The great Buddhist master Shantideva, in his famous guide to cultivating the mind of enlightenment, which is translated as “The Way of the Bodhisattva”, wrote:
“Whoever wishes quickly to become a refuge for himself and others should undertake this sacred mystery, to take the place of others, giving them his own.”
A wise commentator on this verse, the late adept Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, noted:
“We attach great importance to what we conceive of as I, Myself, and therefore to such thoughts as my body, my mind, my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, my friend. But the concept of others we neglect and ignore. We may indeed be generous to beggars and give food to who need it, but it is a fact that we do not care for them as much as we care for ourselves. This however is precisely what we should do; and conversely, just as we are now able to ignore others, we should be able to ignore ourselves.”
An admirable ideal, no doubt, but for all but an extremely rare few, the above is more of an aspiration than a reality in terms of our everyday life experience. Even Dilgo Rinpoche mentioned that it was not yet true of him in his own practice. Why is it so rare? Because we are composed of both soul and human components, and as long as there is a human component, there will typically be self-interest. It is the nature of the animal. This is also why there is so much emphasis in the esoteric schools on mind training, because our usual human inclinations are anything but selfless. Taming the mind is the foundation of such methods, because it is at the level of thought that our attitudes and behaviors are spawned and enlivened.
Just as a child needs to be taught how to behave, often against its own desires and preferences, so too do we in our human personas find that real self-surrender in relationships — true unconditional loving kindness — does not come easily. A brief review of any day’s news headlines makes that abundantly clear, but we don’t need such reports to clarify our usual state – all we need do is self-inspect our habitual motives to recognize how thoroughly we are driven by self-interest, even at the expense of others.
It is the testimony of the wisdom bearers that we come here from the realm of the unconditional in order to experience the conditional. Our original spirit nature is unconditional love, but apparently we set that aside temporarily in order to fully participate in the human experience. We are typically attracted to such an incarnational opportunity because it represents something so different than our actual state as light being souls, and hence is intriguing to us in our natural curiosity and trajectory towards infinitely expanding Self-awareness.
Although the human intellect may be puzzled and even dismayed as to why we would choose birth on this often harsh and primitives world, those who have been granted a “glimpse behind the curtain” are unanimous in suggesting that there is a bigger picture to appreciate, and that our appearance here makes perfect sense within that more encompassing view. All of the various challenges we may find ourselves confronting are actually chosen by us, although we do arrive with a temporary amnesia in order to provide the adventure with a more visceral impact.
Imagine, for example, if you are gifted with access to Universal Knowledge. Wouldn’t it be interesting to set that aside for a moment (which is all this human life really is, in the greater scheme of things), and enjoy the thrill of not knowing how everything turns out?
This is also why the comparison of this life to a virtual reality scenario is often employed, a situation in which we temporarily assume the fictional “avatar” identity to play the game of materiality. It does seem that our time here in this density is generally all about the experience of duality. Indeed, that is the nature of this realm, and it is an experiential adventure which we apparently are eager to dive into, judging by the vast multitudes of incarnated beings who have taken the plunge, so to speak.
It is also useful to remember that “nondual” does not mean “not dual”. If we examine the nature of emptiness, for example, we can also recognize that it does not exclude anything, even duality. It expresses itself through all of it, just as the ocean expresses itself through every wave, large and small. So many imagine that spirituality involves rising beyond or even escaping the realm of the physical, but perhaps it is actually more about imbuing the physical with the spiritual, bringing heaven to earth.
In any case, to the extent that we can accept ourselves for what we are during our sojourn here, we are that much closer to real freedom, because we have thereby relinquished the chronic and contractive inner conflict generated by the various idealistic self-improvement schemes which humans tend to inflict upon themselves, based on borrowed notions and faulty programming.
As we do come to embody such acceptance, interestingly enough, we can also recognize that “the other” is not really different from us, not at all as separate as they may have initially appeared, and so the sense of oneness can ripen naturally. As always, it is important to remember that love is all that matters, regardless of what dimension we may be sampling. Such remembrance is critical to our full enjoyment and appreciation of this and any other realm’s possibilities.
Of course, acts of genuine selflessness are certainly not impossible while we are here. There can be grace-filled moments of profound remembrance, and even some rare few who have managed to stabilize to some significant extent in that blessed state, such as the late 20th century saint Ramana Maharshi. On the other hand, I have observed those who preach that “there is no other” act in ways that are very much contrary to that claim. Likewise, there are certain Near Death Experiencers who are granted the vision of unconditional love and oneness while “on the other side”, but upon return, all that becomes more like a cherished memory, and not necessarily indicative of their current state.
Consequently, for most of us, it may remain an inspiring ideal and wonderful aspiration, and certainly worthy of emulating. However, we might also notice that we often tend to congratulate ourselves after any episode of apparent generosity on our part, so being aware of how easily the ego-mind can co-opt even such moments is always sobering.
In that sense, and in order to actualize a mature quality of compassion in our life and relationships, it would be productive to first recognize the essential role of mind and its thought projections. Indeed, without such a realization, countless well-meaning care-givers end up burning themselves out on the job. Add to that the religious aspirants over the centuries who have attempted to embody their idealistic and misunderstood concepts about self-abnegation. More often than not, they have only ended up reinforcing the ego-self position, despite their original intent, and even harming themselves with ignorantly-prescribed self-mortifications and so forth.
A well-worn but nevertheless still-wise admonition warns us that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Other teachers, such as the late Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche, caution against what he termed “idiot compassion”. I have previously elaborated on the ramifications of this issue in my essay “To Do Something”. As an antidote to such mistaken views and possible dead ends, one of my favorite guides in these matters, Sparrow, wrote:
“As an empathic being you are going to want to immerse yourself in this sacred gift of sensitivity and connection. What you are going to want to do is train yourself to remain open and sensitive yet to relinquish your focus and necessity for personal ego and persona. This is to say, you are going to learn to become a silent witness to events as they take place without adding your personal ego, your personal perspective and your own memory infrastructure. Basically you are going to let go of that which you perceive is ‘you’ and become one with that which you are being empathic to. But, the most important part, you are going to need to let go of it once you have experienced one-ness with it in order to relinquish ownership of it and its influence when returning to your human persona. That is the difficult part, but it is possible by learning to let go of thought altogether.”
In that regard, he notes: “You will arrive at the dawn of realization to this when you have learnt to let go of all thought. For when there is no thought, there is no judgement or clouded interpretation; there is no re-enacted learnt behaviour; there is no past and no future; there becomes only one-ness with the present. This seems alien to you because you have not stepped into such a place. Such a place you are trying to place in your mind, but your mind is already too full of contradicting thoughts to accept it. Such a place cannot and will not exist in mind, not as an accurate idea or concept, but must be a condition beyond [the thinking] mind.”
Thus, we return in this, as in so many similar considerations, to contemplating mind and the critical role our thoughts play in determining our attitudes and behaviors, be they predominantly selfish or aspiring to the selfless model. Indeed, it is our conditioned thinking which inevitably contributes to whether our orientation will tend towards service to self or service to others.
However, it’s also true that those who truly act in a selfless manner are not thinking “I am now being selfless”. Instead, they are acting from “no mind”. That is, they are just doing what needs to be done, without adding the superfluous self-consciousness of a “do-gooder”. They transcend the thinking mind, and thus their activity burns itself up, like a good bonfire, in the process.
Truly “taking the place of others and giving them our own” is just that way – spontaneous, and without studied regard for one’s own personal benefit or aggrandizement. Thus, it is genuinely “the right thing to do”, because there is no fixed identification with an ego-self concept lurking in the activity, attempting to claim the experience for itself. The more our activities take place without the burden of our complex and often ambivalent personal regard, the closer we will approach the authentic “enlightenment-mind” which strives toward awakening, empathy, and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings, a recognition in which service to others is simultaneously and unmistakably service to Self. In this activity, we also discover the fulfillment of the Golden Rule – treating others as ourselves — because of the dawning realization that they are indeed “not two”.