The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life says that there is a phenomenological difference between the pain that you experience when you take someone else’s pain upon yourself and the pain that comes directly from your own pain and suffering. In the former, there is an element of discomfort because you are sharing the other’s pain. However, as Shantideva points out, there is also a certain amount of stability because, in a sense, you are voluntarily accepting that pain.
In the voluntary participation in other’s suffering there is strength and a sense of confidence. But in the latter case, when you are undergoing your own pain and suffering, there is an element of involuntariness, and because of the lack of control on your part, you feel weak and completely overwhelmed. In the Buddhist teachings on altruism and compassion, certain expressions are used such that one should disregard one’s own well being and cherish other’s well being.
It is important to understand these statements regarding the practice of voluntarily sharing someone else’s pain and suffering in the proper context. The fundamental point is that if you do not have the capacity to love yourself, then there is simply no basis on which to build a sense of caring toward others. The capacity to love oneself or be kind to oneself should be based on a very fundamental fact of human existence, that we all have a natural tendency to desire happiness and avoid suffering.
Once this basis exists in relation to oneself, one can extend it to others. When we find statements in the teachings suggesting to regard one’s own well being and cherish the well being of others, we should understand them in the context of training yourself according to the ideal of compassion. This is important if we are not to indulge in self-centered ways of thinking that disregard the impact of our actions on other sentient beings.
We can develop an attitude of considering others as precious in the recognition of the part their kindness plays in our own experience of joy, happiness, and success. Through analysis and contemplation one will come to see that much of our misery, suffering, and pain really result from a self centered attitude that cherishes one’s own well being at the expense of others, whereas much of the joy, happiness, and sense of security in our lives arise from thoughts and emotions that cherish the well being of others.
Another fact concerning the cultivation of thoughts and emotions that cherish the well being of others is that one’s own self interest and wishes are fulfilled as a byproduct of actually working for others. As Je Tsong Khapa points out in his Great Exposition of the Path to Enlightenment, the more the practitioner engages in activities and thoughts that are focused and directed toward the fulfillment of others’ well-being, the fulfillment or realization of his or her own aspiration will come as a byproduct without having to make a separate effort.
At some point the question comes up of whether we really change our attitude. Sometimes the mind is very stubborn and very difficult to change, but with continuous effort and with conviction based on reason our minds can become quite honest. When we really feel that there is some need to change, then our minds can change. Wishing and praying alone will not transform the mind, but with conviction and reason, the mind can be transformed.
Time is an important factor here, and with time our mental attitudes can certainly change. One point that should be noted is that some people, especially those who see themselves as very realistic and practical, are too obsessed with practicality. They may wonder what the point is in trying to cultivate a mind that tries to include every living being. In a way, that may be a valid objection, but what is important is to understand the impact of cultivating such a state of awareness.
The point is to try to develop the scope of one’s empathy in such a way that it can extend to any form of life that has the capacity to feel pain and experience happiness. This kind of sentiment is very powerful, and there is no need to be able to identify with every single living being in order for it to be effective.
True compassion and love in the context of training of the mind is based on the simple recognition that everyone aspires to be happy and to overcome suffering, and that others have the natural right to fulfill that basic aspiration. The empathy developed toward a person based on recognition of this basic fact is universal compassion. This compassion is able to be extended to all sentient beings, as long as they are capable of experiencing pain and happiness.