Selfishness in Buddhism
Understanding selflessness does not mean that we should foster a negative self-image. That’s still self-grasping. One extreme is narcissism, thinking that because of your looks or your skills or your worldly achievements or your learning or your race or your gender or your charisma or whatever, somehow you are better than everyone else.
That’s one type of grasping at a sense of self that doesn’t understand that what we take to be “I” is really just composed of impermanent factors, like the various limbs of our physical form, the memories and feelings of our psychological makeup, and so forth. The other extreme is the opposite: “Oh, I’m such a loser. Why can’t I get out of this dark cloud of despair? Why do I feel so insecure all the time?!”
Of course, if we’re arrogantly #selfish, then we’ll have a long, lonely life with only self-grasping as our friend, and he will always take us in the opposite direction of #bodhicitta. If we’re forever beating ourselves up, we will never have the confidence, courage, and conviction to cultivate compassion.
So actually, we need really strong confidence, courage, and conviction to be able to put others before ourselves. If we have this inner strength, then we will be strong enough to realize that self-grasping of any kind is like carrying a ticking time bomb, and we will act from that realization by working for the welfare of others.
Pride gets in the way of seeing others’ good qualities and prevents the development of one’s own. The great Indian scholar-yogi-poet Nagarjuna, in his work Precious Garland, speaks of seven types of pride, which are so all-encompassing that they might make you want to crawl under a rock:
Pride of selfhood: fancying that one is lower than the lowly, or equal with the equal, or greater than or equal to the lowly;
Excessive pride: boasting that one is equal to those who by some good quality are superior to oneself;
Pride beyond pride: fancying that one is superior to the superior, thinking that one is higher than the very high;
Pride of thinking “I”: through obscuration, conceiving an “I” in the five empty aggregates of mind and body;
Pride of conceit: thinking one has won fruits of the spiritual path not yet attained;
Erroneous pride: praising oneself for faulty deeds;
Pride of inferiority: deriding oneself, thinking “I am useless.”
If others are wish-granting jewels, it makes sense to consider myself the lowest of all in calculating my relations with them, but according to the above list Nagarjuna takes this comparison to be a form of pride as well! Indeed, those who trumpet or even insinuate their status relative to those worse off than or equal to them reek of pride, but would this not apply to thinking myself as the lowest among all, as the stanza instructs? The key lies in the qualification that this view is felt from the very depths of my heart, where assuming our own lowliness is a direct expression of the appreciation of others being wish-granting jewels.
Breaking the Habit of Selfishness
Eight Tibetan verses teach us why putting yourself first means you’ll always end up last.
The short poem “Eight Verses for Training the Mind” is a famous example of a special Tibetan genre called mind training.
Mind training in its broadest sense means developing altruism and realization of the nature of all phenomena, topics relevant for any practitioner.
It is said that after doing a worthwhile deed you imagine its worth to be imbued into others, the value of that deed is multiplied by their number. It is best to begin with specific persons (people you love and close relatives) and slowly expand to more, so as not to turn the dedication into a vague or even rote mouthing of words.
Getting rid off pride
Pride gets in the way of seeing others’ good qualities and prevents the development of one’s own.
The three root afflictive emotions are lust, anger, and ignorance, with ignorance being the source of the other two. Ignorance exaggerates the status of oneself, others, and objects. To face and avert the afflictive emotions, it may be sufficient for the moment to pay attention to something else or to reflect on the disadvantages of a hasty engagement.
Many of our mind-states are built on exaggerating favorable qualities while ignoring unfavorable ones.
Taking all loss
Being treated badly is a special opportunity to practice patience and forbearance. Through putting up with difficulty, great internal progress is achieved. Remembering that your attacker, like you, wants happiness and does not want suffering.
The practice of giving
A mild version of this practice is to take joy in someone else’s getting to a parking spot before you do. Why make yourself upset? When all goodness is given to sentient beings, including one’s own positive karma, it is multiplied.
Remember that everyone, at some time over the beginningless course of lives, actually was your nurturer, caring for you as much as your kindest friend.
The other side of mind training is cultivation of the wisdom that realizes the emptiness of inherent existence. Understanding all phenomena as like illusions releases us from the bondage of attachment. Working at realizing emptiness also broadens the practice of compassion by undermining the very process of being drawn into emotions that endanger self and other.
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