Are We (Actually) Basically Good?

Recently, the Boston Shambhala 30’s and Under announcement email (which Max always sends out and usually contains various quotes from Shambhala leaders) was entitled: “Are we (actually) basically good?” This piece is my personal response to that question.

First of all, the Shambhala center in Boston, and the folks who attend the weekly meetings and especially the folks who run it have made a huge difference in my life, for which I am extremely grateful. It has helped me to deepen my own meditation practice and empowered me to be more present for other people in my life. Also, Shambhala’s unique orientation towards societal enlightenment makes it special to me among Buddhist communities. I think minimizing the gap between inward practice and outward interactions in our daily lives is extremely important.

That being said, the concept of basic goodness, which seems to be a core part of the Shambhala teaching has always made me uncomfortable, and I’d like to talk about it.

What does basic goodness mean?

When I have heard it explained, it is always been a bit confusing. My understanding is that it refers to something that it is difficult to describe in words. It is a primordial sense that reality as it already is is without flaws. Does that sound like a reasonable answer?

Why is it called basic goodness?

It was coined by Chögyam Trungpa. I can’t say this with certainty, but it seems likely that those two words were chosen in an effort to speak to westerners in their own language, expressing the traditional Mahayana term Bodhichitta combined with some specifically Tibetan Buddhist ideas with an English phrase that could serve as a positive counterpoint to the Catholic idea of original sin.

Why am I uncomfortable with it?

For two reasons: one, I think that the words used already have too much meaning in English, particularly the word “good,” so whenever it is being brought up, it feels like I am being told to believe in a particular moral judgment of humanity, and of all individuals. I don’t think this is the intended meaning of basic goodness, but it is also the most obvious and immediate interpretation of the phrase “humans are basically good.” And thinking that one is always morally good by default seems like self-deception.

Secondly, I am not religious, and that is by choice. To me, when the idea of basic goodness is presented, it usually feels like a belief. Whenever anyone says “in Shambhala, we believe that people are basically good,” I feel excluded.

Why am I not comfortable with a group that has beliefs?

I think that there is an important distinction between perspective and belief. I am appreciative when I get to experience someone else’s perspective, for example when someone shares from their thoughts and experiences in social meditation, because it widens the way I see the world. I see belief as similar to perspective, but with one fundamental difference. Unlike perspective, beliefs are mutually exclusive and close people down, because having a belief implies that any alternative perspectives are wrong.

What is my alternative perspective, if I have one?

Now I have to confess, it’s much easier for me to critical of someone else’s perspective than to articulate my own. I primarily see things from two perspectives that are valuable in different ways, and that do not always agree. One is vaguely scientific, and tied together by detached, intellectual thinking: I like to analyze humans, including myself, from a psychological perspective, in the language of emotions, past experiences, desires, goals, aspirations, and motives. Often these analyses do not reflect favorably upon me—for example, I see how I sometimes twist idealistic notions in my self-interest. Anyway, from an intellectual perspective, I see basic goodness as a somewhat arbitrary doctrine that exists to serve a function, part of which is beneficial—like any shared beliefs, it facilitates group cohesion and identity at the expense of intellectual diversity, and it also gives people permission to believe in something that feels good. Lastly, it has the added benefit of helping people to let go of prior limiting beliefs that it contradicts, like negative judgments about their self-worth.

From a less intellectual, and more personal perspective, what resonates with me much more than basic goodness and motivates me to meditate and engage in social meditation is the idea, I believe most commonly associated with Zen philosophy, that there is a connection between attention and love, or that attention is a pure and basic manifestation of love. When someone listens to me in a totally open way, or can look me in the eyes and see me full attention and no judgment, it does feel to me like a ground-level version of love. So, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to discover the ultimate truth about anything, but I do want to be able to love as much as I can in this short life.

So, when I meditate, I try to practice this—just giving my heartfelt, nonjudgmental attention to something, and repeatedly returning my attention once I realize that I’ve taken it away.

I can’t explain why—maybe it is related to my past experiences with the religion which I’m not including here—but I feel most comfortable with a practice that is as minimalistic as possible, where I don’t have to believe anything that feels unnatural to me, and where I can learn from others’ perspectives but there is no authority on how to see things.

Now what?

Just to either clarify or confuse things (I am not sure), I will leave you with a quote from Chögyam Trungpa, from his talk, The Development of Ego in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He was asked whether people have to be aware of death in order to truly be alive:

“I don’t think you have to be particularly aware of death, in the sense of analyzing it, but you just have to see what you are. Often we tend to look for the positive side, the beauty of spirituality, and ignore ourselves as we are. This is the greatest danger.”

Thanks for reading! I would love to hear other people’s honest perspectives on this topic, now that I’ve shared mine.