The Bodhisattvacaryavatara bases its instruction on meditation on the bodhicitta, the altruistic exploration, in Nagarjuna’s text called Precious Garland (Ratnamala). And the techniques for cultivating that are explained in what is called ‘exchanging’ and the ‘equality of oneself and others’.
Equalizing oneself and others means developing the attitude and understanding that: ‘Just as I desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering, so do all living beings, beings as infinite as space; they also desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering.’
Shantideva reasons that we don’t discriminate between different parts of our body — hands, legs, head and so on — as far as protecting them is concerned. All of them equally are parts of our body. In that same manner, looking at it from that point of view, there is no difference whatsoever between all living beings. And one should not discriminate between ‘self and ‘others’ when working for attaining happiness and avoiding suffering.
One should reflect and try to find out the difference between ‘self and ‘others’. By so doing, one will find that as far as the wish to attain happiness and avoid suffering is concerned, there really is no difference whatsoever.
We have a natural right to be happy and to avoid suffering, and the same is true for all living beings — they also have the same natural right. But in one respect there is a difference between ourselves and others What is it? The difference lies in the quantity. The welfare of oneself is the welfare of a single person, a single living being, whereas the welfare of others is that of an infinite number of beings. From that point of view, we can see that the welfare of others is more important than one’s own.
The self is always related to others on the ordinary level, on the path, and at the resultant state. Reflecting along these lines, brings the understanding of how important it is to work for the benefit of other beings. If one remains selfish and self-centred always, and is able to achieve the happiness that one seeks, then it would be understandable to work solely for oneself, but this does not happen. We are such that we have to depend on the co-operation and kindness of others for our survival.
It is also a fact — something that we can observe — that the more we take the welfare of others to heart and work for their benefit, the more benefit we derive for ourselves. This is a fact that we can see. And the more selfish we remain and self-centred, the more selfish our way of life is, the lonelier we feel and the more miserable. This is also a fact that we can see.
If one definitely wants to work for one’s own benefit and welfare, therefore, it is better to regard the welfare of others to be more important than one’s own, which is just what the Bodhisattvacaryavatara recommends.
If you contemplate along these lines, you will increase the force of the thought that cherishes others more and more.
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First published in the November 1995 Buddhism Now.
[From teachings given by HH Dalai Lama in London in April 1988.]