In 1996 my brother sent me a book that changed my life forever. I didn’t understand most of it. And I didn’t even get all the way through it. But one quote from the book, The Way to Freedom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, struck me powerfully, where the Dalai Lama, surprisingly, gave instructions on how to be selfish:
“If you would like to be selfish, you should do it in a very intelligent way. The stupid way to be selfish is … seeking happiness for ourselves alone. … the intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the welfare of others.”– The Dalai Lama
This was such a provocative quote. And it’s stuck with me ever since. These words sent me on a gradual journey that led four years later to taking Buddhist vows and dedicating a part of each day to meditation and study in The Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Since then, I’ve been able to see the Dalai Lama teach in person many times, in both public talks for laypeople and technical religious teachings for Buddhist practitioners. In both settings, His Holiness often makes this point again and again, encouraging us to pursue this “intelligent” way to be selfish.
The video below from 2012, shows the Dalai Lama delivering his message of how to be “intelligently selfish” in his powerful, loving style, while his brilliant translator Geshe Thubten Jinpa stands by his side:
Of course, The Dalai Lama doesn’t mean that we should be selfish as it’s defined it in the dictionary: lacking consideration for others and being concerned only with one’s own benefit and pleasure. You can see this clearly when The Dalai Lama talks about actual selfishness, as he did at Dharamsala, India in October, 2019:
“If you are selfish, you’ll be miserable, even in this life. The more you dedicate yourself to others, the happier you’ll be. Selfishness is short-sighted and narrow-minded. All 7 billion human beings are equal in their desire to be happy and avoid suffering, but we cause problems for ourselves. If we remained as we were when we were children, the world would be more peaceful. But as we grow up, we become more calculating and discriminatory.
If you’re able to reduce negative behavior in your day to day life, avoiding harming or bullying others… you’ll be more contented, your health will improve and you’ll find members of your community are friendlier towards you. … Dedicating yourself to the benefit of others brings courage and inner strength.”—The Dalai Lama
But in his quote about being “intelligently selfish,” His Holiness skillfully redefines selfishness to mean the healthy pursuit of what’s best for yourself: what would bring you genuine happiness.
When you look at self-interest in this way, asking what would lead to genuine inner happiness for yourself—a sense of well-being, and meaningful connections with others—the Dalai Lama says that the method for fulfilling our personal happiness is, in fact, caring about others.
In talk after talk and book after book His Holiness repeats this message. 2011’s Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World elaborates on this point, with His Holiness using the term “wise selfish” instead of “intelligently selfish.” Here His Holiness again defines the path to personal happiness through compassion, and warns about the pitfalls of narrow self-interest:
“Now there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing one’s own interests. On the contrary, to do so is a natural expression of our fundamental disposition to seek happiness and to shun suffering. In fact, it is because we care for our own needs that we have the natural capacity to appreciate others’ kindness and love. This instinct for self-interest becomes negative only when we are excessively self-focused.
When this happens, our vision narrows, undermining our ability to see things in their wider context. And within such a narrow perspective, even small problems can create tremendous frustration and seem unbearable. In such a state, should genuinely major challenges arise, the danger is that we will lose all hope, feel desperate and alone, and become consumed with self-pity.
What is important is that when pursuing our own self-interest we should be ‘wise selfish’ and not ‘foolish selfish.’ Being foolish selfish means pursuing our own interests in a narrow, shortsighted way. Being wise selfish means taking a broader view and recognizing that our own long-term individual interest lies in the welfare of everyone. Being wise selfish means being compassionate.”—The Dalai Lama
I find it such a skillful form of mind training for His Holiness to redefine selfishness in this way. Because now, whenever the word “selfish” comes to mind—when I feel or act selfish—I’m sometimes able to remember His Holiness’ advice. And when I do, I try to cultivate those mental techniques he teaches for expanding our minds to care about others, such as meditating on love, equanimity, or compassion.
Whether you want to call it “wise selfish” or “intelligently selfish,” we can be grateful for The Dalai Lama’s advice that it’s okay to want the best for ourselves. And that there’s a healthy way to pursue our self-interest for happiness by turning our hearts and minds outward with compassion and loving-kindness, thinking of others and benefitting others.
That’s the true path to fulfilling our natural need for self-fulfillment, realizing that our own happiness comes from fulfilling the happiness of everyone around us. As the Dalai Lama says, “Being wise selfish means being compassionate.”