There is an idea, common in contemporary Buddhist circles, that unless we believe in fundamental human goodness all is lost. I used to think so myself long ago. It seemed to be a good way of opposing some other notions current in our culture. As time has passed I have given the idea up as too vulnerable to the  very things that it purports to oppose.

Exaggeration is a human talent. To write any kind of diatribe one has to set something up as a target and over state one's case and this can be a valuable exercise so long as one stays open to the resulting under current, but few do.

Let's take the case of supposed fundamental goodness. Presumably this is goodness as opposed to badness and one can then put into these two posited-as-fundamental categories everything that one has a yen for or against. This is the stuff of liberal versus conservative tendencies, each trained to abhor what the other believes essential to civilised life.

This whole notion seems to me to be a fallacy. Humans are not fundamentally good or bad, they just are what they are. If one really did have to set up such an opposition, in a certain philosophical sense, the negative view would have to prevail, because we do inevitably consume. We are destroyers and no matter how much good we were to do it could never compensate. This is close to the original idea of karma. The early Zen principle that good deeds are those that incur no retribution is a reflection of this idea. Presumably the original version of original sin was based on similar considerations, but the original original sin is different from the popular idea of it which is not much more than a windmill to tilt at. So we are stuck with the fact that we live in a world so constructed that one cannot continue to live without being party to destruction. Is the cat bad for mousing? And what of man?

Homo sapiens has not only exterminated all the other homo species completely, it has also wiped out millions of its own kind and is still at it and has managed to eliminate half of the other species of life on the planet and counting. The last Tasmanian was hunted down for sport around the same time as the last dodo. This is us. At the same time, we do love and care for others and although most of the harm and suffering in the world touches us very little, we are also capable of acts of great generosity and self-sacrifice. We do sometimes long for the world to be a better place and we work towards that, at least some of the time. Buddhas are all the time trying to create Pure Lands and we in our little ways assist as we can, often blundering along like the sorcerer’s apprentice.

We observe these contradictory tendencies in ourselves and reify them into quasi-substances or forces and then ask which is more fundamental, but this is an unreal question. The idea that a person is a battlefield of good and bad forces is a very old idea, but it is not really Buddhist. The Buddha saw that beings rise and fall according to their wilful deeds and have no fundamental nature that would make the triumph of one or other tendency inevitable. We are foolish beings not in the sense of being fundamentally evil, but in the sense of being confused and self-contradictory. Our various longings spring from a maze of conflicting impulses.

The best course is to honestly recognise the state of things rather than to try to assert an idealised notion. It does not work to say that the trouble is that we live in a materialistic culture that distorts our basic goodness, because we create this culture out of our basic nature. Saying such things just reproduces the old chestnut question how can an all good god create a world full of so much evil, except that we are now regarding ourselves as the god in question, which, if anything, is worse. How can a creature that is fundamentally good do so much wickedness? The search for such a fundamental is misguided. In Buddhist circles the idea of buddha nature has been latched onto in order to recirculate the same old question.

It is easy nowadays to rail against the culture - against individualism, consumerism and imperialism, say. But most of us humans speak English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian or Chinese because these are the great imperialist languages, the languages of the great imperialisms that have given us what degree of civilisation we have and I don’t see many of the people who criticise giving it up. Nor do I see them ceasing to consume. Nor are they keen to renounce what individualism they have. A great deal that passes for progressive thought is unthought out and quite hypocritical. This is our history. One might assert that it was all a vast mistake, and, of course, there is some truth in that, but if one does so what becomes of the vaunted fundamental goodness? The fundamentally good imperialist, consumerist individual is not a very coherent picture.

There is, however, a more important reason to reject this line of rhetoric. Humans are very counter-suggestive. Analytical psychology has shown rather well how whatever mask we wear and consciously project into the world casts a shadow in our unconscious. The over-assertion of the idea that we are fundamentally good to a degree that cannot be supported by the evidence simply pushes all the nastiness into the shadow. Much of the way that Buddhism is cultivated in the West today is a recipe for passive aggression and subtle bigotry, all done with the best of apparent intentions. Religions often fall foul of this trap.

It is much safer psychologically to focus upon our basic foolishness, for which there is ample evidence. This gives us a solid basis for fellow-feeling with those who also go astray. (can we even tell with confidence who those are?) - in this difficult life and cuts the root of smugness. Perhaps people everywhere long for a better world as they see it. Colonel Gaddafi spent his whole life trying to implement his utopian dreams and no-doubt thought he was making the world a better place. He was, for instance, a great opponent of consumerism, imperialism and individualism. No doubt too those who opposed, fought and eventually murdered him similarly thought that they were thereby making the world a better place. So are they all, all honourable men - as Mark Antony says of Caesar’s assassins. Did either know right from wrong? Was knowing right from wrong what mattered?

There is much talk of dualism. There is certainly dualism in the human mind. Without it we could not have a conscious thought and some have concluded that enlightenment must therefore be thoughtless. It does seem however that the most indubitable example we have - Siddhartha Gotama - was quite a thinker and perfectly capable of separating categories. There are dualisms that are significant and dualisms that are trivial. The so-called dualism of subject and object is surely in the latter category in almost all its instances, rather akin to the enumeration of angels on pins. The dualism that asserts the existence in the world of a good force at war with a bad one is rather more significant and has done a good deal more damage down the centuries and even in our own living rooms.

To understand another person generally means to let go of such fundamentalist fantasy and try to see that that person has reasons. Those reasons are likely to be different from one’s own, though their human nature may be recognisable if one penetrates a little deeper. There is no mindless violence and no people are monsters - everybody acts for their own reasons, even though some of the results are appalling. We may feel horror, dismay or disgust at the consequences, but we can recognise that those who did it were human like us.

This does not mean swinging to the other extreme of saying they are us and abolishing all boundaries and distinctions. It is an odd thing that those who argue the opposition of good and evil also frequently argue the abolition of all separation. Both extremes are surely misguided, but, as Vasubandhu famously wrote the real problem is how to distinguish the middle from the extremes. We humans are full of contradictions. A sense of humour also helps.

No doubt those who believe in fundamental goodness believe that by advocating it they are making the world a better place. I do not doubt their sincerity (though sincere people can be very dangerous sometimes). I am, however, doubtful of the truth of the conviction. A course that is less exalting of human nature seems to me more prudent, without swinging to any of the several other possible extremes. Is our foolishness or our longing more fundamental? Longing and fallibility are features of being alive. What a wonderful and terrible adventure it is!

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  • Yes, avidya is the root.

  • Thanks David. Apologies for the tone of my reply.  This whole side you write of is too much of a raw nerve for me to keep it together well. I went to a rally regarding factory farming last night and was taken aback by the militancy with aggressive chanting. We left the moment the rally began; why on earth add to the anger and call it activism.

    Left and right in politics beyond any broad assertions of how society might justly function is and has been a rather meaningless dichotomy. Oppression and liberation is a more useful dichotomy to observe.

    I can't not act but action seems futile. There is a view that civilisation is what it is from living in the three poisons and we are all culpable. This is true. But within this are folk like yourself who exemplify the beauty of living and there are many others who do the oppressing. That is also how it is.

    The greatest shock to me is not that we are witnessing collapse; the signs have been clear all my life that this is the outcome.  It is the extreme edge of avidya that holds the world entranced and thus unable to contemplate our situation.

  • Thanks, Rob. Yes, some people do and I applaud those who carry their principles and understanding into such action. Unfortunately such people are not numerous and consequently are, in that sense, on the margin of public debate if they figure at all. My target in the article is to do with what can be un-thought-out stances on both right and left that can be full of self-righteousness without having considered the true complexity of the situations they are passing judgement upon.

  • I am one with the thrust of this essay; including the dualist side. But I need to ask you a little more about some statements there.  It is easy I agree to rail against the culture; but it is also necessary. Maybe this is contingent on how we view the word 'rail'? 

    You write David.."I don’t see many of the people who criticise giving it up. Nor do I see them ceasing to consume". It seems reasonable to infer you see some degree of hypocricy involved. What you say is true but as Thatcher once famously said..."there is no alternative".  If you do see hypocricy here, I sharply disagree with you.

    Many of the folk who are critical of civilization have quite intentionally lived relatively simply and have not accumulated wealth.  We do not have access to land nor have the knowledge needed to live anywhere near sustainably. Many activists do live in squats and dumpster dive for food, bottom feeders I guess on could say in civilization. But there are folk who have moved into forests to attempt to live sustainably.

    Chances are I have misunderstood where you were going and in any case this seems a good spot to enlarge upon how varied lifestyles are becoming.

  • Part, yes, but only a part. He was pointing out that we cannot rely upon our own personal merit to be a path to salvation because our acts are never completely clean. That does not mean they are all and always totally wicked either. If less-than-perfect = evil, then, yes we are evil, but this all rests on definitions and I prefer, generally speaking, to use the ones in common speech. Buddha taught the middle way, which is a kind of realism, really.

    Mary Midgley has said that it is so much easier to defend an extreme or over-simplistic position than it is to deal with the complexity of real life and the multi-faceted nature of real situations, but here we are in the middle of it all.

    Shinran had thius "I would be going to hell anyway" attitude which supported his faith and I can see the logic of it - a feasible argument, yes. For myself, I prefer to say, "I'll be going wherever it is that I'm dispatched to, and this Dharma will stand me in good stead wherever." Namo Amitabhaya.

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