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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Advice on Overcoming Self-Cherishing

Advice on Overcoming Self-Cherishing

Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
Dharamsala, India, 1973
translated from Tibetan into English by Sharpa Tulku
transcribed and slightly edited by Alexander Berzin
copyedited by Annette Andrews

You make up your own rules, laws and constitutions. If others break your laws, you catch and punish them. But, if you break them yourself, you let yourself get away with it. Geshe Sharmawa said, “As long as you do not see your own weaknesses and self as the enemy you will not be receptive to any help.” If you feel your feelings are the most important, no one will be able to reach you. Even very capable lamas cannot help someone obsessed with self because advice from lamas clashes with self-cherishing attitudes. In order to be guided on your path by gurus, you must first realize the mistake of having a self-cherishing attitude. With self-cherishing, you have all reasons to do bad things, so you must weigh the reasons for your actions. Not only will gurus not be able to help you, your ordinary friends will not be able to help either because you will not be open to their advice.

We must all admit that we have the fault of self-cherishing – only the Buddha does not have it. We should recognize this fault in ourselves and try to eliminate it. If we at least realize we have a self-cherishing attitude, it will be great progress. When you receive criticism you should always feel you have caused it by your own self-cherishing. If you do not realize this, you will get angry. If a thorn pricks you and you get angry and hit back at it, who will be the loser? If we cannot bear small criticisms and unpleasantness now, how can we bear the suffering of lower rebirths?

Geshe Chenngawa said that we should develop target-like patience. If we receive criticism, we feel we have put up a target. If there were no target in the first place, no arrows would have been shot. There is a saying, “You stick out the neck for the noose.” When you are criticized when you have not done anything wrong, it is because in previous lives you have belittled others. For example, once there was a disciple of Buddha who was an arhat who had rid himself of disturbing emotions and attitudes in connection with the three sets of vows. Still, some people said the arhat had broken his vows, and they in turn bore false witness against him. Buddha was upset and said it was impossible for the arhat to have broken his vows. Further, Buddha said he would no longer consider as a Buddhist anyone who accused a highly realized disciple of breaking their vows, and would instead view them as a menace to Buddhism. Others asked why the arhat was criticised. Buddha replied it was because the arhat, in his previous life, had been a gossiper and slanderer, and caused a king to banish his queen. This now was the consequence.

Criticising , gossiping, and accusing others are very destructive types of behaviour because, not only do they not help your own practice, but they also hurt others and cause confusion. It is said that only two enlightened beings can judge each other. We accumulate negative karma whether criticizing true or false faults. Or, in the case of criticizing a bodhisattva for doing something strange, but for good reason, the result will also be negative.

Those who have the habit of criticizing others all the time have an attitude of deep self-cherishing. It is believed that although some monks may hear many teachings, they do not apply them to their practice because of self-cherishing attitudes in previous lives. Harming our enemies is also a result of self-cherishing.

Once, during the time of Buddha, a monk was dyeing his robes and a monkey became lost in the process. When the monk removed the robe from the pot, it appeared to have turned into monkey flesh. People accused the monk of stealing and cooking the monkey. The monk was taken to court and punished. Some time after, the monkey reappeared and the monk was proved innocent. The monk asked Buddha why this had happened, and Buddha replied it was because, in a previous life, the monk had accused another monk of stealing a monkey.

We are so concerned with being happy and comfortable, and working hard to accumulate money, that we set ourselves up as targets for thieves. There is a story about a person who put all of his coins into a bag and tied the bag to the ceiling because he was so worried about losing them. One day, the bag fell on the man’s head causing him injury. The point of the story is that self-cherishing prevents our happiness both temporarily and ultimately. Since we have had a self-cherishing attitude in all previous lives, we cannot immediately get rid of it, even though we may realize it is our biggest problem.

Thus, we should try not react to any criticism and realize instead it is both the fault of the others and your own self-cherishing attitude. Sufficient realization of the self-cherishing attitude is helpful for developing patience. To say “fire is hot” is natural. There is nothing strange in that. Likewise, if a person is being critical and you can understand their criticism to be rooted in both of your self-cherishing attitudes – this is also natural. Such understanding will not produce anger or insanity because there will no longer be the need to prove the other person wrong or entirely at fault. In A Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras it says, “Self-cherishing destroys self and others, and destroys morality.” Whatever we do as acts of self-cherishing will pave the road to the lower, or hell, realms. Buddhas and bodhisattvas despise self-cherishing for the very reason that much unpleasantness arises from it, and one is reborn in the lower realms without freedom.

Self-cherishing wastes all of our previous efforts and holds back our progress. It should be recognized as a poison depriving us of the essence of life. Always make an effort to destroy this self-cherishing attitude. Whatever our practise, it should be done to eliminate the attitude of self-cherishing. One Kadampa Geshe said that whenever he reads a text he regards all bad qualities described as his own, and all good qualities as belonging to others – thus he fights self-cherishing. One cannot have the quality of bodhichitta without lessening one’s self-cherishing. With bodhichitta and compassion, opposition to self-cherishing becomes stronger, and compassion takes over and establishes a wish-fulfilling tree within ourselves. If you practise compassion, the positive effects of compassion will outweigh the ageless negative effects of self-cherishing.

Geshe Potowa said, “In a certain area of Penpo, no one was more happy than Geshe Khamlungpa, and in another place the same held true for Geshe Channgawa. This was because they had eliminated self-cherishing.” Geshe Channgawa was so poor that he rarely ate, and only had a patched leather skirt to wear. But still he felt rich, and said, “Now I can sponsor the whole universe.” A self-cherishing attitude is caused by grasping for truly established existence, and is the biggest block to the development of bodhicitta. In one text it is stated, “The wish-fulfilling gem is having compassion for all sentient beings. Never realizing this, we have diverted ourselves. Instead of holding grudges against self-cherishing and ego-grasping, we hold grudges against sentient beings as our enemies, and hold our true enemies as our friends.” Another text says, “The biggest ghost and demon is not found outside, but inside the haunted house of the body in the form of self-cherishing.”

With bodhicitta, we can destroy our self-cherishing attitude. It is because of self-cherishing that we are the recipients of harm from evil spirits – making us defensive against criticism and abuse, and causing us to be immoral. With the aim of satisfying our own desires we act with self-cherishing, and make pleasing ourselves our major concern and project.

One cannot help displeasing others sometimes, but with self-cherishing we belittle and harm others as a major activity in order to please the self. Self-cherishing causes much pride and jealousy. If someone else gains something, even though you may say, “Congratulations,” you feel jealous that you do not have it yourself. If there is no self-cherishing attitude then, instead of being jealous, you will accumulate positive potential by rejoicing in the gains of others. The reason for disunity in life is self-cherishing. If you have a strong self-cherishing attitude, you will be very defensive, clash with others, have little patience, and feel that everything others do annoys you and makes you uptight. There exists much disunity between husbands and wives, parents and children, because of such defensiveness.

Another Kadam Geshe was a thief until he was forty. Even though he had many acres of land to cultivate he became a bandit. During the day he robbed passers-by, while at night he broke into houses. One day, he changed his ways, became spiritual, and destroyed his self-cherishing attitude. He said, “Before, I could not find food, but now I get so many offerings that the food cannot find my mouth.”

All of these things are helpful to think about in the development of bodhichitta. Locking yourself in a cave with a self-cherishing attitude the size of Mount Meru would prove useless. But, if you can lessen your self-cherishing attitude, then staying in solitude could be very beneficial.