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Pema Chödrön: I recall an analogy you gave recently for gaining merit: you do a job for its own sake instead of for the commission. Even though you may receive the commission, you get the payoff in terms of merit. If you’re doing the job just to get the commission, you probably won’t get the payoff, because you won’t do a very good job. Whereas, if you’re doing the job for its own sake, you will probably do it well—and accrue the merit.

Dzigar Kongtrül: Many people do that. They become very good at what they do, and receive lots of compensation as well.
Elizabeth Namgyel: Isn’t it possible, though, that wanting to be happy and gain merit can simply become self-importance?

Dzigar Kongtrül: Self-importance is having too much attachment to one’s own well-being and freedom from suffering, without having the same kind of care and concern for others’ well-being and freedom from suffering. When we have a great deal of self-importance, we will never be able to enjoy whatever we possess that we have gathered through our hard work, wit, and cunning. It will always bring a sense of dissatisfaction. We will never feel quite ready to enjoy it, because we carry the burden of being attached to it. However, if we apply to others the same sense of loving and caring that we have in cherishing ourselves, we reduce the self-importance.

When self-importance is reduced, a door opens to your positive qualities. As you continue to reduce the self-importance, the positive qualities take deeper root in your mindstream and your heart. At that point, you have real discipline and you begin to sustain yourself with your innate positive qualities, rather than the drive to become important. The ability to love, to care, to be concerned, to be compassionate—these were all there from the beginning. Previously, they were guided by self-centeredness; now they are guided by the needs of others.

This innate love is a powerful force that is now being led by a completely noble, incredibly dignified leader. Before, this powerful force, an army with the richness of a whole kingdom behind it and the loyalty of the subjects, was being led by a crooked king, and that crookedness created a state of confusion that spread everywhere. When that crooked leader is replaced by a noble leader, with a genuine sense of dignity, everyone in the kingdom can reap the benefit of the positive qualities that are the basic nature of the kingdom in the first place.

Pema Chödrön: Is the leader self-reflection?

Dzigar Kongtrül: The noble leader is altruistic mind, and the crooked leader is self-centeredness. Self-reflection is what discriminates between the qualities of self-centeredness of the bad leader and the altruistic mind of the good leader.

Pema Chödrön: It is interesting to consider the nature of the self-centeredness that seems to be prevalent in the West. I don’t think the term “self-cherishing,” for example, is all that helpful here, because the ego twist in the West isn’t that we love ourselves too much. Rather, we tend to have a negative preoccupation with ourselves. We might go shopping, not so much to feather our own nest, but to try to overcome some very bad feeling we have toward ourselves. Rather than cherishing ourselves, we hate ourselves. So, loving- kindness toward oneself needs to be developed as the basis before you can spread it to other people.

Dzigar Kongtrül: The loving-kindness is directed to your mind, not to the self. When you redirect the love and compassion from the self-centered approach, which has never produced good results anyway, to the altruistic approach, you find you have positive feelings in great abundance. Even though these are extended outwardly to others, they don’t leave your mind and end up somewhere else. They fill your mind and sustain it.

Pema Chödrön: Shantideva talks about all the ways that we are willing to hurt ourselves, including suicide. He says, if you’re willing to hurt yourself that much, it’s no wonder you’re willing to hurt other people. It seems to me the verses in the Bodhicaryavatara that discuss this issue are key for the West, because we’re much more into self-degradation than what you call self-cherishing.

Dzigar Kongtrül: The use of language in this case is interesting. When we say self-degradation, it sounds like we don’t have much self-importance. But in reality if one were not holding tightly to the self, there would be no reason to feel such aversion to it.

Pema Chödrön: Yes, I see self-degradation as one of the main ways that self-importance manifests in the West. You are still “full of yourself,” but you are full of yourself as a negative thing.

Dzigar Kongtrül: We come to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. But if you really study, if you really practice, you will find that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong. So you need to commit to a course of study and practice, and until you do that, whether one is in the West or anywhere else, there is going to be the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with you. When you wish to be happy and free from suffering, and yet your mind is not supporting you, it’s very easy to resort to thinking that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.

Pema Chödrön: When we engage in self-reflection and see how our habitual patterns and actions are not in sync with our intention, we can turn the self-reflection against ourselves. One of the things that I’ve learned from you, Rinpoche, that has been so helpful for me is to see that none of what we seek is permanent. All that we seek is like shifting, impermanent clouds, and behind all that the mind itself is workable. The underlying state of openness of mind has never gone away. It has never been marred by all the ugliness and craziness we’re seeing. That’s the message of the buddhanature teachers, like Maitreya, as you mentioned earlier. That message needs to be sent strongly: when you look at yourself, yes, you see the awfulness, and yes, it’s not comfortable to see it, but it’s passing, it’s impermanent. Our mind is workable. We are not simply stuck with that stuff.

Dzigar Kongtrül: That is true. But it is also true that you are not going to get anywhere if you have not done the work. Nobody deserves credit if they haven’t done the work. If you do the hard study and practice, then you see the infinite possibilities of changing the mind. If you just complain about your state of mind, it simply means you’ve never got around to doing the work. So, one of the most important things we can do is inspire people to do the work they need to do to discover their innate possibilities.

Pema Chödrön: On the spot, right?

Dzigar Kongtrül: On the spot, in any given moment, and in an ongoing way in their life. Gathering merit requires continuously applying yourself, in order to reap the positive fruit that you want. The intention to be happy and free from suffering must be supported by the wisdom and skillful means that allow one to work fruitfully with one’s own mind.

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