Do The Right Thing

A verse of the Dhammapada reads:

To avoid evil actions, to do actions that are good
and to purify the mind is the essence of Buddha’s teachings.

One of the primary concerns of religion and philosophy is the issue of morality, of defining what is good and what is evil. Some say that it is a divine force that determines the nature of good and evil. Others feel that morality is something created by human beings and is relative to time and place.

Those who hold to an absolute measure of morality have often tried to establish a moral code or set of commandments upon which all human conduct is to be adjudicated. In the world of law, this may be necessary. But the world of morality is not black and white. The biggest problem with this approach is how to motivate people to follow the commandments. The usual solution has been to proffer a fear of consequence such as the “wrath of god,” eternal damnation.

Buddhism is called the philosophy of the Middle Way because its concepts often fall in-between these and other extremes. While Buddhism neither confirms nor denies the existence of a supreme being, it is rather pessimistic about the idea, so we tend to view morality as a human concern, with more than two shades of color.

In Buddhist philosophy there is a theory of consequence called karma. This doctrine was probably not taught by the Buddha himself, rather it was a Brahman idea likely layered on sometime after the Buddha. Nonetheless, it has become an integral part of the dharma.

The idea of karma is that one’s actions produce effects, either good or bad depending upon the nature of the action undertaken. That, by the way, is the little loophole. Conceivably one can perform some action that is technically ‘bad’, but if the motivation is right-minded then it’s ‘good.’

In any event, effects from past actions are said to come back in time to affect the individual. With this scenario, there is a tendency to lock in on the idea of ‘bad karma’ and speculate on what was done to deserve it. Frankly, all speculation of this sort is rather foolish. As I mentioned in a recent post, the T’ien-t’ai teacher Chih-i, as well as many other teachers past and present, have taught that none of us can know the true nature of our karma from the past.

Another flawed way of thinking is to believe that we should engage in positive actions in order to avoid negative karma. All this does is replace the supreme being who judges our behavior with ‘mystic karma,’ a divine force that can somehow perceive the difference between good and evil. For me, using this doctrine as a  carrot stick doesn’t work too well.

Some question the very idea of karma, after all, there is no real empirical evidence to support it. However, it doesn’t really matter whether you accept karma or not. At least in regards to morality, for as far as good and evil is concerned, both arise from our own mind. The Buddha taught that if one purifies the mind and trains it toward goodness, then wisdom will arise. It’s a kind of simple and intuitive wisdom, where one naturally understands the virtue of positive, wholesome actions. In other words, we learn to practice goodness because it is the right way to live.

In fact, it is the only way to live.

Mookie: C’mon, what. What?
Da Mayor: Always do the right thing.
Mookie: That’s it?
Da Mayor: That’s it.
Mookie: I got it, I’m gone.


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