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

Alexander Berzin
Kostino, Russia, October 2009

Session Six: The First Three of the Five Decisions

Unedited Transcript
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We have been going through one of the methods for generating bodhichitta, which is an expansion of the meditations on equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others. It derives from the teachings of Shantideva in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, and the teachings of the various Kadam masters, and also the commentaries and explanations from the Lama Chopa (The Guru Puja) – “guru puja” means an offering ceremony to the spiritual teachers or the spiritual masters – and it has been put together by the late Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Trijang Rinpoche. (The “late” – which means that he’s deceased, he’s dead. Junior Tutor and Senior Tutor only has to do with when they were appointed. It doesn’t have to do with rank.) 

I was mistaken yesterday when I said that it wasn’t written down. Actually it was; it does appear in the collected works of Trijang Rinpoche. And it was explained to me by Serkong Rinpoche, the late Assistant Tutor of His Holiness – although he preferred his title to be translated more literally as “Master Debate Partner.” 

And we have gone through the meditations for developing the mere equanimity, which is in common shared between the Hinayana and Mahayana tradition, and which is the basis for both this method for developing bodhichitta as well as the seven-part cause and effect method which deals with recognizing everybody as having been our mother in a previous lifetime. And then we’ve gone through the nine rounds or nine steps for generating the distinguished Mahayana form of equanimity; and this is specifically directed at eliminating any feelings of partisanship – of near or far, in terms of the quality of everyone that we are helping. And we saw that many points in that presentation could also be applied to seeing the quality of ourselves and all others. And we added in here the points that Shantideva himself makes in terms of helping us to develop this understanding of the equality of ourselves and all others. 

And then we began the five decisions that are based on all of these prior steps. And the first of these is that I shall stop being partisan. And we saw that each of these five decisions is an elaboration of a verse that we find in the Lama Chopa, and this verse was: 

Inspire us to increase others’ comfort and joy by thinking that others and we are no different: No one wishes even the slightest suffering or is ever content with the happiness he or she has.  

And with this, we ask for inspiration from the spiritual teachers to have an equal attitude toward everyone, without any feelings of close or far in our thoughts or actions, with respect to bringing about happiness of others and eliminating their suffering. And we see that we and others are equal in this, so no feeling of close (just me) and far (meaning all others); and no feelings of close or far among all the others that we are trying to help. And the type of state of mind that we generate with this decision, Serkong Rinpoche gave an analogy for that, which is when we see some really beautiful item in a store that we would really like and we really need, and we make the firm decision to buy it – so that state of mind, with that firm decision that I’m going to get this, is the type of attitude that we try to generate and focus on here; and that’s the decision to develop and maintain this equal attitude concerning us and others, and all others within themselves, and that decision is based on all the reasons that we have gone through yesterday. 

So we try to review some of those reasons, such as we are all equal in wanting to be happy and not wanting to be unhappy, and then come to that firm decision and focus on it. And we can do that while looking at a whole group of people, such as the people here in this room or the people in the metro station when we take public transportation, whatever. We will not have any favorites, in terms of all these people and trying to help them, and they are all the same as me; I am the same as them.

What is also helpful: we don’t have it here, but if we have a large mirror like we might have in an exercise room or a dance practice room, then if we are in a group of people in a meditation course, to sit facing that mirror so that we see the whole group of people (including ourselves) in the mirror, and this makes it easier to focus on the equality of “everybody including myself.” That’s actually a very powerful practice because normally obviously we don’t really visualize ourselves when we are with others, so it’s easy to forget that we are like everybody else – just like another sheep in a herd of sheep in which, when we look at the herd, they all seem to look alike, or a big flock of penguins. 

Okay, so let’s try to do that. 

[silence] 

The next point, the next decision that we make, is that I definitely shall rid myself of self-cherishing. And this we do by thinking of the faults of having the self-cherishing attitude. The main emphasis here is that because of acting selfishly we commit all sorts of destructive actions. Shantideva explains this by referring to the self-cherishing attitude in terms of our attachment to and cherishing this body of ours. He says that because we are so attached to this body as “me” – we think of it as “me” – then we are afraid, in all sorts of situations, that we could hurt that body or people won’t find it attractive, etc., and he says, “Even in small situations of danger, the attachment to our body causes us fear.” And so he says “Wouldn’t anybody who was intelligent reject this object, ‘me,’ that causes us so much fear?” And then he says, “To protect it we commit so many destructive actions, and it causes us to then experience so much suffering as a result of these destructive actions.” So this is very important to try to bring into our daily lives. As it says in the lojong or attitude-training text The Seven Point Attitude Training, in which it says, “Put all the blame on one thing (which is our self-cherishing attitude).” 

So in any situation in our ordinary lives, when there is a problem that arises and we become so afraid and then have such an uneasy feeling, try to recognize that all of this discomfort and fear is coming because I’m thinking just about me, me, me. We’re thinking about what is this person going to think about me? Are they going to like me? We’re invited to a dinner and we’re all worried about “Am I going to like the food?” We are impatient in a restaurant when the food doesn’t come on time, so we’re just thinking about me, me, me – not the people who are working in the kitchen and how busy they are. Any disagreement that we get into, we get so upset because we’re thinking about me – “I’m right!” When there’s a long line to buy anything or to get anything, we are so upset and impatient because we’re thinking about me, not everybody else on the line. 

We kill because we’re thinking about me. I don’t like this insect in the room so I will kill it – moving from that all the way up to murdering somebody else, a human. Even if the insect can’t harm us, like a harmless spider, we’re afraid of it because we’re thinking about me, me, me; and we kill it because of thoughts about me. Then we steal things, we take things that are not given – I want it for myself. We commit adultery and all sorts of different types of sexual misbehavior because we’re thinking about me, my pleasure. And we lie because of protecting me. Etc., etc. We engage in idle chatter because I think that what I have to say is so important that I have to say it, so I will interrupt anybody. 

So it is very important to be able to recognize when we are feeling uneasy in a situation and see that this is coming because of my self-cherishing attitude. And not just say that in our heads, but actually recognize it, where it is – where it is as part of our attitude, in terms of how I am acting, how I’m feeling. And we try to realize that if I don’t get rid of this selfishness and self-cherishing attitude inside me, there’s no way that I’ll ever be able to have happiness and peace of mind. And so we decide that I’m never going to let myself come under the influence of this self-cherishing attitude; and we ask our spiritual mentors, spiritual teachers, to inspire us to do this, and that means to see within a fully qualified spiritual master their example of not being selfish and they’re always thinking of others. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a very good example of that. So we have this second verse, now, from Lama Chopa

Inspire us to see that this chronic disease of self-cherishing is the cause giving rise to our unsought suffering, and thus, begrudging it as what is to blame, to destroy the monstrous demon of selfishness.  

Now let us focus on that decision, which we come to based on thinking of all the disadvantages and problems that arise from self-cherishing. And in our daily practice we try to, as I say, recognize more and more subtle levels of that selfishness, that self-cherishing. The gross level, of course, would be to take the best piece of cake, or the best thing, when there’s food on the table for the whole family – to more and more subtle aspects of selfishness. Always worrying about can we get the best seat at any event, so that we can see, and we’re all upset if we don’t get that. That’s all because of self-cherishing, isn’t it? 

[silence] 

And I think in this meditation here the important phrase is “monstrous demon of selfishness” – to see that our selfishness really is our worst enemy. 

[silence] 

Often we put up a great deal of emotional resistance to recognizing this selfishness within us, because in fact it is quite ugly and, as we have here in the verse, it’s a monstrous demon. But it really is important to try to admit our selfishness, not just recognize it, but admit that it is our biggest trouble-maker; and, more than that, to resolve that we’re going to try to get rid of it. You could not go to that step and just say, “Well, it’s a trouble-maker,” and that’s all. 

Now obviously this selfishness is based on grasping for a false “me,” the solidly truly existent me, me, me – I have to have “my” way. So we have to work jointly to get rid of the self-cherishing and selfishness on the one side, and the grasping for a truly established “me” on the other side. So this requires joint work on the side of what’s known as method and wisdom. Now obviously until we are very, very far advanced, we still are going to have this selfishness. Only when we become an arhat are we going to be completely free of grasping for a truly established “me.” But even an arhat has the disadvantage that he or she is not able to really help others fully, and that’s because of a more subtle form of self-cherishing with which they were aiming just to achieve their own liberation. We’re not talking about here a bodhisattva who, on the path to becoming a Buddha, achieves arhatship first, but we’re talking about an arhat that is characterized by thinking only of his or her welfare, in terms of gaining liberation. Although of course those who follow the Hinayana path also have a great deal of meditation on love and compassion; it’s not as though they are completely free of it. 

So His Holiness the Dalai Lama says if we’re going to be selfish, at least be what he calls “intelligent selfish,” which is to, out of self-interest, to work for our own liberation and enlightenment, to try to get the proper circumstances and so on. Of course if we had a pure motivation we would be trying to accumulate all the proper conditions and so on just to benefit others; but even if we’re doing that just to benefit ourselves, as part of benefiting others, that would be intelligent self-interest. 

Do you have any questions about this point, all these points concerning self-cherishing? 

Question: I have two questions. The first is about killing insects. If a Colorado beetle is eating our potatoes, what to do? 

Alex: Well in terms of insects that are causing harm, whether they’re causing harm to the crops or causing harm to people – like malaria and mosquitoes, this type of thing – we try to use methods that will not kill them, if any such methods are available. Like for instance sleeping in a mosquito net; or when insects that bite and are difficult are in our room, to try to catch them in a cup and put a paper – you know, when they land on the window, put a paper underneath it and take it outside, rather than killing it. But if there’s no way to actually avoid killing these insects, then, like the example of Buddha in a previous lifetime having to kill the oarsman who’s going to kill all the merchants on the ship, we try to have as pure a motivation as possible. So in your case of the insects destroying the crop, then a more pure motivation would be in order to be able to raise this food in order to feed others – our concern is for others, rather than the selfish motive of I want to preserve my profit and be able to make money from this crop. And then if we do have to exterminate the insects, to try to do it in a way which is the least cruel to them, with good wishes and prayers for their future lives, and fully accepting on ourselves the negative consequences that will come from killing, without being naive about karmic cause and effect. 

Shantideva has a verse like this, that a bodhisattva is willing to go to the worst hells in order to be able to benefit others. In fact we have a secondary bodhisattva vow that if it’s necessary to commit a destructive action in order to benefit others, we must not hesitate; and, in a sense, give the victory to the others (that we save them from some disaster) and we take the defeat on ourselves (the negative consequences), even if it means a rebirth in a lower realm. However, we know that the result of a karmic action, the heaviness of what ripens from it, will be influenced by the motivation. So if our motivation is pure compassion, then the negative consequences, even of killing, will be less severe than if our motivation was just to save our profit from the crop. And afterwards, killing the insects, we try to feel regret. We don’t feel happy about it, and have the wish that I don’t have to repeat this in the future, and bring in some counteracting forces like, as I was saying, prayers for the good rebirth of these insects. 

Your second question? 

Question: Two groups of people are waiting for my decision, and I know that any of my decisions will make one group happy and will cause suffering in other group. What to do? 

Alex: What to do? This is very difficult. We need to obviously take into consideration what would be the effect of giving to one group and not to the other. 

Participant: This situation for example is that we’re speaking about employees and business administrative owners. Employees want to have a higher salary and business owners want to have more profit. 

Alex: Well in this situation we need to see, again, what is the motive of the business owners (to get more money) and what is the motive of the employees (to get more money), and we try to give in accordance to who has the greater need and what will be the result, and we try not to reward or encourage greed. I mean this is very clear in terms of economic policies. For instance, if we lower taxes on the business owners with the hope that if they have more money they will give higher salaries and will employ more people – which is one political philosophy – then we need to examine, based on past experience and trial, whether or not that actually is the case that these employers will give better salaries and hire more people, or does this just feed their greed so that they get more profit. So if their motive is greed, or the greed of the stockholders of the company, then that’s not the best way to improve an economy. On the other hand, if you give a tax break to the employees rather than to the businesses, they might have a little bit more money (the employees), but then the employers might not have enough money to pay so many employees and might lay them off, dismiss them. And so, again, do the employees need more money to be able to feed themselves or, again, is it just out of greed to buy unnecessary things – inessential things, I should say. In other words, does it really stimulate your economy? 

These economic questions are extremely, extremely difficult because they’re based on a faulty premise, a faulty assumption. The whole system is based on a faulty assumption, because it’s based on the assumption that you measure the effectiveness of an economy in terms of how much progress you make each year; and the assumption is that it has to grow every year, and if it doesn’t grow by a certain percentage then that’s a disaster. So it’s never based on the idea of enough, it’s always based on the idea of getting more and more and more – so the whole premise of it is greed. So this is really a very difficult situation. There’s no easy solution because obviously everybody is working under the influence of greed, and somehow one needs to find a compromise. In situations where it’s quite obvious that one party is working on the basis of greed and the other party has a great need, then the decision is much easier to make. In situations where it’s not so clear, that’s much more difficult, and it just underlines the necessity that really to eliminate all these difficulties that one has to somehow work to enable people to overcome being under the influence of greed and selfishness. So it reaffirms our bodhichitta motivation, that we need to become a Buddha in order to really somehow enable a change in the social mentality, that will then not be based just on greed – whether that greed is in a capitalist system for the individual or, in a socialist system, greed for the nation or the authoritarian rulers. 

Any other questions? 

Question: The question is if selfish motivation really is destructive. For instance, all improvements that we have here, all the things around us, the cars that we use and so on – all these things were created by people, most of whom have a selfish motivation to express themselves or to gain profit. So without these people and their influence we would have hardly any of these things. 

Alex: That’s true, but when we talk about the consequences of selfishness we’re talking about the consequences of it on the person who’s selfish. And as His Holiness explained, and I mentioned, if we’re going to be selfish, at least to be intelligently selfish, so that in working for our own benefit (in terms of greed with a job, and so on) that at least we’re doing that in some type of endeavor that will benefit others – like making a product that others need, as opposed to making a product that nobody really does need. 

I remember when I was traveling with Serkong Rinpoche, we went into a very, very fancy expensive store in Zurich which was filled with all sorts of exotic expensive things. And after our host showed us around the store and we got outside, Serkong Rinpoche’s remark to me was that there’s nothing in this store that anybody actually needs. So if our profit motive is just to make things that others don’t need, then that certainly is not very beneficial – that’s not intelligent self-interest. Intelligent self-interest would be to, if you want to make a profit, at least be involved in the food industry or something like that, a service industry, that it’s not just stupid entertainment to increase people’s desire or anger – sex and violence. 

The next point, the next decision, is that I shall make cherishing others my main practice. And here we think about all the benefits and advantages that follow from cherishing others, all the happiness that we experience. Everything going well is the result of cherishing others. In other words, thinking of others. 

When we talk about constructive actions, which are what bring about happiness, it is enumerated in terms of the general constructive actions and the special constructive actions. So we have in our general or mere constructive actions, it is to refrain from the destructive actions. So when we have the impulse to kill something, to refrain from killing. That’s because we think of the welfare of that (or happiness of that) insect, or animal, or fish, or whatever it is that we would want to kill. If we refrain from stealing something that belongs to somebody else, again it’s because of thinking of the unhappiness that it would cause that other person. Of course we might refrain, as well, from thinking in terms of “I want to avoid the suffering that it’s going to cause me if I commit the destructive behavior.” 

So in the general presentation of karma that is shared in common between Hinayana and Mahayana, the motive for refraining from destructive behavior is that “I want to avoid the suffering that that destructive behavior would cause to me.” That’s the only thing that is certain, that it will cause suffering to me, and it’s uncertain what will be the effect on the other person. Nevertheless, in addition to that, the special Mahayana presentation is to try to avoid the suffering that it would possibly cause to others. And it’s this Mahayana point of view that is emphasized here, in terms of the happiness from refraining from destructive behavior comes because of cherishing others. 

And, in general, if we’re selfish nobody likes us. If we are always thinking of others and are kind to others, others will like us and be happy with us. So, even on this very worldly level, we can see the advantages and disadvantages here. And, as Shantideva said, if we look at Buddha, Buddha achieved enlightenment because of completely cherishing others; and wouldn’t that be the greatest happiness that we could achieve, the happiness from being able to bring happiness to everyone. And we can understand how everybody appreciates and wants kindness. Kindness is based on cherishing others, thinking of others, and through kindness and affection – and by affection we don’t mean sexual affection, but generally being affectionate – then this brings about harmony and happiness in any group. 

And so we try to make this decision, then, that I will cherish others, that this is the basis and root of all happiness; and regardless of what harm they might do to me or others, I will always cherish them, and feel terrible if anything were to go wrong with them, and never reject them. No matter what happens I shall always have a kind and warm heart toward them. 

So, again, we ask for inspiration from our spiritual mentor, from his or her example. This is the inspiration never to be parted, for even a moment, from having such a warm feeling of kindness, affection, and cherishing others. And we have the verse from Lama Chopa

Inspire us to see that the mind that cherishes our mothers and would secure them in bliss is the gateway leading to infinite virtues. And thus to cherish these wandering beings more than our lives, even should they loom up as our enemies. 

So let’s focus on that, making that decision. 

[silence] 

Okay. So let’s end here, and we’ll continue after breakfast.