To develop bodhimind, ultimate love and ultimate compassion, is a very long and gradual process. I think it’s absolutely impossible to become a bodhisattva overnight. In order to reach the level of ultimate love and ultimate compassion, we have to have good basic love and compassion. That itself is difficult, in my opinion. From what little I know, it is impossible to gain even basic, ordinary compassion without having compassion for ourselves first.
In addition, it’s not possible to develop compassion for ourselves unless we develop love for ourselves first. A lot of people don’t like themselves or even hate themselves. It’s terrible. They think, “I’m bad, I’m terrible,” and all this self-hatred comes out. This is because we don’t love ourselves. Why don’t we? Because in one way, we take everything for granted, but when that doesn’t work out, we hate ourselves, saying, “It’s my fault.” How many times do we hear people saying, “It’s all my fault”? I don’t know if people deeply think that, but they use that expression very often. perhaps that is because of a lack of caring. If we don’t care about ourselves, then developing love for ourselves is out of the question.
On top of that, we hear a little bit about ultimate love and compassion for the benefit of all beings, and then we may think, “I’m not the one who has to be taken care of; it is all sentient beings.” But truly speaking, there’s no such person called “all sentient beings.” That’s the reality. so in order to develop this precious mind, it is absolutely necessary to develop compassion for oneself first.
I was in Washington until this afternoon to meet a good old friend of mine, Samdhong Rinpoche, who is right now  something like the Speaker of the Tibetan Exile Government’s main assembly. While we were talking, he suddenly said to someone in the room, “Don’t all our prayers begin with, ‘I and all sentient beings take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha until I obtain enlightenment’? The prayers don’t say, ‘All sentient beings take refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, except me.’”
It really makes sense. especially in the West, people somehow think a whole lot about compassion. But they think that every thought that is not for others is somehow a selfish thought or selfish interest, and that all self-interest is bad and boosts the ego. We are trying to be good bodhisattvas without knowing what has to be done prior to becoming bodhisattvas. Even bodhisattvas will say the prayers, “I and all sentient beings…” They never say, “All sentient beings, except me, take refuge to Buddha Dharma, and Sangha.”
Somehow that has been ignored, and the person him or herself has been left out through misconception or over-zealousness about compassion. But the point is that we are never going to have compassion for others—not even for a single person—without having compassion for ourselves. I’m talking about ultimate compassion here. The Buddha told us about the path. On the first path [of the three principles of the path], we actually learn how to take care of ourselves spiritually. We may call that “seeking freedom” or “determination to be free,” but it is really telling you how to take care of yourself and how to develop caring and love for ourselves.
So this verse really tells us that the first thing has to be to take care of ourselves. You may worry that this may be building up your ego, but I say no. You don’t even know what ego is. I attended the American Buddhist Teachers’ Conference in California, and there were two hundred Buddhist teachers. I don’t know whether any one of us there knew what ego really is—including myself, maybe with the exception of one or two persons. so why worry about building up the ego, if you don’t even know what it is? I think we have to build the caring and the development of love and compassion on ourselves, and once we are able to build that, we have found some basis on which how we can work.
~ Gelek Rimpoche, Foundation of All Perfections, p. 125, 2013