“At the root of all suffering, I know only one cause. It is the cherishing of one’s self. At the root of all happiness, I know only one cause; it is the cherishing of others.” —Shantideva
Wisdom without compassion is bondage, and compassion without wisdom is bondage,” the Buddha’s follower Vimalakirti says. This is beautifully exemplified by the Dalai Lama, who expresses wisdom through compassion. His compassion for the Chinese, the very people who are killing monks in Tibet, is the truest expression of freedom.
This is a difficult teaching to grasp. Many of us prefer the wisdom teachings, prefer to meditate on awareness, thinking that practicing compassion is a burden. But this attitude is born of confusion. Perhaps we are attached to an experience of vastness, modeling on meditators in caves, alone in their wisdom. One way to check our wisdom is through compassion, because what hinders compassion is the sense of I; it is ignorance.
As Westerners, we may also be confused by the association of compassion with the martyrdom tradition, the sacrificing of oneself: “I’m willing to go through compassion because the outcome will be awakening. I’m willing to pay the price for that.” However, the cultivation of compassion should not be seen in terms of a future result; the very nature of compassion is love, joy and serenity.
Compassion is not created. We don’t need to go outside and gather up the different pieces, slowly building some compassion. Compassion is like a precious gem encased in a stone. If we chip the stone away, the gem will slowly appear, perfectly. In the same way, compassion is hidden within. We simply need to make room for it to shine in its naturalness.
Compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering and for oneself to be free of suffering. That deep state of mind is often covered by other habitual patterns that appear much more readily, like fear, jealousy, aversion or desire. We must develop a structure that allows us to clear away all obstacles and make room so that compassion will appear first. For compassion to arise there first needs to be connection. There must be some being, and there must be suffering. We avoid connecting with others by reducing them to objects. We dehumanize them, or we negate the suffering. We may notice this when we see homeless people, beggars or crippled people. How many times do we look beyond them and not see them? Or if we see a bloody car accident, we’ll turn our heads away, and in this turning away there is no room for compassion because fear and aversion have taken up all the room.
To reconnect with others, Shantideva teaches us to see them as oneself. His teaching on exchanging self for other is a very powerful way to make the connection through which compassion can arise naturally. Shantideva states, “If you wish to protect yourself and other quickly, you should practice the supreme mystery of exchanging self for other.” Many commentaries describe this practice as exchanging self happiness for other suffering, but this is adding suffering and happiness, which takes a lot of the power out of what Shantideva is saying.
The practice of exchanging self for other is very deep and very uncommon. It is so subtle that it is difficult to explain. First, let’s imagine a neutral person in front of us—an elevator operator, someone we don’t have a connection to. We feel how this person is neutral to us, how we don’t really care much about this person. But this sense of otherness that we feel is not the otherness of this one specific person. The otherness of all others is the same. So then we bring this feeling of not caring, of otherness, onto ourself, the meditator. We start to feel the sense of otherness in regard to ourself. In the next step, we place our own sense of self onto the other person, considering, “they could be me.”
It is important with this practice not to confuse the sense of self or other with body and mind, the “aggregate.” Here, we don’t imagine exchanging our aggregate; we only exchange the sense of self that has no form, no shape. We don’t become the other, nor does the other person suddenly look like us. That would be a mistake. It’s not that we imagine ourself looking out from that person’s eyes back onto ourself as the meditator. Instead, we are still looking from the point of view of the meditator, still experiencing things from the meditator’s point of view, but without any sense of self. There will be in us a sense of otherness, but not the belief that we have become this particular person. Nothing of the aggregate of this person will be taken, only the sense of otherness.
Again, this is very subtle. It is almost like we are just changing names. The power of the practice comes because we are so conditioned to believe in names that when we change names, all our care and concern follow. When our own sense of self arises, we are immediately concerned for ourself. We use this tendency toward self-concern in a positive way by placing it with another. In this way, compassion will arise naturally for the other without it being a sacrifice. Likewise, when one places the sense of other onto oneself, there is no longer a self to be sacrificed.
In the tantric tradition, the meditator sees her- or himself as Avalokiteshvara, Tara or Manjushri. In this practice of changing appearances, we are breaking the strong clinging, the strong certainty in the truth of the appearing world. Since we can change appearances back and forth between the deity and our normal form, we start to see that the way we appear is only one possibility and not an ultimate truth. We are doing something similar when exchanging self for other. By shifting our attitude, we see that the sense of self is actually just a construct, not an ultimate truth. This is a great way of loosening our tight grasping around the notions of self and other.
Just as we visualize ourselves as a deity, we can take upon ourselves (experienced as other) the suffering of another (seen as self). This will also be very natural. We might try it with a homeless person, beggar, enemy or someone who wants the same material object that we dearly want, and see what happens. There will be no sense of being burdened; instead, we will feel unburdened because our concern is with these other people (felt as self). We will rejoice in their being free of suffering. When I started this practice, I would imagine meeting homeless people in the street. I became concerned about forgetting to feel compassion for anyone, because that would be forgetting myself. Forgetting one among a thousand homeless people might not seem to matter much, but forgetting one self does seem to matter.
If, on the other hand, we feel burdened, that’s a sign that we have invested in some element of self. Whenever we feel the exchanging of suffering and happiness to be difficult, we need to check whether the shift has been made well. We check to see if some sense of self remains with us as the meditator. In this way we are checking our compassion with wisdom.
This is a relative practice, not an absolute practice. We are not resting in vastness doing this practice. We use our conditioning, not our ultimate nature, in shifting self for other. This is Shantideva’s genius. When we make the shift, all our negative, habitual patterns of aversion, desire or anger serve a good purpose and transform into virtue. The root of our suffering suddenly becomes the root of virtue.