Beyond Good and EvilHugo and the Station Inspector

Beyond Good and Evil

Discussion date: Thu, Jul 07, 2016 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Over the 4th of July weekend we had friends visiting with their three young children. On the afternoon of the 4th, while the rains poured down, we watched Hugo, a  film about the trials and perseverance of young Hugo Cabret, a fictional orphan who kept the clocks running in Paris’ Montparnasse Railway Station in the 1930s.

The movie had several scary and seemingly sinister characters, and throughout the movie 5 1/2 year-old Ben asked: “Is that a good guy or a bad guy?” While in most children’s (and even adult) movies that question would have a clear answer, in Hugo, the characters were more nuanced. By the end of the movie, each of the “bad guys” had done something noble, especially the toy store owner Georges Méliès, who with Hugo’s help faced and transformed his decades-old disappointment and suffering. These changes in the moral quality of the main characters were puzzling to Ben. His mind worked on it through the night, and in the morning he asked again: “The Station Inspector, was he a bad guy?”

The great advantage of thinking in terms of Good guys and Bad guys is its simplicity. If we know someone is good or bad (holy or evil; right or wrong) it is easy to orient ourselves. We can root for and help the good guys, and root against and destroy the bad guys. This way of thinking has a long and deep history in western civilization. According to the theologian Walter Wink, the seed of indwelling Good and Evil goes back to an ancient Babylonian creation myth of the struggle between Tiamat and Marduk in which:

Chaos (symbolized by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, god of Babylon). Evil is prior to good. Violence inheres in the godhead. Evil is an ineradicable constituent of ultimate reality. …

The ultimate outcome of this type of myth… is a theology of war founded on the identification of the enemy with the powers that the god has vanquished, and continues to vanquish, in the drama of creation. Every coherent theology of holy war ultimately reverts to this basic mythological type. According to this theology, the enemy is evil and war is its punishment.  ….

This myth is the original religion of the status quo, the first articulation of “might makes right.” The gods favor those who conquer. The mass of people exists to perpetuate that power and privilege which the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood. Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat.

Wink explains that while Babylonian religions encouraged the extermination of enemies, the teachings of Jesus, to love one’s enemies, was offered as part of an alternative world view. However, in time, as Christianity became an imperialist state religion, the Babylonian myth, which Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence,” re-emerged in Christianity and Western civilization under the surface and continues today as perhaps the most dominant cultural ethos. The myth is blatantly seen in children’s media:

Here is how the myth of redemptive violence structures the standard comic strip or television cartoon sequences: An indestructible good guy is unalterably opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible bad guy. Nothing can kill the good guy, though for the first three-quarters of the strip or show he (rarely she) suffers grievously, appearing hopelessly trapped, until somehow the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next installment. Nothing finally destroys the bad guy or prevents his reappearance, whether he is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned or shot into outer space.

The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book are marvelously simple: Children identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness or lust, and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil by watching the bad guy initially prevail. (This segment of the show actually consumes all but the closing minutes, allowing ample time for indulging the shadow side of the self.) When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and reestablish a sense of goodness. Salvation is guaranteed through identification with the hero.

No premium is put on reasoning, persuasion, negotiation or diplomacy. There can be no compromise with an absolute evil. (It) must be totally annihilated or totally converted. (Walter Wink quotes are from Babylon Revisited: How Violent Myths Resurface Today.)

Walter Wink encourages Christians to return to the social gospel of Jesus rather than act in accord with the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh and others teach that in the practice of mindfulness we must transcend simplistic “Good and Bad” thinking. Good and Bad, or “Wholesome or not wholesome,” are not unchanging states inherent in particular individuals. We all have them, they come and go, and our practice is to see their interconnection and to nourish ways of thinking, speaking, and acting that reduce our suffering and the suffering of others.

Our ethic needs to be an ethic without dogmas, without views. No one imposes the trainings on us, no one is asking us to practice. We ourselves can see based on our own insight and experience that it is our path of joy, compassion, and love. The Five Mindfulness Trainings include the practice of not being caught in a dualistic way of seeing things. Dualism is the view that good and evil, holy and profane, happiness and suffering oppose each other and that it is only by destroying evil that we have good and by destroying the profane that we have the sacred. According to the insight of interbeing, good and evil inter-are. Good is a skillful way of dealing with evil that leads to transformation. It is not something we fight against. Good and evil are organic and are present together. This insight is the only way we can remove all discrimination and fear. It is the foundation of the practice of the trainings. Then the trainings very naturally become the way we live and the source of our happiness. (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Mindfulness Survival Kit)

The practice of meditation does not mean that you draw a line of discrimination between the positive energy, what you call goodness, and the negative energy, what you call evil. That is not the way. That is discrimination. That is not the insight that you should use. The insight is interbeing. You look at both as organic. This is because that is. That is because this is. So with the garbage you can make the flowers and the flowers are to become garbage later on. The process of gardening is the process of continued transformation. We recognize the flowers in us; we recognize also the garbage in us. We do not have to discriminate. If it is a flower, we recognize it as a flower. “Hello, flower.” If it is a piece of garbage, we say “Hello garbage.” No discrimination. No fear. The only thing is to learn how to practice gardening. You are an organic gardener. You know how to take care of your bad habit energies, to transform them into the good ones. We don’t imagine that after having eliminated all the negative things we only have the positive things, because the positives feed on the negative and vice versa. So that is the insight of nonduality. It is so important in the teaching of Buddhist meditation. The insight of interbeing: garbage and flowers inter‑are.

So when you have learned how to accept the negative things in you, you already have peace. I don’t mind that there are negative things in me. I accept them. I have learned a way to take care of my negative things. I also have learned a way to take care of my positive things, to keep them alive longer. I have learned how to transform the negative things, in order to nourish the positive things. All of that can be done only if you have the energy of mindfulness. That is why our practice here is to learn how to eat mindfully and joyfully, how to walk mindfully and joyfully, how to breathe mindfully and joyfully.  ( From a Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on August 16, 1997)

This Thursday evening our Dharma sharing will explore our experiences with Good and Bad, Holy and Evil, Right and Wrong, as unchangeable inherent qualities.

When are we able to go beyond beyond Good and Bad? When are we not?

Have we learned to love our enemies? Have we learned to embrace with love our shortcomings and undermining habits and emotions and mind-states?

You are invited to join us.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner


in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jul 07, 2016