Interestingly, someone else in a separate conversation on the same day also told me that they’d been taught that in the Girl Guides, but their take was different, they felt it was a Buddhist teaching for them in disguise, and they really liked it.
What is the difference? The answer is what is going on in the mind. Putting others first has to come not from a sense of onerous, self-sacrificing duty but from a genuine cherishing of others, feeling that their happiness is important, even more important than our own. If we genuinely feel that way, we will naturally and happily want to put them first, there’ll be no self-flagellation involved. But that does not mean that our happiness becomes entirely unimportant. Happiness is our nature, our Buddha nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong, insofar as it doesn’t work, is seeking it outside when it is inside, and thinking that our happiness is more important than anyone else’s when it’s not.
Actually we need to learn to enjoy our own company a great deal, and it is no fun hanging out with a doormat! We have to like and respect ourselves, which means we have to have something good to like and respect about ourselves = and generally this is our positive and happy qualities, all of which come one way or another from cherishing others. Cherishing others is a win win for us and for others.
The great Indian Buddhist Shantideva famously said that all suffering in this world comes from self-cherishing and all happiness in this world comes from cherishing others. All of it. I’m not sure there is even an exception to this rule. What Shantideva says makes sense because self-cherishing is a delusion, an unrealistic mind – who else but your own self-cherishing attitude thinks you are the most important person in the world?! (Asked what he felt about death recently, an Australian comedian joked half-seriously that his main fear was who was going to take his place in the center of the universe.) Not even your own mum agrees with this assessment of your own importance, except maybe sometimes, and certainly none of the other 7 billion humans on the planet does — and don’t even think about all the animals who have no clue who you are and don’t care. When we are thinking and acting while taken in by an hallucination, it is no surprise when things don’t work out. Cherishing others, on the other hand, is entirely realistic because it understands that others actually are important, both to themselves and also to us. Others also think they are the only real ME, and we depend on them for everything.
Test the teachings like gold
We don’t need to take Shantideva’s word for it though. In fact we should never take even Buddha’s word for anything, he said so himself – advising people to test everything he said as they’d assay gold to see if it was genuine. We test what we hear and read about Buddhism in the laboratory of our own mind, reasoning, and life experiences in order to come to our own conclusions and decisions, our own good ideas. However much we admire or trust someone, just taking on what they say without thinking it through and making it our own idea has limited benefit, for sooner or later we’ll fall back on our own habitual thoughts and behaviors again. That’s one reason why I think in Buddhism we talk about listening, contemplating, and meditating – we don’t just stop at listening.
So, in this instance, we can look at our own lives to see whether self-cherishing causes us problems or not, and whether cherishing others causes us happiness or not. A simple experiment to get us started is to think of a problem we’ve had recently, such as today. Any problem will do.
Okay, I’ll go first. I work as a project manager for a medical journal and sometimes one doctor or another can be a bit big for their boots. One was complaining about the imposition of only being paid $1,500 for a few hours’ work, and I found myself wondering briefly what planet he lived on. I was a little miffed at his rather rude and condescending email and felt discouraged for a few minutes. Then I got over it.
So, let’s analyze what was going on, and, specifically, who was I thinking of when I was feeling miffed…
Why, me, of course. “How dare he be so insensitive to ME!! Doesn’t he realize what my hourly rate of pay is?!” As my thoughts began to run away with themselves, I started to project this worry into the future as well… “Oh no, I have to work with this guy for a whole MONTH, what if I can’t do it …?”
Then, how did I get over it? By thinking about him and how he wants to be happy but, in this instance at least, doesn’t really know how to – if $1,500 for 3 hours work can’t make you happy, you may be relatively hard to satisfy. His own irritation was doubtless stressing him out. Plus, his dog probably loves him, he can’t be all bad. I genuinely wished him happiness and the problem magically disappeared.
Ok, your turn. Who were you thinking of while you were having your problem? ….
…. Now, if you imagine cherishing the other person or other people around you instead of yourself, what happens to your problem? ……
If it did, you can extrapolate that the same thing will happen to all your problems if you move away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others.
(This is not just the case for relatively small problems, such as having to work with an irritating client, but with seemingly insurmountable, existential ones. Loren Jay Shaw, for example, was in Super Max solitary confinement for 3 years, and it was cherishing ants that stopped him going quite literally insane.)
Combine your understanding with breathing meditation
Then, what you can do next, if you like, is think that this problem and all other problems caused by your self-cherishing appear in the form of dark clouds at the level of your heart, in the center of your chest. Think:
“I don’t need any of this – these thoughts are just bad habits, and they are not me.”
Then with this decision, breathe the dark clouds out through your nostrils so they disappear forever. Do that for a while, feeling your heart becoming lighter with every breath.
After a little while, imagine breathing in blissful, clear light – like the sky, only infinitely clearer. It enters your nostrils and descends to your heart, or heart chakra — your spiritual heart located in the center of your chest. It looks like light, but its nature is love, cherishing others. You can also think of it as all the love from throughout the universe, including that of all holy beings, blessings. With every breath, feel your heart become happier.
Than spend a few minutes combining the two, breathing out the last of the dark clouds and breathing in the blissful clear light.
“This is my Buddha nature. This peace and love I am feeling, however slight, indicates my potential for limitless love. This is who I am.”
We are not the clouds of our delusions, we are the sky of our Buddha nature. We can hang out in this blissful clarity at our heart for as long as we like, feeling at home there, thinking “This is me.”
Then, for the extra icing on this meditation cake, we can think that everyone in the world has this same potential at their heart. How wonderful it would be if they could remove self-cherishing and its problems and identify with their pure love instead. Then we can dedicate all the good karma or good fortune we’ve created so that we and others quickly accomplish this.
Before we rise from meditation, we can think ahead briefly to how we are going to remember this love for the rest of the day. One excellent way is to use the Lojong (mind-training) motto with everyone we meet or think about:
“This person is important. Their happiness matters.”