Developing Healthy Concern for Others

Review: 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. Based on our discussions so far, we’ve seen that before we start to deconstruct the false self, it’s very important to build up a sense of the conventional self and an appreciation of the existence of the conventional self. It’s with this understanding that we value the fact that we have a temporarily respite from horrible situations and major obstacles. We then further recognize that, while we have this freedom, 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 and nobody wants to be unhappy. The instinctive drive to be happy is similar to the instinctive drive for living things to thrive and grow, sort of like the survival instinct. We don’t want to decay and die; we want to continue living and grow. 

With our appreciation of our precious human life, we realize that it’s possible to do something to become happier, which makes us appreciate our lives even more. To strive toward making ourselves happier, we first have to care about ourselves and what we experience; we need to take ourselves seriously. “Seriously” means to recognize that we do exist and that we want to be happy and have the right to be happy, the same as does everyone else. We have to realize that there’s nothing wrong with caring about what we experience. In fact, that’s a sign of a positive self, a healthy sense of self.

We have temporary freedom or respite from really horrible types of suffering and, if we don’t do something to ensure that this freedom continues, we’re quite likely to experience terrible sufferings again. Clearly, we want to avoid that. This is also very healthy. 

We already started learning to avoid suffering when we were toddlers. As a small child, we learned that if we stick our hand in fire or run out into traffic, it will cause us pain and suffering. Actually, there are all sorts of things that are dangerous, and in our development of a healthy sense of self as a child, we learned to avoid many causes for suffering. In the lam-rim development, we’re doing the same on a more adult level.

Furthermore, we realize that in order to get rid of suffering we have to get rid of its causes. First, we work on self-control to help us avoid destructive behavior, especially self-destructive behavior, because we see how this behavior leads to unhappiness. At this stage, we are trying to achieve a stopping of the causes of suffering by getting rid of some level of unawareness, meaning the unawareness of behavioral cause and effect. Exercising self-control and willpower to refrain from acting destructively brings about our ordinary happiness. However, this ordinary happiness doesn’t last or satisfy us for very long, as we’ve previously discussed. 

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

We understand that the problem is that we’re thinking in terms of a solid “me” that will exercise self-control and will control the naughty self and so on. This is a mistake in terms of how we conceive of the self that is exercising the self-discipline. Qualities like self-discipline, willpower, self-control and so on are all necessary. They are developed on the basis of the conventional “me” and not qualities that we want to get rid of. However, we do want to get rid of the misconceptions we have about the “me” that is developing them. To do this, of course, we need to refute the impossible ways in which we imagine that the conventional “me” exists and rid ourselves of our unawareness and confusion about them. In that way, we will stop believing that we exist in these impossible ways. 

To refute the impossible ways in which we imagine that we exist, we need first to identify and recognize them in our experience. We then refute them, one by one, seeing that they do not correspond to reality. Step by step, this process gets more and more subtle. It is based on this healthy sense of the conventional “me,” the self that wants to be happy and doesn’t want to suffer. 

It’s important to note that what we experience in life is our own responsibility. However, it’s not that we’re the only causal factor, because there are many, many other factors that affect what we experience. Nevertheless, we do play a significant role in what we experience and do in life. Therefore, we need to take control of how we behave and lead our lives in a proactive way. We do this, however, not in terms of a great controller sitting inside our head.

Determination to Be Free

Problems are not going to go away by themselves. We need to do something. This means:

  • We want to get rid of the suffering of unhappiness.
  • The ordinary happiness that we attain and experience is never satisfying. We never have enough and so we would really like to get rid of these types of problematic situation as well.
  • In addition, we want to get rid of the recurrence of the compulsiveness of these ups and downs in life and the basis for experiencing them.

Because of these points, we have a strong determination to be free, what’s usually called “renunciation” of samsara. It’s the conventional “me” that wants to be free. We want to be strong, healthy and able to see clearly what would be of the greatest benefit, and we have the willpower to do so. But this won’t be possible if we try to do it as a big ego trip, as we call it in the West. This is not the big, strong self-sufficiently existing self that now thinks, “I’m going to liberate myself.” This type of attitude is not going to work. What exactly are we trying to liberate? If we try to liberate a false self, as we were describing before, well, that false self doesn’t exist. That’s futile. Instead, we need to liberate the conventional self.

With the willpower and determination of the conventional self, we train in higher ethical self-discipline, take and safeguard vows and so on. The various sets of Buddhist vows help to structure our behavior. Then, based on the mindfulness and alertness that we develop more and more strongly from the ethical self-discipline of keeping vows, we have the tools to gain proper higher concentration. Further, with this higher concentration, we can then stay focused on the higher discriminating awareness that we use to refute any sort of belief in an impossible way of existing of “me.” We clearly see that these impossible ways do not correspond to anything real, which is what voidness means – the total absence of an actual referent to our projections of what’s impossible.

What else is impossible about the self, besides it’s being static, partless, separable from any aggregates, and self-sufficiently knowable? It’s impossible that we exist and can live totally independently of everybody else. It’s not only that there is no “me” that is separate from the basis of a body, mind, emotions, feelings, and so on. There is also no “me” that is separate and unconnected from everybody else. Of course, we are individuals, so conventionally we are separate from others. I’m not you. When you eat a meal, it doesn’t fill my stomach. Yes, we are separate and individual, but not in the false way that we think we exist, totally unrelated and independent of everybody else.

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

Therefore, if we really want to develop a healthy sense of self through the lam-rim, we also need to be concerned with everybody else, the conventional self of everybody else. We begin to 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. To do this, we need to open up and expand the positive scope of how we think. We need to expand the positive concern that we have for this limited “me” to also include in its scope everybody else. 

What we want to build up is the awareness that, “Just as I want to be happy and not to be unhappy, so does everybody else.” With that awareness, 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 also 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 have those emotions sincerely for others. Therefore, we need to extend these wishes. We expand that love and compassion to everybody, starting from ourselves. Otherwise, if we’re thinking that we don’t deserve to be happy, we would wonder why should anybody else deserve to be happy? This would be a very unbalanced and unhealthy attitude.

There are two ways to develop this kind of love and compassion: an emotional way and a rational way. It’s very important to have both, as they reinforce each other. Just to have one would be deficient. 

When we were working on the intermediate scope to get rid of the disturbing emotions, we most likely did not reach the state of an arhat, a liberated being, completely free of all disturbing emotions. In most cases, we will make a little progress and then go on to try to develop a Mahayana scope before we attain full liberation. This, however, doesn’t mean skipping the initial and intermediate scopes. It simply means not going all the way to the conclusion of the intermediate scope. This is the way that the lam-rim graded path is formulated.

The Emotional Sequence for Developing Love and Compassion 

Our task now is to open up and have concern for absolutely everybody, not only for ourselves. This is the Mahayana scope. It is vast because it includes everybody. What prevents that openness is that we are attracted, repelled and indifferent to others. These are the so-called three poisonous disturbing emotions:

  • Longing desire
  • Anger or repulsion
  • Indifference or naivety that others exist (we ignore them).

If we think in terms of no beginning and no end to the self, then we have had these disturbing emotions toward absolutely everybody we have ever been in contact. Because of that, at some time, everybody has been a friend, an enemy and a stranger to us. It’s just a matter of when. These positions have continually been changing. Based on that fact, there is a method for developing equanimity toward everybody that is shared in common with the intermediate and the advanced scopes, because it’s working on these basic disturbing emotions of attraction, repulsion and indifference. It’s the basis for both the emotional and the rational ways for developing love and compassion equally toward everyone.

Please appreciate this point. This method for developing equanimity, which is the first training in the advanced scope teachings, is shared in common with the intermediate scope trainings. That’s because it is based on the gross disturbing emotions. Based on the misconception of a solid “me” sitting inside our heads, then in order to make that “me” happy we are attracted to others. We feel that if only we can get some of these others to like “me” so that they become our friends and pay attention to us, then that would make that solid “me” happy. Also, if we could get some people we don’t like or who have been nasty to us away from “me,” that would make “me” happy. Lastly, if we just ignore others and not deal with them, then we would also make “me” happy and more secure. All of these examples are dealing with this futile attempt to make this solid self, sitting behind the control board, feel safe by relying on the gross disturbing emotions.

However, if we think in terms of beginningless rebirth through beginningless time, then everybody has been nice to us at some time. Further, everybody has been horrible to us and has hurt us sometimes, and there have been times when others have done nothing to us. Basically, there’s no reason to like or dislike or be indifferent toward anybody because everybody has acted in all these three ways toward us at one time or another. Now if that’s the case, if we develop this equanimity toward everybody, then not only do we understand that everybody has been a friend, enemy, and stranger to us at some point, we also recognize that everybody has been our mother, the one person that’s been the kindest toward us. This is the first step in the emotional sequence for developing love and compassion.

In this manner, we’ve quieted down the gross disturbing emotions toward everybody and now want to build up positive emotions toward them all. We do this on the basis that everybody has been the kindest person to us in some lifetime. In the classical presentation, the kindest treatment comes from the mother. If we didn’t have the kindness of motherly love and care – if not from our mother, then from someone else – we wouldn’t have survived infancy. Ultimately, the bottom line is that our mother didn’t abort us when she was pregnant, as today we have a precious human life. 

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 in focusing on that. Acknowledging their kindness leads to the emotion of gratitude. We are really grateful for all the kindness that we have received. We can supplement this feeling by thinking how others have been kind to us even when they were not our mothers. For example, they grew and transported the food that we ate. They built the roads and electricity grids. In fact, everything that we make use of has come from the work of others. Whether they did it purposely for our benefit is irrelevant. 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. This is not out of guilt, but just out of gratitude.

It’s important to realize in this whole discussion of repaying the kindness of others that it’s not as if we have a debt and, therefore, we’re guilty if we don’t pay it back. It’s not an obligation to do it. Instead, we simply would like to fix and take care of anything that’s wrong with the other person. This is the connotation of the Tibetan term used here, dran-gso. We’re so grateful that, of course, we’d like to help others, because we feel such a positive connection with them. This feeling naturally leads to heartwarming love. With this kind of love, we are really happy to meet anybody, and we would feel terrible if something bad happened to them.

The standard lam-rim texts do not list developing heartwarming love as a separate step in this sequence. Heartwarming love will arise automatically when we are genuinely grateful for the kindness that we’ve received. But if we think, “I have this debt and I have to pay it back,” we’re certainly not going to be happy to see anybody. It’s not, “Oh no, now I have to be kind to this person because they’ve been kind to me five million lifetimes ago.” We need to try to make sense of the teachings.

This heartwarming love leads to the emotional development of love and compassion, meaning we want them to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, and 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 sense of taking responsibility to help others in the steps for developing the four immeasurable attitudes: immeasurable love, compassion, joy and equanimity. We think, for example:

  1. How wonderful it would be if everybody were happy.
  2. May they be happy.
  3. May I be able to bring them happiness and I’m going to do something to bring that about.
  4. “Oh guru, spiritual teachers, Buddhas, inspire me to be able to do that.” 

Taking some responsibility to do something to help others is an integral part of love and compassion.

This is the emotional development of love and compassion, but it needs to be reinforced. To just work on pure emotion is unstable. But before we get into how to stabilize these positive emotions, let’s digest for a moment this emotional development of love and compassion. To briefly review, we work on overcoming whatever traces might be left of these gross disturbing emotions: attraction, repulsion and indifference. We clear these out from our minds, to the best extent that we can, and then develop the positive emotions of love and compassion.

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? They have been kind to the conventional “me.” We couldn’t even really think about the kindness that others have shown us if we didn’t think that there was a conventional “me.” Who have they shown it to? Nobody? Basically, these meditations reaffirm the conventional “me.”


The Rational Sequence for Developing Love and Compassion 

In addition to the gross level disturbing emotions, there is a presentation of subtle disturbing emotions. These subtle disturbing emotions are what we have left when we have refuted this initial level of what’s impossible concerning the self. We need to have realized that there’s no manner of existing of a self that is unaffected by anything and is partless. Here, we mean a self that is not dependent on any basis, that can be liberated and exist all by itself, and that can be known all by itself. Once we have refuted this, however, it’s still not enough to get rid of all the disturbing emotions. According to some Buddhist presentations, this initial level refutation of a false “me” will help us to get rid of the gross disturbing emotions, but we’re still going to be left with subtle ones.

We really have to think hard and try to figure out what in the world these subtle disturbing emotions are that are left. They are extremely difficult to identify. They’re not based on thinking of this “me,” this little controller sitting inside our head that wants to get some people to like “me,” and other people away from “me.” We’re not thinking like this about ourselves. We know that’s a fantasy, a complete fiction. 

If we don’t have any attraction or repulsion or indifference toward anybody, what are we left with in terms of a false “me?” We’re still left with a false “me” that we imagine exists separately from everything else, as if it were encapsulated in plastic. We understand that it’s an imputation on the aggregates and can only be known in terms of the aggregates and all of that. Nonetheless, since each of us is an individual, it seems as if we and everybody else are encapsulated in plastic like ping-pong balls, with each of us establishing our own individual existence by means of something findable within us generating this plastic shell. This too is a complete fiction and does not correspond to how we all actually exist.

It’s not that we’re attracted to or repelled by any of these other so-called ping-pong balls. However, we make strict distinctions among them, as if each were self-established with an inherent identity, and so we feel that some of these ping-pong balls are close, and others are distant. It is my hypothesis that such feelings are the subtle disturbing emotions. It’s the feeling that some people and beings are close to us, so we’ll help them first, and that some are distant, far away, and so we won’t help them till much later, if at all. 

We often make this type of differentiation based on how we conceive of others. Therefore, we need to work on developing love and compassion in a manner that will be rational and that will overcome these subtle disturbing emotions. Even if my hypothesis is incorrect, and these feelings of close and distant are not what the Buddhist texts refer to as the subtle disturbing emotions, I think making this differentiation of the disturbing emotions into levels of subtlety is helpful. 

The emotional development of love and compassion, then, focuses on overcoming the gross disturbing emotions, while the rational way of developing love and compassion is aimed at overcoming the subtle disturbing emotions. In this emotional sequence, there’s no reason to be attracted, repelled, indifferent to others, since everybody has been so kind to us at one time or another. Through this sequence, we develop a warm emotional feeling. However, because we are still conceiving of some as being close to “me” and others as being distant from “me,” we need a more rational approach to develop an equal attitude toward everybody. We do this based on the very rational line of reasoning that we are all equal: everybody wants to be happy and no one wants to be unhappy. Therefore, it’s rational to have an equal attitude toward everybody. This understanding, however, is not emotional; it’s not based on the reasoning that everybody has been kind to me.

There are nine points of view that we can use to rationally demonstrate that everyone is equal. There’s no time to go through all of them, however. Just one example – whether someone is our mother in this lifetime or was our mother 10,000 lifetimes ago, she is still our mother. Likewise, whether someone has been kind to us in this lifetime, or 10,000 lifetimes ago, they were still equally kind. Through these nine points, we develop the equanimity that helps us to overcome these subtle disturbing emotions. This is known as the equanimity that is unique to Mahayana. 

Then, in a very rational way, we realize that unhappiness comes from cherishing ourselves and happiness comes from cherishing others. We already have a healthy sense of self, so it’s not that we have no positive feeling for ourselves. We also aren’t going to add the negative feeling that, “It’s so horrible that I’m selfish and self-cherishing.” In this case, we would just be dumping more negativity onto the self. This exchange, with which we reject and rid ourselves of self-cherishing and adopt instead an attitude of cherishing others, has to be on the basis of a healthy sense of conventional self.

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

We have this practice of exchanging self with others and, with it, the practice of tonglen, giving and taking with love and compassion: With compassion, we take on the suffering of others, and with love, we give to them our happiness, “May you be happy. May you be free of suffering.” 

It’s very important to have this dual emotional-rational development of love and compassion. To just have it rationally, the emotional quality would be missing. To just have it emotionally would be unstable. The two need to complement each other.

Exceptional Resolve

Next we develop an exceptional resolve. With love and compassion, we not only have the wish, “May everyone be happy and never unhappy,” and we take some responsibility to bring that about, as with the wish, “May I be able to bring that about.” With exceptional resolve, we make the definite decision with which we commit ourselves to helping all others overcome the obstacles that are preventing not only their liberation, but also their enlightenment. That’s the exceptional resolve. We actually decide to do it, and not just have the good intention to help. 

From working with the lam-rim, we see how we’re getting a stronger and healthier sense of self, one that has the intention, “I’m definitely going to help everybody become happier and not to suffer. Not only that, I’m going to help bring all others to liberation and enlightenment.” This strong resolve is based on a healthy conventional self. We started developing a healthy conventional self with the development of willpower and self-control back with the initial scope training when we refrained from destructive behavior. We then progressed to worked to gain liberation for ourselves. Now, we’ve reached a stage where we’re going to help everybody else attain the same. In this way, we’re developing a very powerful, healthy sense of self.

Bodhichitta and the Qualities of the Conventional Self

However, we have to refute the impossible ways we imagine the self to exist while developing this extraordinary resolve. It’s not the controller sitting inside our head, and it’s not a “me” that is like a ping-pong ball. Additionally, we then see that in order to be able to help everybody attain liberation and enlightenment, we have to become enlightened ourselves, and so we develop bodhichitta. 

With bodhichitta, we are focused on our own individual enlightenment. This is not Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, not general enlightenment, but our own individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but which can occur on the basis of the causal factors that will enable it to take place. The causal factors include the two so-called “networks of positive force and deep awareness,” normally referred to as “the two collections.” These are two of our so-called “Buddha-nature factors.”

The positive force is what’s responsible for our attainment of the Form Bodies of a Buddha, and the deep awareness is what’s responsible for our attainment of the omniscient mind of a Buddha. We don’t have time for a detailed lecture on Buddha-nature, but briefly, in addition to these two networks, these factors also include 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 factors are all qualities of our self, our conventional self, in the sense that they are all imputations on our mental continuum, as is the conventional “me.” We all have some positive force. How do we know that we have some positive force? This is because if we have ever experienced happiness at any level, it has come from positive force. Therefore, we all do have a network of positive force; otherwise we never would have experienced happiness. We all have a degree of understanding; otherwise we wouldn’t even understand what food is and how to eat it, and so on, so we all also have a network of deep awareness. We all “have” these two networks because we and the two networks share the same basis for imputation, an individual mental continuum. 

It’s important to understand that it’s not that, “I’m already a Buddha, I’m already enlightened.” It’s not that being a Buddha is just sitting in our minds and we just have to realize and then manifest it. That false view of the self is one extreme. The other extreme is that “I can never become enlightened.” But, if we rationally and logically understand that the mental continuum has as imputations on its basis the causes that will enable us to become enlightened, then we understand that our enlightenment is possible. This is because this same mental continuum is also the basis of the conventional “me.” 

The individual enlightenment that we are aiming for is not yet happening. It’s not happening now, but that doesn’t mean that now it is totally non-existent. Our not-yet-happening enlightenment conventionally exists in the sense that it can be validly known and aimed for. For example, tomorrow is not yet happening. It’s not happening today. But is there such a thing as tomorrow? Yes. If tomorrow were truly non-existent, it would always stay like that and could never happen. But if tomorrow were already truly existent, it would already be happening. But because tomorrow does not exist in these two extreme impossible ways, but yet conventionally exists, we can aim and intend to do something tomorrow, like help our mother. Likewise, our not-yet-happening enlightenment conventionally exists, and we can aim to attain it, with the intention to then work to help benefit all beings. 

Clearly, on the basis of that bodhichitta, we have an enormously strong confirmation of the conventional “me.” “I’m going to do it. It is possible to do it. I will aim to become enlightened.” This is the wishing or aspiring state of bodhichitta. Beyond that, the pledged state is, “I’m never going to turn back.” Remember we had these states of certitude:

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

It’s interesting, this word “engage” is avatara in Sanskrit, avatar in Hindi. We’re going to become an avatar of a bodhisattva. We’re going to try to embody being a bodhisattva ourselves with the far-reaching attitudes. 

As an avatarengaging in bodhisattva behavior, what are we going to do? First, we take the bodhisattva vows that give the structure and form of our being a bodhisattva avatar. These vows set the boundaries of the form of our behavior that we’re not going to go beyond. In order to keep these vows, we practice the six far-reaching attitudes, the so-called “perfections” or paramitas.

The Six Far-Reaching Attitudes

These six far-reaching attitudes also reinforce a healthy sense of a conventional “me.” Let’s look at them one by one.


Generosity is a giving attitude, “I have something to give.” The conventional “me” has something to give. When we are able to give, we appreciate that we have worth and value. There is something that we can give.

Ethical Self-Discipline

Ethical self-discipline reinforces a conventional “me.” “I’m going to exercise self-control and refrain from acting in destructive ways. Instead, I’m going to engage in constructive actions.” 


Patience requires a healthy sense of a conventional “me” that can wait. It’s going to take a long time to become enlightened and, also, it’s very difficult to help others. We can only accomplish these goals on the basis of the conventional “me.” We don’t think that everything can happen instantly. Therefore, we don’t get angry and we’re able to endure the difficulties that are involved. 


The Sanskrit word for perseverance, virya, is a difficult word to translate. Virya is related to the word vira, which means “hero” in Sanskrit, or “heroic.” It’s related to the Latin word vir, which means “man”; so virya connotes manly heroic courage. Women can have this as well, of course. We shouldn’t think of this in a sexist way. Undertaking to reach enlightenment is really a heroic venture, requiring an enormous amount of strength, energy and courage, not only perseverance. “I’m going to do it, and nothing is going to stop me.” This helps us to overcome laziness. 

There are various states of mind that will support this strong perseverance so that we feel that we want to undertake this venture all the way to its endpoint and never give up, no matter what. Shantideva points out that one of these supporting factors is a sense of self-pride. In Tibetan, it’s nga-rgyal, meaning “I shall be victorious.” There is this sense of self-confidence. Nga is “I,” the conventional “me,” and rgyal means to “triumph.” “I will triumph.” In order to have this courageous strength, we have to have self-confidence. This is what this pride refers to, and when we discuss the pride of the deity in tantra, it’s the exact same word. “I shall do this. I’m able to do it, to be a Buddha.” Basically, we’re regarding ourselves as the conventional “me” that is an imputation on the aggregate factors in each moment that include this mental factor of virya and all of the behavior that is involved. “That’s ‘me.’” 

Mental Stability

Mental stability includes not only concentration, but also emotional stability. Our sense of a conventional “me” needs to be stable in order for our emotional and mental states to likewise be stable.

Discriminating Awareness

Lastly, with discriminating awareness we can discriminate between how not only we, but also everything exists and how they don’t exist. We can refute how they don’t exist and 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, we need to understand what the impossible ways of existing are that we are projecting onto the self and onto everything.

What Establishes That We Exist?

We have already understood, hopefully, that there is no self that is unaffected by anything – in other words, static – and which is partless, not an inseparable imputation on a basis for imputation, but which can exist separately from a basis, independently on its own, when liberated. We’ve also understood that the self cannot be known by itself, without something from its basis of imputation also simultaneously appearing and being known with it. Further, regarding the conventional “me” that is in fact an imputation on an individual continuum of five aggregates, we understood that the category or concept of “me” can be mentally labeled onto these aggregates and what this label refers to is the conventional “me,” not a solidly existing false “me.” 

Then we might wonder how can the category or concept of a self be mentally labeled correctly onto these moments of experience made up of the five everchanging aggregate factors? We think that there has to be some characteristic feature of the self on the side of the aggregates that is anchoring, as it were, this self to them as its basis for imputation. And it must be this characteristic feature that allows for a valid labeling of the concept and category “me” on these aggregates as its basis for labeling. It must be this characteristic feature that makes me “me.” However, where can we find this defining characteristic mark on the side of the aggregates that are the basis for both the imputation and mental labeling of “me?” We usually think that we can find that mark in our mental consciousness, or mind. We think that there’s something findable on the side of the mind that is the characteristic feature that makes it “my” mind, that establishes our individuality and that establishes our existence as “me.”

Think about this. It is really very subtle. When we think “me,” we can’t think “me” without thinking of “my mind,” as that’s usually what we associate “me” with, because we identify with being the speaker of the voice that’s seemingly going on in there. Therefore, we think “mind” or mental consciousness is “me,” and that the individual defining characteristic of “me” must be inside the mind. We may understand and believe that it’s true that the self is an imputation on the mind and the category “me” can be mentally labeled onto the mind, but still we think that there must be some defining characteristic mark that can be found on the side of mental consciousness that allows for that imputation and mental labeling to be valid. That findable mark makes that voice in my head “me,” not “you” or some alien being. However, when we investigate, we can’t find such a characteristic mark or feature on the side of the mental consciousness. This is what we have to refute on the more subtle level – that there is such a findable characteristic mark. A self, “me,” that has a findable characteristic mark on the side of its basis for imputation and basis for mental labeling doesn’t exist. Such a “me” is an impossible, false “me.” 

To go a little bit deeper, if we look at the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms usually translated as “true existence,” they actually mean “truly established existence,” where “established” is the key word. In Tibetan, this word I translate as “established” is drub (sgrub) and in Sanskrit, siddha. What establishes that something exists? What establishes that we exist? It’s not so much what makes “me” exist, or how do we know that we exist, but what proves it. Where’s the power coming from? That word “establish” is also used for the word to “prove” something. What is incorrect is that there is something findable on the side of “me,” a defining characteristic mark or a “self-establishing nature” that, by its own power, establishes that “I” exist. It is also incorrect that the defining characteristic mark of “me” is findable on the side of the basis for imputation and for labeling “me,” the mind – or more precisely, mental consciousness – that establishes that “I” exist. There’s nothing anywhere that we can find that will establish by its own power that we exist. There is no such thing as self-established existence – usually translated as “inherent existence.”

A self that establishes its own existence, by its own power or by something findable inside it or inside its basis for imputation, doesn’t correspond to anything real. This is what is absent when we talk about voidness on the deepest level. It is the total absence of an actual referent to what we’re imagining. There is no such thing as a self-established “me.” There’s nothing findable inside mental consciousness that by its own power makes me “me.” These are fantasies.

Mental Labeling

What actually establishes that we exist? It’s exclusively mental labeling. What does this 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 this. Mental labeling does not create anything. So, what does it mean that the existence of “me” is established exclusively in terms of mental labeling? It means that the existence of the conventional “me” is established exclusively by the fact that the mental label “me” – namely, the category or concept “me” – mentally labeled on the basis of an individual continuum of aggregates refers to something, the conventional “me.” Such labeling is valid because “me” is an accepted convention not contradicted by valid cognition of conventional or deepest truth. The same is the case in terms of the designation of the word “me” on the category “me” and, through the category, the designation of the word “me” on the aggregates. The existence of the conventional “me” is established exclusively as what that word refers to. 

In this formulation, “exclusively” means that neither mental labeling nor designation is on the basis of a findable defining characteristic mark on the side of the aggregates. Further, there is no referent, self-established “thing” that is, in a sense, standing on its own behind the referent object of the mental labeling and designation – standing behind the conventional “me” – holding it up like a prop holding up a piece of scenery in a stage play. Categories, words, names and so on refer to something, but what they refer to are not standing by themselves empowered from their own side. 

This is why I make the distinction, and there’s a distinction in Tibetan as well, between our words btags-chos “referent object” and btags-don “referent thing.” Categories seem to truly exist as if they were boxes. The same can be said about words in dictionaries: they too seem to exist as if they were boxes. The items that belong to such categories or that such words refer to, then, seem to exist findably in these boxes. They seem to correspond to what categories and words imply: namely, that objects truly exist in boxes, with the defining characteristics of the categories for them and the definitions of the words for them established and findable on the side of these items. There, they establish, by their own power, the existence of these items in the boxes of the categories and words for them. 

This is a deceptive appearance and is false. It does not correspond to actuality. Validly knowable objects, like the conventional “me,” love, red, and so on, do not exist in boxes. So, there’s nothing that corresponds to what mental labels and designations imply – self-established objects. However, conventional mental labels and conventional words do refer to something, because everything functions, cause and effect operates, we do things, and so on. This is a very subtle distinction here, between what words refer to – namely conventional objects, like you and me – and what corresponds to words, like the false “me.”

Understanding this distinction between what words refer to and what corresponds to words is something that we really have to work on. It’s quite subtle and sophisticated. But how does all of this translate into ordinary experience? How does it translate into our old friend “nothing special?” There’s nothing special about “me,” on the side of “me,” that makes “me” so special. There is nothing that makes “me” me. 

This “nothing special” can be understood on so many levels of profundity. Actually, this entire discussion of what establishes the existence of “me” can all be covered with the understanding that there’s nothing special about “me.” I’m just one out of seven billion human beings and just one out of countless sentient beings, so nothing special. There’s no special defining characteristic on the side of “me” or my mind that, by its own power, makes me special. Because of that, there’s no self-established “me” to feel insecure about, because there is no self-established “me.” There’s nothing that we have to make secure, nothing that’s threatened. We need to just get on with life and, particularly, get on with trying to improve our situation and the situations of everybody else. Just do it. Nothing special about doing this, as there is nothing special about “me.” 


This concludes the topic of a healthy development of the self through lam-rim. It is the process of reaffirming and strengthening a healthy sense of a “me,” and then, once that is built up to a certain level, clearing out misconceptions about the way that the conventional “me” exists, which would define the false “me.” This process of building up a healthy sense of self and deconstructing a false sense of self goes deeper and deeper the more subtle the levels are of what we refute.


“Nothing Special” Versus Indifference

My question is related to “nothing special” and how to distinguish the borders between self-cherishing, or an actual healthy type of self-discipline, and indifference or relaxing and neglecting because nothing is special?

“Nothing special” is very different from “nothing matters, so who cares.” With the attitude of “nothing special,” we don’t make a big deal out of what we’re doing. We don’t have to advertise it and we don’t have to be thanked for it. It’s nothing like that. Here’s an example. Suppose we live in an apartment building and in the lobby at the entrance there’s a lot of paper and garbage on the floor, and there’s also a trash bin there. So, nothing special, we pick up the papers from the floor and put them in the trash bin. As Shantideva says, problems don’t have an owner. It’s not my problem, and 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 picking them up. We just do it.

We pick them up without having to put up a little sign on the wall that says, “The papers on the floor were picked up by…” and we sign our name. Picking them up is also not with this feeling of “I’m the victim and everybody in the building is so horrible. They’re so sloppy, and why do I always have to pick up after everybody?” Then we really begrudge everybody else, or we think, “I’m so special, I’m the cleaning person.” We just do it because it needs to be done, no big deal. We pick up the paper. So what? That’s the “nothing special” attitude. It’s not an attitude of indifference with which we do nothing, and it’s certainly not the self-cherishing attitude of thinking, “I didn’t drop the papers there, so why should I pick them up?” We just do what needs to be done.

Acting like this works properly when it’s on the basis of a healthy sense of conventional “me,” not the false “me” that feels compelled to go around and clean up after everybody thinking, “I’m so good” and “I’m so perfect and everybody else is so terrible.” It’s not that we are the martyr bodhisattva and we will clean up after everybody. It’s not like that.

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

If we see the person dropping the papers, then it all depends on whether or not that person is receptive to our advice. We have to use our 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 of “no smoking.” However, sometimes some of these particularly strong, aggressive-looking young men will smoke there. I am an old white-haired man, and if I walk up to them and say, “Hey there, don’t smoke!” – I’m liable to get punched in the face. In this case, one exercises patience. It’s not so bad that they’re smoking. It’s not going to kill everybody. We try not to go onto this mental trip of criticizing and thinking, “Oh these young men,” and blah, blah, blah with all of these destructive ways of thinking. Basically, this just produces unhappiness for us. 

Then, there are truly dangerous situations. Do we intervene when somebody is hurting somebody else, beating them up, etc.? We have to judge whether or not we have the ability to stop them, or if we can somehow try to call somebody else to stop them. If we do have the ability, then we do it. If we don’t, then we find some other means to stop them. 

Sometimes this can be very delicate and difficult. I remember an incident in which this couple on the metro were screaming and yelling at each other, really quite horribly and aggressively. Somebody decided to interfere and said to the man, “Hey, leave this lady alone.” Then the two of them turned on this person and yelled at him to mind his own business. This was because they were a couple and they often had arguments and screamed at each other. That is the way that they interacted, and so they felt it’s none of anybody else’s business. That’s why one has to really become a Buddha to know what actually is going on in the situation.

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

Another interesting approach would be if we see somebody dropping these papers, to go over and pick up these papers and throw them out while the person watches us.

We have to be very careful that we don’t do that thinking, “Look how good I am,” with the intention to make the other person feel guilty. It’s a very difficult situation. I’m thinking of the example of a one-year-old baby sitting in the high chair and always throwing whatever it has on the floor. How do we teach the one-year-old not to do that? It’s not so easy. It requires a lot of patience. Just yelling at the baby or hitting the baby for doing that is wrong. 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 we would have with a baby… hopefully.

Review of the Features of a Healthy Conventional “Me”

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

A healthy conventional “me” is one with which we:

  • Take responsibility for our own actions
  • Care about the consequences of our actions on ourselves and others
  • Work in a realistic way to try to improve the quality of our own and others’ lives on whatever level of our capacity
  • Is strong enough to be able to exercise self-control to refrain from what would be harmful
  • Has the willpower to engage in what will be constructive and beneficial.

All of these examples would be a healthy sense of a “me” that doesn’t inflate the “me” into something that is absolutely impossible. It is not one who must always be in control, be perfect, be paid attention to by everybody, or 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?” Another statement for when we make mistakes is, “What do we expect from samsara?” We’re not a liberated being so what do we expect? Of course, we’re going to make mistakes. Until we are a liberated being, we’re still going to get angry sometimes. There is no reason to feel guilty. 

We work on ourselves, definitely, but we 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. Instead, we just think, “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.” Then we apply various opponents while we do this – remembering that it’s nothing special.


This brings us to the end of our seminar. Whatever understanding has come from this, whatever positive force has been built up, may it act as a cause for all beings to reach the enlightened state of a Buddha for the benefit of all. Thank you.