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Verse 83: Examining the self-centered mind

Verse 83: Examining the self-centered mind

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • Seeing the benefit to ourselves in cherishing others
  • Cherishing others is the cause of happiness
  • Reflecting on how our actions influence others
  • It can be uncomfortable to overcome self-centeredness

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 83 (download)

“What work, though done selflessly, best fulfills one’s own aims?”

So when you do things without working for yourself, what are those things that actually bring about your aims?

[Repeats from audience] Working for others….

[In response to audience] Okay, because if you say “everything,” it’s not the works of common beings. I mean it’s not ordinary people, whatever “everything” ordinary people do isn’t selflessly done that brings about their own benefit, okay? So, it’s “work based on bodhicitta and hence not distorted by self-centeredness.”

What work, though done selflessly, best fulfills one’s own aims?
Work based on bodhicitta and hence not distorted by self-centeredness.

There’s a verse in the Guru Puja that’s like this, that talks about how the self-centeredness is the cause of our misery and cherishing others is the cause of our happiness. And it’s followed by another verse that says we ordinary beings cherish ourselves, and we’re miserable. And the bodhisattvas cherish others, and work for others’ benefit, and they’re so much happier than we are. So this self-centered mind that says “if I look out for myself and try and get everything I want” actually makes us much more unhappy (much unhappier) than working for the benefit of others does.

In spite of that, what is our M.O.? Work for me! “I want this. I don’t care if it inconveniences people, I don’t care if it makes them upset or angry, I don’t care if I get in their way. I want what I want when I want it. And that’s right now. And the world should give it to me. And that’s it!” And that’s how we act. Isn’t it? “The schedule should change because I like it. The weather should change because I want it different. The food should change. Everything should change. The whole world should change. The people around me should change. Everything should change except me.” Yes? “Everything should change, and then I’ll be happy. And it doesn’t matter if I inconvenience people or make them upset as long as I can get my way and have what I want.”

And then we say we’re practicing the bodhisattva path. [laughter] Who are we joking? We’re fooling ourselves. This kind of mindset, this kind of conduct, it inconveniences other people, but who is it doing the most harm to? Ourselves. The chief person who’s harmed by our self-centeredness is ourselves.

We have to really pay special attention to this, because we all want to be happy. If you like to be miserable and you enjoy being miserable and you’re masochistic, go ahead and be selfish. But if you really want yourself to be happy the only way to bring that about is to really cherish others. And to really cherish others involves reflecting on how our actions influence others, and how our actions influence ourselves.

You’ll notice I’m coming back to this point a lot, right? A lot. It’s like looking, really studying our lives. When I have this kind of mindset what does it lead me to? Happiness or suffering? When I act in this way what is the effect on the people around me? Happiness or suffering? When I have this mind set, when I do these actions, what kind of karma am I creating? Am I bringing happiness or suffering to myself in future lives? Am I getting closer to my goal of liberation and enlightenment, or am I putting myself further away from what I want in the depth of my heart?

It’s this kind of self-examination that we need to really do, because it’s only by understanding the effects of our attitudes and the effects of our actions, and how things done with a selfish attitude bring about our own ruin…. It’s only by understanding that that we’re going to have the internal energy and courage to confront that internal demon of the self-centeredness. Until we really understand deeply what harm it does to us—let alone to others—we’re not going to try and change it. We’re going to keep on doing the same old thing that we’ve been doing since beginningless time. And then wondering why we’re so unhappy.

We need to really do a very serious study of our own mind, of our own lives and look at this. And then when we see how this selfish mind is destroying our own happiness, how it’s getting in the way of us actualizing our spiritual goals, how it’s interfering with what we most want in the depth of our hearts, then we’ll look at that self-centered mind and say, “You stink!! I’m not going to listen to you anymore.” And then when we really look closely, similarly, at the mind that sincerely cherishes others and see how when we really cherish others how we become so much (more) light-hearted. Our own mind is at ease. We don’t feel so much guilt. We don’t feel so much rancor or so much anger and upset. Emotionally we’re so much more stable when we cherish others.

When we really see the benefit that cherishing others brings to ourselves we’ll have the courage to start cherishing others. And when we see how cherishing others also makes the people around us happy, and that making the people around us happy makes for a much better place for ourselves to live in, then we’ll really understand what His Holiness means by “if you want to be self-centered, be wisely self-centered and cherish others.” Because you bring about your own happiness when you do that.

We have to really understand this from our own experience. And really look at how when we just completely stop this horrible self-centeredness and open our eyes and look at the situation of the living beings around us and really care about those living beings, then our own minds are so much more peaceful. So much more happy. And then we act in ways that bring about the happiness of others. And that contributes to our own spiritual progress. Everybody benefits.

We have to really look at this very seriously again and again and again, and then when that self-centered mind comes up, really catch it and say, “This one’s the enemy! This is the one that’s destroying my happiness.” And, “If I have to go through some discomfort to destroy my enemy I’m willing to do it.”

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to overcome our self-centeredness. It’s maddening because we are so habituated in getting what we want that we cannot endure the least bit of suffering. But when we really understand the benefits of cherishing other, and the disadvantages of cherishing ourselves (of this self-centeredness), then we’ll act and we’ll do something. And sometimes we have to force ourselves to do it. But it gradually pays off.

I was thinking this morning of when I lived in Italy…. Because there were several “Sams” that I had to deal with, not just one or two. So I was thinking of another “Sam” that I dealt with who was a lay person (not one of the monastic “Sams,” a lay person) and he always had to put himself in front of everybody, be the closest to the lamas, get the best seat. [To audience] Yes, you know this kind of person, there are lots of them…. Some of them live in Singapore too, I noticed…. Yes? It’s like “I’ve got to sit in front, I’ve got to have this. The lama has to notice me. I have to get all the attention. Everybody has to give me attention.” Yes?

This person drove me crazy. First of all because I was jealous. Second of all, because he was just so obnoxious. Now, why in the world am I jealous of somebody who’s obnoxious was beyond me. [laughter] Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing, to be jealous of an obnoxious person? I mean, what are you thinking? That just shows the depth of confusion the mind goes to. If you’re going to be jealous, at least somebody with good qualities. [laughter] Because then at least you’ll develop some good qualities. But to be jealous of somebody who’s obnoxious? That’s useless.

Anyway, that’s where I was. (Shows how obnoxious I was. How clueless I was.) So I remember one time one of my teacher’s attendants gave me a card of Serkong Rinpoche when Rinpoche, he was up in Spiti right before he died and it was a picture of him riding on a yak. And I loved this picture of Rinpoche riding on a yak. I just loved it. Because Rinpoche was like 80-something and he’s up in the middle of Spiti riding on a yak. It was my favorite picture. But I’m sitting here burning with jealousy and anger at this one particular person and I said look, I have to get over this because this is coming out of my own self-centeredness and I’ve just got to get over it. So I made myself give him the picture. My cherished picture of Serkong Rinpoche.

I remember this. This was like, I don’t know, 35 years ago. But I still remember what that picture looks like, and I remember giving it to this guy. And I made myself do it because I saw my self-centeredness, and I thought, if I have to cherish ALL sentient beings, he’s included in that. So I have to do something to try and be kind. So I gave him that picture.

And it was interesting, a few months ago I saw him again. Also with Serkong Rinpoche. Hasn’t changed behavior. [laughter] Still always has to be the center of attention. Has to spend the most time with the lamas. His Holiness is giving initiation in this small temple. I look at it like, who should sit inside? All the high lamas. Who goes inside? This guy. Well, maybe he is a bodhisattva for all I know. But you know? He feels privileged. But you know what? This time it didn’t bother me. I thought, if he needs to do this to feel happy, so be it. I saw that his behavior…. Many people were not very happy with it. There was a special guest staying at Rinpoche’s house. He came to see this guest. There was a line of people outside. He stayed two and a half hours. Everybody else had to leave. People were not happy with him. He didn’t care. He got what he wanted. And he never even noticed it. I mentioned to him the next day, you know there were people waiting outside. “Oh.” He didn’t care. Didn’t notice it. But this time it didn’t bother me. I thought, if this is what he needs, okay. He’s also developed some good qualities over the years. And he’s also accumulated some merit over the years. But I’m not going to change him any time soon.

What I did do, because I was concerned with this line of people who wanted to come, is I mentioned it to one of the attendants so that the next day some of those people could come in. But you just, you see, you just have to…. I don’t know what I’m getting at, but….

First of all, I was no longer jealous of this person. Second of all, I had made myself start to think of his benefit. And I could see over the years I had actually become much more accepting of him. Not accepting of those qualities, but accepting of him, so that I didn’t get bent out of shape when I saw those qualities. I could look instead and say, “Wow, that’s really a pity.” Because he’s developed these good qualities over the years, but he hasn’t been able to deal with that. But I rejoice in his good qualities now.

Anyway, we have to look inside and really do this kind of research. Not just once, but over and over and over again. And then when the self-centeredness arises catch it immediately and change the mind and think “wow, if I do something differently other people will be happy, and I’ll feel good being able to bring others happiness.” And here we’re not even talking about leading others on the path and placing them at the stage of the first bhumi…. We’re talking just about being nice to the people around us on a day to day basis. We’ve got to start with that. Every day just being a nice person that’s easy to get along with. Yes? Okay, we have high goals. But on a day to day basis let’s just do the small steps that will take us to the highest goals.

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.