Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: How to stop holding back

Shantideva is encouraging us to go further, to keep moving on, further and further and further, because we hold back.  We know we are holding back.  We are holding back on cherishing some of ourself. We are also still keeping some distance from others, it’s clear.  Perhaps, we are reaching or we have reached the stage where we do cherish others.  Of course we do. But do we care only for others?  Is our interest in others actually a self-interest?  Do we calculate everything through the lens of how things affect us?  We have to keep going forward until finally we have left altogether the world of the self-centered mind.

These times, especially in our societies, people really do need our love, they need to feel that our heart is totally open to them.  If we are really to help the people in our life, they need to feel that our heart is totally, totally open to them.  It is so important.  They must feel that we want to let them in. But there is still a part of our mind does not want to.  We have to overcome this, otherwise they sense it, and there is an obstruction for others, too.  With respect to the people we are to help, we have to open our hearts to them, they have to open their hearts to us.  When this happens, beautiful things will come then. Otherwise, there remain obstructions.

To protect themselves, people keep in place so many barriers, don’t they?  Everybody does.  There are so many barriers that we are keeping firmly in place.  How can we expect others to take down and remove their barriers, if we are not prepared to do so ourselves? They are not going to take down their barriers if we don’t take down ours. They sense, we sense, they sense.  If others are to be open with us, if they are to open their heart, which they need to do, then we have to open ours.   Opening our heart in this way is actually part of our Tantric practice of loosening the channel knots.  We need to invite everybody into our heart, literally, where we see all of reality taking place within our indestructible drop. 

Geshe-la and Shantideva are encouraging us to ‘forget our object of self-cherishing.’  We know that there is fear in our own mind at the prospect of that.  It seems dangerous to forget about the object of self-cherishing.  What would that mean? What would happen? Just forget about myself?  That seems dangerous, doesn’t it?  It seems dangerous as well, highly dangerous to go completely into the worlds of others.  What are we going to find there?  We do feel afraid, don’t we?  We believe that we would be so exposed, so vulnerable, so we hold back, even just a little bit, we hold back thinking we are protecting ourself. We keep a little bit our distance. We do not completely open our heart.  We have got to overcome this one, go further and further. This is what Shantideva is encouraging us to do, through familiarly, applying effort. 

We need a tremendous amount of faith, a tremendous amount of trust. We need to trust this Dharma jewel of equalizing and exchanging self with others.  Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness to transform our mind in such a radical way, we need deep faith in this practice, an abundance of merit, and powerful blessings from a spiritual guide who has personal experience of these teachings.  And he says with all these conducive conditions, the practice of exchanging self with others is not difficult.

These last two or three verses help us to overcome any fear.

(8.118) Out of his great compassion,
Arya Avalokiteshvara even blessed his own name
To relieve living beings from the fear of self-cherishing;
So I should recite his name mantra to receive his blessings.

(8.119) Do not turn away from learning to cherish others because it is difficult.
For example, a person’s lover may once have been her enemy, the mere sound of whose name induced fear;
But now through familiarity she cherishes him
And becomes unhappy when he is not around.

(8.120) Thus, whoever wants to swiftly protect
Both themselves and others
Should practise this holy secret
Of exchanging self with others.

Geshe-la describes samsara as the experience of a self-centered mind.  The samsaric world is a reflection of such a mind, in no way existing from its own side.  And we know the samsaric world is a suffering world. It is a world inhabited by suffering living beings who also in no way exist from their own side.  How can we bring such a world to an end? Only by destroying the self-centered mind. We do this through exchanging self with others and the wisdom realizing emptiness – chapter 8 and chapter 9 of Shantideva’s Guide.

Through compassion, naturally arising from exchanging self with others, conjoined with wisdom, we create an enlightened world in which there is no suffering.  If we think deeply from the point of view of emptiness, this is the only way to bring suffering to an end. There is no other way.  We cannot bring an end to suffering in samsaric world because that is its very nature, isn’t it?  Therefore, we must end the samsaric world itself.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: We are parts of a living whole

After describing the practice of equalizing self and others, and giving us encouragement to train in this practice, describing its benefits, special advice and so forth, now Shantideva goes on to describe the practice of exchanging self with others.

(8.113) Seeing the faults of cherishing myself
And the many good qualities of cherishing others,
I should completely forsake self-cherishing
And become familiar with cherishing others.

(8.114) Just as I regard the hands and so forth
As limbs of my body,
So should I regard all living beings
As limbs of a living whole.

Again, Shantideva is helping us develop a new view of ourselves, as part of the body of all living beings.  Because all the parts of a body are united in a single whole, each part takes care of all the others.  In the same way, if we view ourselves as a part of the living whole, we care for each part.  The main point is this is a view we need to train in.  We have to apply effort to come to see ourselves as inseparably part of the same whole.  The hand does not think it is just a hand, it considers itself the body.  Every being, including ourself, is part of the fabric of our mind.  Others are literally parts of us, each being is part of our life.

(8.115) Through the force of familiarity, I generate a mind
That grasps at I with respect to this non-self-existent body;
So why, through familiarity with cherishing others,
Should I not develop a mind that grasps at I with respect to others’ bodies?

The main practice of exchanging self with others is to identify with all living beings.  Our “I” is just a label, we are what we identify with.  At present, we identify with something that does not exist at all, an inherently existent I.  But with familiarity, we strongly believe it to be ourselves.  This is just a question of familiarity, there is nothing about this non-existent that is us other than the fact we identify with it.  If we train in identifying with others, we can gradually come to literally feel ourselves to be all living beings, and to consider each being as part of ourselves.  Since we naturally cherish whatever we consider ourselves to be, if we consider ourselves to be all living beings, we will naturally cherish all living beings. 

If we make this one change in recognition, the entire Mahayana path falls into our laps almost effortlessly, and with it enlightenment.  Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness that the path to enlightenment is very simple:  all we need to do is change the object of our cherishing from self to others, and everything else follows naturally.  This means to attain enlightenment, all we really need to do is take as our main practice identifying with all others as ourselves.  When we see others, think “this is me.”  When we see ourself, think, “that is others.”  Again and again and again, we train.  With familiarity, this will become our view.  Then, everything else comes naturally.

(8.116) Although I work for others in this way,
I should not develop pride or pretension;
And, just as when I feed myself,
I should hope for nothing in return.

We discussed this in detail in an earlier post, but I find it important that Shantideva repeats it again.  We shouldn’t think we are special because we are training in exchanging self with others or that we are on the bodhisattva’s path.  This is a trick, a deception.  Our self-cherishing hijacks our Dharma to make us feel special and important.  Many great spiritual leaders – and many local resident teachers – easily fall into this trap.  I know I did, I know I still do. 

(8.117) Therefore, just as I protect myself
From anything unpleasant, however small,
So should I become familiar with
A compassionate and caring mind towards others.

It is familiarity that will take us to the point where we have exchanged self with others.   That is what we do over these next few verses.  We try to become more and more familiar with cherishing others and letting go of the cherishing of ourself.   At the end of the day, the practice itself is quite simple:  we keep thinking I with respect to others’ bodies, until we have actually forgotten altogether the object of our self-cherishing.  The object of your cherishing becomes only others.  At first the object of cherishing will become others.  With equalizing self and others, still to some extent there will be some self-cherishing.  But we learn to cherish only others. We continue with this training, until finally we cherish only others. That is the difference.  Geshe-la said in Eight Steps to Happiness that we need to forget our object of self-cherishing.  We can just forget it completely and think only of others.  This is what we are striving for.  Again, that doesn’t mean we don’t still take care of ourself.  We just take care of ourself so that we are of better service to others.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Closing the gap between self and others

We all know from the lamrim texts the analogy of ‘this mountain’ and ‘that mountain.’  Everything is relative to our point of view.    In the same way, we currently impute self on this body and other on others’ bodies.  We reverse that.  Reversing this gives rise to a profound love for others, which we will explore over the next several posts.

At present we feel a gap, a large gap between ourselves and others.  We know already from what Shantideva said, there exists a relationship between ourselves and others. There is a relationship. We are denying that when we regard ourselves and others as independently existent. We are denying that relationship.  In effect we are separating, we are separating others from ourselves, aren’t we? We are grasping at ourselves and others as independently existent. We are separating others from ourselves. We are creating a false distinction.  It is unnatural, because there is naturally a relationship between ourselves and others. We are not different in the way we appear to be. We are certainly not separate in the way we appear to be.

When we are training in cherishing others as we do, there is a danger we love, but at a distance.  We are afraid of getting close because then attachment arises, aversion arises, relationships get complicated.  So we love at a distance, thinking this is maintaining equanimity or something.  But is this what Geshe-la does?  He has invited all of us to generate the closest possible relationship with him – where we become inseparably one.  He has invited us into his heart, and he enters into our heart.  Our goal is to eliminate all gaps, all distance.  A genuine love, surely, draws as close to others as possible.  We seek to close that gap. If we really do love people, we’re closing that gap, we want that gap to close, don’t we?   If we have a genuine love for others, we feel close to them. The more we love another person, the closer we want to be.  

But we need to make the distinction between wanting to be close to others out of attachment and wanting to be close to others out of love.  Failing to make this distinction, we think we should not get close to others.  But how can we love them, really love them with all our heart, when we are maintaining this distance?  With attachment, we want to be close to others, that’s what attachment does.  It pulls objects to us, attractive objects to us, pleasant objects.  With love, we perceive beauty in others, others appear beautiful, attractive, and we want to draw close, closer and closer. So on the one hand we can fool ourselves into thinking that it’s just attachment, but on the other hand when we have attachment we can fool ourselves into thinking that it’s love.  We need to be clear.

How do we resolve this apparent contradiction, this tension?  Shantideva’s answer is we exchange self with others – we literally identify with others as ourselves, and then we love “ourself” with all our heart.  Then, no problems.  All gaps between ourself and others fall away – completely – but there is no delusion of attachment because we are not trying to draw this inherently existent self we normally see closer to these inherently existent others we normally see.   

When we are loving others, we want to reduce the gap that appears between ourselves and others.  For as long as there is grasping in our mind, self-grasping, we cannot remove completely that gap. Self-grasping creates that gap.  But what is special about this practice of exchanging self with others is we can remove that gap entirely.  By letting go of grasping at ourself and others, and changing the basis of imputation of our I onto all others, we close the gap completely.  This is a wisdom lineage. 

When we have a self-centeredness, and of course there will naturally be a gap between ourself and others. There is me here, trying to love you over there. But with this practice, it seems that self-centeredness ceases, actually ceases. There no longer remains a self-centeredness.  What happens to the gap between ourselves and others?  We are using our wisdom to become familiar with cherishing others. To deepen our love for others.  We are able to draw others closer and closer to us. How? Through choosing others’ bases as our own.  This is how we do it.  Applying wisdom to bring about an extraordinary love for others where we feel so incredibly close to them, as if there really is no distance anymore, no gap anymore.  How do we do that? Through choosing others’ bases as our own. Imputing I upon the bases of others.

Identifying “I” with the bodies of others is a wise mind.  Identifying with the body and mind we normally see gives to self-cherishing, self-centeredness, and all its sufferings.  Identifying with the bodies and minds of others gives rise to cherishing others, profound love for others, and all the happiness that that brings.  Is it not then unnatural not to love? It is unnatural not to love everybody.  I think people feel it’s unnatural, which is why people so want, so need to love and be loved.  This is our job – to give them the love that they want. But also to receive the love that they want to give.  With this practice we really do move more and more and more into the world of others, identifying I with the bodies of others.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: All we care about is others

Even if people appreciate our efforts, often we feel it is not enough and we become disappointed, we become discouraged, even irritated, angry.  We must follow Geshe-la’s example, and make our giving completely unconditional, and expect nothing in return, no reward, simply, we enjoy, we enjoy benefiting others in whatever way we can.  Our joy is coming from our beneficial, meaningful activities. We should just want to make others happy and stop their suffering.  What we feel at any time does not matter. What matters is that others are happy and that they are free, relatively free from suffering. That is all that matters. We might not succeed, but at least we try with a happy heart.

(8.110) And just as I protect myself
From anything unpleasant, however small,
So should I act towards others
With a compassionate and caring mind.

If we are concerned for others’ feelings, at least as much as our own, then we will care for them, we will care about what happens in other people’s lives. We must care more and more and more until finally all we care about is others. We must reach the stage where we only care about the people in our life and the world. We only care about the people of our town, our city. Finally, we only care about everyone else. We do not care about ourselves anymore.  Not caring about ourselves doesn’t mean we don’t still need to care for ourselves.  Of course we need to care for ourselves in the same way an ambulance driver takes good care of their ambulance.  We need a healthy body, adequate rest, and to not push ourselves unsustainably so that we can be of service to others.  If we are getting sick, breaking down, or burning out, we are useless to others. 

Through this training, we can see how we are becoming more and more selfless, if we’re showing more concern for others, if we’re showing more care for others, then we’re becoming more and more selfless rather than selfish.  This is the first step.  And just as we protect and cherish ourself, to the same extent, we must protect and cherish others. Equalize, we equalize self and others in this way.  We are developing a genuine interest in others, for example with respect to the people in our lives, we’re developing a genuine interest.

Generally speaking, we still have a lot of self-interest.  Even in relation to other people, we show interest to the extent that these other people can help us in some way.  That’s not selflessness, that is just clever selfishness.  Clever selfishness is better than crass selfishness, but is not as good as pure selflessness.  When we are angling for how others can help us, we might become very interested in their well-being, but we will find there is attachment in our mind. An attachment born of self-interest. What we have to do is develop an interest that is not in any way mixed with attachment, and that interest must be a genuine interest.  With this training in equalizing self and others, that is what happens. We become actually interested in other people, what is happening in their life. For their sake, not our own.  Genuinely, not superficially.

(8.111) Although there is no I there,
Through the force of familiarity
I cling to an I within a body
That arose from the drops of others’ sperm and blood.

(8.112) In the same way, why can I not
Identify “I” with the bodies of others?
Equally, I should not find it hard
To identify “other” with my own body.

Here we start to discuss exchanging self with others according to Tantra.  In Sutra, we simply exchange the object of our cherishing from self to others.  In Tantra, we actually change the basis of imputation of our I from our current body and mind to the bodies and minds of all living beings.  This is very clever spiritual technology.  When we identify with all others, we don’t actually have to abandon our “self” cherishing, in fact, we can increase it!  The difference is our “self” is now imputed on the basis of all others.  We can likewise impute “others” onto ourself, and then completely not care what happens to “others.”  This is much easier to do than according to Sutra where we need to recognize the disadvantages of self-cherishing, the advantages of cherishing others, and so forth until we complete the exchange.  Here, we can just go directly – identify with others, then amp up our “self”-cherishing as much as we want.  We can neglect “others” (now us) as much as we did before. 

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Not abandoning others to their fate

(8.107) Because one whose mind is acquainted with the equality of self and others
Derives great joy from relieving the suffering of others,
For their sakes, he or she would happily enter the deepest hell,
Just like a wild goose plunging into a refreshing lotus pool.

(8.108) The ocean of joy that will arise
When all living beings are liberated
Is everything I wish for –
So why should I wish for my solitary liberation?

Perhaps we have no wish for solitary liberation, and we are always good bodhisattvas. But does it ever come up, the wish to ‘forget others and just take care of myself’?  We often experience suffering, but we often blame our suffering on the fact that we are spiritual practitioners, that we have these responsibilities to the center, to our families, etc.  It seems that so much of our suffering is related to being involved with having to be there for others, having this responsibility to be good bodhisattvas. Because if we were not, if we didn’t have this responsibility, we think a lot of that suffering would simply disappear.  We could live quite contentedly alone, doing our practice, without all these deluded people constantly disturbing our inner peace.  Perhaps when that mind comes up, we would like to just drop it all, get away from everyone.  We want to free ourself from suffering, that’s what we’re thinking about at such times. I do not want to experience this suffering, what can I do to free myself from it.

At such times we’re not thinking of the situation of others, those who come to the center, the people in our town, the people at our work, or the people in our family.  We are just thinking about ourself and our own liberation from suffering.  But when we do, does our suffering end?  No.  It usually increases.  We start to view everyone as obstacles.  We feel this great tension between “being happy” and “following our spiritual path,” like the two are in conflict.  There are all these other people out there who haven’t taken on the great responsibility to care in every way for the doctrine and migrators, and they seem quite happy.  Happier than me, at least.  There are all these people who happily live alone in quiet places, not bothered by anybody, just doing their practice.  Ah, the life.  Wouldn’t that be great.  But I’m stuck here due to all my responsibiliites towards these people.  We can think like this sometimes. 

When we do, we need to pull out these verses.  Venerable Tharchin said he wants to be reborn in hell because that is where all the living beings are.  In Offering to the Spiritual Guide, we pray, “I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort by striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion; even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell for many aeons for the sake of each being.”  This is the supreme good heart of the bodhisattva.  We should strive instead to become like the kind-hearted Bodhisattva, accept fully and enjoy what has to be the most meaningful life. How can anything compare to the ocean of joy that arises when all living beings are liberated?

Having given some encouragement to training in equalizing self and others, in these next couple of verses Shantideva gives some special advice in relation to our training, advice that I think is particularly relevant to us as modern Kadampas. He says:

(8.109) But although I work for the benefit of others,
I should do so without pride or pretension.
Moved only by the joy of benefiting others,
I should not hope for any reward.

We do a lot for the benefit of others, but we are not entirely free from worldly motives.  We still expect some degree of gratitude, or at least we expect that others not get mad at us for the help we do provide.  We haven’t quite the pure intention of Venerable Geshe-la, our intention often is mixed, isn’t it? We have still many, many worldly concerns. We assume this responsibility, we do work for the center, for our families, for our work, but we are not quite free yet from worldly motives.

We must try, as Shantideva here is advising, we try to work for others without pride, without pretension.  Our giving must be unconditional.  We must expect nothing back from others.  If we are honest, we do expect some return for our work – or at least not criticism. Parents in particular have this problem.  Despite giving everything, almost all kids wind up blaming their parents for all of their woes.  Their children have to go to therapy to recover from the so-called “trauma” of having been raised by us.  Sure, some times it is legitimate, but most of the time parents are doing their absolute best, but the wishes of the kids are infinite.  We always let them down no matter how much we do, and then they criticize us for all of the different ways we failed them.  They often don’t realize how completely ungrateful they are being until they themselves have kids – and even then, sometimes not.  We should expect this, and love them anyways, give to them anyways.  Maybe they will understand the kindness of their mothers, maybe they never will.  It doesn’t matter – we get the same good karma regardless; in fact, our giving becomes more pure if we get the criticism. 

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Finding others’ suffering unbearable doesn’t mean we suffer

(8.103) “There is no need to dispel everyone else’s suffering!”
This is not a valid argument.
If my suffering should be dispelled, so should everyone else’s;
And if others’ suffering should not be dispelled, neither should mine.

It is useful to also recall what we discussed in an earlier post.  If there is suffering in my world, then it is my suffering because it is taking place within my world/my mind.  Since we are not separate from our world, if there is suffering taking place anywhere within our world, it is our suffering.  This is especially true when we understand the emptiness of everything that takes place in our world.  It is all coming from our own mind. 

(8.104) “But such compassion will bring me suffering,
So why should I strive to develop it?”
How can compassion bring suffering?
It is the very nature of a peaceful mind!

We discussed this in an earlier post, but it is worth recalling the reasoning so we have no confusion or hesitation about generating compassion.  Our suffering is painful because we have body consciousness or mental consciousness with respect to these aggregates.  It is unbearable because we cherish our own well-being as important.  The suffering of others is not painful to us because we do not have body or mental consciousness with respect to their aggregates.  If we do not cherish them, then their suffering won’t harm us and we won’t care.  But we will then conventionally be a jerk, and ultimately we will be letting the cancer of suffering metastasize in the body of all living beings (which exists and is created by our own mind).  If we cherish them, then their suffering is not painful, but it is unbearable.  If there is attachment to others not suffering in our mind – in other words, we mistakenly think that our own happiness depends upon others not suffering – then when they suffer, we will suffer too.  We don’t suffer from their suffering, we suffer from the attachment in our mind.  But if our mind is free from attachment to them not suffering, we will find their suffering unbearable, but it won’t be suffering for us.  What will it be?  It will be a powerful energy to do something to help – a selfless mind wishing to help.  Such a mind is full of energy, but virtuous, so our mind will remain peaceful.  If we also then have wisdom knowing what can actually help to permanently free others from suffering, then we will be filled with powerful energy to do that thing.  What is that thing?  Attain enlightenment ourself so we can lead others to the same state.  The strength of our unbearability then drives us with great power to attain enlightenment.  It is what powers our bodhichitta.  Unbearability + wisdom knowing how to help = bodhichitta.  Bodhichitta is the most virtuous mind possible a living being can generate. 

The suffering of others cannot harm us because it is taking place within their body.  We do not suffer from their suffering.  If we cherish them, it is true we will find their suffering unbearable, but this is not a suffering for us.  Finding their suffering unbearable will induce within our mind love and compassion, which are virtuous minds that are the nature of inner peace.  Compassion also leads us to bodhichitta and enlightenment.  Finding their suffering unbearable also induces us to engage in virtuous actions, which is the cause of our future happiness.  Being clear about all of this will remove the residual doubt we have about generating compassion for all living beings and fearing that we will be crushed by all of the suffering we see in the world.   

(8.105) If, through one person experiencing relatively little suffering,
The infinite sufferings of living beings can be eliminated,
A kind-hearted Bodhisattva will gladly endure it
And delight in working for others.

(8.106) Thus, although the Bodhisattva Supushpachandra understood
That he would suffer at the hands of the king,
He did not seek to avoid his own death
But instead released many others from their suffering.

And even if we do need to endure a little bit more suffering as a result of our working for others, what is more important, the suffering of one or the freedom of countless?  The story of Supushpachandra is he knew he would be killed by the king if he went to an area and taught Dharma, but he also knew that he would lead thousands to liberation.  If we view the suffering and happiness of all beings as equally important, regardless of who is experiencing this, then it is perfectly logical to do this.

The story of Jesus also illustrates this perfectly.  He knew if he went to Jerusalem, he would be crucified, but in so doing, he would become a source of inspiration and refuge for billions in the future.  He underwent terrible suffering, but in so doing created a path for countless others.  He did so willingly because he valued the happiness of others as more important than his own.  Soldiers do the same when they go off to war to protect their homeland and firefighters do this when they jump into the blazes to save the family trapped inside.  We can happily be the same, willing to undergo any hardship in order to help others.

But let’s get real – what hardships do we really need to endure to travel the path?  The only things we actually need to abandon are the inner diseases of our delusions, which harm our inner peace anyways.  We travel a joyful path.  Sure, it might be easier in the short-run to abandon living beings when they grow too troublesome or problematic.  We do that, don’t we?  We are happy to be around others when they are happy, but as soon as they have problems, are down, depressed, or troubled, we say, “sorry you are feeling that way,” and we find our way out as quicky as we can.  My mom would call such people “fair weather friends.”  As kind-hearted bodhisattvas, we are the opposite of that.  We actively seek out those who everyone else has abandoned.  We seek to be the friend of the friendless, the one who is there for others in their hour of greatest need.  Does this involve some sacrifice?  Only of our selfish wishes, but as we already looked at before, our self-cherishing is the root of all our suffering.  What is bad for our self-cherishing is good for us. 

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Viewing all suffering as our own (without it hurting)

(8.97) But why should I protect others
If their suffering does me no harm?
If we cherish only others, we find their suffering hard to bear;
So we definitely need to protect them.

(8.98) It is not a wrong conception to think
That it will be I who experiences the future suffering,
Because it will not be another person who dies
And yet another who is reborn.

Why then do or should we protect others if their suffering does me no harm?  Why?  Why protect ourselves from future suffering, since likewise that presently does me no harm?  If we do not protect others from their suffering because it does not harm us, then likewise we should not protect ourself from future suffering because it does not harm ‘us’ either.  It will be the ‘self’ of the future.  Everything is impermanent.  If we do seek to protect ourselves from future suffering, then likewise we should protect others from their suffering.  There is no difference.

But we do feel the need to protect ourself from future suffering, even though it is a different self.  We are grateful to our past selves that created the karma for us to refind the Dharma in this life and generally speaking enjoy a good life.  If our past self had not been so considerate, we would have a difficult life right now.  Likewise, we go to school to have a good job later, we save our money to have enough during retirement.  These sorts of actions involve us working for somebody in the future who is not us now.  Why do we do that?  Because we see the relationship between ourself now and ourself then.  In exactly the same way, when we let go of the grasping at self and others and come to see all living beings as one body of living beings, when we see the inseparability and dependent relationship between ourself and others, then of course it makes sense to free others from suffering.  The hand removes the thorn from the foot. 

At a deeper level, from the perspective of exchanging self with others according to tantra where we impute our I onto all living beings, in the same way that it makes sense for this present self to protect that different self, the self of the future from their suffering, then so too it makes sense to protect a different self that is others’, the self of others, from their suffering.

(8.99) “Surely, whenever there is suffering,
It should be dispelled by whoever is experiencing it.”
Then, since the suffering of the foot is not the hand’s,
Why should the hand help to alleviate it?

(8.100) We alleviate the suffering of the foot with the hand
Because it is a specific method to relieve this pain.
It is also incorrect to grasp at an independent self and others –
Such grasping should be completely abandoned.

(8.101) Things that we call “continuums” or “collections”,
Such as rosaries or armies, are falsely existent.
Thus, there is no independent possessor of suffering,
For who is there who has control over it?

(8.102) Since there is no independent possessor of suffering,
There is no real difference between my own and others’ suffering.
Thus, we should dispel all suffering simply because it is painful –
Why cling to false distinctions with such certainty?

I love this line of reasoning.  It is so powerful.  We make a difference between overcoming our own suffering and that of others because we make a difference between ourself and others.  As the analogy we discussed in the last post, if each being is a separate part of the same whole, then just as the hand removes the suffering of the foot, we should remove the suffering of somebody else.  If we were paralyzed in our legs and did not feel them, but they nonetheless had gangrene, we would certainly deal with it even though we don’t feel that pain.  Why?  Because it is part of us.

Here Shantideva goes even further. We feel like we are suffering because we falsely grasp at there being an ‘us’ who is suffering.  We think we do not feel the suffering of others because we believe that they are inherently different, they are inherently different to us.  The suffering is that of others who are inherently other. That is what we feel, isn’t it? It is the suffering of others. Other being inherently other. How can it possibly be my suffering? There is no relationship between the two at all.  As Shantideva points out, there is no independent possessor of suffering. 

There is just suffering in the mind inside ‘this body.’  Likewise there is no independent possessor of others’ suffering.  There is just suffering in the mind inside ‘that body.’  Since there is no possessor of suffering anywhere, there is just suffering in the mind, and it is equally that of everybody.  The suffering of anybody is the suffering of everybody.  For this reason, we need to overcome all suffering, simply because it is suffering taking place within our mind.  We should not cling to false distinctions with such certainty.

What about the argument that there is still a difference because the suffering that takes place within my mental continuum is ‘mine’ and that that takes place within the continuum of others is ‘theirs?’  Shantideva answers this too in that there is no continuum either.  Continuum is just what we impute on the series of subject-object pairs.  Other than this, there is no continuum.  When we understand subtle impermanence, the self of this moment is different than the self of the last moment – different, but not separate.  Different, but not independent.  Conventionally the two are completely different.  They are just as different as self and other.  There is no difference between the other of our future mental continuum and others, so if we care for one we should care for the other.

If we find ourselves confused now and have no idea about who actually possesses or experiences suffering, then that is a good thing.  Because before we found that there was no confusion — my suffering is mine and everybody else’s is theirs. And that belief binds us to a life of suffering, keeps us in a world of suffering, doesn’t it?  What perhaps begins with certainty becomes doubt, and then eventually we will get a correct belief, then a valid cognizer, and ultimately a yogic direct perceiver.  It doesn’t matter if we do not have a perfect understanding straightaway.  We have to read these verses over and over and over again, contemplate and meditate on them until they make sense to us. It is worth the effort.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Why compassion doesn’t hurt

Shantideva goes on to say:

(8.92) The suffering I experience
Does not harm others,
But I find it hard to bear
Because I cherish myself.

(8.93) Likewise, the suffering of others
Does not harm me,
But, if I cherish others,
I shall find their suffering hard to bear.

This is a very clever line of reasoning.  To understand it, we need to make a clear distinction between “being harmed” and “finding something unbearable.”  Sometimes people think compassion means we are equally harmed by the suffering of others, and to find their suffering unbearable means we find it equally painful.  If this was the case, who would ever want to generate compassion since it would be a cause of infinite suffering.  Surely it would be better to remain in different to the suffering of others than to experience all suffering.  Therefore, making this distinction is crucial.

From a conventional point of view, if I break my arm, it harms me and not others.  If find this harm both painful and unbearable.  It is painful because it was my arm that was broken.  It is unbearable because I cherish my own happiness and well-being as being important.  It is perfectly possible for me to find this experience painful (since it is my arm that was broken), but perfectly bearable because I don’t consider my well-being to be particularly important. 

Now imagine somebody else breaks their arm.  From a conventionally point of view, this does not harm me, but it does harm others.  It is harmful to them because it is painful to them.  Their pain is not my pain.  Their pain does not harm me.  Everyone knows this.  If I do not care about their well-being, then their pain will also be perfectly bearable for me.  It is not my problem.  For them, however, this experience is definitely painful because it is their arm that is broken.  It may or may not be bearable for them depending on whether they cherish themselves or not.  If I do care about their well-being, and I consider it to be important, then their pain will not be harmful to me, but it will be unbearable. 

Pain, or harm, is a function of whether we are imputing our I onto an aggregate of feeling of something that is harmed.  Bearability is function of whether we consider the happiness and well-being of that person to be important. 

But unbearability does not necessarily mean we suffer from it.  Whether we suffer from the unbearability of other’s suffering depends upon whether we have attachment to others well being or whether we are free from such attachment.  To be attached to others’ well-being means we think our own happiness depends upon them not suffering.  That’s what attachment to anything means – we think our happiness depends upon some external factor.  If we have attachment to this person not suffering, their breaking their arm will be both unbearable to us AND it will be experienced by us as suffering.

Therefore, for compassion – finding others suffering to be unbearable – to NOT be suffering for us, our mind must be free from attachment to other people suffering.  If we have attachment, we will suffer from their suffering.  If our mind is free from such attachment, we will still find their suffering unbearable (because we consider their happiness and well being to be important), but we won’t experience that unbearability as suffering.  How will we experience it, then?  To be unbearable means we can’t just sit there and do nothing about it.  We feel compelled to do something because it is unbearable. 

This is where our wisdom comes in.  What do we feel compelled to do?  If we lack wisdom, we might get mad at the other person for whatever it is they did to break their arm, hoping that our anger will deter them from making similar mistakes again in the future.  Maybe that will help, but most likely not.  But what will help?  Us becoming a Buddha.  If we become a Buddha, then we can gradually help others change the basis of imputation of their I onto an enlightened being whose arms never break.  We see the only lasting solution to their suffering is for them to attain liberation and enlightenment themselves.  How can we bring that about?  By we ourselves first attaining enlightenment for their benefit – we attain enlightenment with the express purpose of being able to in the future lead these people to freedom.  The strong feeling of unbearability, that is free from attachment to them not suffering, and that possesses the wisdom that actually knows what is beneficial to others is the pure mind of compassion that is the substantial cause of a qualified bodhichitta.  This unbearability will push us to become a Buddha.  If we have attachment or we lack wisdom knowing what can actually help, this unbearability could lead to ourself suffering at best and us feeling the need to control others at worst. 

The key here is understanding we don’t have to be harmed by suffering to find suffering unbearable. We are harmed by suffering, we find suffering then unbearable, but we do not have to be harmed by suffering in order to find suffering unbearable.  If we have wisdom and are free from attachment to others not suffering, finding the suffering of others unbearable naturally leads to love, compassion and virtuous actions, which creates the causes for our future happiness. 

But what do we do about our own suffering?  We may still be harmed because we are in samsara, but if we do not cherish ourself at all, then we will find the suffering we experience to be entirely bearable.  It will not be important, just as the suffering of others is unimportant to us now.  Indeed, when we let go of thinking that our own experience is important, we find whatever pain we are experiencing to be eminently more bearable, and this creates the space within our mind to actually be able to transform our suffering into something useful for the spiritual path.  Then, not only will it be bearable, we will start to understand Shantideva when he says “suffering has many good qualities.”  For us, it will still be painful, but so beneficial.  Then, others suffering will not be our problem.  Our suffering won’t be our problem.  Others’ suffering will be a cause of our enlightenment.  Our suffering will be a cause of our enlightenment.  Perfect!

But if we cherish only others, won’t we suffer from the suffering of everybody?  No, because we do not experience their suffering.  So by cherishing others, we do not experience their suffering, but we find it unbearable and so we are lead into spiriutal paths.  And by not cherishing ourselves, we find our own suffering entirely bearable, so it is not a problem for us at all.  In short, we put our cherishing where it can’t be harmed – others.  Shantideva’s wisdom is unparalleled.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: We are responsible for everyone’s happiness

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.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: The mind that takes us to enlightenment

If we exchange self with others in the way Shantideva explains, several things will happen.  We will close the gaps between ourselves and others.  We know that is what people want in their heart, it’s what they need, actually – to remove all the gaps.  If they can give and receive love then they will come to know themselves.  Then that fear of separation will go, the attachment will go, and as the love grows, pure love grows, they will feel more and more close not just to one person, to two people, but to everybody.

In this way, we are able to show the inner aspects of being a Kadampa.  It is our inner aspect of pure love that draws others to us.  Then, people will be drawn very much into the Buddhadharma so that they too can learn to give love and to receive love without any sense of separation with others.  It is so unusual for people to be able to receive pure love from somebody else.  A genuine selfless, unconditional, inseparable love is so unusual in this world, but actually receiving such love is even more rare still.  We can do that.  We can be that beacon of love in the life of others.  And then really things can take off for them, can’t they?  If they feel that they can receive our unconditional love.

Kadam Bjorn said the way we really feel the love of our spiritual guide for us is by turning around and loving others as he loves us.  Then, his love not only pours into us, but through us to others.  We become a conduit for his love into our own karmic world.  Once people get pulled into the orbit of this, they never want to leave.  Indeed, they want to learn how to do it themselves.  On the basis of such a foundation, we can really then set an example that inspires others to enter the Buddhadharma. And that attraction comes from how we are.  Geshe-la describes in Eight Steps to Happiness that we transform ourselves into a magic crystal that has the power to gradually purify the whole world, indeed the entire universe. Finally, that separation between themselves and the whole universe will disappear, and they will experience the purest, the purest kind of happiness imaginable. Wonderful.

The mind that wants to be with all beings all the time will take us to enlightenment.  This wish to be with and cherish others all the time is a mind that will take us all the way to enlightenment.  The wish to be with others all the time is a mind that wishes to be with them so we can love and care for them.  For us, we find our happiness in the action of loving them.  The more we love them, the more our mind is virtuous and the happier we are.  Our goal is to love them more and more, deeper and deeper, until our love is brought to full fruition.  This wish to be with others all the time is informed by a wisdom of how it is possible.  As Venerable Tharchin explains, when we see how the path is doable, effort becomes effortless.  This joyful mind of love will take us all the way to enlightenment. 

Very often when we are busy and feeling overwhelmed and over-worked, when people come to us asking for help, we think “oh no, not another demand on my time.”  We wish they wouldn’t ask.  We wish they could take care of themselves.  They are just adding one more burden onto us, and we wish we didn’t have to help.  This is exactly wrong, and a missed opportunity.  The correct mind should be, “I would want to help you, I would want to be there for you, but unfortunately I can’t right now.”  But inside we think the reason why we can’t is because we are not yet a Buddha.  This wanting to be there for others combined with a realization of why we can’t be there with them then is just a whisker away from the precious mind of bodhichitta.  We then think, I must become a Buddha so that I can be with you all the time, so that I can love you all the time.  Therefore, I will train in the stages of the path to be able to do so.

Shantideva’s explanation of exchanging self with others in Chapter 8 of his Guide is not just to help us generate the precious mind of bodhichitta, but because this explanation creates the perfect mental environment for being able to meditate on emptiness in Chapter 9.  His presentation of exchanging self with others completely breaks down our conception of self, and helps lay the foundation for viewing everything validly as part of ourselves.  This is like shattering the concrete of our ignorance before removing it completely with the wisdom realizing emptiness.