A Stratagem for Selfless Compassion 

In his book ‘Wisdom in Exile’, Lama Jampa Thaye invites us to reflect on approaches we have to compassion in our modern world. He draws our attention to tendencies of wanting to develop forms of compassion as ways to feel better about ourselves. 

If we are to develop true compassion, we will need to go back to first principles and root out all egotistical elements from our aspirations to be compassionate. The Buddhist teachings provide a unique approach to achieving this.   

As part of a teaching Lama Jampa presented in Bristol recently, he explained the reasoning that underlies one of the key Mahayana practices that we can apply: that of “equalising self and other”. This precedes the step whereby we will be taught to “exchange self for other”. The genius of this approach can be seen immediately from these titles alone; and that embedded here is the open admission that we are starting from the position of having a sense of self. 

What follows is an extract from Lama Jampa’s recent presentation of Chogyal Phakpa’s ‘Garland of Jewels’. 

The teachings on equalising are derived from the Mahayana sutras and were explained in great detail by Shantideva in his ‘Bodhisattvacharyavatara’. Subsequently widely taught as methods for ensuring our aspiration does not falter, and to strengthen it if the bodhichitta is, for us, like a  tiny flame. That flame needs to be given a lot of support to become a raging fire to consume our self-centredness. The way to consume our self-centredness is by working on our habitual perceptions of how we stand with others, how we should relate to others. Because when it comes down to it what obstructs bodhichitta is, of course, privileging oneself; seeing our own needs as primary; our own happiness as overriding that of others; seeing our determination to be free of suffering as more deserving of attention than anyone else’s need to be free of suffering. From beginningless time, we have been privileging ourselves in this way. So, although we might have been inspired by the Mahayana teachings, although the bodhichitta may have arisen in us momentarily, it’s easy for it to be snuffed out because the habit of privileging oneself is not just an intellectual thing, it is an emotional reflex which has been cultivated throughout this life and throughout limitless lifetimes. So it doesn’t just fold its tents and go home the moment a good thought arises in us. Instead, we need some way to work on undermining that grasping at self-privileging. 

So, in his root text, Chogyal Phakpa says:

“Feel joy fulfilling the benefit of others through equalising and exchanging oneself with others. This is the greatest skilful means to perfect the bodhichitta of aspiration. The bodhichitta of application is perfected through the accumulation of merit and wisdom. Practise it without discouragement or disappointment.”

What does it mean by equalising? We can look at what Shantideva taught to understand that. 

Equalising arises in this way: when we consider the question ‘What makes my need for happiness so important, so special. In fact, isn’t it the case that, just as much as I want happiness, every other person wants happiness too? What makes mine more deserving,  more important that I should serve that and not serve others’ needs for happiness? There’s nothing special about my need to be happy and my wish to be free of suffering. I cannot find any reason why my own wish should take priority.

This is stunningly obvious when you think about it, so we don’t usually allow ourselves to think about it and, in this way, we can continue to cultivate our own self privileging. But there is absolutely nothing in my body or mind that would require this special treatment. 

So, continually train in asking oneself this in periods of reflection alone, and when one is with others: “What makes my wishes more important than their wishes?” and “Why should I have it first?”. I will never find a convincing answer why I should go first. In that way, one starts to relax and a whole kind of attitude of mind begins to fade away.

I can add a supplement to that which is that there is only one of me and countless others. So, how can I now say that my needs should go first?

Training in equalising oneself and others in this way whatever position others are in – higher or lower or the same as oneself – all are equal in their drive to avoid suffering. 

Please note that posts in this blog are not intended to represent full accounts of teachings given by the Lama. They focus on particular aspects of teachings that the authors think may be of interest to people coming new to the Dharma, and other fellow students. They represent the understanding of the authors who bear responsibility for the content. Please address any comments to blog@dechen.org.