“No man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft’s words encapsulate perfectly something I’ve long held, which is that the Buddhist view of greed, hatred, and delusion — often called the Three Unwholesome Roots (akusala mūla) — is far removed from the western conception of sin.
Sin is “bad.” It’s “evil.” It’s a transgression against the Divine law.
When we encounter the Buddhist teaching of the Three Unwholesome Roots, it’s easy to slip it into the sin-shaped space that exists in our minds. But the Buddha’s understanding of these roots is wholly different from how sin is understood, and we need to disentangle the two sets of concepts in our own minds.
Here’s something that when you think about it is rather stunning. The Buddha said:
I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’
So if giving up greed, hatred, and delusion (“what is unskillful”) made you unhappy, then he wouldn’t ask you to do it. If greed, hatred, and delusion made you truly happy, then the Buddha would say it was all right to keep on doing them!
The reason for this is that the Buddha said that “Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I describe, and the cessation of suffering.”
So the Buddha was only concerned with the problem of suffering, and of how to end suffering. He was concerned with the effects that your actions have on your welfare. And it’s only because greed, hatred, and delusion are detrimental to your welfare that they’re to be given up — not because they’re in some sense ultimately “evil.”
So the Buddha was the ultimate moral pragmatist. He took a totally practical regard toward “the unskillful.” Greed, hatred, and delusion can’t make you happy, so you should abandon them. Abandoning them will make you happy.
But if greed, hatred, and delusion can’t make you happy, why do you still do them? The answer is simply that you believe, on some level, that they will in fact bring happiness. This belief is very strongly rooted in our psychology. We think that by having aversion toward things we don’t like, we can avoid sources of suffering. We think that by desiring what we want, we can have it, or by trying to hold on to the pleasant we can make it last forever. But actually both those things — aversion and craving — simply cause more suffering.
I find all of this very encouraging, because it suggests that, deep down, our impulses are a desire for happiness and well-being. Below the level of the skillfulness or unskillfulness of our actions, there is a simple, basic, human desire for happiness. Whether we act skillfully or unskillfully, we have the same motivation — to be happy. And our skillful or unskillful actions are simply strategies to being about the happiness we seek.
The difference between skillfulness and unskillfulness is simply pragmatic — acting unskillfully doesn’t work. Acting skillfully does. We simply suffer from delusion, thinking that things that make us unhappy will somehow make us happy. Acting unskillfully, then, is simply an ineffective strategy for finding happiness.
This is encouraging because it means you can drop any notion you might have that there is something inherently bad inside you. Even when you hurt others, you’re not doing it out of inherent badness. You’re doing it because you’re under the sway of a powerful belief that hurting others will, in the end, bring you joy. When others try to hurt you — or even just hurt you accidentally — they too are simply acting under the influence of delusion. Deep down they simply want to be happy. In fact, at your core, below the level of all the strategies you employ in order to find happiness and escape suffering, is this basic need for happiness. That need is the most fundamental thing about you. And it’s good.
Knowing this, it’s easier to be forgiving of ourselves and others, and to drop the idea that unskillfulness is just another name for sin, evil, or badness.