Equalizing and Exchanging Self with Others

Two months before he passed away, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche dictated this teaching to Dr. Berzin, had him write it down word for word and told him to preserve it as his most important teaching. It explains in detail the meditations for overcoming the greatest source of our unhappiness and problems – our self-cherishing attitude – and developing, instead, an attitude of sincerely cherishing others, the source of all happiness.

There are two traditions for how to develop bodhichitta, a heart fully dedicated to others and to attaining enlightenment in order to benefit them as much as is possible – the seven-part cause and effect tradition and the tradition of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes toward self and others. Each has a separate or distinct way of developing equanimity beforehand as a preliminary. Although each has the same name, equanimity, the type of equanimity developed is different.

  1. The equanimity that comes before recognizing everyone as having been our mothers in the seven-part cause and effect meditation involves visualizing a friend, an enemy, and a stranger and is the equanimity with which we stop having feelings of attachment and repulsion. One of its names, in fact, is “the mere equanimity with which we stop having attachment and repulsion toward friends, enemies, and strangers.” The word mere here implies that a second method exists that entails something further.

    Another name for this first type of equanimity is “the mere equanimity that is the way of developing equanimity in common with the shravakas and the pratyekabuddhas.” Shravakas (listeners) and pratyekabuddhas (self-evolvers) are two types of practitioners of the Hinayana (Modest Vehicle) of the Buddha's teachings. Here, mere implies that with this type of equanimity, we do not have and are not involved with a dedicated heart of bodhichitta.
  2. The equanimity that we develop as a preliminary for equalizing and exchanging our attitudes toward self and others is not merely the above type of equanimity. It is the equanimity with which we have no feelings of close or far in the thoughts or actions involved in our benefiting and helping all limited beings and eliminating their problems. This is the especially distinguished, uncommon Mahayana (Vast Vehicle) way of developing equanimity.

Mere Equanimity

If we ask what is the way of developing the equanimity that comes before recognizing everyone as having been our mothers in the seven-part cause and effect method, it involves the following steps.

Visualization of Three Persons

First, we visualize three persons: a totally nasty and unpleasant person whom we dislike or whom we consider our enemy, a very dearly cherished loved one or friend, and a stranger or someone in between toward whom we have neither of these feelings. We visualize all three of them together.

What kind of attitude ordinarily arises when we subsequently focus on each in turn? A feeling of unpleasantness, uneasiness, and repulsion arises with respect to the person we dislike. A feeling of attraction and attachment arises toward the dearly cherished friend. A feeling of indifference, wanting neither to help nor to harm, arises toward the one who is neither, since we find the stranger neither attractive nor repulsive.

Stopping Repulsion from Someone We Dislike

For ease of discussion, suppose all three people we visualize are women. First, we work with the person we dislike, the one whom we might even consider an enemy.

  1. We let the feeling of finding her unpleasant and repulsive arise. When it has arisen clearly,
  2. We notice that a further feeling arises, namely that it would be nice if something bad happened to her, or if she experienced something she did not want to happen.
  3. We then examine the reasons for these bad feelings and wishes to arise. Usually we discover that it is because she hurt us, did us some harm, or did or said something nasty to us or to our friends. That is why we want something bad to happen to her or for her not to get what she wants.
  4. Now, we think about that reason for wanting something bad to happen to this woman we dislike so much and we check to see if it really is a good reason. We consider as follows:
    • In past lives, this so-called enemy has been my mother and father many times, as well as my relative and friend. She has helped me very much, uncountable times.
    • In this life, it is not certain what will happen. She can become of great help and a good friend later in this life. Such things are very possible.
    • In any case, she and I will have infinite future lives and it is completely certain that she will at some time be my mother or father. As such, she will help me a great deal, and I shall have to place all my hopes on her. Therefore, in the past, present, and future, since she has, is, and will help me in countless ways, she is ultimately a good friend. This is decided for sure. Because of that if, for some small reason such as she hurt me a little in this life, I consider her an enemy and wish her ill, that will not do at all.
  5. We think of some examples. For instance, suppose a bank official or some wealthy person with the power to give me a lot of money and who had the desire and intention to do so, and had done so a little bit in the past, were to lose his temper and become angry one day and slap me in the face. If I were to become angry and hold on to my rage, it might cause him to lose his intention to give me any more money. There would even be the danger that he would change his mind and decide to give the money to someone else. On the other hand, if I were to bear the slap, keep my eyes down, and my mouth shut, he would become even more pleased with me later that I did not become upset. Maybe, he might even want to give me more than he originally intended. If, however, I were to become angry and make a big scene, then it would be like the Tibetan saying, “You have food in your mouth and your tongue kicks it out.”
  6. Therefore, I have to consider the long run with this person I dislike, and the same is true with respect to all limited beings. Their help to me in the long run is 100% certain. Therefore, it is totally inappropriate for me to hold on to my anger for some slight, trivial harm that anyone might do.
  7. Next, we consider how a scorpion, wild animal, or ghost, at the slightest poke or provocation immediately strikes back. Then, considering ourselves, we see how improper it is to act like such creatures. In this way, we defuse our anger. We need to think that no matter what harm this person does to me, I shall not lose my temper and become angry, otherwise I am no better than a wild animal or a scorpion.
  8. In conclusion, we put all of this in the form of a syllogism of logic. I shall stop getting angry at others for the reason that they have done me some harm, because:
    • In past lives, they have been my parents.
    • Later in this life, there is no certainty that they will not become my dearest friends.
    • In the future, they will at some time or other be reborn as my parents and help me a great deal, so in the three times they have been helpful to me.
    • If I get angry in return, then I am no better than a wild animal. Therefore, I shall stop getting angry for the small harm they may do to me in this life.

Stopping Attachment for Someone We Like

  1. We focus on our friend or loved one in the group of enemy, friend, and stranger that we initially visualized.
  2. We let our feeling of attraction and attachment arise toward her.
  3. Letting ourselves feel even stronger how much we want to be with this person, we then
  4. Examine our reasons for having such infatuation and attachment. It is because she gave me some small help in this life, did something nice for me, made me feel good, or something like that, and so I feel drawn to her and am attached.
  5. Now, we examine whether this is a proper reason for having such a feeling. It is also not a good reason, because:
    • Undoubtedly in past lives, she has been my enemy, hurt me, and even eaten my flesh and drunk my blood.
    • Later on in this life, there is no certainty that she will not become my worst enemy.
    • In future lives, it is decided for sure that she will hurt me or will do something really nasty to me at some time.
  6. If, for the small reason of her doing something nice, but trivial, for me in this life, I become infatuated and attached to her, then I am no better than the men who are enticed by the songs of siren cannibal women. These sirens take on a pretty appearance, lure men with their ways, and then later gobble them up.
  7. In this way, we decide never to become attached to anyone for some small nice thing he or she does for us in this life.

Stopping Indifference toward Someone Neutral

Thirdly, we follow the same procedure with the person who is in between – the stranger who is neither a friend nor an enemy.

  1. We focus on such a person from our visualization,
  2. Let ourselves feel nothing, neither the wish to harm nor to help, neither to get rid of nor to be with this person,
  3. and feel further the intention to ignore her.
  4. We examine our reason for feeling this way. It is because she has not done anything either to help or to hurt me, and so I have no relation with her.
  5. When we examine further whether this is a valid reason to feel this way, we see that she is not ultimately a stranger, because in countless previous lives, later in this life, and in future lives she will be close, she will be a friend, and so on.

In this way, we will be able to stop all feelings of anger, attachment, or indifference toward enemies, friends, and strangers. This is the way to develop the mere equanimity that is in common with that of the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas and which is developed as a preliminary to recognizing everyone as having been our mothers in the seven-part cause and effect method for developing a dedicated heart of bodhichitta.

Equanimity as a Preliminary for Equalizing and Exchanging Our Attitudes

The way to develop equanimity as a preliminary for equalizing and exchanging our attitudes with respect to self and others is divided into:

  • The way to actualize the equanimity that depends on the relative point of view
  • The way to actualize the equanimity that depends on the deepest point of view.

The way that depends on the relative point of view is divided into:

  • The way to actualize the equanimity that depends on our own points of view
  • The way to actualize the equanimity that depends on the points of view of others.

The Way to Actualize the Equanimity That Depends on Our Own Points of View

This involves three points:

  1. Since all limited beings have been our parents, relatives, and friends in countless lives, it is improper to feel that some are close and others far, that this one is a friend and that one an enemy, to welcome some and to reject others. We need to think that, after all, if I have not seen my mother in ten minutes, ten years, or ten lives, she is still my mother.
  2. It is possible, however, that just as these beings have helped me, sometimes they have also harmed me. Compared to the number of times they have helped me and the amount they have helped me, however, the harm they have done is trivial. Therefore, it is improper to welcome one as close and reject another as distant.
  3. We shall definitely die, but the time of our death is completely uncertain. Suppose, for example, we were sentenced to be executed tomorrow. It would be absurd to use our last day to become angry and hurt someone. By choosing something trivial, we would be missing our chance to do anything positive and meaningful with our last day. For example, once there was a high official who became furious with someone and thought to punish him severely the next day. He spent all that day planning it out and then the next morning, before he could do anything, he himself died suddenly. His anger was completely absurd. The same is true if the other person were to be condemned to die the next day. It would be pointless to hurt him today.

The Way to Actualize the Equanimity that Depends on the Points of View of Others

This is also divided into three points.

  1. We need to consider, as for myself, I do not want to suffer, even in my dreams, and no matter how much happiness I have, I never feel it is enough. The same is true with absolutely everyone else. All limited beings, from a tiny bug upwards, wish to be happy and never to suffer or to have any problems. Therefore, it is improper to reject some and to welcome others.
  2. Suppose ten beggars came to my door. It is totally improper and unfair to give food to just some and not to the rest. They all are equal in their hunger and need for food. Likewise, as for happiness untainted with confusion – well, who has that? But even happiness that is tainted by confusion – all limited beings lack a sufficient supply. It is something that everyone has keen interest in finding. Therefore, it is improper to reject some as far and welcome others as close.
  3. As another example, suppose there were ten sick people. They are all equal in being miserable and pathetic. Therefore, it is unfair to favor some, to treat only them, and to forget about the others. Likewise, all limited beings are equally miserable with their specific individual troubles and with the general problems of uncontrollably recurring existence or samsara. Because of that, it is unfair and improper to reject some as far and welcome others as close.

The Way to Actualize the Equanimity That Depends on the Deepest Point of View

This also involves three rounds of thought.

  1. We think about how, because of our confusion, we label someone who helps us or is nice to us as a true friend and someone who hurts us as a true enemy. However, if they were established as truly existing in the ways that we label them to be, then the Thusly Gone Buddha himself would need to have seen them like that as well. But, he never did. As Dharmakirti has said in A Commentary on (Dignagas Compendium of) Validly Cognizing Minds” (Skt. Pramanavarttika), “The Buddha is the same toward someone applying scented water to one side of his body and someone else slicing him with a sword on the other.”

    We can also see this impartiality in the example of how Buddha treated his cousin, Devadatta, who was always trying to harm him out of jealousy. Therefore, we too need to avoid being partisan and taking sides with people out of thinking with confusion that they exist truly in the categories in which we label them. No one exists that way. We need to work on stopping our grasping for truly established existence. This grasping comes from our confused minds making things appear to us in ways that are not true.
  2. Furthermore, if limited beings were established as truly existing in the categories of friend and enemy, just as we grasp at them to be, they would always have to remain like that. Consider, for instance, a watch that we feel always has the correct time. Just as it is possible for its condition some time to change and for it to run slow, so likewise the status of others does not remain fixed, but can also change.

    If we think about the teachings concerning the fact that there is no certainty in the uncontrollably recurring situations of samsara, it helps here, as with the example of the son eating his father, hitting his mother, and cradling his enemy. This example comes in the instructions for developing an intermediate level motivation in the graded stages of the path to enlightenment (lam-rim). Once, the Highly Realized Arya Katyayana came to a house where the father had been reborn as a fish in the pond and his son was eating him. The son then hit the dog, which had been his mother, with the fish bones of his father and cradled the child in his arms who had been his enemy. Katyayana laughed at the absurdity of such changes in the status of beings wandering in samsara. Thus, we need to stop holding on to or grasping at people to exist in the fixed and permanent categories of friend or enemy, and then on that basis, welcoming the one and rejecting the other.
  3. In A Compendium of Trainings (Skt. Shikshasamuccaya), Shantideva has explained how self and others depend on each another. Like the example of far and near mountains, they depend on or are relative designations to one another. When we are on the close mountain, the other seems to be the far one and this one the near. When we go to the other side, this one becomes the far mountain and that one the near. Likewise, we are not established as existing as “self” from our own sides, because when we look at ourselves from the point of view of someone else, we become the “other”. Similarly, friend and enemy are just different ways of looking at or regarding a person. Someone can be both one person's friend and another's enemy. Like the near and far mountains, it is all relative to our points of view.

The Five Decisions

From having thought like this about the above points, we need to make five decisions.

I Shall Stop Being Partisan

Whether we look from the relative or deepest point of view, there is no reason for considering some people or beings as close and others as far. Therefore, we need to make a firm decision: I shall stop being partisan. I shall rid myself of feelings of partiality with which I reject some and welcome others. Because hostility and attachment harm me both in this and future lives, both temporarily and ultimately, in both the short and the long runs, they have no benefits. They are the roots for hundreds of kinds of suffering. They are like guards that keeping me circling in the prison of my uncontrollably recurring problems of samsara.

Think of the example of those who stayed behind in Tibet after the uprising in 1959. Those who were attached to their monasteries, wealth, possessions, homes, relatives, friends, and so on, could not bear to leave them behind. Consequently, they were interred in prisons or concentration camps for 20 or more years, because of their attachment. Such feelings of partiality are the slaughterers who lead us into the fires of the joyless hell-realms. They are the festering demons inside us that prevent us from sleeping at night. We must root them out by all means.

On the other hand, an equal attitude toward everyone, with which we wish all limited beings to be happy and to be parted from their problems and sufferings, is important from any point of view, both temporarily and ultimately. It is the main thoroughfare traveled by all Buddhas and bodhisattvas to reach their attainments. It is the intention and innermost wish of all the Buddhas of the three times. Therefore, we need to think that no matter what harm or help any limited beings do to me from their sides, from my side I have no alternative. I shall not get angry or be attached. I shall not consider some as distant and others as close. There can be no way or method to handle situations other than that. I am definitely decided. I shall have an equal attitude in terms of how I think and act toward everybody, since everyone wants to be happy and never to suffer. This is what I shall make as much effort as possible to do. O spiritual mentor, please inspire me to do this as best as is possible. These are the thoughts we need to have when we recite the first of the five stanzas in The Guru Puja – Lama Chopa that are associated with this practice:

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.

Thus, with this first verse we pray to develop an equal attitude of having no feelings of close or far in our thoughts or actions with respect to bringing about the happiness and eliminating the suffering equally of everyone. Such an attitude of equality fulfills the definition of the type of equanimity or equalized attitude with which we concern ourselves here. We make the firm decision to develop and achieve that attitude, in the same way as when we see some wonderful article in a store and decide to buy it.

I Shall Rid Myself of Self-Cherishing

Next, we think about the faults of having a self-cherishing attitude. Because of the selfish concern of a self-cherishing attitude, we act destructively, commit the ten destructive actions, and consequently bring ourselves hellish rebirths. From there, all the way up to an arhat’s (liberated beings) not attaining enlightenment – such selfish concern causes the loss of all happiness and peace. Although bodhisattvas are close to enlightenment, some are closer than are others. The differences among them come from the amount of self-cherishing they still have. From disputes in countries to discord between spiritual masters and disciples, within families, or among friends – all come from self-cherishing. Therefore, we need to think that if I do not get rid of this festering mess of selfishness and self-cherishing inside me, there is no way that I shall ever enjoy any happiness. Thus, I shall never let myself come under the sway of self-cherishing. O spiritual mentor, please inspire me to rid myself of all selfish concern. These are the thoughts with the second verse:

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.

Thus, with the second verse, we make the firm decision to rid ourselves of our self-cherishing attitudes of selfish concern.

I Shall Make Cherishing Others My Main Practice

Next, we think about the benefits and good qualities that follow from cherishing others. In this life, all happiness and everything going well; in future lives, birth as humans or gods; and in general, all happiness up to the attainment of enlightenment come from cherishing others. We need to think a great deal about this in terms of many examples. For instance, a well-liked official's popularity is due to his cherishing and being concerned with others. Our ethical self-discipline of restraining from taking the life of another or from stealing derives from our cherishing of others, and this is what can bring us rebirth as humans.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, always thinks about the welfare of everyone everywhere, and all his good qualities come from this cherishing of others. The bodhisattva Togmey-zangpo could not be harmed by Kama, the god of desire, who set out to cause him interference. This great Tibetan practitioner was the type of person who, if an insect flew into a flame, would break into tears. He was sincerely concerned about all others and so even ghosts and such interferers could not bring themselves to harm him. This was because, as the spirits themselves said, he has thoughts only of benefiting and cherishing us.

In one of Buddhas previous lives when he was born as an Indra, a king of the gods, there was a war between the gods and the demi-gods. The demi-gods were winning and so Indra fled in his chariot. He came to a spot on the road where many pigeons had congregated, and feared that he would run some of them over, he halted his chariot. Seeing this, the demi-gods thought he had stopped his chariot to turn back and attack them, and so they fled. If we analyze this, we see that their flight was due to Indras attitude of cherishing others. In such ways as these, we need to think about the advantages of cherishing others from many points of view.

When a magistrate or any official sits very elegantly in an office, his position and everything about it are due to the existence of others. In this example, the kindness of others consists simply in the fact that they exist. If no people existed other than himself, he could not be a magistrate. He would have nothing to do. Moreover, even if people exist, if no one ever came to him, this magistrate would just sit back and do nothing. On the other hand, if many people came before him, looking to him to settle their affairs, then in dependence upon them, he would sit up nicely and serve them. The same is true for a lama. In dependence on others, he sits nicely and teaches. His entire position is due to there being others for him to help. He teaches Dharma to benefit them and thus his help comes from his depending on others, such as through his remembering their kindness.

Likewise, it is through love and compassion, from cherishing others, that we can quickly become enlightened. For instance, if an enemy hurts us and we develop patience, and thereby we come closer to enlightenment, this has come about due to our cherishing of the other. Thus, since limited beings are the basis and root of all happiness and welfare, barring none, we need to decide that regardless of what they might do or how they might harm me, I shall always cherish others. Other beings are like my spiritual mentors, Buddhas, or precious gems in that I shall cherish them, feel a loss if anything were to go wrong with them, and never reject them, no matter what. I shall always have a kind and warm heart toward them. Please, inspire me, O my spiritual mentor, never to be parted for even a moment from such a heart and feeling for others. This is the meaning of the third verse:

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.

In this way, we decide to take as our central focus the practice of cherishing others.

I Definitely Am Capable of Exchanging My Attitudes Regarding Self and Others

By relying on the gateway of thinking about the many faults of cherishing ourselves and about the many qualities of cherishing others, when we feel that we must change our values of whom we cherish, and then we wonder whether we really can change them, we definitely can. We can change our attitudes because before he became enlightened, the Buddha was just like us. He too was similarly wandering from rebirth to rebirth in the uncontrollably recurring situations and problems of samsara. Nevertheless, the Able Buddha exchanged his attitudes about whom he cherished. By holding fast to cherishing others, he reached the summit of being able to fulfill his own and others aims.

In contrast, we have cherished only ourselves and ignored all others. Putting aside accomplishing anything of benefit to others, we have not accomplished even the slightest benefit for ourselves. Cherishing ourselves and ignoring others have made us totally helpless, unable to accomplish anything of real significance. We cannot develop a true renunciation or determination to be free from our problems. We cannot even prevent ourselves from falling to one of the worst states of rebirth. In these ways, we think about the faults of cherishing ourselves and about the benefits of cherishing others. If Buddha was able to change his attitude and he started out like us, we can change our attitude as well.

Not only that, but with enough familiarity, it is even possible to cherish the bodies of others the same as we would take care of our own. After all, we took drops of sperm and egg from other people's bodies, namely our parents, and now we cherish them as our own bodies. Originally, they were not ours. Therefore, we need to think it is not impossible to change my attitude. I can exchange the attitudes I have toward self and others. Therefore, however I think about it, it will not do unless I exchange the attitudes I hold toward self and others. It is something that I can do, not something I cannot do. Therefore, inspire me, O my spiritual mentor, to do it. This is the thrust of the fourth stanza.

In brief, inspire us to develop the minds that understand the distinctions between the faults of infantile beings slaving for their selfish ends alone and the virtues of the Kings of Sages working solely for the sake of others, and thus, to be able to equalize and exchange our attitudes concerning others and ourselves.

Thus, the decision we make here is that we definitely can exchange our attitudes concerning the cherishing of self and others.

I Shall Definitely Exchange My Attitudes Regarding Self and Others

Again, we think about the faults of self-cherishing and the benefits of cherishing others, but this time we do it in an alternating fashion, mixing the 2 together. In other words, we go through the ten destructive and the ten constructive actions, one by one in turn from each list alternatively, and see their results in terms of self-cherishing and cherishing others. For instance, if I cherish myself I will not hesitate to take the lives of others. As a result, I will be reborn in a joyless hell realm and even when born later as a human, I will have a short life full of sickness. On the other hand, if I cherish others, I will stop taking the lives of others and, as a result, I will be reborn in a better state, have a long life, and so on. Then, we repeat the same procedure with stealing and refraining from stealing, indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior and refraining from such action, and so on. In short, as the fifth stanza says:

Since cherishing ourselves is the doorway to all torment, while cherishing our mothers is the foundation for everything good, inspire us to make our core practice the yoga of exchanging others for ourselves.

The fifth decision, then, is that I definitely shall exchange my attitudes toward self and others. This does not mean, of course, to decide that now I am you and you are me. Rather, it means to exchange the points of view with respect to whom we cherish. Instead of cherishing ourselves and ignoring others, now we shall ignore our selfish concerns and cherish everyone else. If we fail to do this, there is no way we can attain anything. But if we make this exchange in our attitudes, then on that basis we can go on to train with the visualizations of giving away our happiness to others and taking on their sufferings, as a way to develop sincere caring love and compassionate sympathy. On that basis, we will be able to develop the exceptional resolve to alleviate the problems and sufferings of everyone and bring them happiness, and the dedicated heart of bodhichitta with which we strive for enlightenment in order to be able to do so as much as is possible.


The source for these teachings is Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Skt. Bodhicharyavatara) by Shantideva, the teachings of the Kadampa masters, and of course The Guru Puja – Lama Chopa by the Fourth Panchen Lama. They appear in this form with numbered sections in The Collected Works of Kyabjey Trijang Dorjechang, the Late Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. However, to be too interested in the outline and the numbers within it is like when we have a plate of seven momos (dumplings) in front of us and instead of eating them, we want someone to attest to how many there are, what the source was for their shape, and so on. Just sit down and eat!