The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Developing Bodhicitta through Equalizing and Exchanging One’s Attitudes about Self and Others > Session Four: Developing Distinguished Mahayana Equanimity – The Last Three of the Nine Steps – and Shantideva’s Meditation on Equalizing Self and Others

Developing Bodhicitta through Equalizing and Exchanging One’s Attitudes about Self and Others

Alexander Berzin
Kostino, Russia, October 2009

Session Four: Developing Distinguished Mahayana Equanimity – The Last Three of the Nine Steps – and Shantideva’s Meditation on Equalizing Self and Others

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:52 hours)

We are going through the stages of meditation leading up to the development of bodhichitta. And we have gone through the process for developing mere equanimity, and we’re working through the nine stages for developing the distinguished Mahayana type of equanimity. The first type of equanimity was the equanimity with which we are free of attachment, repulsion, or indifference toward others, and that’s developed in common with Hinayana. And what we’re working on now is the Mahayana form, which, in addition to the mere equanimity, is free of the attitude of being close to some or far from others when we’re actually going to help them. We’ve worked through already six of the nine points, which are explained from the relative point of view (three from self and three from others’ point of view), and now we are up to the three points from the deepest point of view. 

The first is that we think now, because of our confusion, that someone who helps us is close to us and someone who harms us is more distant, and so the first we consider a truly established friend and the other as truly established or truly existent enemy. But if that were so, then the Buddha himself would also have seen others in these categories; but, as is cited in a text by the great Indian master Dharmakirti, Buddha is the same toward someone who is applying scented water and massaging him on one side of his body and someone, on the other side, is chopping away at his body with a sword. In other words, if we look from the point of view of valid mental labeling, then the type of mind that has the most valid labeling of course would be that of a fully enlightened Buddha. And a Buddha would be focusing on the Buddha-nature factors of everyone’s mental continuum and, on the basis of the Buddha-nature factors, would impute the not-yet-happening enlightenment of everyone. 

So a Buddha sees that everyone has the potential ability to become a Buddha. No one’s mental continuum is stained in its nature by the disturbing emotions, or any type of behavior conditioned by those disturbing emotions. And so a Buddha wouldn’t label somebody simply on their behavior right now and label them as truly existently established in that way – as being “friend” or “enemy” – although at the moment they might be acting in one or the other way. But in seeing everybody equally as being able to achieve enlightenment, Buddha’s also seeing and focusing on the voidness of each person and their enlightenment that they’ve not yet attained. So if we have a broad enough basis for labeling and an understanding of voidness, then we wouldn’t label anyone as “close” or “far,” but see everyone as equal. So that’s this point, and again we can try to think about this, try to see and focus on how our way of viewing others might be mixed with confusion; but the way that a Buddha sees others is not like that – a Buddha works to help everyone equally. 


What is also relevant here, with this point, is the way that His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains and the way that he acts: he always emphasizes that we should not label and regard others in terms of their behavior but, rather, we need to label and regard them in terms of the fact that they are talking about people, they are human beings and they all want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy. And on that basis, as we had in our earlier points in this meditation, they all have the same right to be happy and not to be unhappy. And so, although we would not necessarily approve and be tolerant of destructive behavior that others do – we might try to stop that or prevent them from continuing destructive behavior – nevertheless, the basis for our compassion and helping them is not that they have been nice to us but, rather, that they are simply a human being who wants to be happy and not to be unhappy. And so, like this, although His Holiness certainly tries to create a situation in which the Chinese government stops its oppression in Tibet, nevertheless His Holiness maintains equal love and compassion for the Chinese and their leadership as he does for absolutely everybody else. As he says, they are also human beings and want to be happy and not to be unhappy, and have the same right to that as everybody else. A very good example. 

Then the second point is that if limited beings were established as truly existing in the categories of “friend” and “enemy,” or “close” and “far,” then they would have to be forever in that category. But we observe that people’s behavior changes and, with almost everybody, sometimes they are nice to us, sometimes they are cruel and hurt us, even if it might not be intentional. And so no one is truly established from their own side as permanently in one category or another, close or far, friend or enemy. Again, we focus on that. 


And then the third point here is that near and far are relative and depend on each other – they are labeled relative to each other. So if there are two mountains facing each other and a valley in-between, if we look from one mountain to the other, the one where we are is the near mountain and the other one is the far mountain; but if we look from the point of view of that other mountain, then that mountain is the near mountain and the first one is the far mountain. And so this is the same in terms of different people or beings, and also with respect to self and others. From our point of view, I am “self” and the other person is “other”; and from their point of view they are “self” and we are “other.” And so “near” and “far,” “self” and “other” are labeled relative to each other and relative to the point of view of its labeling. Nothing or no one is established from its own side as “near” or “far,” or “self” or “other” – they’re all relative. So, again, we view others from this point of view. 


Everybody regards themself as “self” and all the others as “other,” so is there only one truly established true “self” and everybody else is “other” – or is it relative? “All the others are wrong, and I’m the only one that is ‘self.’” This is obviously absurd. 


Any questions about this, about these three points from the deepest point of view? 

Question: In this last point, should we think about near and far, or about me and others? Should we consider both or only one? 

Alex: Well actually in equalizing and exchanging self with others, the step known as equalizing can be understood in two ways. One is: self and others are equal, and this is emphasized in Shantideva’s presentation of this material in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. And the other is that, in terms of others, everybody is equal. If we don’t speak just in terms of self being equal to others, the other aspect of equalizing is to equalize just among others that they are all equal. So, many of these points that are given here in this particular practice could be applied to both types of equalizing our attitude. Although the way that I learned these – I was taught by my teacher who was emphasizing the equality of everyone; that’s why it was called the “distinguished Mahayana” form of equanimity. But here, especially in this last point, we could see how this (and many of the other points as well) could be applied to both – two aspects of equalizing: self and others; or within others, all others. 

So for instance, in terms of “everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy” etc., those three points certainly apply to self and other, as well as all others. And here, in terms of the deepest point of view, we have a different body in each lifetime and so we regard as “self” not just this body, but other bodies as well – Shantideva points that out – so which body is truly “self” and which body is “other” is not truly established or permanently established. And Buddha would certainly see that everybody regards themselves as “self,” not just us and others; and others [and we] are equal in regarding ourselves as “self.” So all of these last three points could be applied to both types of equalizing our attitude: self and other, and within all others. And within the three points from our own point of view, also the third of those, in terms of death – that death could come at any time to ourselves or to others – we and others are equal in that, and everybody among themselves are equal in that. So that applies to both kinds of equalizing. 

But it’s the first two points out of these nine that are a little bit more difficult to apply to both types of equalizing. Everybody has been my mother, it’s just a matter of time – of when they were my mother. I suppose one could look at it from the point of view of: I have been everybody’s mother as well; it’s just a matter of when. And the second one, though, that the amount of help that they’ve given to me outweighs the harm they might have done – in other words, that everyone has been equally kind to me – I suppose we could look at it from the point of view of: I’ve been equally kind to everybody. But these first two points, trying to take them in terms of self and others is really forcing it a little bit. So I must say if we look at this method of equalizing our attitude, it seems to be a little bit mixed in terms of the two types of equalizing our attitude. 

In the steps that follow from these nine ways of developing the distinguished type of Mahayana equanimity, which are referred to as the five decisions, I think in the first of these we can fit quite comfortably all the points that Shantideva makes in his text to demonstrate or help us to achieve this understanding of ourself and others being equal, although in the way that I was taught this, that was not included. When I was taught this by Serkong Rinpoche, I was told that it was a special oral tradition; it wasn’t actually written down. And I don’t know if it’s in any standard Tibetan text; I certainly haven’t searched through all the literature. But the five decisions that come next are elaborations of five verses that you find in Lama Chopa (The Guru Puja) from the Gelug tradition. And so this seems to be coming from a tradition of oral commentary to the Lama Chopa (The Guru Puja). I’ve not heard anybody else teach this except Serkong Rinpoche, but he put a tremendous amount of emphasis on this; and it’s the only teaching that he gave that he had me actually write down word for word his presentation of it, so that I would preserve it, and he said this was his most important teaching. 

Any other questions? 

I think a lot of these points here, especially this last one – it suggests many other ways in which we can understand the relativity of position of close, far, self, other. It suggests many more ways of meditating on it, in terms of relativity. If you look around and observe people (and animals, as well), to each person somebody is very dear and very close. So here in our group we have a husband and wife, and so perhaps each of them look at each other as the most dear and close person, that that person is dear and close to their marriage partner; whereas from our point of view, they might be a stranger – we might never have met them. So each person that we meet, or even each animal, most of them have been loved by their mother – maybe some were abused by their mother, or eaten by their mother in the case of spiders – and some others have viewed that same person in a different way. You might not have liked that person. Not everybody even liked the Buddha. So this also is a clear indication that the position of close, far, dear, and so on, is relative. Okay? If your mother could love you, why can’t I? That’s an interesting thought. 

Now the five decisions from having thought about these nine points of this distinguished type of equanimity. The first decision is: “I shall stop being partisan.” In terms of this, whether we look from the relative point of view or deepest point of view, there’s no reason to consider some beings as close and others as far. So we make the firm decision that I shall stop being partisan. I shall rid myself of feelings of partiality with which I reject some and welcome others, because if we have this partisan point of view it certainly causes problems; whereas regarding everyone as equal is the road that the Buddhas have followed. And if we look at the verse from the Lama Chopa that’s associated with this practice, then what we find in the verse is that it’s referring to equalizing self and others, rather than looking at the equality of all others. So if we are looking at just me, myself, then that’s another way of understanding being partisan; whereas if we develop a non-partisan attitude then we are working for the benefit of everyone, which would include ourselves. Like if we are in some sort of disaster, if we think of an environmental disaster, it’s not just my problem, it’s everybody’s problem – and I am part of everybody. 

The verse from the Lama Chopa reads: 

Inspire us to increase others’ comfort and joy by thinking that others and we are no different: No one wishes even the slightest suffering, nor is ever content with the happiness he or she has. 

When we say “inspire us,” that is addressed to the guru, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, etc. Often that’s translated as “bless me” or “bless us” and that I find is an inappropriate translation. 

Now if we want to add in here some of the ways in which Shantideva has explained how we equalize our attitude about self and others, Shantideva says: “Others are to be cared for by me just as I take care of me.” He says the pain of others is due to their clinging to a false “me” – the “me” that they think is truly established – and the same is true of my suffering and pain. It’s due to my clinging and grasping to a solidly existent “me,” so this is to be equally eliminated by me because there is no difference. In terms of this false “me,” it is equally nonexistent in terms of everybody, and so there’s no difference in terms of the suffering that is generated by this false view of me. He says that it’s equally unbearable, the suffering that’s generated by anybody in terms of clinging to a false “me,” because it’s based on the same type of confusion, or unawareness, or ignorance (just not knowing). 

So we can look at others. We can do this as a meditation in terms of “everybody has that same type of confusion, just as I do.” This is the basic problem that everybody faces – it’s this unawareness or confusion about how we exist. So it’s not my private problem, it’s not your private problem; it’s everybody’s problem. And so the suffering that is generated by this is something that is terrible and has to be eliminated regardless of who’s experiencing it, me or others. So he’s saying that ignorance has to be eliminated throughout the world, not just my ignorance, but ignorance in general, and not just your ignorance. 


By the way, the fact that I’m adding into this meditation that I received from Serkong Rinpoche further points that are made by Shantideva is not an unusual method. The way that His Holiness the Dalai Lama usually teaches is that he teaches several texts at the same time, and he fills in parts from one text into sections of another text where more elaboration is found in the second text. So this is not the fault of “making up the Dharma,” but it’s following a teaching method of putting together material from different texts that are all coming from the same harmonious tradition. 

The next verse that Shantideva has in his presentation is emphasizing that there’s nothing special about my happiness or my suffering, so why focus only on mine? That’s very true. What’s so special about my headache that makes it more horrible than your headache? Or my happiness or your happiness? There’s nothing special about me. This “nothing special” aspect is very helpful; it is the favorite phrase of the young reincarnation of Serkong Rinpoche – “it’s nothing special.” So we can focus again now on nothing special about my suffering or my happiness that makes it proper to work only for getting rid of my suffering and bringing about my own happiness. Your happiness and your suffering are as equally important as mine, nothing special. That also is true in terms of equalizing everybody – nobody among everybody is special. We see that very well in how His Holiness the Dalai Lama treats people. In a sense, he makes everybody feel special, in the context of nobody is more special than others.


This point ties in with the previous point that Shantideva makes. If we say that my suffering and happiness is special because it’s “mine,” then actually everybody considers their suffering and their happiness special because they also consider it “mine,” so what is the difference? There is no difference. That’s not a valid reason, that it’s special because it’s “mine,” because that’s everybody’s reason. It’s very true, isn’t it? 

Participant: We can put our attention on others’ suffering, but we can’t get it in the same way as our suffering. 

Alex: Well this is covered by the next verses in Shantideva’s presentation. Shantideva deals with all of these objections very nicely. So he says that we form a whole with everybody, like the hand and the foot form a whole body. So a whole can be imputed on our entire body, and likewise it can be imputed on the basis of all sentient beings, and we are part of that whole as well. 

So what His Holiness often uses as an example: if I am only concerned with my own problems, that’s one level; it’s valid that I have my own individual problems. But he says I’m also part of a larger whole, the whole of Tibetans, and so therefore it is proper for me to be concerned about the suffering of Tibetans because I am one of them, I am part of that whole. And I am part of all the life on this planet, and we all face a larger problem of environmental and climate disaster, and so it’s not just my individual problem, it’s a problem that encompasses everybody, because I am part of all of this life on this planet. 

So in dealing with these larger problems that encompass larger groups, it’s totally appropriate because we form a whole and the whole experiences that problem. So in dealing with these larger problems, like in the case of Tibetans or in the case of life on this planet, we are not just dealing with our own problem, but it’s everybody’s problem. And as Shantideva says, if the foot has a problem – like a thorn in the foot – then of course the hand helps the foot. The hand doesn’t say, “Well, sorry, that’s your problem, I’m fine up here.” Of course the hand helps the foot, because they are both part of the whole. And so it’s the same in terms of our being part of the larger group of the whole – all limited beings. So let’s focus on that. 


Alex: Did you have a question about that? 

Participant: It is quite difficult, I think. 

Alex: Well, yes, these are quite difficult points. 

Participant: At least for me. 

Alex: Well there’s two levels of difficulty. One is difficulty to understand it, and the other is difficulty in actually generating that feeling sincerely. We can understand it, we can even be convinced that it’s true, but we still might not feel it on a sincere level – in other words, generate that attitude. 

Participant: May I ask a question? 

Alex: Yes, but then we will do this practice. If your question is relevant about this practice... 

Question: Since everyone has his or her individual mind-stream, how can I really say that everyone is equal? 

Alex: Everyone is equal in the sense that we are all parts of a whole. That even a mental continuum is imputed on its parts of each moment, and a group of individual mental continuums: we can impute on it a whole, a whole group. And Shantideva has a verse in this sequence that says a rosary and an army are not truly established from their own side, that they are wholes that are imputed on parts. And so there’s nothing inappropriate in terms of labeling larger and larger groups as wholes. So our individual mental continuum, although conventionally it has individuality, nevertheless it is not just truly established as an individual thing totally isolated from everybody else. 

Okay, let’s focus on this. And the next point that Shantideva makes is also relevant to your question. This chapter, by the way, the second half of chapter eight of Shantideva’s text, is very, very helpful to read and study and contemplate over and over again. 

Question: The eighth chapter, is it wisdom? 

Alex: No, the eighth chapter is on mental stability or concentration. The topic of that is equalizing and exchanging self with others as the object upon which to focus to gain single-minded concentration. 

So let’s focus on this point concerning being a whole. Just as parts of the body constitute a whole, likewise all of life constitutes a whole; and it’s appropriate for each part of the whole to take care of the other parts, similar to how the hand needs to take care of the foot. 


Also, if I might add something here – sorry for the interjection – but looking at your age, you undoubtedly experienced the life under the Soviet system in which we were forced to think in terms of collectives. So we are part of a collective, and if you are forced to be part of a collective and to think of a collective, and not of your individual need, then obviously you can’t force this on others – people will rebel and reject it. So it’s very understandable that those who have experienced being forced to think with a collective mentality would object to this point here. But if we think about it logically and reasonably according to these proper lines of reasoning that we find in Shantideva’s material, then we are thinking in terms of a larger sense of social responsibility based on our own choice and our own understanding, not something that’s just being forced on us. But one can understand very well in the case of the experience of countries under a forced collective system like Russia, like China etc., that this would be problematic. 


I think in terms of larger groups, like collectives, there are artificially designated groups and those that are naturally designated. I’m thinking in terms of if there is a prejudice and discrimination because of color of skin. For instance, in South Africa during the apartheid under which those with black skin were not allowed to ride on the same buses as white people, or use the same toilets, or use the same beaches and so on – or even schools, go to the same schools. You had many of these aspects in the southern part of the United States: blacks had to sit in the back of a bus, couldn’t sit in the front of a bus. Then if the color of our skin was black, that problem affected us whether we liked it or not. So that’s not an artificially designated group; that’s a naturally designated group that we are naturally part of. So I think in that type of situation it is much easier to think in terms of working for the problem of all black people, especially if we are black – or women’s rights, if women are discriminated [against]. In some countries women are not allowed to drive a car; they are not allowed to go outside without having their face covered. Then if we’re a woman, we’re part of that; that’s our problem too. So that’s a naturally designated group. So I think in dealing with this point from Shantideva, it’s best to think in terms of that, of naturally designated groups or wholes, rather than artificially designated collectives that are made by an authoritarian government. 

Then the next point Shantideva makes, in a very lovely verse, is that he says: “Suffering has no owner. Suffering is to be eliminated, not because it’s my suffering or your suffering, but suffering is to be eliminated just because it hurts.” So if we think in terms of a whole, of all of life, then the suffering that we all experience in fact does not have an individual owner. It’s to be eliminated simply because it hurts. 

A very trivial example that I think of is in the hallway of the building that I live in there is a bin for trash. But sometimes you find paper on the floor and that paper needs to be picked up, not because it’s my paper or your paper that dropped, it just needs to be picked up simply because it’s on the floor. Therefore, without making a big problem about who dropped it, if I walk into the building and I see something on the floor like that, I just pick it up and put it in the trash can – simply because it needs to be picked up. 

So let’s think in terms of that. The problem of the environment is not my problem, it’s not your problem – nobody is the owner of that problem – it needs to be eliminated simply because it is damaging to everyone. 


The next point that Shantideva makes is a logical line of reasoning to demonstrate that everybody’s suffering is to be averted – in other words, to be turned back, to be gotten rid of. It says: “If it is true that anyone’s suffering (in other words, somebody, an individual person’s suffering) is to be gotten rid of, then it is true that everybody’s suffering is to be gotten rid of. Because if that were not true, then it would be the case that if my suffering is not to be eliminated, no one’s is to be eliminated.” Or we could say that slightly differently: “If there’s one person whose suffering is not to be eliminated (that’s a better way of saying it), then no one’s is to be eliminated.” 

Do you follow that line of reasoning? That’s not so easy. If one person’s suffering is to be eliminated, then everybody’s suffering is to be eliminated, because we’re all equal; because if that were not the case then, otherwise, if one person’s is not to be eliminated then nobody’s is to be eliminated, because also we’re all equal. So try to work with that. If my suffering is something that should be eliminated, then everybody’s suffering should be eliminated; because if everybody’s suffering is not to be eliminated, then my suffering is not to be eliminated either. That’s perhaps a clearer way of stating the line of reasoning. 


That, by the way, is based on the understanding of the part and the whole that Shantideva just established. If the suffering of a part is to be eliminated, then the suffering of the whole is to be eliminated. Otherwise, if the suffering of the whole is not to be eliminated, the suffering of a part is not to be eliminated, especially when that part is the individual me. 


And then Shantideva presents verses that are similar to the first decision here in our meditation practice: that I definitely shall stop being partisan, whether we think in terms of partiality when dealing with others – that some are close and some are far – or we take “close” as being just me and “far” as being everybody else. So Shantideva says: “If the suffering of all can be eliminated by the hardship of one (namely, me) then this is best to do.” As we find in other bodhichitta teachings: I’m only one, and everybody is much more than just one. And Shantideva says: “When we are working like this for the benefit of everyone, don’t expect a reward,” and we shouldn’t be proud or conceited, thinking how wonderful I am. It’s absurd for the hand to feel how wonderful I am if it helps the foot by taking out a thorn, or how wonderful I am for feeding my body for putting food in the mouth.

That fits in very well with “suffering is to eliminated simply because it hurts”not because it’s your suffering or my suffering, and not because I’m the wonderful one that eliminated it, or you eliminated it. In my hall, I don’t put up a sign: “This paper that was on the floor was cleaned up by….” and I sign my name; I certainly don’t do that – that would be silly. I don’t expect that everybody’s going to thank me. I just pick it up because it needs to be picked up. 


So I think this is a very important point: that we help simply because it needs to be done. My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, was very helpful in helping me to understand this. I served him as translator, secretary, and helper in many ways for nine years, and in all that time he only said “thank you” to me twice. The whole point was that I helped him and did everything possible to make his teachings available to others simply because it was of benefit and needed to be done, and not because I wanted to be thanked and patted on the head like a dog and then I wag my tail. Very helpful. 

So then the next verse that Shantideva says is that: “Just as the hand is considered dear and precious since it’s a part of the body that’s labeled as ‘me’ and ‘mine’,” … We label our hand as “me.” If we hurt our hand we say “I hurt myself,” but the hand is obviously not “me.” So “if we take care of the hand as if it were ‘me,’ even though it’s not ‘me,’ then we can take care of somebody else’s hand as well. because it also isn’t ‘me.’” We can take care of it the same as we would take care of my hand; we could consider it “me.” This is to help us to see how we could regard and take care of others the same way as we take care of ourselves. Their body is not “me,” but then again my body is not “me” either. 


And then Shantideva concludes: “Just as with familiarity I can consider this body as ‘me’ although it’s not ‘me,’ then we can develop a sense of ‘me’ for the body of all living beings though they are not ‘me’ either.” 


Okay, I think we should end here. This evening we have a question and answer session, so we can save our questions for then. 

So we end with a dedication. Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all. 

Thank you.