The radical practice of exchanging ourselves for others.

Dec 10, 2020

In the first stages of practice, our main problem is attachment. But in the more advanced stages, in the practices for developing love, compassion and, finally, bodhichitta, the main delusion is known as self-cherishing. We’d call it selfishness: putting ourselves first. We don’t like being accused of being selfish, do we? Of course, attachment is implied; because of attachment to get what I want I of course put me first.

The series of techniques described in the lamrim that culminate in bodhichitta all lead us to make a paradigm shift in our mind, from the totally instinctive and utterly natural urge to put self first to putting others first – literally, as the lamas say, exchanging self for others.

In our ordinary world, this is shocking. It sounds like mental illness! But this is the Mahayana Buddhist view, and we can all achieve it.

As long as we are driven by the primordial misconception of an inherent self – colloquially we can call it ego-grasping – we will naturally put self first. And not only that. This ego-grasping is what causes us to literally make up a separate sense of self! And then we invent enemies, friends and strangers, separate from me. Its a complete fabrication.

By conquering self-cherishing we can achieve bodhichitta, but it also helps loosen the grip of ego-grasping. With our realization of emptiness we can cut ego-grasping, but it also helps cut self-cherishing. They help each other. Finally we achieve the two wings of a bird: wisdom and compassion.

We need to be a suitable vessel

If we come to this level of practice with a lot of self-loathing, a lot of low self-esteem, having not done much work in the first stages of practice – abiding by the natural law of karma, controlling our body and speech, working on our minds – then were going to mis-hear this. Theres a little exchanging-self-for-others text called The Eight Verses, and in one of the verses it says, When youre with others, think of yourself as the lowest of all.” Well, we’ll say, we do that already! Excuse me, I hate myself already, what do you want from me?” Clearly the person who wrote that text, Langri Tangpa, doesnt mean that.

Pabongka Rinpoche, the author of one of the lamrim texts that Lama Zopa Rinpoche recommends highly, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, says that in order to hear these types of teachings in the appropriate way, you need to be a suitable vessel. And that’s a person whos put themselves together in the wisdom wing – a person who has understood karma, taken responsibility for their own actions, developed a lot of self-respect and an ability to know that they can change their mind. Its only that person who can hear this instruction properly: put yourself as the lowest of all and exchange yourself for others. Its an outrageous idea otherwise!

Mothers do it

I think mothers are a good example of this. Sure, theyre motivated by attachment, but they also have masses of love and compassion for their babies, theres no doubt. I remember watching a documentary years ago about all the outrageous things that mothers do in order to save their children: jumping into floods, running into burning houses, lifting up entire cars – totally focused on saving their beloved child.

Now, if you think about the state of mind of that person running into a burning house, there is no way someone with fear and timidity and low self-esteem could do that. Youve got to be a very courageous person, even for five minutes, haven’t you? And you’re not thinking of yourself because if you start to think, Oh my God, Im running into a fire,” thats the end of you. You couldn’t possibly do it. That mother, at that time, so overwhelmed by the suffering of that child in that fire, is literally not thinking about herself for that few minutes. Think about it. It has to be like that, doesn’t it?

Well, that is what is being talked about here as the capacity weve all got eventually, when we have truly exchanged ourselves for others, when it is truly only others we are ever thinking about – when we become a bodhisattva. I mean, this is so out of the realms of what we think is possible psychologically. We would not trust it if we heard a person was like this all the time. We wouldnt believe its true because we factor in self-centeredness as something natural and normal. But Buddha says we can go beyond it.

Four of them, one of me

In the lamrim, one of the techniques among a series of eleven – a combination of the two main methods for achieving bodhichitta: Seven-Point Mind Training and Exchanging Self for Others – is to contemplate how others are more important than me. For example, if we have the choice between one dollar and two dollars, or one apple and two apples, in general wed prefer two. If you want to buy one house or two houses for the same money, of course youd take two. Youd get excited – you’d feel like you got good value for money. Well, then, same logic: two sentient beings is more than one, isnt it? Im one, theres two over there. Conclusion: theyre more important.

I always tell the story of my friend Harry, who is a meditator. Hes a big, jolly guy with a beard. Hes like Father Christmas and everyone adores him. Everyone thinks that theyre his best friend because he is so kind to everybody. This is how they say bodhisattvas are – he’s always there for everyone. People always say, Oh, Harry is a bodhisattva,” and I always say,I dont know – but he is a nice fellow.” But when I heard this story about him, I thought,Well, maybe he is a bodhisattva.” I asked Harry to verify it years later.

The story goes that one year in the early 90s, I think, Harry was at Kopan Monastery and he was preparing to go to his cave up in Solo Khumbu, beyond Lawudo, where Lama Zopa’s cave is. Anyway, Rinpoche was at Kopan and he said that he’d had a dream that Harry would die and that someone should get a message to him not to go. My comment here is Lama Zopa doesnt sleep, so he cant really have dreamt this – it was obviously his clairvoyance; he was being humble. But Harry had already left, and it was before mobile phones, so Lama Zopa asked Geshe Lama Konchog to pray for Harry. Geshe Lama Konchog was a highly realized yogi; he had lived up in the mountains for years, no clothes, no sleep, no food. Rinpoche said that he “lived in Vajra Yogini’s Pure Land.”

Harry told me that his normal route was closed, so he had to do a detour, which led him to a super dangerous spot. There he was, with his twenty kilo backpack, or whatever, trudging up this steep path, and suddenly he sees four Sherpas coming down right in front of him, very close. These porters carry such big loads, and they’re bent low; almost all they can see is their feet. And the path is so narrow, so treacherous. People fall off these mountains regularly. I almost fell off on one of my treks to Lawudo! I bumped into a yak, but luckily someone saved me. The yak herder got mad at me for being in the way!

So, the first thing Harry said to himself when he saw these four Sherpas coming down the mountain, right there, was: Four of them, one of me – Ill step to the side.” So he stepped to the edge of the cliff to allow them to pass safely. Then he realized how tight it was and so now he said to himself, “If they knock me, I wont hold on.” I dont think a normal person would think that! Unless it was for your children. This has to be proof of years and years of meditating on exchanging himself for others – wanting to put other sentient beings first; unbelieveable love and compassion for others. So finally the opportunity came and without a second thought: If they knock me, I wont hold on.”

And, indeed, it is so tight, so intense that they do knock him – and he doesnt hold on. His feet are on the ground still and his pack is pulling him, and he’s falling backwards. He said that he had “a psychic vision of the entire fall and I saw my body crash to the ground.” Then he said he felt the hands of Geshe Lama Konchog forcefully pushing him, so he reversed direction and fell back onto the path.

I like that story. It shows what we’re capable of – both Harry’s actions and the amazing power of the actions of enlightened beings like Geshe Lama Konchog.

So, let’s go one step at a time. First work on our own mind, become a marvelous, content, fulfilled person by working on the wisdom wing. Then we can help others.

Maybe we can’t give our entire body yet, but when the summer comes and the Mummy mosquitoes are hungry, we can start by giving them “just one tiny, tiny drop of our of precioius blood” as Rinpoche says!

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