your suffering. It just so happens that the source of all our suffering is the self-centered mind.

“Banish our self-centered mind? Who’s going to take care of me if I don’t take care of me?” Actually, there’s even a saying that goes, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I don’t take care of myself, who will take care of me?” Even the psychologists and the religious people say to take care of your self. “Oooh, I like that one.” But the way we normally take care of ourselves is actually damaging us. So, if we really want to take care of ourselves, we take care of others. That’s what His Holiness says: “If you want to be selfish, be wisely selfish.” And the best way to benefit your self is to take care of others. Do we believe that? Only if the others are people that we’re attached to, who we know are going to be nice to us in return. Aside from that…. Do you see how our normal way of thinking is completely upside down? [laughter]

Okay, so Nam-kha Pel’s commentary about banish the one to blame for everything says,

We sentient beings run after misery that we do not desire and never achieve what we wish.

We think we’re running after happiness, but we’re actually running after suffering, which is what we don’t want. And we never achieve what we wish. Why not? Because we’re going about it the wrong way!

At the root of it all, we seek to lay the blame elsewhere, which is a mistake.

Isn’t that true? Whenever we’re unhappy, what happens? We blame somebody else, don’t we? We blame somebody else. “Why am I unhappy? They did this, or they didn’t do this, or they should have done that.” It’s always somebody else. Once in a while, we blame ourselves, but when we blame ourselves, it’s also in a very unrealistic way. “I’m so powerful. I can make everything go wrong.” “Why did this marriage fail? It’s all my fault!” “Nobody loves me because I am so terrible.” That’s totally an inflated sense of self! We are not that powerful.

Blaming others

At the root of it all, we seek to lay the blame elsewhere, which is a mistake. This is because all the various lengthy and violent sufferings that come from being born among the five or six kinds of existence, from the Hell Without respite to the Peak of Existence.

That’s from the lowest hell realm to the highest god realm.

These are not without causes, nor do they arise from unrelated causes.

In other words, the happiness and suffering we experienced in a rebirth is not without causes. It has causes, and the causes are not unrelated causes. They’re causes that have the power to produce the result that we’re experiencing. Blaming something that is an unrelated cause for our suffering is totally crazy.

It’s like planting the garden and blaming the pumpkins that grow for not being sweet peas. And we blame the pumpkin seeds, but they had nothing to do with it. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make sense. We blame the sweet pea seeds because we thought we planted sweet peas, but we get pumpkins. So we’re blaming a discordant cause like sweet peas, and believing that the sweet peas grew the pumpkins. They didn’t. The pumpkin seeds grew the pumpkins.

These come about in dependence upon the actions and disturbing emotions that give rise to everything.

Why are we born in any of the six realms of existence? Due to afflictions and karma! Remember, the actions we do are what produces the result. What causes the actions are the afflictions.

Since actions are caused by disturbing emotions

the afflictions—

disturbing emotions are the primary factor. Moreover, amongst the disturbing emotions it is the ignorance that grasps onto a misconception of self that is the principal source of all misery.

So, that self-grasping ignorance that thinks the “I” is truly existent, that thinks the “I” exists from its own side—that self-grasping ignorance is the source of all the other afflictions, which are the source of the karma that brings rebirth in the different realms of cyclic existence.

This cause and effect is very important to understand and very important to keep in mind.  This is crucial because if we don’t remember this, then what do we do? We blame outside for our suffering instead of realizing that the suffering in cyclic existence—our being born in cyclic existence—comes from karma. Karma comes from the afflictions. Afflictions come from the self-grasping ignorance. It’s important to remember that! It’s not God; we can’t blame God. We can’t blame the president; we can’t blame the terrorists. You can’t blame your neighbor. It’s the self-grasping ignorance.  

Shantideva says,

However much torment, fear and suffering there is in the world, It all arises from misconceptions of self

in other words, from self-grasping—

O, what trouble this great ghost brings for me.

We usually think of ghosts as something that you can’t see but can harm you, and the biggest ghost is the self-grasping ignorance. We can’t see it because it doesn’t have form, but it’s the source of all of our trouble.

Furthermore, since disturbing emotions chiefly created by seizing

or grasping—

onto a misconception of self

in other words, thinking that the “I” is independently existent—since those afflictions bring us harm,

They are the actual adversary.

Our own mental afflictions are the actual adversary.

We should not maintain relations with this long-term antagonist.

 If somebody is consistently cheating, robbing, and beating you up, do you maintain a good relationship and invite them to your house for tea? No! So, whenever this self-centered ignorance—or self-centered ignorance’s best friend, the self-centered mind—whenever this couple shows up, they are the long-term antagonists. And we should not have a good relationship with them. We should try and harm them because they harm us.

The same text says,

Thus, through long, unbroken contact he is our foe

“he” meaning the self-centered thought and the self-centered thought’s best friend—

Sole cause of an ever-increasing heap of trouble. When we are certain of this in our hearts, how can we be happy and unafraid in cyclic existence?

When we realize that all of our misery in cyclic existence comes about through the internal enemy of our own self-grasping ignorance and its best friend, the self-centered thought, how can we be happy and unafraid in cyclic existence? How can we just twiddle our thumbs, thinking that everything is going to be hunky dory, when the chief adversary, the chief destroyer of all of our suffering, lies in our own heart and mind?

It lies in our own heart and mind. It’s not other people who destroy our happiness; it’s our ignorance, our self-centered mind, that destroys our happiness. What was that slogan—”When there is suffering, there is self.” That’s the meaning. When we are suffering, there is big ignorance grasping at “I,” and there is big self-centered thought. But when we’re suffering we never remember that, do we? We never remember that the enemy is in here, and all we have to do is change the thought. All that’s required is changing the thought, but it’s the last thing we think of doing because we’re so focused on, “It’s outside.”

Questions & Answers

VTC: Anybody have any questions?

Audience: It seems so obvious that through our ego we just start habituating a way of being that makes it so hard to turn that thought.

VTC: When we talk about it reasonably, it’s totally obvious, isn’t it? You’re asking, is it just our habituated thought that makes us look at it in a totally different way? That’s it. We are so habituated with ignorance and with self-centeredness—those two thoughts and then our long-term familiarity with them. It’s like you might be in a totally dysfunctional marriage, but it’s so familiar that you’re terrified to leave it. We are married to our ignorance and our self-centeredness. It’s totally dysfunctional, but we can’t face looking at the truth of it because it’s so familiar. When you see this clearly, you realize this is the state of every single sentient being. But it’s just everybody’s own thought that imprisons them and keeps them trapped in suffering. It’s just the thought. Doesn’t that make you feel compassion? It’s just the thought. It’s nothing solid. It’s nothing external. It’s nothing that has to be there.

I remember Lama Zopa saying, “It’s on the tip of a thought”—the tip of a thought! How do you have the tip of a thought? But it gives you that image: the tip of a thought. You could just change it so quickly, couldn’t you? A tip of something is so small. You just tip, and you flip it around like a tip of a blade of grass—tip and it’s changed. The tip of a thought! You just change the thought, and the whole thing changes.

We don’t usually think of that, and when we do think of it, we’re so attached to our old ways of thinking, so totally immersed in it, that we can’t see how it’s wrong. When I talk about it now, when we’re all in some kind of state where we don’t have a very strong emotion and nobody’s harming us, it’s so completely logical, isn’t it? It’s logical to see how the real enemy is the ignorance and the self-centeredness.

 But if somebody came up to us and said, “This is all because of your self-centeredness and ignorance,” what are you going to say to them? [laughter] “What do you know, Buster?” It’s amazing how much our whole perspective changes by 180 degrees when our mind is under the influence of an affliction—180 degrees! What we see as true right now, when we’re in a very emotional state, we cannot see that as true. In fact, we get totally furious at anybody who even suggests that it’s true. Yet, when we’re in a calm mood, it makes so much sense, doesn’t it? And we can see it in our own life. All you have to do is just change that thought and the whole experience can change. But somebody comes and says, “Change your thought,” and we think, “Change your thought! Don’t you tell me what to do! You’re telling me to practice Dharma; you practice Dharma!” [laughter] That’s how we think, isn’t it?

Audience: I have a quick question from the Internet. Lily is six years old; she wants to know why animals are so scared?

VTC: It’s because they’re very ignorant, and they’re trying to protect their own life, and so they sometimes see beings that are trying to help them as harming them. When we go out sometimes to feed the squirrels or feed the turkeys, they run the other way. And they run the other way because some people do want to hurt them, but they can’t tell that we’re not those people. They’re blinded by their own ignorance, so they can’t see that we want to help them. It’s pitiful that all the animals are afraid when we have a good heart, isn’t it? But when somebody wants to harm them it’s good that they’re afraid because then they run away. That’s a great question, Lily.

Audience: Here’s another question that may require a longer answer.Last week there was a question about the seriousness of expecting others to repay kindness. This person was wondering how this relates to our expectations that the urge to repay the kindness of others naturally arises from ourselves?

VTC: Last week we were saying how surreal it is for us to expect somebody else to repay our kindness, but on the other hand, when we meditate on the kindness of others, very naturally a wish to repay their kindness arises. How do you put those two together? When we’re kind to others, others may very well have that natural wish to repay our kindness. But, just as we were talking about the animals being afraid because they can’t distinguish help and harm, sometimes human beings are the same way, and they can’t distinguish help and harm. And they’re ignorant, so somebody may be helping them, but they don’t see it as help. They see it as somebody harming them because of their own ignorance. So, rather than the natural wish to repay the kindness coming up, they have resentment or anger coming up.

When we meditate, we want to make sure that we see others’ kindness and we’re not blinded by our own ignorance and self-centeredness, because ignorance and self-centeredness do make us blind to seeing others’ kindness. That’s why we have to do this meditation. Really, take any object that is around you and trace back the number of beings that were involved in you having use of it, and you see the kindness of others. Why do we have to deliberately do that meditation again and again and again? Because we are obscured by our own ignorance and our own self-centeredness!

Things turned up in front of us, and we just think, “Well, of course, I’m the center of the universe.” That’s our own ignorance and self-centeredness, and that’s why we have to do that meditation—to see the kindness of others so that our natural feeling of repaying it will come into our own mind.

Audience: There comes this point where I go, “Why is it me that’s wrong?” I think it’s this thing of not separating out the person from the self-centered thought.What was really working for me, what’s coming up naturally now that I’m a little further along, is, “Stop blaming others,” and when that comes up, it changes. It’s great. I don’t necessarily put it all on myself but still from this place of resistance….

VTC: So, you’re saying that sometimes you think, “Why is it always me that’s wrong? If I can’t blame others then I’ve got to blame myself. Why does it always have to be me who’s wrong?” Well, we’re thinking that way because we’re confusing the conventional “I” with the self-centered thought. The conventional “I” and the self-centered thought are two totally different things, so we’re confusing them. Also, we’re working from the erroneous paradigm that there has to be blame. And if it’s not somebody else, it has to be me. Now, who set up that rule of the universe—that there has to be a person to blame instead of a thought?

Audience: I think I actually quoted that a little bit, but I think slogans are very helpful. I think I need a reply and the thing that comes up is, “Why is it always me?” I think I just need to stop blaming anyone.

VTC: Yes, exactly. You’re saying when that one comes up—”Why is it always me? Why is it always me who’s self-centered? I’m so unhappy because I’m self-centered. Why isn’t the other guy being self-centered? Why do I always have to be wrong”—then to say to yourself, “Why does anybody have to be wrong? You don’t have to blame a person for this.”

Audience: I could be wrong, but I could be happy. [laughter]

Audience: My mind keeps going, “Well, if I take care of everyone else like I take care of myself, I’ll be busy all day long, and I won’t take care of myself properly.”

VTC: “If I take care of everybody else as well as I take care of myself, then I won’t have any time to take care of myself.” I don’t think everybody wants you rummaging through their room and cleaning out their drawers and brushing their teeth and doing those sorts of things. Please take care of yourself. And taking care of others doesn’t mean that we mind others’ business in an inappropriate way. That’s not the meaning of taking care of others.

Remember how we talk about near enemies? This is a near enemy—the difference between taking care of others and minding others’ business. We get them so confused, and that’s why we don’t understand why people don’t appreciate it when we’re trying to help, because they see us as meddling. We are meddling, but we’re thinking we’re being kind. So, we have to distinguish these things, and one of the chief things to distinguish is, “What is the motivation?”

Audience: When it’s study time, I’m going to go and put out the medicine meal so that the person who has medicine meal doesn’t have to put it out and lose some of their study time. Now that I’ve done that, I think I’ll go in and vacuum the floor for the person who was supposed to vacuum the floor. My mind keeps saying, “I need to be doing these kind of things” all day long, and then there’s never a time when I’m taking care of myself.

VTC: Well, then you have to ask if this is something that is happening repeatedly or if it’s something where somebody forgot. Everybody forgets things once in a while. If you go and do their chore for them because they’ve forgotten, that’s fine. That’s comfortable, and it’s very kind. If somebody’s repeatedly forgetting to do their chore, you’re not being kind to them by saving them, because they need to learn to be responsible. In that situation, being kind would be bringing it up at the community meeting: “I’ve been setting out the medicine meal day after day because everybody seems to forget it. Is this the way people want to have it in their own practice when they forget their chores?”

Audience: Not even them forgetting but wanting to repay their kindness through every means….

VTC: Your studying is also a way of repaying their kindness, because if you study and learn some Dharma then you’re going to be able to help them.

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.