The Decisions We’re Capable & Definitely Will Change


In making cherishing others our main practice, we need to take into consideration the fact that everybody appreciates kindness and affection. But sometimes the word “affection” is misunderstood. It is more than just love. Love is (in the Buddhist definition) the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes of happiness. And of course that love, in its pure form, is not mixed with a disturbing emotion of attachment or clinging or lust and desire; and it’s not mixed with the wish to get something back in return for our love. So in the impure form it’s mixed with these disturbing emotions; in its pure form it’s not.

Affection is a display or a demonstration or an action that’s involved in showing our love. This can be anything from a smile – you can smile at the person, to show a kindly expression on our face – it would include any other ways of being kind to the person, like helping them in one way or another as a show of affection. Like making a nice meal for somebody, that’s a show of affection. Or keeping a house nice and neat and beautiful – that can also be a show of affection to the others who live in the house. It also includes speaking kindly if the person is upset, giving words of comfort and encouragement; and it can also include physical signs, like helping an old person get up; and sometimes patting somebody on the shoulder, or hugging them, or giving some type of comfort with a hug when somebody is crying or upset or frightened; and even just petting the dog is a show of affection.

All these various signs of affection likewise can be in either an impure way (mixed with disturbing emotions) or not. Mixed with disturbing emotions, then: it can be with, again, attachment, desire, lust, sexual overtones – that you’re doing it in order to get sexual pleasure – and it can also be mixed with wanting to get something back in return. Or it can be simply in a pure form, to give to the other, to help the other. And of course we need to have discriminating awareness to see what the other person would feel comfortable with. But, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, everybody needs affection. It is helpful, even on a physical level, for health; and, particularly, not only helpful but absolutely necessary and essential for the development of a small baby – to have affectionate physical contact.

The Decision That We Definitely Are Capable of Exchanging Our Attitudes about Self and Others

Now the next of the five decisions, the fourth one, is: “I definitely am capable of exchanging my attitude regarding self and others.” In other words, we might have this objection that, “Well, how can I possibly cherish others and take care of others with the same strength as I would myself?” One point that’s always mentioned is that Buddha himself started out as an ordinary being like ourselves and he was able to change his focus from self-cherishing to cherishing others, and look what he accomplished. And we have not exchanged our attitudes, and look what we’ve accomplished in life.

Shantideva said it so nicely

(VII.38) I’ve given no freedom from fear to the frightened, nor offered comfort to those in distress! It comes down to all that I have produced is only discomfort, and the pain (of an alien object) in the womb for my mother!

So we need to use our precious human rebirth to do more than just give pain to our mother when she was pregnant with us and gave birth to us. But the argument that Shantideva uses, also in his text, about our ability to change our attitude is a very strong one. He says that if we examine this body, actually it derives from parts of other people’s bodies – so it grew from the sperm and egg of our mother and father, it didn’t grow from our own sperm and egg – so actually it’s not our body at all, it’s somebody else’s body. So if we have come to cherish and take care of this body that we have, and consider it as our own, we’re capable of doing that with any body that comes from the sperm and egg of parents.

He wrote:

(VIII.111) Just as, out of familiarity, there's an understanding of a "me" regarding drops of semen and blood belonging to others, despite it's not existing as some "thing,"
(VIII.112) Why couldn't I likewise take as "me" a body that belongs to someone else? (After all,) it's not difficult to set it, in the same way, as something other than a body that's "mine."

If we think about that, what is the difference between wiping our nose, wiping the nose of our baby, or wiping the nose of the drunk on the street? It’s just a nose, isn’t it? The same thing with wiping ourselves after we go to the toilet – what is the difference between doing it for ourselves and doing it for another body? It’s just a body. It’s not that because it’s mine, it’s clean; and because it’s somebody else’s, it’s dirty. So, just as we can clean ourselves, we can clean anybody else. Just as we can feed ourselves, we can feed anybody else. So we are perfectly capable of exchanging our attitude about self-cherishing and cherishing others.

Then, we examine like this: “Am I capable of cherishing others; of exchanging who it is that I consider most important, to exchange it from being me to being others?” And thinking in these ways, we come to the understanding and conviction that, “Yes, I am capable of doing that.”

We reaffirm our resolve, thinking like Shantideva put it:

(VIII.130) But what need is there to elaborate more? Just look at the difference between the two: an infantile person acting for his own self-aims and Sage (Buddha) acting for the aims of others.

And therefore we ask for inspiration from our spiritual mentor, and this is our fourth stanza here from The Guru Puja, and it reads:

(VIII.93) 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.

The decision here is that we definitely are able to exchange our attitudes, and so we will do that.

Let’s focus in this way with this decision.


The Decision That We Definitely Will Exchange Our Attitudes about Self and Others

The fifth decision is a final reconfirmation that we definitely will exchange our attitudes regarding self and others. For this we would go through the ten destructive actions and alternate them with the corresponding ten constructive actions, both the ones that are common to Hinayana and Mahayana and those that are special to Mahayana.

And so here we go through, one by one, the destructive actions – let’s say taking the life of others – and we see that this is done because of self-cherishing, and it produces all sorts of suffering. And then we look at the corresponding constructive action, which is to refrain from taking the life of others, or to actually do something to support their life: take care of them if they’re sick, etc., give food to the hungry – I mean, all things that would support life – giving medicine, etc. And that brings about happiness and that is due to cherishing others.

With each of these ten pairs of actions, the destructive and constructive side, we are contrasting that the negative consequences are from self-cherishing and the positive consequences (our happiness) are from cherishing others. For this to be full, we need to study the more extensive teachings on karma – in other words, the results of each of the ten destructive actions and the results of each of the ten constructive. After going through these ten pairs of actions in this way, then we reach this fifth decision: that I really, really definitely am going to exchange my attitude regarding self and others. The verse from The Guru Puja for this is:

(94) 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.

Now this is actually a complicated meditation. I haven’t had time to explain each of these points with regards to these ten sets of destructive and constructive actions, so let’s do this in just a very abbreviated form with just one or two of these pairs. From killing, taking the life of others, our own life is shortened. We’ll have many sicknesses, and even if we take medicine it won’t be effective. All this is from weakening the life force of others, so our own life force gets weakened. And we may suffer from hunger, our crops may fail, etc. And if this doesn’t occur in this lifetime, it will occur in some future lifetime – most karma ripens in future lifetimes. Whereas refraining from taking the life of others or damaging their life force, and doing things to help support their life, results in our own having a long life free from sickness; and if we do become sick, medicine will be very effective for us; and we’ll have all the facilities (enough food etc.) to support our life.

So, like that, we think of this pair in terms of how taking the life of others and all the disadvantages that come from it come from self-cherishing, and vice versa: all the advantages from the constructive side here come from cherishing others. And then that final decision: “I definitely am going to exchange my attitude about self and others and make this my core practice,” the Fourth Panchen Lama wrote in the The Guru Puja.


Here in this verse, it says a the yoga of exchanging others for ourselves, and also we’re speaking about exchanging our attitude to ourselves and our attitude to others. Is there any difference between these ways of saying it?

No. When we say “exchange others for ourselves” here in the verse, that doesn’t mean that now I’m you and you are me. But it just means to exchange our viewpoint of whom we consider to be the most important and whom we pay the most attention to helping. In Shantideva’s text he explains a further application of this exchanging others for ourselves in which he basically is changing our viewpoint from self to the other. So he does this in terms of the three disturbing emotions – of feeling pride or arrogance over somebody, and competing with somebody else, and feeling jealous of someone – and in this practice, as we say in English, we put ourselves into the other person’s shoes and look back at ourselves acting in this type of arrogant or competitive or jealous way, and try to feel what it is like to be the object of such a disturbing emotion – in other words, the one at whom it is aimed – and in a sense report back to our old self how terrible it is, and “instead of looking down on me,” for instance, “why don’t you help me?” In the case of arrogance and pride, that “I’m so much better than you,” saying back, “I have to do all of the dirty work and you think you’re so wonderful. Why don’t you help me?”

What to do in a situation when I wish to help some other person, but this person doesn’t want me to help; he rejects my help?

Even if we are a Buddha, we can only help others who are receptive to us. The analogy is used that the sun can only warm those that come out into the sun. If they don’t come out in the sun, there’s not much that we can do. Wish them well; but if they’re not receptive, they are not receptive. Indirectly, perhaps, we can help provide the circumstances that would allow them to be able to help themselves.

Often we have the case of older parents who want to be very, very independent and won’t accept our help. So you can try to make their house easier in terms of access to the bathroom, to the shower, or whatever, that will allow them an easier way of taking care of themselves. But some people can be very difficult to help. That’s one of the types of patience that we need to develop: patience with the difficulties involved with trying to help others. Because they object, they give us a hard time, they argue back with us when we try to give them advice, etc. So we need skillful means, which actually means we need to be skillful in our application of methods for helping.

It is said that we should make this practice our core practice. What does this “core” mean?

“Core” means our central main practice, and it’s referring to what comes next in the text (and in this sequence, as well) – to the practice of tonglen, giving and taking.