Dear Still Water Friends,
This time of year, if you are driving about with the radio on, you are likely to hear holiday songs warning children and adults alike to be good or else there will be no holiday gifts. One that I have always found to be amusing, yet confusing, has the following verse: “He sees you when you’re sleeping; He knows when you’re awake; He knows if you’ve been bad or good; So be good for goodness sake!” In one version of this song it ends with “so you better be good for goodness sake or you’ll get nothing for Christmas.”
The message in the song is clear. Your goodness must come from an inner desire to do good and not from an appearance of doing good, or you are not good enough to receive a gift! This brings up some interesting questions. What does it mean to be good? How can we be sure that we are operating from a place of goodness and not from a superficial place of appearing to be good so that we can receive the benefits of being perceived as good?
In a dharma talk given in 1998 and entitled “Beginning Anew,” Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) discusses how being unskillful at practicing mindfulness—which might be interpreted as bad—causes suffering, and he notes that goodwill by itself is not enough, we must become more artful in our practice:
Your goodwill is not enough for the practice—you have to be artful in your practice. Walking, eating, breathing, talking, working, you should learn the art of mindful living, because if you are a good artist, you will be able to create a lot of happiness and joy around you and inside of you; but if you have only your goodwill, if you count only on your goodwill, that will not be enough, because out of goodwill we may cause a lot of suffering. As a father, as a mother, as a daughter, as a son, we may be filled with goodwill, we may be motivated by the desire to make the other person happy, but out of our clumsiness we make them unhappy. That is why mindful living is an art, and each of us has to train himself or herself to be an artist. Instead of saying to someone, “You are right or wrong,” which is a very difficult thing to hear, you might say, “You are more skillful or less skillful.” In our Five Contemplations before eating we say that we want to be aware of our unskillful states of mind, instead of saying that we want to be aware of our evil states of mind. Unskillful—if you are angry or if you are jealous, that is only unskillfulness. Because we are unskillful, anger and jealousy become mental formations. You know that that deed, that sentence, if we can do it or if we can pronounce it with art, it will help the other person, and it will help us.
In “What is your Jen Ratio?,” psychologist Dacher Keltner, uses “a “jen ratio” as a way of evaluating our actions and our environment. It is based on the the Confucian concept of jen:
which refers to a multilayered mixture of humanity, benevolence, and kindness not well captured by any word or phrase in the English language. A person of jen, Confucius observes, “wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others,” and “brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion.”
A jen ratio of our own actions might be expressed with a common fraction:
Actions in which you’ve brought out the good in others
Actions in which you’ve brought out the bad in others
These ideas of Thay and Confucius are in stark contrast to the ideas presented in the holiday songs that imply that a lack of goodness is due to a defective character and should be punished out of a person by withholding resources, love, kindness, etc. In contrast, we can cultivate goodness by developing a more skillful mindfulness practice and by focusing our intentions on bringing out the good in others.
This Thursday evening after our sitting and walking meditation, we will discuss our challenges and successes with cultivating goodness. Here are a few questions that will help guide our discussion:
- What have been your responses when confronted with the dualistic standard of good versus evil that seems to underlie much of our current society?
- Has your growing skill in the practice enabled you to create happiness and joy around you and inside of you?
- How is your jen ratio? How do you cultivate bringing out the good in others?
Below you will find an interview excerpt in which Thay discusses duality and interbeing.
I hope you will be able to join us on Thursday.
Happiness is Now
A Q and A with Thich Nhat Hanh
First published in the Italian paper La Stampa on September 14, 2014
English translation on the Plum Village Website
Question: Buddhism considers the individual an illusion: is there still room in this vision for the distinction between good and evil?
Thich Nhat Hanh’s answer: In the twentieth century individualism was put in the foreground and this has created a lot of suffering and difficulties. We create a separation between ourselves and others, between father and son, between man and nature, between one nation and another. We are not aware of the interconnection between ourselves and everything around us. This interconnection is what in Buddhism we call “interbeing.” The ethical path that is offered by Buddhism is based on a deep understanding of interbeing. What happens to the individual influences what happens in the whole of society and the whole planet. In this way the practice of mindfulness helps us to make a distinction between what is good and evil, right and wrong. When we’re mindful, we can see the destruction that has been caused to the animals and the planet in order to produce meat for our consumption. With this awareness, eating vegetarian food becomes an act of love towards ourselves, towards our ecosystem and the planet. Many of us are running after fame, power, money or sensual pleasures. We think that these things can bring happiness, but on the contrary, they can lead us to destroy our body and our mind. Young people often confuse sex with true love, but in reality an empty sexuality can destroy love, and bring even more desire, loneliness and despair. Mindfulness helps us to develop our understanding about the other person. True love can not exist without understanding.