Buddhism: Beyond good and evil

The following is a letter I wrote today to an inmate I’ve been corresponding with for some time. I thought I’d share it with a wider audience.

Dear Billy,

Since you last wrote I’ve been in Ethiopia for two weeks and adopted an orphaned baby girl. She’s called Maia and she’s well, happy, and having no trouble adjusting to being in a new country. She’s only five months old, which makes adjusting easier.

I was pleased to hear that you’re familiar with the Dhammapada, which is one of my favorite texts. In fact it was the first two verses of the Dhammapada that made me realize that I was a Buddhist. And it’s interesting to hear that you have a bookmark permanently stuck in the chapter on Evil — the very chapter I sent you.

“Evil” is an interesting term. Often Buddhism avoids that term, using instead the term “unskillful” (and using “skillful” instead of “good”). These terms are used when Buddhism is speaking in a more technical sense, and “evil” and “good” tend to be used more in poetic statements. The Dhammapada is (as you may have noticed, even in translation) poetry.

The terms “skillful” and “unskillful” are actually far more useful than “good” or “bad.” They suggest that happiness is the goal of life, and actions are judged as being helpful or unhelpful in attaining that goal. When we wish to attain a goal and are able to do this easily, then we show skill, while aiming for a goal but repeatedly missing it suggests a lack of skill. So in life we want to be happy but instead we end up miserable a lot of the time; we lack skill. The things we do that cause us unhappiness are called “unskillful” actions. Those things we do that lead to happiness (not mere pleasure or elation, but a sense of wellbeing) are skillful actions.

You’ll notice there’s no moral judgment here about actions being right or wrong, good or bad. In fact the Buddha said that if actions based on greed, hatred, and delusion actually did lead to happiness then he’d tell us to go out and do them! That’s an amazing statement when you think about it. It’s only because greed, hatred, and delusion cause unhappiness that the Buddha recommends we give them up, and it’s only because mindfulness and compassion lead to happiness that he advocates cultivating those qualities.

The words good and bad are inevitably misleading, because rather than simply looking at our actions and seeing whether they lead to happiness or unhappiness, we look at our actions and judge them. Then we judge ourselves as being good or bad depending on which kinds of actions we’ve performed.

I was thinking about this the other day in regard to Don Imus, who I’m sure you’re aware is in disgrace at the moment for having made derogatory comments about a basketball team of mainly black women. He’s said that he’s a “good person” because he does good things, and in fact he does do a lot of things that benefit others. But if he’s a good person because he does good things then does that also imply that he’s a bad person if he does bad things? Is it a question of adding up the good and bad? And who decides whether being kind to one person balances out being unkind to another? The joy of one may be nothing compared to the hurt and shame of the other.

Actually, from a Buddhist point of view it makes no sense to talk about a “person” being good or bad, or even skillful or unskillful. A person is by necessity far too complex a phenomenon to reduce to such a simple label. An action can be seen to lead, on the whole, to happiness or unhappiness, but can a person be said to do the same? I don’t think so.

Most of the guys I’ve met in prison — including those who have murdered or abused others — are likable people with many fine qualities. They often act in ways that are kind, intelligent, thoughtful, and considerate. While I can’t ignore the worst things that they have done in their lives I can also see that they are not defined by the worst things they have done in their lives. A human being is much larger than any one action he or she has performed.

So it seems to me that the problem with the labels “good” and “bad” for our actions are unhelpful because they lead to us labeling and judging ourselves — and those judgments really are profoundly unhelpful. I think a lot of people in prison have learned to label themselves as “bad” and that this not only causes suffering and self-loathing, but it also leads to further unskillful actions (after all if I’m “bad” then what does it matter if I do bad things?)

A very valuable perspective that Buddhism brings is that none of our experiences — thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations — are permanent. Nor are they inherently a part of us. So we may, in this precise moment, be full or rage and hate, but in the next moment those things may be gone. And in years to come the underlying psychological processes that give rise to those emotions may have gone, and the emotions with them. We can change our minds. We can transform our hearts. We can become more loving and aware, and although we may never entirely rid ourselves of destructive impulses we can find ourselves changing, sometimes quite rapidly. I’ve seen this in my own life and in the lives on many other people, including many men in prison.

Through the medium of your letter I believe I can see you changing.

I wish you well and hope to hear from you again soon.

Best wishes,

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