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Equalizing self and others

Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

Wisdom of the Kadam Masters: Equalizing self and others (download)

We’ve been talking about bodhicitta, line 3,

The best excellence is to have great altruism.

We’ve talked about the seven-point instruction on cause and effect. The other way to generate bodhicitta is equalizing and exchanging self and others, which is a method taught by Shantideva and also Nagarjuna. Or it has its roots in Nagarjuna.

That starts out with equalizing self and others. This is a bit different than the equanimity that underlies both of these methods for generating bodhicitta. The equanimity is between friend, enemy, and stranger, not playing favorites, not having partiality towards different groups of people due to our relationships with them or how they treat us, or whatever.

Equalizing self and others has to do with equalizing ourselves with others. The first method—equalizing friend, enemy, and stranger—we can still hold ourselves as more important. And we do! This one is the one that clobbers our feeling, like, “Well yes, love and compassion are wonderful, but at the end of the day, I come first, because I’m more important.” Then we use that thing: “If I don’t help myself then who’s going to help me? If I’m not for myself who will be for me?” Those slogans have some truth in them, but we often misuse them to rationalize, or justify, our self-centered attitude.

There’s a beautiful nine-point meditation on equalizing self and others. I’m not sure of the origin of that, I’ve been trying to find out. But it’s beautiful. I first learned it from Serkong Rinpoche, previously.

It starts out with just looking at others and ourselves equally want happiness and to avoid suffering, which is something we all know already … up here [points to head]. But we don’t really accept it in here [points to heart] because we’re really foremost. Everybody wants happiness equally, but I deserve it more. Everybody wants to be free of suffering equally, but my suffering hurts more. It really makes us look at that attitude and see that actually there’s no difference between ourselves and others in either how much we want happiness and not suffering, or how much we deserve it.

Now we could go on a campaign and say, “But I created more virtue, so I’m better qualified to have happiness.” Or, “I’m a more ethical person so I won’t misuse my happiness.” Well, look more closely at how ethical we are. And how we negotiate our ethics when it is beneficial for our self-centered thought to do that. Even apart from that, if you consider many lifetimes we’ve all created virtue, we’ve all created nonvirtue, so how can we really say that we have more than everybody else and so deserve happiness more. Couldn’t you use the same thing about deserving happiness to say that the people who are suffering deserve happiness more, because we’ve already had a lot so now it’s time for other people to have more.

And then the whole argument… Because especially in America we’re democratic… (Yeah, we believe in democracy, as long as people vote our way…. But we kind of stretch ourselves to democracy, we learned it.) So if you have the happiness of one person on one side, and the happiness of all other living beings-minus-one on the other side, and you had a vote of about whose happiness is most important, who would win? The countless-minus-one. The loser would be the one, because it’s only one. In the same way, how can we say that our happiness is more important than everybody else’s? We’re one, and everybody else is countless-minus-one.

It’s a very interesting meditation to do, to really try and find one good reason. We can find many bad ones. But one good reason why we’re more important than everybody else, and why we deserve happiness more than everybody else. Spend some time in your meditation this week and really see… Because there’s this deep-seated feeling, isn’t there, so strong inside of us of: “My happiness is the number one thing.” And to really see is there a reasonable reason that we can give to substantiate that. Just look at all the reasons you give and then check to see if they’re reasonable. Don’t just dismiss them out of hand and say, “Oh, that’s selfish,” but really examine each one.

The next two are quite similar. The first one is if there are ten beggars how can I favor one and not treat them all equally. The third point is if there are ten people suffering from illness how can I help one and ignore the others? In both situations we’re really asking ourselves…. The questions sound like they’re friend, enemy, and stranger questions because we’re talking about beggars or sick people outside. But here, actually, we include ourselves as one of those. And then what you come to see is that the ten sick people all need medicine. They may need different kinds of medicine, you’re not going to give them all the same thing, but they’re all in need. And the ten beggars all have different things that will make them happy, but all of them want happiness.

When we include ourselves as one of the ten in both sets then it becomes evident that there are different strokes for different folks, as they say, but we all have the same underlying wish. Again, we may want one thing to make us happy, other people may want another thing. We may need one thing to alleviate our suffering, somebody else may need another thing. It’s not equality in the sense of all of us needing the exact same thing. It’s equality in the sense of the internal wish to have peace and wellbeing, and the internal wish to avoid any kind of problems or misery. Really spending some time with that.

When you do it, some of the reasons come up like, “Okay, we’re all sick, so we all want happiness and not suffering. But my suffering hurts more, so I need to take care of it more than the other nine people suffering.” Why? Because I experience the suffering of my body. Nobody else experiences the suffering of my body. Only I do. Therefore it’s suitable for me to take care of and remedy the suffering of my own body, because I experience it and nobody else does.

What’s the problem with that argument? From the viewpoint of each of the ten people they experience the sensations from their own bodies and they feel that alleviating the pain in their own bodies is more important than anybody else’s, because they experience it, and they should do it for themselves.

Shantideva comes back with a really interesting argument for that one, because I remember saying that to Lama Yeshe. “Well Lama, I experience the pain of my own body, why shouldn’t I alleviate it. Isn’t it more important? Why shouldn’t I do that?” What Shantideva (and Lama both) said is this attachment we have to our body is a conditioned phenomena. It’s something that we’ve learned. We are not our body. We’ve learned this incredible attachment to the body, and through that then it comes to seem that what happens to our body is most important and we should take care of it first. But when you look at it, is our own body ours? Our body came from the sperm and egg of mom and dad. Their sperm and egg are not ours. They’re theirs. And our body came due to all the food that we’ve eaten. Who grew the food? Or whose body did we eat when we ate food? All of the food belonged to somebody else and it was given to us. So the basic components of our body—the sperm, the egg, and all the food—none of them are ours. And this body isn’t us. So how can we justify the undue attachment to this body, saying it’s me, it’s mine. It’s not ours. And it’s not us. We just learned that in this lifetime. In a few years when we die, what happens to this body we won’t care two cents about it.

I know Nancy Reagan had her whole funeral choreographed, she did it herself, including the guest list, so that her body would be treated properly and everything. But where was her mindstream during her funeral? Did she even know? Wherever the continuation of that mindstream was, did it even care what happened to the body? It’s strange that we care what happens to the body when we have it, but as soon as we leave it…. And we care what happens to the body after we don’t have it while we still have it, but after we don’t have it anymore… I mean I was just as soon you put this thing on the upper meadow and let the vultures have lunch, at least then it serves some good. Otherwise you have to take it to some crematorium , and that’s expensive, it pollutes the air. Much rather feed the birds. It’s an interesting thing to examine, this preference for me and mine. Does it make sense?

Here we’re really questioning some very deeply ingrained, maybe even innate, attitudes, so it’s challenging a lot. But the purpose of Dharma is to challenge everything we believe. And the things that we believe that are reasonable and sensible, we keep. And the things that we believe that are not, get rid of. Of course, we have to decondition ourselves, we can’t just get rid of them overnight. But to try.

[In response to audience] A couple of the practices I find very helpful in decreasing the attachment to the body. First of all, the inner mandala offering where we imagine the parts of our body becoming the external mandala. Mount Meru is our trunk, the sun and moon are our eyes, the parasol and victory banner are our ears, our intestines are the seven rings of golden mountains, all of our blood and lymph and that stuff becomes the water…. You just totally decompose, take apart your whole body and make it in the form of the mandala, and then offer it to the Buddha. And that’s quite effective, really very, very effective for loosening the attachment to this body, so I highly recommend it.

Another one that’s very helpful is, if you do the Vajrayogini practice, the Kusali Offering is very good. It’s an offering where you imagine (I won’t explain it much) transforming your body into blissful wisdom nectar and then offering the blissful wisdom nectar to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and your mentors, and all sentient beings, and so on. This is the same idea also behind the chod practice of offering our body to the spirits. Which you can see the spirits as manifestations of different aspects of your self-centeredness, or of different afflictions, and of offering it to them, and then teaching them the Dharma. So there are different practices that really help us with this kind of attachment. And needless to say, the meditation on emptiness is very, very good for this as well, when you start checking, “Well, what is a body? What is mine?”

I really recommend doing these meditations because it will make dying a lot easier, when we have to separate from this body. And it also makes it easier when we get sick, instead of being so afraid and having so much grasping and anxiety when we don’t feel well, it really relaxes the mind. So, highly recommended.

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.