Developing Healthy Concern for Others


Precious Human Life and Working toward Getting Rid of Suffering

In the progression of the lam-rim, the graded stages, we have gone through the initial and intermediate scopes. We’ve seen that before we start to deconstruct the false self, it’s very important to build up the conventional self; or in other words, a sense of the conventional self, the appreciation of the existence of the conventional self. So we appreciate that we have freedom from horrible situations and major obstacles; we have many opportunities. We have many opportunities to do something significant and meaningful with our lives.

One of the basic assumptions in Buddhism is that everyone wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy. It’s like things go toward life, toward growth. You don’t want to decay; you want to grow. So everybody wants to be happy. And with the appreciation of the precious human life, we realize that it’s possible to do something to become happier. This gives us an appreciation of our ability to do something. In other words, first you have to care about yourself, take yourself seriously; “seriously” means that I do exist and I want to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. I care about what I experience. That’s a positive self, a healthy sense of self.

We have temporary freedom from really horrible suffering and if we don’t do something about it then we’re quite likely to experience terrible suffering again, so we want to avoid that. This is also very healthy. You see that in the development of children, that they have to realize that if they stick their hand in fire, if they run out into traffic – all sorts of things are dangerous and will cause them pain and suffering. So in the development of a healthy sense of self in a child, the child learns to avoid causes for suffering. So here in the lam-rim development we’re doing that on a more adult level.

And we realize that in order to get rid of the suffering we have to get rid of the cause of the suffering. First we work on self-control to avoid destructive behavior, because we see that that is going to lead to unhappiness. So we are trying to achieve a stopping of the causes of suffering here by getting rid of some level of unawareness. This is unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. In exercising that self-control and will-power to refrain from acting destructively, it brings about our ordinary happiness. But that ordinary happiness doesn’t last; it doesn’t satisfy and so on.

Impossible Ways of Existing: The False “Me” Versus Conventional “Me”

We understand that the problem here is that I’m thinking in terms of this solid “me” that will be in self-control and will control the naughty self and so on. So there’s some sort of mistake here in terms of how I conceive of myself that is exercising the self-discipline. The self-discipline, the will-power, the self-control, these sorts of things, are necessary. They are on the basis of the conventional “me” and not something that we want to throw away; but what we want to do is to get rid of the misconception about the “me” that is doing all of this. To do this, of course, we need to get rid of the unawareness with which we are confused about how I exist, how that conventional “me” actually does exist; and refute and get rid of this belief that I exist in these impossible types of ways.

Now, the question becomes what are these impossible ways that we are projecting; and we start to refute them and see that they’re not referring to anything real, step by step, getting more and more subtle. And all of this is based on this healthy sense of the conventional “me” that wants to be happy. I don’t want to suffer. And what I experience is my responsibility. It’s not my sole responsibility; it’s not that I’m the only causal factor, because there are many, many other factors [that affect what I experience]. But nevertheless I play a significant role in what I do and therefore I need to in a sense take control of what’s going on – but not in terms of this great controller sitting inside my head – and do something about the situation.

Determination to Be Free

Problems are not going to go away by themselves; I need to do something. So,

  • I want to get rid of the suffering of unhappiness;
  • this ordinary happiness that I attain and experience – it’s never satisfying and I never have enough, so I really would like to get rid of that too, that type of problematic situation;
  • and I’d like to get rid of the recurring of this, the compulsiveness of this up and down, the basis for it.

So we have this strong determination to be free. That’s the conventional “me” [that wants to be free] – strong, healthy, and able to clearly see what would be of great benefit, and which has the will-power to do it. But it’s not going to succeed if we try to do it as a big – what in the West we would call a big ego trip, the big, strong self-sufficiently existing self – “I’m going to liberate myself.” That’s not going to work. And what are we trying to liberate? If you try to liberate a false self as we were describing before, well, that false self doesn’t exist. So, that’s futile. You need to liberate the conventional self.

With the will-power and determination of the conventional self, we train in ethical self-discipline, vows and so on, which structure our behavior; and then based on that discipline and the mindfulness and alertness that we develop more and more strongly with that higher ethical self-discipline of keeping vows, then we have the tools to be able to really gain proper higher concentration. Then with that higher concentration, we can stay focused on this discriminating awareness, with which we refute any sort of belief in this impossible way of existing of “me,” because we see that it does not refer to anything real. That’s what voidness means: the total absence of an actual referent to this projection of what’s impossible.

Now, what further thing is impossible about the self? What’s impossible is that we exist and we live totally separately from everybody else. It’s not only that there is no “me” that is separate from the basis of a body, mind, emotions, feelings, etc.; there is no “me” that is separate from everybody else. Of course, we are individuals, so conventionally we are separate from others; I’m not you. If you eat that doesn’t fill my stomach. So conventionally we are separate and individual, but not in a false way that we exist totally unrelated and independent of everybody else.

Developing Love and Compassion toward Ourselves and Everybody, Both Emotionally and Rationally

So, if we really want to develop a healthy sense of self in terms of the healthy development of one’s self [through lam-rim], then we need to also be concerned with everybody else – the conventional self of everybody else. How do we develop a healthy concern for others once we realize that our whole existence is dependent on the work of others, on our being raised by others, etc, etc.? [To do this] we want to open up this whole scope of how we are thinking, the positive concern that we have, not just in terms of this limited “me” but in terms of everybody. What we want to develop then is, just as I want to be happy and not to be unhappy, so does everybody else. We want to develop not just the wish for me to be happy and not to be unhappy, which is basically love and compassion for myself, but for everybody else to be happy and not to suffer – so love and compassion for everyone.

It’s only when we have love and compassion for ourselves that we can possibly have that sincerely for others. We want to extend it. So, one expands that love and compassion to everybody starting from ourselves. Otherwise if we’re thinking “Well, I don’t deserve to be happy” or like that, why should anybody else deserve to be happy? That’s very unbalanced, very unhealthy.

Now, to develop this love and compassion there are two ways and it’s very important to have both.

  • One is an emotional way of developing love and compassion;
  • and the other is a rational way of developing it.

They reinforce each other; just to have one would be a little bit deficient. Well, we were working on the intermediate scope to get rid of the disturbing emotions, but we have not necessarily gone all the way to the state of an arhat, a liberated being, so that we’re completely free of them. In most cases we will have progressed by trying to develop a Mahayana scope before that. That doesn’t mean skipping the initial and intermediate scope. It means not going all the way to the conclusion of the intermediate scope. This is the way that the lam-rims are all formulated.

Our task now is to open up and have concern for absolutely everybody, not just for ourselves. This is the Mahayana scope. It’s vast; that means everybody. Now, what is preventing that is that we are attracted by some, repelled from others, and indifferent to others. So these are the so-called three “poisonous disturbing emotions:”

  • longing desire
  • anger or repulsion
  • and indifference, naivety – naivety that the other person exists, so we ignore them.

Now, if we think in terms of no beginning and no end to the self, then that’s true of absolutely everybody. So, at some times everybody has been my friend, sometimes everybody has been my enemy, and sometimes everybody has been a stranger to me. It’s just a matter of when; these positions have continually been changing. So, we have this method for developing equanimity toward everybody, which is shared in common with the intermediate scope and the advanced scope because it’s working on these basic disturbing emotions: attraction, repulsion, indifference.

Appreciate this: that it’s in common with the intermediate scope, and it’s based on the gross disturbing emotions. It is based on this concept of this solid “me” sitting inside my head, and in order to get happy I’m attracted to others. “If I can get some to ‘me’ so that they’re my friend and they like me and they pay attention to me and so on – that will make that solid ‘me’ happy. And if I can get some away from ‘me’ that will make ‘me’ happy. And if I just ignore some and don’t have to deal with them, then I’ll be happy. I’ll be more secure.” It’s all dealing with this concept of this futile attempt to make this self, sitting behind the control board, secure.

But everybody has been nice to me at some time; everybody has been horrible to me sometimes and hurt me; and everybody at some time has done nothing toward me. So there’s no reason to like or dislike or be indifferent toward anybody because everybody has acted in all these three ways toward me.

Now if that’s the case – if now we see that we have this equanimity toward everybody – then not only has everybody been my friend and my enemy and a stranger to me at some point; everybody has also has been my mother, the one that’s been the kindest toward me.

You see, we’ve quieted down the disturbing emotions toward everybody and now what we want to build up are positive emotions toward everybody. That’s on the basis of everybody has been the kindest that anybody is toward me in my lifetime, and in the classical sense that is the mother. If it was not our mother, then our father, best friend – it doesn’t matter. The point is whoever has been the kindest to us, and ultimately the bottom line is that our mother didn’t have an abortion of us.

Then we focus on the kindness that we’ve received. Our mothers may have been unkind to us as well, but there’s no benefit to focusing on that; so we focus on the kindness that we have received. And the emotion that that leads to is gratitude. We really are grateful for all the kindness that we have received. We can supplement that by thinking how others have been kind to us even when they were not our mothers. They grew the food that we eat; they transported it; they made the roads; they built the electricity grids. Everything that we make use of has come from the work of others. Whether they did it purposely for our benefit is irrelevant. But due to the kindness of their work, we’re very grateful. And because we are so grateful and appreciative of this kindness, naturally we would like to help them. We’d like to do something in return to sort of balance this – not out of guilt, but out of just feeling grateful.

That’s important to realize in this whole discussion of repaying the kindness of others. It’s not out [repaying it] out of your having a debt and therefore you’re guilty if you don’t pay it back, so you have to do it. It’s not like that. We would like to fix and take care of anything that’s wrong with the other person. This is the connotation of the word that’s used in Tibetan here; that we’re so grateful that of course we’d like to be useful to help the other person, because we feel this positive connection there. That naturally leads to heartwarming love, with which we are really happy to meet anybody and we would feel terrible if something bad happens to them.

You see, in the text it says that you don’t have to do any separate meditation for that. That will arise automatically. So, it will arise automatically when you are really grateful for the kindness that you’ve received. But if “I have this debt and I have to pay it back,” you’re certainly not going to be happy to see anybody; “Oh my god, I have to be kind to this person because they’ve been kind to me five million lifetimes ago.” So, you try to make sense of the teachings.

This leads to the emotional development of love – we want them to be happy and to have the causes for happiness; and compassion – you want them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. And we actually are going to try to help them to be happy and to be free from unhappiness and suffering. We see that in the steps for developing the four immeasurable attitudes: immeasurable love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. For example,

  • how wonderful it would be if everybody were happy – that’s step one.
  • May they be happy – step two.
  • May I be able to bring them happiness; I’m going to do something.
  • And then, “Oh guru, spiritual teachers, Buddhas – inspire me to be able to do that.” So, taking some responsibility to do something is part of love and compassion.

Okay, so this is the emotional development of it; but that needs to be reinforced. To just work on pure emotion is unstable. First just digest what I’ve said about this emotional development of love and compassion, with which you first work on overcoming whatever traces might be left of these gross disturbing emotions (attraction, repulsion, indifference.) Clear that out and then develop this positive emotion of love and compassion.

And of course, the one who is feeling love and compassion is the conventional “me.” Others have been kind to me; who have they been kind to? The conventional “me.” You couldn’t even really think about the kindness that others have shown you if you didn’t think that there was a conventional “me.” Who have they shown it to? Nobody? So these meditations reaffirm the conventional “me.”

Okay. Now, there is a presentation of subtle disturbing emotions; gross disturbing emotions and subtle disturbing emotions. You need to look then at what are these subtle disturbing emotions. Subtle disturbing emotions are what we have left when we have refuted this initial level of what’s impossible concerning the self. So we’ve realized that there’s no manner of existing for a self in terms of it being this self that is unaffected by anything and partless; it’s not dependent on any basis; and that can be liberated and exist all by itself; and that can be known by itself. Once we have refuted that, that’s not enough to get rid of all the disturbing emotions. According to some theories it will help us to get rid of the gross disturbing emotions, but we’re still going to be left with subtle ones.

Now, you really have to think and try to figure out what in the world are these disturbing emotions, these subtle disturbing emotions that would be left. They’re not based on thinking of this “me,” this little controller sitting inside my head that wants to get people to like “me” and wants to get other people away from “me” that I don’t like. So, we’re not thinking like that about ourselves. We know that that’s a fantasy; that’s a fiction. I don’t have any attraction or repulsion or indifference toward anybody; but what am I left with in terms of a false “me?” We’re still left with a false “me” that exists separately from everything else as if it were encapsulated in plastic. “Okay, I understand that it’s imputed on the aggregates and can only be known in terms of the aggregates” and all of that; but it’s encapsulated – because it’s individual, so it’s encapsulated in plastic – and so is everybody else encapsulated in plastic [like a ping pong ball].

It’s not that I’m attracted or repelled from any of these other ping pong balls, if we want to conceive of them as ping pong balls. But still I feel that some are close and some are distant from me. These are the subtle disturbing emotions: feeling that some are close to me so I’ll help them first; and some are distant, far away. We make that type of differentiation. This is what we need to work on to develop love and compassion in a manner that will be rational, that will overcome these subtle disturbing emotions. They’re not these gross emotions.

The emotional development of love and compassion is focusing on overcoming the gross disturbing emotions, and the rational way of developing love and compassion is aimed at overcoming the subtle disturbing emotions. In the emotional sequence, there’s no reason to be attracted, repelled, indifferent from others, since everybody has been so kind, and we develop this warm emotional feeling. But now, because we still are conceiving of some as being close to “me” and some as being distant from “me,” we need a more rational approach to develop an equal attitude toward everybody. This we do on the basis of the very rational line of reasoning that we are all equal. Everybody equally wants to be happy and equally doesn’t want to be unhappy. So it’s a rational reason to have an equal attitude toward everybody, not an emotional one that, “Well, everybody’s been kind to me.’

And there are nine various points of view that we can use [to demonstrate this equality] in a very rational way. There’s no time to go through all of them, but there are nine points of view to demonstrate rationally that everyone is equal. [Through them] we develop the equanimity that helps us to overcome these subtle disturbing emotions. Then in a very rational way we realize that unhappiness comes from cherishing ourselves; happiness comes from cherishing others. And we already have a healthy sense of self, so it’s not that you have no positive feeling for yourself and then you just add onto that [negative feeling] “It’s so horrible that I’m selfish and self-cherishing.” Then you would just be dumping more negativity on the self. So this exchange – getting rid of self-cherishing and cherishing others – has to be on the basis of a healthy sense of conventional self.

In a very rational way we see that, well, this body comes from pieces of two other people’s bodies – the sperm and egg of my parents – and so does everybody else’s body. So what’s the difference between wiping my nose and wiping your nose? There’s no difference. It’s the nose of a body that came from other people; they are the same. I wipe my behind, I wipe your behind, I wipe the baby’s behind, I wipe somebody else’s baby’s behind. What’s the difference? It’s wiping a behind. So just as I can take care of this body, I can take care of anybody’s body. It’s just a body. So, this is not an emotional way of developing concern for others, is it? It’s a very rational way of developing it.

So, it’s like that, and we have the practices of exchanging self with others; and tonglen, giving and taking with love and compassion: “may you be happy, may you be free of suffering.” It’s very important to have this dual development of love and compassion. To just have it rationally then the emotional quality is missing. And to just have it emotionally, it’s not so stable. The two supplement each other.

Then we develop this exceptional resolve, which is “Not only am I going to help them – may you be happy and may you not be unhappy.” That’s in terms of the first two types of suffering: suffering of gross unhappiness and the suffering of you want to be ordinarily happy – that type of thing. So now the exceptional resolve, “I would like them to get rid of the all-pervasive suffering – the one that’s causing them uncontrollably recurring rebirth.” So this resolve is that I’m going to help them to overcome the obstacles that are preventing their liberation. “I’m going to help them to attain liberation and enlightenment even.” That’s the exceptional resolve: [we actually decide to do it, and not just have the good intention to help.]

So we see how we’re getting a stronger and stronger healthy sense of self; that “I’m going to help everybody. May everybody be happy; may I be able to bring them happiness. I’m going to do it.” That’s the conventional self. And now “I’m not going to just do that; I’m going to help bring them to liberation and enlightenment.” So, you can see that starting with this development of will-power and self-control back in the initial scope with “I’m going to refrain from destructive behavior; and then I’m going to gain liberation myself and gain concentration and so on; and now I’m going to help everybody else.” So, you’re developing a very powerful, healthy sense of self.

Bodhichitta and the Qualities of the Conventional Self

But in the same process we have to refute the impossible ways that we imagine that the self exists that is doing all of this; it’s not the controller sitting inside my head, and it’s not a “me” that is like in a ping pong ball. Then we see that in order to be able to help everybody attain liberation and enlightenment, I have to become enlightened myself and so we develop bodhichitta. With bodhichitta we are focused on our own individual enlightenments – not Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, not general enlightenment, but our own individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened but which can happen on the basis of the causal factors for it, what will enable it to take place. That includes the two so-called “networks of positive force and deep awareness” that would be normally referred to as “the two collections.” These are the so-called “Buddha-nature factors.”

That positive force is what’s responsible for the Form Bodies of a Buddha; the deep awareness is what’s responsible for the mind of a Buddha. We don’t really have time to go into a detailed lecture on Buddha-nature. And we’re also talking about the void nature of the mind, which will allow for the transformation, and the fact that the mental continuum can be uplifted and inspired. These are the Buddha-nature factors.

These are all qualities of our self, our conventional self. The self can be imputed on these factors. There’s some positive force. How do we know that we have some positive force? Because if we ever have experienced happiness – ever, at some level – that is what comes from positive force. So we do have this so-called collection of merit. You have some positive force, otherwise you never ever would have experienced happiness. And we have some understanding, otherwise you wouldn’t even understand what is food and how to eat or anything. We have some level of understanding so there is a network of deep awareness. So we can label “me” on that basis – on the basis of the mental continuum on which can also be imputed these networks.

It’s important to understand that it’s not that “I’m already a Buddha, I’m already enlightened, and it’s just sitting in my mind and I just have to realize it.” That’s a false view of the self. That’s one extreme; and the other extreme is that “I can never become enlightened.” But if we understand that the mental continuum can have imputed on it – rationally, logically – the causes that will enable us to become enlightened, then it’s possible. But this is on the basis of the conventional “me.” The individual enlightenment that we are aiming for is not yet happening; it’s not happening now. Something that’s not yet happening is existent; we can think about it. Tomorrow is not yet happening; it’s not happening today, now. It’s tomorrow. Is there such a thing as tomorrow? Yes.

Okay; so then, on the basis of that bodhichitta, this is a very strong confirmation of the conventional “me.” “I’m going to do it. It is possible to do it. I will aim to become enlightened.” That’s the wishing or aspiring state of bodhichitta. And the pledged state – “I’m never going to turn back.” So, remember we had these states of certitude:

  • I’m certain about it. “I’m going to work to attain enlightenment”;
  • and then even stronger, firm conviction – “Nothing’s going to turn me away from that”;
  • and then “I’m going to engage in the practices that will bring me to enlightenment.”

Now it’s interesting this word “engage” is avatara in Sanskrit – that’s in Hindi avatar – so we’re going to become an avatar of a bodhisattva. We’re going to try to embody it ourselves with the far-reaching attitudes. As an avatar, engaging in the bodhisattva behavior, what are we going to do? We take the [bodhisattva] vows; that gives the structure, the form, of our avatar as a bodhisattva. And in order to keep these vows, which are setting the boundaries of the form of our behavior that we’re not going to go beyond, we practice the six far-reaching attitudes, the so-called “perfections” or paramitas and the behavior that that brings about.

The Six Far-Reaching Attitudes

These six far-reaching attitudes also reinforce a healthy sense of a conventional “me.”

  • Generosity is a giving attitude; so “I have something to give,” the conventional “me” has something to give. When you are able to give, then you appreciate that “I have worth, I have value. There is something that I can give.”
  • Ethical self-discipline – that also reinforces a conventional “me.” “I’m going to exercise self-control, I’m going to refrain from acting in destructive ways; I’m going to engage in constructive things.”
  • Patience – it’s going to take a long time to become enlightened. It’s very difficult to help others. So [we can only accomplish these goals on the basis of] the conventional “me,” not this one that is thinking “Well, everything can happen instantly” and like that. So you don’t get angry; you’re able to endure the difficulties that are involved. So patience also requires a healthy sense of a conventional “me” that can wait.
  • Perseverance, this word virya – a difficult word to translate. Virya is related to the word vira, which means “hero” in Sanskrit, “heroic.” It’s related to the Latin word vir, which means “man,” so manly – a sense of real manly heroic courage. Women can have this as well; one shouldn’t think of this in a sexist way. This is being really heroic that “I’m going to put in the strength and energy.” It requires a great deal of courage to undertake reaching enlightenment. “I’m going to do it; nothing is going to stop me.” And it helps us to overcome laziness. There are various states of mind that will support this virya, this strong perseverance that we’re going to keep at it and “I like it. I want to do it.” One of the supporting factors – Shantideva points this out – is pride; this self-pride, which if you look at the Tibetan word, it’s nga-rgyal – “I shall be victorious.” So this sense of self-confidence. Nga is “I,” the conventional “me;” and rgyal, to “triumph.” “I will triumph.” In order to have this courageous strength, to be heroic in this endeavor, one has to have self-confidence. This is what this pride is talking about. And when you talk about the pride of the deity in tantra, it’s the exact same word. “I shall do this; I’m able to do this – be a Buddha.” Basically we’re labeling the conventional “me” in terms of all the aggregate factors in each moment that have that mental factor of this virya; “I’m going to do it,” and all of the behavior that is involved in that. That’s “me,” the conventional “me.”
  • Mental stability – that includes not only concentration, but also emotional stability.
  • Discriminating awareness – to discriminate between how not only we but everything exists and how it doesn’t exist. To refute, negate, how it doesn’t exist; what’s impossible. To attain either liberation or enlightenment we really need to go much more deeply into understanding what is impossible. In other words, what impossible ways of existing are we projecting onto the self and onto everything.

What Establishes That We Exist?

We already have understood, hopefully, that there’s no self that is not affected by anything – so unaffected by anything and partless, so it’s not on a basis for imputation or labeling; and it’s not something that can get liberated and be totally separate from all of this stuff. We’ve already understood that, and we’ve understood that the self can’t be known by itself. So then, we understand what can be labeled onto the aggregates, the basis – body, mind, feelings, emotions, whatever we’re experiencing. Okay, I’ve understood that. It’s not a solid “me” that’s being labeled onto it that then could be separated from it and exist by itself.

Then we think, how can it be labeled onto these moments of experience? And so we think, well, there has to be some characteristic features of the self that make “me” me. Well, where are those characteristic features? “Me” – I’m labeled onto the body, the mind, and so on; so, we might think that those characteristic features are on the side of the basis for labeling. We usually think in terms of our consciousness, in terms of the mind, that there’s something on the side of the mind that is the characteristic feature that makes it my mind; that establishes my individuality; that establishes my existence as “me”; that establishes that it’s “me.”

Think about it; I mean this is really very subtle. You think “me” – “Well, I can’t think ‘me’ without thinking of my mind,” that’s usually what we associate “me” with, because it’s the voice that’s going on in there and so on. So we think “mind” is “me” and so that individuality, that characteristic of “me,” must be inside of the mind. Sure, “I am labeled onto that, but that characteristic feature could be found in the mind, on the side of the mind as the basis for labeling.” But, you can’t find those characteristics – what makes the mind “me,” my mind. You can’t find that on the side of the mind. And so this is what we have to refute on the more subtle level. That’s the false “me” – a “me” that can somehow be found with its characteristic features somewhere on the side of the mind.

So, we have this false concept, if you go a little bit deeper, of a mind that is establishing itself. You see the whole issue – if you look at the Sanskrit terms and the Tibetan terms as well – they’re not talking about true existence. They’re talking about truly established existence. So, what establishes something? That’s the key word [Tibetan: sgrub, Sanskrit: siddha]. What establishes that I exist? It’s not so much what makes me exist, or how do I know that I exist, but what sort of proves it – where’s the power coming from? That word “establish” is also used for the word to “prove” something. And what is incorrect is that there is something on the side of “me” that by its own power establishes that I exist; or that there’s something on the side of the basis of labeling, the mind, that establishes that I exist. There’s nothing anywhere that you can find that will establish that I exist by its own power.

So a self that is establishing itself by its own power doesn’t refer to anything real. That’s what’s absent when we talk about voidness: the total absence of an actual referent to what we’re imagining – a self-empowered “me” that just establishes itself. “I’m me; here I am by my own power I’m establishing that I exist. Hey! Here I am.” Or something inside my mind that is establishing that I exist: “Hey! It’s Alex.” It’s a fantasy.

Mental Labeling

So, what actually establishes that we exist? Mental labeling. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that only when I mentally label “Alex, Alex, Alex,” “me, me, me” – that I exist – and if I stop labeling I don’t exist anymore. It certainly doesn’t mean that. Mental labeling does not create anything. How do we establish that there is “me,” that I exist? Well, there’s the label, there’s the name, there’s the word that’s associated with it; and the fact that it refers to something on a basis of labeling. That establishes that something exists. Words, concepts, and so on refer to something, but what they refer to are not standing by themselves empowered from their own side that establishes that they exist. The expression is that there’s nothing holding them up behind, like a prop.

This is why I make the distinction between – there’s a distinction in Tibetan as well – that our words and concepts, labels, refer to something, but there’s no “thing” that corresponds to the word. Words, concepts – remember we’re talking about categories, that’s like mental boxes; and so there’s the word, the box of “love,” or the box of “red,” or the box of “me.” Words imply boxes. But the universe doesn’t exist in boxes. That would be what would correspond to words and concepts; that the whole universe – “me,” everybody else – exists in this or that box. You can find it here in the dictionary under this word. But things don’t exist in boxes, so there’s nothing that corresponds to what we are labeling. But the labels do refer to something, because I function, I do things, and so on. This is a very subtle distinction. There are two different words for that in Tibetan [btags-chos and btags-don].

It’s quite sophisticated, so this is something that we really have to work on. But what is the translation of that into just ordinary experience? That translates down into our old friend “nothing special.” There’s nothing special about “me” on the side of “me” that makes me so special; that makes “me” me. This “nothing special” can be understood on so many levels of profundity; but it all can be covered with this understanding that there’s nothing special about “me.” I’m just one of everybody else and so there’s nothing to feel insecure about. There’s nothing that I have to make secure, nothing that’s threatened. Just get on with life and particularly get on with trying to improve the situation of myself and everybody else. Just do it. Nothing special about it, nothing special about “me.” Just do it.


So that is the topic of a healthy development of the self through lam-rim; the process of reaffirming and strengthening this healthy sense of a “me” while, once that is built up to a certain level, then starting to clear out misconceptions about how we misconceive of the way that the conventional “me” exists, which would be as the false “me;” and going deeper and deeper and more and more subtle of what we refute. What questions do you have?


“Nothing Special” Versus Indifference

What's the border between indifference and so therefore just relaxing and doing nothing – between that self-cherishing sort of attitude and thinking "nothing special" and then just having the self-discipline to go and do something?

“Nothing special” is very different from “whatever, who cares.” With the attitude of “nothing special” we don’t make a big deal out of what we’re doing. You don’t have to advertise it; you don’t have to be thanked for it – nothing like that. Here’s an example. We live in an apartment building and in the lobby at the entrance there’s a lot of paper and garbage that is on the floor, and there’s a trash bin. So, nothing special, we pick up the papers from the floor, and put it in the trash bin. As Shantideva says, problems don’t have an owner so it’s not my problem, it’s not your problem; it’s just a problem. It just needs to be fixed because it’s a problem. So, there are the papers on the floor and they need to be picked up so, nothing special about that, nothing special about me doing it. You just do it.

So without having to put up a little sign on the wall that “the paper was picked up by…” and you sign your name; not with this feeling of “I’m the victim; everybody in the building is so horrible, they’re so sloppy, and why do I always have to pick up after everybody” and then you really begrudge everybody else. “I’m so special, I’m the cleaning lady” or the cleaning man. You just do it, you know, no big deal. You pick up the paper. So what? You just do it because it needs to be done. And that’s the “nothing special” attitude. It’s not that you do nothing, and not self-cherishing – “Well, I didn’t drop the papers there so why should I pick them up?” You just do what needs to be done.

That’s working on the basis of a healthy sense of conventional “me,” not the false “me” that has to go around and clean up after everybody and “I’m so good” and “I’m so perfect” and “Everybody else is so terrible;” “I’m the Buddhist bodhisattva and I will clean up after everybody.” Not like that.

And if we see the one who did it, who dropped the papers?

It all depends on whether or not that person is receptive to our advice. You have to use your judgment.

Whether the person is stronger than us?

These are very difficult situations. For instance, in the metro station, the U-Bahn station in Berlin where I live, there’s a rule “no smoking.” But sometimes some of these particularly strong, aggressive-looking young men will smoke there. So if I, an old white-haired man, walk up to them and say “Hey, don’t smoke!” I’m liable to get punched in the face; so here one exercises patience. It’s not so bad that they’re smoking; it’s not going to kill everybody. And try not to go onto this mental trip of criticizing and “Oh these young men” and blah, blah, blah and all this sort of destructive way of thinking. Basically it just produces unhappiness in ourselves; that’s all that it produces.

But then there are truly dangerous situations and do you intervene when somebody is hurting somebody and beating them up etc.? Then you have to judge whether or not you have the ability to stop them or can you somehow call somebody else to stop them. If you do have the ability, then you do it; if you don’t, then you find some other means to stop them. This is very delicate, very difficult. That’s why we like to be a Buddha.

I remember an incident in which this couple on the metro were screaming and yelling at each other, really quite horribly, quite aggressively. And then somebody wanted to interfere and they said to the man, “Hey, leave this lady alone.” Then the two of them turned on this person because they’re a couple and they have arguments and they scream at each other. That is the way that they interact, and so it’s none of anybody else’s business. That’s why one has to really become a Buddha to know what really is going on in the situation.

I have neighbors like that. It’s an old Turkish couple and I can hear them through the wall, and sometimes they are screaming at the top of their voices at each other. And yet, when I visit them and they invite me, they’re the happiest loving couple and so on. This is just their custom of how they speak to each other and want to make a point and they disagree. Omniscience would be very helpful.

Another interesting approach would be if you see somebody dropping these papers, if you go there and pick these papers and throw them out and the person sees that we are doing that.

Well, you have to be very careful that you don’t do that as “Look how good I am,” with the intention to make the other person feel guilty. I don’t know, it’s very difficult. I’m thinking of the example of a one-year-old baby sitting in the high chair and always throwing whatever it is on the floor. Well, how do you teach the one-year-old not to do that? Not so easy. It requires a lot of patience. Just yelling at the baby and hitting the baby for doing that – well, the baby doesn’t understand. Adults can be very baby-like as well. It’s the term that Shantideva always uses: people are infantile. It helps us to develop patience like you would have with a baby, hopefully.

Features of a Healthy Conventional “Me”

Could you review what are the features of the healthy conventional “me?”

A healthy conventional “me” is one that:

  • takes responsibility for our own actions
  • cares about the consequences of our actions on ourselves and others
  • works in a realistic way to try to improve the quality of one’s own and others’ lives on whatever level our capacity is
  • and is strong enough to be able to exercise self-control for refraining from what would be harmful
  • and has the will-power to engage in what will be constructive and beneficial.

That would be a healthy sense of a “me” that doesn’t inflate the “me” into something that is absolutely impossible – one who must always be in control, always be perfect, always be paid attention to by everybody, always be liked by everybody.

I always find this statement very, very helpful: “Not everybody liked the Buddha so what do we expect, that everybody’s going to like us?” And when we make mistakes: “What do you expect from samsara?” We’re not a liberated being so what do you expect? Of course we’re going to make mistakes; until we are a liberated being we’re going to get angry. So, no reason to feel guilty. Work on ourselves, sure, but don’t feel guilty when we mess up. Guilt is when we identify what we did as so bad and “me” as being so bad for having done that, and then we hold on and we don’t let go. That’s guilt. That’s completely thinking of ourselves in terms of this false “me,” this solid “me” that’s so bad. “I made a mistake; I came under the influence of disturbing emotions and confusion. Well, of course; I’m not a liberated being yet but I’m working on it.” And then we apply various opponents. We do it – nothing special.