Saturday, December 18, 2010

What does it mean to be good?

Overheard talk: “So what does it take to be a good person?”

“Well, a good person doesn’t do anything harmful, he doesn’t say evil or hurtful things to others, he doesn’t want to do bad things to others, and he doesn’t earn a living by screwing people over.”

“Yeah, that’s sounds reasonable. I guess that makes me a good person because I don’t do any of those things.”


Ok, so that was a bit melodramatic. Let’s dial it back a bit.

“Holy cream cheese cupcakes Batman! That is so delusional that it makes my ridiculously colorful costume look like normal business attire!”

“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right, Robin. That is so delusional that it makes our relationship look platonic.”

“Oh, Batman, our relationship could never be that way!”

Erm, sorry, got carried away again. Hmm, what would the Buddha say about that? Perhaps something like, “If that were so, carpenter, then a young tender infant lying prone is accomplished in what is wholesome, perfected in what is wholesome, and ascetic invincible attained to the supreme attainment …”

And that is exactly what the Buddha said, according to the Samanamandika Sutta (MN 78).

We all want to be a good person, right? Well, except maybe Boris Badenov. Natasha’s no sweet pea either. And besides, they’re cartoon characters, not even real. But the rest of us, we want to be good, right? So it’s natural for us to want to know what it takes to be a good person.

Many of us reach the same conclusion that my “overheard” conversation reveals. If we do no evil, say no evil, desire no evil and don’t make money off evil, then we’re square with our kamma and good to go. This works for many of us homo-hedonists, or so we tend to think. So maybe we do a little Ecstasy at the club while we’re dancing. So maybe we like to indulge a little in our porn collection. So maybe we like to cruise the gay sauna from time to time. It’s all good, right? Maybe we like to head to the bushes for a little while after the Dunes closes in Douglas, no harm there, right? No one gets hurt, it’s all in good fun, and everyone leaves with a grin.

But this is a specious rationalization, which the Buddha quickly points out to a lay follower.

The carpenter Pancakanga, ran into this wandering aesthetic with a really long name – OK, I’ll tell you his name: It’s Uggahamana Samanamandikaputta (and if you can pronounce that, I’ll give you a kiss in public, even if you’re straight) – who told Pancakanga what he believed were the four qualities that made an “aesthetic invincible attained to the supreme attainment.” You know, the four qualities I mentioned earlier: do no evil, say no evil, desire no evil and don’t make money off evil. Our friend the carpenter doesn’t say anything to the guy with the really long name; he just gets up and politely leaves to go tell the Buddha what he just heard. When Pancakanga tells the Buddha about this, that’s when the Buddha replies with what I quoted earlier. The Buddha tells the carpenter that there’s no skill in merely avoiding the four things the aesthetic with the really long name identifies because a baby can do that. And why can a baby do that? Because a baby hasn’t developed a mind yet, a mind that is the source of all our troubles.

Being a truly wholesome person is a lot more complicated, skillful and difficult than merely avoiding bad speech, bad intentions, bad desires and bad employment. Don’t get me wrong, as these are great places to start. But if that’s all it took, then everybody would be pure and happy. Instead, the Buddha tells us that it requires the skillful application of the Noble Eightfold Path along with relentless execution of the Four Right Efforts. You really should read the sutta, as I won’t go into all that detail here. Because what I found really interesting in this sutta is that a key element of developing this skillfulness is once we realize that we are living a moral and wholesome life, we relinquish any attachment we might have to behaving that way.

Think of it this way. Initially, we do good things because it makes us feel better as well as makes others feel better. And this is great! But the Buddha tells us we must get beyond that quid pro quo manner of thinking and make skillful actions so much a part of our normal daily life that we no longer do things with the anticipation of feeling good about it. We just do it. And that’s not very easy. In fact, it’s pretty damn difficult.

Then again, that is, perhaps, why they call Buddhism a practice, and practice makes perfect.

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