A Place Where We Cannot Be Harmed
These are the edited notes from a Dharma teaching received by the editor of ‘Politics of Soul’
When we focus exclusively on ourselves, on our own welfare, we suffer, we are unhappy. When there is a genuine feeling for others’ welfare and for others’ suffering, our own suffering diminishes and we are much happier. What would happen if I stopped thinking of myself altogether? What would happen if my concern were exclusively for others? What would happen if I cherished only others, if I dropped self-concern altogether? How would I be affected? How would others be affected?
We need a special method to be able to cherish others to the exclusion of ourselves, and to reap all the benefits of so doing. That method is ‘Exchanging Self With Others’, and in particular identifying with the body and mind of others, imputing “I” on others’ aggregates [Sanskrit: skandhas, meaning the basic components of a person such as body, feelings and thoughts]. Whenever we perceive another’s body, for example, we think “I”.
“Just as I am familiar with developing the thought “I”, “I”
When perceiving my body, which arose from others’ sperm and blood,
So should I become familiar with developing the thought “I”, “I”
When perceiving others’ bodies.”
from ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’,
Chapter 8, verse 158 (Tharpa Publications, 2002)
This body itself has arisen from others’ sperm and blood, yet due to familiarity we think “I”. Later on there will appear a completely different body [when we are older or reincarnated], yet in dependence upon its appearance we will think “I”. Therefore we can think “I” in dependence on the body of another living being we perceive right now. We can identify it as if it appears to be ours. In the future when we see another body we will think “I”, so now when we see another’s body we can think “I”.
We can also think “I” on the basis of another’s mind, feelings, and thoughts. We can think “this is what I am thinking, this is what I am feeling”. How can we do that? Do we know another’s mind? We don’t know our own mind, but we are quite happy to think “I” in dependence upon whatever it is! We imagine what a person may be thinking or feeling, and in dependence upon those thoughts and feelings we can think validly “this is what I am thinking, this is how I am feeling”.
It doesn’t matter if we don’t know directly what a person is thinking or feeling. A mother looking after her child doesn’t know directly the mind of the child, but she identifies with it very strongly anyway. She believes that her child is having certain feelings or thoughts that are making it suffer, and she identifies strongly with those feelings or thoughts. She tries to help her child change those thoughts or feelings, because they are the nature of suffering.
Through the force of the mother exchanging herself with the child every day of her life she gets to know the child better and better until she is sure that she knows the child’s mind. “I know how my child is feeling”. Other people don’t, they just see the child sitting on the floor – they don’t know how the child is feeling – but the mother does through the force of exchanging herself with her child. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know others’ thoughts directly – this is an excuse we make in order to hold back from making the exchange.
Why does this method work? It is because we naturally cherish the self. If we identify with another’s body and mind thinking “I”, “me” then naturally we cherish that person as self. Everyone considers themselves to be “self”, “I”, “me”. Through the force of this exchange, imputing “I” on others’ aggregates, naturally we will cherish them because they have become our self. Their body, their feelings, their thoughts and so forth have become ours. We consider them to be mine. We naturally always cherish what we consider to be mine. Very clever isn’t it? We cannot help but to cherish others through this exchange.
We will cherish the body and mind of others, which they believe to be “mine”, and in the same way we believe to be “mine”! What is so special about this method is that we can learn to cherish and love everyone no matter what they are like. Even if they have a horrible body, even if they have a horrible mind, we will love them because we are imputing our self on their body and mind. We may have a horrible body and mind, but we still cherish ourself! It doesn’t matter what a person’s body is like or what their mind may be like, we love them regardless. Their feelings matter to us. We love all people as they are, through exchanging self with others. This is not difficult to understand, but perhaps difficult to practice due to resistance in our mind.
What is so special about this method is that we are no longer affected or disturbed by what other people may be thinking about us. Usually, because of what we believe others are thinking or feeling about us, we are affected or disturbed. We are always considering what people are thinking about us. Sometimes we feel certain we know what others think about us: “I know what they thinking!”. But then, when we receive encouragement to practice exchanging self with others, we complain “but I don’t know what they are thinking”!
What we will understand through such a practice is that everything really is just projection of mind. Our mind is projecting everything: the kind of person somebody is, the kind of person we are.
We continue to cherish the self, even our self. But it is a self imputed upon others’ bases. Whenever we perceive another’s body we cherish that self. We cherish our self in dependence upon the appearance of another’s body or mind! Their suffering becomes my suffering, and their happiness becomes my happiness. We feel in our heart that through the force of this exchange another’s suffering or happiness has become ours. So naturally we will work to free that self from any suffering and to find happiness for that self. We want to be rid of that suffering. We don’t want that suffering to be experienced by that self – our self. Also, if there is any happiness, we identify with that pleasant feeling and we feel very happy. That person has found happiness – we have found happiness.
The basis of this person [our present body and mind] has become another’s basis, and has thereby become unimportant, because we have exchanged self with others. The suffering and happiness of this person [our present person] have become the suffering and happiness of another, and therefore insignificant. We have identified with others’ bases so strongly that we feel “self” with respect to other and “other” with respect to self. We feel that it doesn’t matter what happens ‘here’ anymore. At the moment it matters because we are self-centered.
One of the greatest results of exchanging self with others is that the pain of our suffering is eliminated because our self has moved to a place where it cannot be harmed – the place of others. It cannot be harmed there. Our own suffering becomes bearable because we are no longer harmed by it. Others’ suffering becomes unbearable, yet we are not harmed by it either. How about that!
“The suffering I experience
Does not harm others,
But I find it hard to bear
Because I cherish myself.
Likewise, the suffering of others
Does not harm me,
But, if I cherish others,
I shall find their suffering hard to bear.”
from ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’,
Chapter 8, verses 92-93 (Tharpa Publications, 2002)
Suffering is unbearable where there is a cherishing of the person who is experiencing suffering. At present we cherish ourselves, so our suffering is unbearable. If we cherish others then their suffering becomes unbearable. We think at the moment we find our suffering unbearable because it is our own suffering. This is incorrect reasoning. The reason we find our suffering unbearable is because we cherish ourself. It is in dependence upon the mind of cherishing that suffering becomes unbearable. Furthermore, we do not necessarily experience pain when finding suffering unbearable. Finding others’ suffering unbearable we feel no pain – we are not harmed. All harm or suffering comes from self-cherishing. Our self has moved to a place where it cannot be harmed, the place of others. Please think carefully about this.
We will experience no greater happiness than the happiness that arises from this practice. We will discover an inexhaustible fountain of happiness within our own mind through the force of exchanging self with others.
We are able to help others more and more effectively. When exchanging self with others we develop such a profound empathy – understanding what a person wants and needs. We come to understand them much better. As well as learning about others we learn a lot about ourselves too. When we move into that world of others, thinking “I” with regard to them and thinking “other” with respect to our present self, when we look back at our present self we discover an awful lot: good things and bad things. But we don’t develop pride or discouragement because these arise from being self-centered. We see ourselves from another’s perspective, and we learn what we need to do to change.
As we gain success in this practice we come to know much better what a person needs and when they need it, just like a mother and her child. And we understand what we need to do, that if we are to fulfill all the needs and wishes of others we need to change into a Buddha.