Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wonderful World, or, the Pagan Value of Basic Goodness

Basic Goodness refers to the belief that our fundamental nature as human beings, and also the fundamental nature of the cosmos itself, is, well, basically good.

In her Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age Vivianne Crowley wrote:
Wicca honors the Gods, but like our Pagan ancestors, Witches believe that our religion should be a celebration of the life force. Wicca also teaches that we should not fear death; for Wicca teaches reincarnation. We will live not just once, but many times. Life is considered to be a journey of many stages, not just one. Death is not the end, but a new beginning.

Like other religions, Wicca accepts that there is a non-material as well as a material reality, but it does not believe the non-material is superior to the material. Matter is not regarded with horror and the emphasis is on the joy of the flesh rather than the ascetics' view of flesh as sin. This is not to say that Wicca is hedonistic, but rather that we are followers of a middle way. Our time in physical incarnation is a gift from the Gods. However, we must also seek spiritual growth that expands our consciousness and allows us to live on levels beyond the physical.

Wicca is a religion that looks to the good in human beings rather that to the evil and seeks to bring out that good rather than dwelling on people's faults. It does not seek unrealistic sainthood, but rather makes the best of what is there. It does not divide people into the chosen and the damned but sees people as being in different stages of struggling towards the same end - that of unity with the Divine.

[p. 5, emphasis added]
The idea of basic goodness is found in many, but not all, religious traditions. Almost 2400 years ago, Plato, a deeply religious Pagan philosopher, wrote in his Timaeus that the entire cosmos is beautiful (kalon), good (agathon), blessed (eudaimona) and divine (theon). He also wrote that the cosmos is an interconnected whole that is alive, deathless, ageless, and that, as a whole, it possesses not just consciousness, but an intelligence vastly superior to ours. Plato further wrote that the physical universe is ensouled "throughout", so that just as the entire cosmos is alive, so is even the tiniest bit of matter. The "body" (material part) and "soul" (non-material part) of the cosmos are described in the Timaeus from 27c through 37c, using Stephanus numbering. Here is a handy online version of the Timaeus with both the original Greek and English translation.

In most schools of Mahayana Buddhism it is taught that all beings possess Buddha-nature, that is, the potential for perfect and complete enlightenment. But this has not always been the case, for the idea of universal Buddha-nature was rejected during the early days of Buddhism in China, over 1500 years ago. At that time, one monk, named Tao-Sheng (ca. 360-434 AD), insisted that absolutely all beings everywhere throughout all space and time possess inherent Buddha-nature and are capable of achieving enlightenment. But the orthodox view of Chinese Buddhism was that there is a class of beings, called icchantikas, who are completely devoid of Buddha-nature, and, therefore, these beings are doomed to eternal ignorance and suffering. Most Chinese Buddhists were quickly won over to Tao-Sheng's point of view, although before that happened he was briefly forced to leave the monastic community because of his "heretical" ideas (he was never arrested, thrown in prison, tortured, or burned at the stake, though - just shown the door and sent on his way).

According to Tao-Sheng the only real problem faced by humans is ignorance of our basic goodness, our Buddha-nature. There is nothing that we lack, but we are nevertheless like someone who has hidden a great treasure, but who not only doesn't remember where it is hidden but has forgotten ever possessing the treasure in the first place! In his Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Fung Yu-lan describes Tao-Sheng's view of Buddha-nature like this:
[E]very sentient being has the Buddha-nature; only he does not realize that he has it. This ignorance (Avidya) is what binds him to the Wheel of Birth and Death. The necessity, therefore, is for him first to realize that he has the Buddha-nature originally within him, and then, by learning and practice, to "see" his own Buddha-nature.
[p. 251, emphasis added]
Chogyam Trungpa, a modern teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, made "basic goodness" central to his efforts to teach the Buddha Dharma to westerners. Trungpa explicitly contrasted the approach of basic goodness to that of "original sin":
Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness, intelligence and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha (birthplace of the enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience—the experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for Buddhist practice and Buddhist psychology.

Coming from a tradition that stresses human goodness, it was something of a shock for me to encounter the Western tradition of original sin. It seems that this notion of original sin does not just pervade western religious ideas. It actually seems to run throughout Western thought as well, especially psychological thought. Among patients, theoreticians and therapists alike there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake, which causes later suffering—a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.

The problem with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hinderance to people. At some point it is of course necessary to realize one’s shortcomings. But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one’s vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful, and in fact it seems unnecessary.

According to the Buddhist perspective there are problems, but they are temporary and superficial defilements that cover over one’s basic goodness (tathagatagarbha). This viewpoint is a positive and optimistic one. But, again, we should emphasize that this viewpoint is not purely conceptual. It is rooted in the experience of meditation and in the healthiness it encourages. There are temporary, habitual neurotic patterns that develop based on past experience, but these can be seen through. It is just this that is studied in the abhidharma, the Buddhist teachings on psychology: how one thing succeeds another, how volitional action originates and perpetuates itself, how things snowball. And, most importantly, abhidharma studies how through meditation practice this process can be cut through.

The attitude that results from the Buddhist orientation and practice is quite different from the “mistake mentality.” One actually experiences mind as fundamentally pure, that is, healthy and positive, and “problems” as temporary and superficial defilements. Such a viewpoint does not quite mean “getting rid” of problems, but rather shifting one’s focus. Problems are seen in a much broader context of health: one begins to let go of clinging to one’s neuroses and to step beyond obsession and identification with them. The emphasis is no longer on the problems themselves but rather on the ground of experience through realizing the nature of mind itself.

When problems are seen in this way, then there is less panic and everything seems more workable. When problems arise, instead of being seen as purely threats, they become learning situations, opportunities to find out more about one’s own mind, and to continue on one’s journey.

Through practice, which is confirmed by study, the inherent healthiness of your mind and others’ minds is experienced over and over. You see that your problems are not all that deeply rooted. You see that you can make literal progress. You find yourself becoming more mindful and more aware, developing a greater sense of healthiness and clarity as you go on, and this is tremendously encouraging.

[Shambhala Sun, November 2002, emphasis added]
One also finds the concept of basic goodness in Confucianism. Fung Yu-lan (see above reference concerning the Buddhist Tao-Sheng) writes that the 4th century BC Confucianist philosopher Mencius (ca. 372-289 BC) "developed the theory for which he is most famed: the original goodness of human nature." [p. 69]
All men have a mind which cannot bear [to see the suffering of] others.... If now men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress.... From this case we may perceive that he who lacks the feeling of commiseration is not a man. The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of human-heartedness. The feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and yielding is the beginning of propriety. The sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Man has these four beginnings, just as he has four limbs.... Since all men have these four beginnings in themselves, let them know how to give them full development and completion. The result will be like fire that begins to burn, or a spring which has begun to find vent. Let them have their complete development, and they will suffice to protect all within the four seas. If they are denied that development, they will not suffice even to serve one's parents.
[Mencius, IIa, 6, as translated in Fung Yu-lan, p. 70]
A modern Hindu teacher, Sri Karunamayi, teaches that our most fundamental nature, Atman, is pure and perfect (and in doing so she is simply expanding on the ancient pronouncement of the Chandogya Upanishad: tat tvam asi (You are that):
Sweet children, you yourself are eternity; you yourself are infinity and you yourself are immortality. Experience this especially during the Navaratri festival time. Meditate. Contemplate more and more on your supreme Self. All forms are nothing but your supreme forms only. You are Atman. You are so sweet. All sweetness is nothing but comes from Atman only. Be always in eternal peace. Be always in that Consciousness. Be always in the Oneness experience only. Experience your Atman. Experience every living being as only nothing but your Self only. Atman is beauty, Atman is perfection. Atman is knowledge, wisdom, Consciousness.
[Navaratri message, 2008, emphasis added]
Sri Karunamayi's words of encouragement to her English speaking devotees early in 21st century are very similar to what Swami Vivekananda had to say to an audience in the American Midwest late in the 19th century:
Where is the spirituality one would expect in a country which is so boastful of its civilisation? I have not found it [that is, in America]. "Here" and "hereafter" are words to frighten children. It is all "here". To live and move in God even here, even in this body, all self should go out, all superstition should be banished. Such persons live in India. Where are such in this country? Your preachers speak against dreamers. The people of this country would be better off if there were more dreamers. There is a good deal of difference between dreaming and the brag of the nineteenth century. The whole world is full of God and not of sin. Let us help one another, let us love one another.
[Swami Vivekananda, Christianity in India, lectured delivered in Detroit Michigan, March 11, 1894, emphasis added]
According to Julia Annas in her Morality of Happiness, ancient Stoic philosophers made the ultimate nature of the universe, which she calls "cosmic nature", central to their entire philosophy, including especially ethics. The result is strikingly similar to Tao-Sheng's Buddhism:
Since cosmic nature comes up in many contexts, they [the Stoics] regarded it as a unifying feature of their philosophy, a point brought out by identifying cosmic nature with many other things, notably reason, fate, providence, and Zeus.... For it is a firm part of Stoic ethics that our final end is living in accordance with nature, and some texts make it appear as though we do this by first finding out about cosmic nature and its requirements, and then conforming ourselves to those requirements. The view this suggests is clearly foundational, since to be virtuous we first have to discover nature, then follow it. Moreover, what seems to be foundational is not human nature, but cosmic nature, of which human nature is a mere part.
[p. 159, emphasis added]
We need not, in fact we must not, take Crowley's, or Plato's, or Tao-Sheng's, or Trungpa's, or Mencius', or Karunamayi's, or Vivekananda's , or the Stoics' word for it. We each possess our very own personal laboratory in which to investigate the questions (1) what is the fundamental essence of human nature? and (2) what is the fundamental nature of the cosmos? For me this laboratory is me, for you this laboratory is you. What we believe about human nature is first and foremost a reflection of what we believe about ourselves. What we believe about the cosmos as a whole is first and foremost a reflection of what we believe about ourselves.

I'll end this with my all-time favorite expression of Basic Goodness, which is not from Greek or Chinese philosophy, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Wicca. It is Louis Armstrong's Wonderful World:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.