Beyond Good And Evil, And All That

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-12-09 13:00:00 No comments

Somewhere in my readings of Buddhism — possibly Pema Chödrön, but don't quote me on that — I read something that went like this: As long as people think they have something they can retreat into, it doesn't matter how damaging the act of retreat is.

[brief pause, flipping of pages]

... Okay, I took the time to do some research, and I think that is in fact something I came up with myself in response to an actual quote by Chödrön: "Trying to find absolute rights and wrongs is a trick we play on ourselves to feel comfortable." (The Pocket Pema Chödrön, p.80.)

Statements like these drive many people out of their minds. How can you possibly not want to look for absolute right and wrong in a world where there's more of an urgent need than ever to have a sense of right and wrong?! Isn't that ... moral relativism?! Isn't that ... nihilism?!

Short answer: no. Long answer:

Right and wrong do in fact exist in this world. There are things that are going to be right a great deal of the time, like not killing other people.

But first of all, those things have exceptions, and every time we pretend those exceptions don't exist or have to be ameliorated, we're just kidding ourselves. But we also have to understand that those exceptions don't exist to be made into new common cases. If I kill someone in self-defense because he broke into my house, that doesn't change the fact that I took someone else's life and have to account for it in some form. That continues to exist entirely apart from whatever situation there was around it. The common case remains: It's generally a bad idea to kill other people. Lean away from doing that.

What Chödrön is saying is something echoed by a great many other people in the same line of thought: It's not the quest for right and wrong that's bad. It's the act of clinging to right and wrong that's bad. It's not being willing to see right and wrong as products of their moment in time and space that's bad.

People want what I guess could be called "fire-and-forget" morality. They want to be able to say something is bad, forever, so they never again have to think about it. I would agree that certain things are going to be bad forever, but the number of such things is deliberately very small, and while we shouldn't be angling to whittle down the size of that list we shouldn't also be expanding it willy-nilly either.

The need to not have to confront the goodness or badness of things is very strong. Most people are not moral philosophers and don't want to become such things, so it makes a primitive kind of sense to have a morality that's a fixed compass. As an efficiency measure, this is okay in the short run. But I think in the long run it does more harm than good, because it encourages people, and in turn societies, to be morally lazy. Arguments and wrestling matches that should be had about right and wrong get put off until it's too late.

Over the last couple of centuries we've gotten used to the idea that morality is necessarily situational, and that situational morality can't be used as an excuse for immoral behavior. Good and bad do exist, but they don't confine themselves to the ideas about good and bad that we have at any given time, as Brad Warner once put it. Good and bad are bigger than that.

Now, again, I know how all of this stuff sounds to people who have been raised with very strict senses of right and wrong. They reject it instinctively on some level, and not always consciously either. They think it sounds like an attempt to subvert their world, to undermine everything that is good and proper. I get it, I really do. I was not all that far removed from such feelings when I first grappled with all this myself.

What made it all click for me, though, was this understanding: The point of coming to terms with such things is to apply them to yourself and absolutely no one else. There is no way in a billion trillion years I could ever come up with a way to apply any of these understandings to your life and your situation, because I'm not you and I can never be you. The whole point of any spiritual work is to look into yourself and see what within yourself you can apply any of this insight and advice to. You're the only person in the world you have any genuine influence over.

And if enough people get into the habit of doing this on their own, and if enough spaces in society get built where people can do that and share what they've learned, then having to impose anything on anyone in this vein becomes irrelevant. And the more each of us on our own learns to not play tricks on ourselves about absolute right and wrong, the easier it all gets to stop making excuses for either ourselves or the other fellow when it comes to what's really right and what's really wrong.

Among the things that's been attributed to various Zen teachers is this line: "Do not discuss right and wrong." Context matters. The full quote is: "Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong." See the difference? The rules matter most when you apply them to yourself first and last. That doesn't mean laws aren't needed — they're hugely important — only that spiritual stuff doesn't work the same way for a reason. It's for each of you, alone, in the dark. And me too.

Phew. I hope that didn't seem too bonkers.

Tags: Buddhism Zen morality spirituality