All Skillful Action is Impersonal

One way we can think about ethics and action in the Buddha’s teachings is to consider grasping as the foundation of personal identity. This is the heart of dependent origination, where the contraction of grasping and clinging leads directly to the solidification of personal identity, or “becoming.” When the desires and needs of oneself as an individual are in the foreground, attention cannot simultaneously foreground the desires or needs of others. This is especially true when these desires—which may both be wholesome!—are in some conflict with each other, even in seemingly ordinary decisions as how we use our time in any given moment.

When we make the cognitive error called “taking things personally,” what we mean is that we are appropriating the meaning of a relational or a collective experience for ourself. I’m clinging to a narrative that makes something that is happening to other people primarily about what is happening to me. Even if my intention in doing so is to care for myself in a wholesome way, this error is still going to cause a solidification of false identity and more suffering.

The Buddha’s radical vision of the path to liberation and unshakeable happiness is not to focus on one’s own well-being OR the well-being of others, but to learn to act impersonally toward everything we experience, both individual and social. The illusion to see through is that we are the sole owner of our “own” experiences. Once we get that our personal experiences were always already collective experiences, only then can we start to feel how the engaged and renunciate paths are not substantively different.

Selflessness, emptiness, and interdependence are the basis of the ideal of the bodhisattva—the one who dedicates their entire existence to liberating others. TL;DR: bodhisattvas can only liberate others when they understand fully that there are no “others.” How they teach, serve, and show up in other people’s perceptions is aesthetic but not ultimately the point of being a bodhisattva.

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