Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Exchanging Self with Others According to Tantra

When attachment is in our mind, we try to pull things towards us which leads to suffering.  The more we grasp at things being separate, the more we suffer.  The stronger our attachment, the more we actually create a separation because we grasp at this gap or distance.   But then, of course, we try find someone who we can feel safe to be close to because we are so desperate to remove that separation.  What happens, generally, is that there is an attachment arising in our mind because people appear to exist from their own side.  Our attachment does not draw us close actually because the stronger our attachment, the stronger our self-grasping, then the greater distance, and that is so frustrating. It is a suffering state.

We then try to push things away from us, which also leads to suffering.  Sometimes there are people who when we are around them it hurts, so we want to separate ourselves from them.  We feel so overwhelmed that when others put demands on our time, we want to push them away.  Also, we are convinced that they are causes of our suffering.  When we are with them, we suffer, so we think they are the cause of our suffering.  When in reality, the problem is they are at that time an object of delusion for us, so when they are present it gives rise to delusions in our mind which causes us to suffer.  The problem is not them, it is the delusion within our own mind.  But when we push others away, we create even greater separation, and we suffer even more.  We go further from the natural state, but are unable to, so just become more frustrated, etc.

What can we do to address this?  We can exchange self with others, which is the next topic in Shantideva’s guide.  Out of a wish to remove that separation we feel with others, out of a wish to no longer be separated, or no longer feel separated from others, from the whole world, actually, we cultivate the mind of exchanging self with others.  In order to reduce to a great extent the distance, the gap, we must exchange self with others.  We must develop a pure love, a pure love for others. That pure love will enable us to draw close to others – even identifying with them as ourselves.  When we impute our I onto others, there is no longer any separation, no gap, but there is also no self-cherishing and attachment.  Then, we can be inseparably one with others, but without the delusion.

Because this practice is so related to wisdom, our self-grasping itself will reduce, and then we will sense over time that distance will reduce, until finally it will feel like there’s no gap between ourselves and others.   According to Sutra, exchanging self with others is exchanging the object of our cherishing from self to only others.  According to Tantra, which is Shantideva’s explanation, to exchange self with others means to exchange the basis of imputation of our I to all others.  We literally identify with others as ourselves.  We come to view each being as an aspect or part of ourselves.  Just as our hand removes the thorn from our foot because it is part of the same living whole, so too we care for all others because they are part of the same living whole.  When we see others, we see part of ourselves.  If they are suffering, part of ourself is suffering.  If they are happy, part of ourselves is happy.  If they are not enlightened, part of ourselves is not enlightened.  With this sort of view, we can love others from the inside, as opposed to from the outside. 

Ultimately, our ability to complete this exchange of self with others according to Tantra, we need to realize the emptiness of both ourself and others.  When we grasp at ourselves and others as being some inherently independent from one another, it is impossible to complete the exchange.  We need to realize our I is just a label that we can impute onto anything.  It does not adhere to the self we normally see.  Only habit keeps it there.  Likewise, when we look at all living beings, they are not inherently “other,” that too is just a label.  We can take the basis of all living beings, and impute our I.  We can change the basis of imputation of our I from the self we normally see to all living beings.  Then, we will have completed the exchange of self with others. 

2 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Exchanging Self with Others According to Tantra

  1. I often hear : “love yourself before others” when discussing with others about personnal stuff…
    And you wrote
    : “With this sort of view, we can love others from the inside, as opposed to from the outside.”

    I feel the later is how it feels inside about the former and I would like to know if I am wrong.

    Thank you

    • I think what is meant in popular culture when they say “you can’t love others if you don’t love yourself” or “love yourself before others” is different than what is meant in Buddhism by very similar words. In popular culture, there is a false belief that putting others first means sacrificing ourself for others, which obviously doesn’t work. If we sacrifice ourself, we have nothing left to give in the future. Putting others first in a Dharma context means genuinely considering the happiness and freedom of others to be more important than the happiness and freedom of ourself. Since we consider the happiness of others to be “more important” than our own, we gladly, willingly, from our own side put others first, even if it means we get something less. A good example is my great grandmother in law during WWII would give all the meat to her children and she ate the fatty parts because it was more important to her that her children get the good parts. There was no “self-sacrifice” in this, she was happy to do it. She didn’t resent doing it, she did so gladly. Self-sacrifice does not mean being unwilling to get less than the best bits for ourself, self-sacrifice means destroying our capacity to help others. A good example would be working so hard to serve others that we burn ourselves out, and then are unable to do anything. In Buddhism, when we say you need to accept yourself before you can accept others, you need to love yourself before can love others, you need to attain enlightenment yourself before you can lead others to the same state, we have a very practical meaning. Accepting ourself means accepting where we are at without judgment. I am where I am, the question is how do I grow from here. I don’t beat myself up for being where I am at, I am simply where I am at. It is a fact, and it is OK. I shouldn’t expect myself to be farther along than I am, it is imply where I am at. When we don’t accept ourselves, we then tend to not accept others either – then we judge them, pressure them, etc. But when we know how to accept ourselves, then we also know how to accept others as they are without judgment. When we say we need to love ourself before we can know how to love others, we don’t mean we need self-cherishing. Self-cherishing is not loving ourselves it is harming ourselves. To love ourself in a Buddhist context means to have renunciation. We wish to ourselves attain enlightenment and know pure and everlasting happiness. We wish to be happy all the time, and we know that depends upon ceasing samsara from arising within our mind. If we don’t want liberation and enlightenment for ourself, we can’t want it for others (bodhichitta). To want to attain enlightenment first before we lead others to the same state is not us cutting in front of everyone in line or putting our own interests first, it means king-like bodhichitta – the only way we will be able to lead others to enlightenment is if we have made it their ourselves. If we fail to do so, we will get swept away in samsara and then no longer be able to help others in life after life until they too reach the final goal. Exchanging self with others according to HYT is superior to doing so according to Sutra because in Sutra, we still grasp at others as somehow being separate from us, and so our love is obstructed. But when we identify with all living beings as ourself (they become the basis of imputation of our I), then our love for them IS our love for ourself, and our love for ourself IS our love for all living beings because all living beings ARE who we consider OURSELVES to be.

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