First you, then me ~ the Bodhisattva’s attitude

I hope you’re having a happy holiday season. Just before Christmas I wrote a couple of articles about becoming more generous, and I have a few more things to say on the subject. We’ve no doubt bought and given all our presents by now, but we don’t have to wait a whole ‘nother year before we go crazy giving again! Generosity is the first “perfection” of a Bodhisattva, an essential part of their way of life leading to enlightenment. The more generous we become, the happier we’ll be.

What is a possession?

We have a strong sense of ownership, which if you check is a strong sense of mine. And where does a strong sense of mine come from? It actually comes from a strong sense of me — I in the possessive mode. Of me. The stronger our sense of mine, the stronger our sense of me. Our possessions are mine, which is like me in the possessive mode, me apostrophe s, me’s. It’s all about me. This shirt is my shirt, it is of me, get off it, you can’t borrow it! My shirt!

I had this experience, actually, I will confess. After the marathon we ran in Sacramento some years ago, we were given these fantastic red shirts with the logo: “Run for World Peace” and this great quote, “Without Inner Peace, Outer Peace is Impossible.” My shirt fitted me perfectly. And I loved it, and was so looking forward to just wearing it.

But then somebody said sadly, “Oh, I only got a large, I can’t wear a large, I’m a small,” and this thought came into my head, “Oh, crikey, I’m going to have to give them mine, aren’t I, show a good example?” So I did, I asked if they wanted to swap, and there was a pang – “Ugh. I’ve got a large shirt now, a large red shirt saying, “Without Inner Peace, Outer Peace is Impossible.”

It is so useful when things like this happen, you just see this childish, pathetic mind. I was happy to make her smile, truth be told, but at the same time I had attachment to this shirt, I had already labeled it “mine”, and as a result there was a bit of a pang. And then of course I had to give away the large shirt too as it didn’t fit.

So in reality this mind of holding onto things, it’s painful. Miserliness is a painful mind. It’s a tight mind, there’s no joy in it. That’s something we can check – “Do I derive any joy from holding tightly onto my things?” The part of me that did manage to give the shirt away and see the happiness she got from it felt great! It was such a better feeling!

Happiness is a state of mind, and we can’t find it in our shirts (especially when we already have a bunch of shirts!) There is no long-term security in any of our things, there’s not even any short-term security in them, for they cannot actually protect us from suffering, which is also a state of mind whose causes lie within.

Why do we feel so insecure that we have to bolster ourselves up with possessions, people, money, and so on? That insecurity is coming from our exaggerated sense of self, trying to protect that self, when in reality that’s counter-productive. The way to protect ourselves and find happiness is in loving others and letting go of that strong sense of self.

The weight of the world

Also, we are going to be dead within a few hundred months (but you knew that already, right?!) At that point, everything’s ripped away from us – our things provide us with literally no security whatsoever at the time of death.

In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, my Teacher says that if we’re very attached to our possessions throughout our life, then when the time of death comes we’ll be like a bird trying to fly with weights tied to its little feet. The bird cannot move, and, in the same way, if we die with miserliness still in place, we’re in big trouble when it comes to future lives. We’ll be weighed down in samsara, this cycle of impure life. From Buddha’s point of view, it is very dangerous to have strong self-cherishing and miserliness at the time of death. We definitely don’t want to be weighed down.

And miserliness already weighs us down now. It is such a heavy mind. Giving is such a light mind. It is such a free-ing and flexible mind.


Self-cherishing is like a big black hole. It doesn’t matter what you throw into a black hole —  SCHLURP! It sucks it all up, doesn’t it? We have been throwing things at our self-cherishing our entire life, let’s face it. We’ve been trying to protect our precious selves, nurture ourselves, give ourselves things, help ourselves, humor ourselves, grasp at happiness non-stop throughout the entire course of our life, but have we in fact succeeded in giving ourselves that lasting happiness or freedom from problems, or has our self-cherishing simply sucked it all in so we just have to go feed it again the next day – SCHLURP?!!!

When we learn to cherish others, then we naturally want to protect them, nurture them, and so on. We want to give them things when it’s suitable. We want to give our time, our advice, our encouragement, our love, our protection — like a radiating sun. That’s the difference. Self-cherishing and miserliness are a big, black hole, whereas cherishing others and giving are like a sun shining, radiating blissful energy towards everybody. We ourselves are so happy, and the people we’re with are happy.

Letting go

We will experience happiness both now and in the future. In his Friendly Letter, the great Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna says:

There is no better friend for the future
Than giving – bestowing gifts properly
On ordained people, Brahmins, the poor, and friends –
Knowing enjoyments to be transitory and essenceless.

There are a lot of deserving people we can give to – those who need help, those who’ve been very kind to us, those who are dedicating their lives to helping others, and so on. We can give, knowing that in any case our enjoyments are transitory and essenceless, so why hold onto them? They’re all utterly temporary. If we have some understanding of the dream-like nature of things, we also know that we cannot even find anything outside of our mind, so why would we want to hold onto it? It is about as satisfying as trying to grab ahold of objects in a dream.

At its deepest, the practice of generosity is very close to the practice of wisdom, because it is a profound sense of letting go of that sense of mine, which is so close to our sense of me. Giving up a sense of owning things is an amazing practice with profound results.

I would love to hear your own stories and observations on giving v. miserliness. Please give this Article #99 to anyone who might like it! And like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you want to discuss these kinds of things there as well.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

17 thoughts on “First you, then me ~ the Bodhisattva’s attitude”

  1. I love this sentence: At its deepest, the practice of generosity,(giving) is very close to the practice of wisdom, because it is a profound sense of letting go of that sense of mine, which is so close to our sense of me.

  2. Giving is easy when you have plenty to give. The test comes when your resources feel small and tight…
    Ok – I’ll suffer this bit of ‘tightness’ because your desires are infinite. I can scrape by for a while. I’m so lucky to have an ocean of love to fall back on.

    1. That’s true — so we need that feeling that we have much to give in terms of love, Dharma, fearlessness and, if we’re materially not wealthy, even scraps of food to the birds! And if we feel we are a drop in an ocean of blessings, we can give the whole ocean away 🙂
      Is that what you are saying?

  3. I had this on Christmas Day. The giving presents was nice, but in the afternoon my sister wanted to use my laptop for an hour to watch something. Only for an hour! But I noticed the self-cherishing come up, the possessiveness of “it’s MY laptop, bring your own stupid laptop if you want to watch stuff!!!!!!”. It was a real battle but eventually I let her watch it. It’s incredible, even after long meditation just how powerful that sense of possessiveness can be.

      1. Yeah it’s amazing how strong the self-grasping and self-cherishing can be. I thought I had done enough meditation to remove its gross forms. Then things like that happen, and it’s clear I still have a long way to go!

  4. ” All these beings strongly desire happiness. And humans cannot be happy without enjoyments. Knowing that these enjoyments come from giving, The Able One taught giving first.” Chandrakirti – Guide to the Middle Way. In studying the six perfections, I always wondered why generosity or giving is number one. In meditating on this, I came to the conclusion that with a mind of giving it is difficult to grasp one’s self and certainly difficult to be possessive of self at the same time. What are we giving exactly when we give to others? If we are giving to get something what are we really doing? I like the idea that I am renting everything and that what I “own” is helping me learn Dharma, train my mind and create some positive energy in this world I am currently in. Thank you for a wonderful post! Again!

  5. A few days ago I was listening to my iPod on shuffle. I have some of Geshe-la’s books on there. There is a lovely story of Kachen Sangye (I think that is what he is called, in Eight Steps) about a monk Geshe-la knew in Tibet who was a perfect example of giving, who if he was over-charged in a shop wouldn’t say anything but happily pay. And if the shop keeper was poor he would give even more. I have spent a lot of time recently getting a tight and angry mind about mobile phone salesmen and how they are “always trying to get more money out of me”. Then I wondered what this monk would have done. Would he have paid up? Would he want an iPhone? What I do know is that the mind that wants to get the best for the cheapest price is not a pleasant, comfortable mind. Owning technology, in my experience, leads to more unpleasant feelings than pleasant ones – but I am hooked. The more I have, the more difficult it is to imagine being without it.

    1. It seems to me that most of our possessions cost money and time to own 🙂 e.g. when they break down, or when you have to buy stuff to keep them updated, or when you simply have to clean them, etc.

  6. I love this article!
    Especially the images of self- cherishing bottomless hole and shining sun of cherishing love for others.
    I recently gave some stuff to various charities as I’m moving city. It was difficult for me to give up some of my pretty shiny things but the gratitude & joy of the charity workers uplifted me and made me feel happy.
    Giving away stuff I feel lighter and lighter each day!

    1. I really connected with that too. Makes the practice wonderfully clear in the pitfalls of miserliness and the joy of giving. Wonderful!

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