The purpose of this meditation is to generate the determination to abandon completely our self-cherishing mind. We do this in three stages: (1) by understanding clearly what is self-cherishing, (2) by considering its disadvantages, and then (3) on this basis generating the determination to abandon it. The perfection of this meditation is the determination to abandon our self-cherishing mind understanding it to be the principal object of abandonment on the Mahayana path and the ultimate perfection of this meditation is engaging in the three stages of the meditation conjoined with an understanding of emptiness.
What is self-cherishing? Self-cherishing is a mind that considers the self that we normally see, namely an inherently existent self, to be supremely important. Supremely here means the most imporant compared to everyone else. As explained before, the inherently existent self is the one that we think exists from its own side, independent of everyone and everything else. We view it as the possessor of our body and mind, as if it was somehow separate from them. We conceive of our self as inherently distinct from all others, like there is an unbroachable chasm between ourselves and others so that what happens to others is of no importance to ourselves because it does not affect us and that what happens to us is the only thing that matters because that is all that we experience. With self-cherishing, we value and consider our own happiness to be the only thing worth working for. If we work for the happiness of others it is usually in some self-serving way, such as understanding how by being nice and helpful to others it serves our own mercenary interests. Self-chershing is prepared to sacrifice the happiness and well-being of others on the altar of what is best for us. If others have to suffer so that we can get ahead, this seems not only entirely justified, but entirely natural. The mind of self-cherishing reasons that if we do not look after ourselves, then nobody else will. It erects all sorts of elaborate philosophical justifications for its existence, which in the end boil down to “since everyone else is selfish, if I am to survive and thrive, I too must be selfish.”
Self-cherishing only considers things through the very narrow lens of how things affect ourselves. It views all relationships through the lens of others relations with us. Things derive their importance in dependence upon how they serve our interests. The only needs that matter are its own. Every other being is viewed as an object whose usefulness is measured by what we can get out of them. Even though we may intellectually deny that we consider ourselves supremely important, when we examine things from the perspective of “for whose sake did I engage in that action” we realize that virtually all of our actions, even the few virtues we manage, are done for the sake of ourselves. Our actions speak louder than our rationalizations. It is a mind that is so all-pervasive in our thinking that we don’t even really notice it.
What are the disadvantages of self-cherishing? Shantideva says all suffering in this world has one source: self-cherishing. In the lojong texts it says we should “gather all blame into one”, meaning we should blame all of our problems on self-cherishing. How can we understand this? According to Buddhism, all suffering is due to the ripening of negative karma. Negative karma itself comes from negative actions. Negative actions in general are those actions which harm a living being (ourself or others) in some way. All negative actions are driven by delusions, usually attachment, anger or jealousy. All delusions arise from self-cherishing. For example, because I consider my own happiness to be more important than others’ happiness, I am willing to harm them to benefit me, such as by stealing or saying hurtful things. In a subtle way, we can even say anytime I am doing something for the sake of myself I am neglecting all countless living beings, in other words I am putting the interests of myself over all others and depriving them of the benefit I could otherwise be extending them if I was thinking about and valuing their happiness.
From the point of view of emptiness and the analogy of the ocean, if each being is a wave on the ocean of the emptiness of my mind of bliss and emptiness, self-cherishing values my wave over the waves of others. But it is impossible to favor one wave without indirectly harming other waves since they are all inter-related. The more I try to raise my wave or smash the waves around me, the more turbulent I make the waters of my mind. A turbulent, violent mind appears (literally creates) a turbulent, violent world. Additionally, from the point of view of emptiness we can see the absurdity of self-cherishing in that the object it cherishes, namely the inherently existent self, does not exist at all! We have spent countless aeons trying to serve a master who is not even there – no wonder we have not gotten anywhere and have so little to show from the fruits of our labor.
Understanding clearly what self-cherishing is and its many disadvantages, we are naturally led to the conclusion that we must abandon it completely. What does this mean practically? It means every time the thought arises in our mind to favor ourselves at the expense of others, we should recognize this as a deceptive mind and not be fooled. In Christianity, they say the Devil is the root of all evil and he tricks us into being evil. In many ways, we can say the Devil is nothing other than the personification of the self-cherishing mind. We can think to ourselves, “this thought is the devil of my self-cherishing mind trying to trick me, I will not be fooled.” We take the time to identify the deception – how our self-cherishing promises us happiness but will deliver us only misery. When we see clearly the deception, we will no longer be fooled and our self-cherishing will lose its power over us.
From the point of view of emptiness, we can realize, paradoxically, that the best way to secure happiness for our wave is to allow it to settle into the stillness of the ocean. Why be one wave when you can be the whole ocean? When you stop trying to raise your wave or smash the ones around you, the waters of your mind become increasingly calm and peaceful, and as they do a profound feeling of inner peace and joy begins to emerge until eventually it becomes an almost overwhelming blissful contentment. Once we have tasted this, the candy our self-cherishing offers us will seem woefully inadequate and won’t tempt us in the least – why sacrifice a feeling of universal bliss for the poisoned pleasures of samsara?