In the last several posts, I explained what Shantideva means by exchanging self with others – namely, imputing our “self” onto others, and “others” onto our old self. With this background, we can now start looking at the actual practice of exchanging self with others.
(8.89) Thus, having contemplated
The good qualities of solitude,
I should completely pacify all disturbing conceptions
And meditate on bodhichitta.
(8.90) First, I should apply myself to meditation
On the equality of self and others.
Because we are all equal in wanting to experience happiness and avoid suffering,
I should cherish all beings as I do myself.
(8.91) Although there are many different parts of the body, such as the arms and the legs,
We protect all these parts as equally as we protect the body itself.
In a similar way, although there are many different living beings,
I should cherish them all as equally as I cherish myself.
Why should I cherish others, protect others from their suffering just as I cherish myself? We are not affected by others’ suffering in the same way that we are presently affected by our own suffering. Because we are not affected by the suffering of others, we have no strong wish to alleviate the suffering of others. We are deeply affected by our own suffering, and at all times we have a strong wish to alleviate it. We consider their suffering to be theirs, not our own. We can even think that the problem is their own and it is not mine. How many times, even now, do we think when someone is experiencing a problem, it is their problem?
From a conventional perspective, this is completely true and frankly important to keep in mind. Each being is responsible for their own experience in life, and we each need to assume responsibility for our own suffering. Conventionally, it is correct to say their problem is not “our problem.” Our problem is the deluded mental reaction we have to their suffering. Perhaps we do not care. Perhaps we are attached to them not suffering and averse to their suffering. Attachment to others not suffering and compassion are quite similar in many respects. But if we have the former, we will be crushed by the suffering of others; if we have the latter, we will quickly be propelled to enlightenment. Thinking we are responsible for others well-being and it is our fault if they suffer can quickly lead to all sorts of co-dependency issues which actually disempower others to assume responsibility for themselves. If they don’t assume responsibility for themselves and start creating the karma that will lead them to enlightenment, from their perspective, it will never come.
But let’s set aside all of that and look at things from the perspective of emptiness. What difference would it make anyway simply wishing to alleviate the suffering of others? When we think of all the suffering in the world, how many people in this world suffer, what difference would it make merely wishing to alleviate the suffering of others, all others? Wishing to alleviate does not alleviate their suffering, does it? In Eight Steps to Happiness, Venerable Geshe-la says compassion – the wish to alleviate the suffering of others – purifies our mind, and when our mind is pure, its objects also become pure. When our mind is pure, its objects become pure. What happens then to deluded suffering beings?
From the perspective of ultimate truth, the problem is definitely ours. We think the problem is theirs, not mine – no, the problem is mine. If suffering living beings had no relationship with us whatsoever, then there would be nothing that we could do to help them. Nothing. Even if we possessed a pure compassion, it would make no difference. There would be nothing we could do to help. Shantideva is explaining here that the parts of our body are not separate from or unrelated to the body itself. They have a definite relationship with the body. So too, there is a relationship between living beings who are suffering, other living beings who are suffering, and we ourselves who are suffering. The relationship between other living beings who are suffering and we ourselves who are suffering is clear – we are all part of the body of suffering living beings.
There exists suffering in this world. Venerable Geshe-la says again and again this is a world of suffering? This world is a subjective world. A suffering world does not exist as an objective truth for anyone. For everyone, a suffering world is a subjective world. It is as Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness, it is a personal world. The world in which we live is our own personal world. Other than people’s personal world, there is no other world existing as an objective truth. Other than the personal world, there is no other world. Our world is a world in which people suffer. Our own subjective world, our own personal world, is a world in which people suffer. People who are part of our world suffer. Those people, those suffering living beings are part of our world, are they not? They are part of our own subjective or personal world. From the perspective of ultimate truth, how can we say then that these people, these other suffering people, have nothing to do with me? How can we say that these people and their suffering are unrelated to me?
In truth, it is because we believe that living beings and their suffering has nothing to do with us – that their suffering is entirely unrelated – that we suffer. Grasping at this wrong belief is why we live in a suffering world. This is why we suffer and why we live in a world of suffering. If we understand and gain experience of this training of equalizing and exchanging self with others, we can develop such a special profound love for others as well as wisdom of dependent relationship.