September 07, 2010

People Are Good (MDIV 555)

Second in an ongoing series for my Spiritual Formation class. See the previous post, The Faith Delusion, for more details.

Journal Entry for August 31, 2010

I come to faith in the Three Refuges in a roundabout way. At least it seems so to me, but perhaps everyone comes to faith by a crooked road and only later realize it. If one were to ask if I have faith in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, I would have to say “Not really.” My heart is not set on these things. By that, I mean when I contemplate the Three Refuges, I feel very little emotion. They are not “mysterious and awesome” nor do they “draw me” as Fowler spoke of God (perhaps with another’s words) and why people have faith in Him. But I do have faith in what they are about.

Early in the book, Fowler asks what it is we trust and commit ourselves to, as I mentioned before. I trust that people are good and commit myself to working in a world to I reveal that goodness and foster its growth. (A Shambhalan might call this “basic goodness,” though my conception of it is slightly different.) The Buddha was a living example of a good person, perhaps the best a person can be. The Dharma teaches that people are good (we are all Buddhas) and the Sangha is both example and vehicle for doing good in the world through community. By taking refuge, I acknowledge this truth as the touchstone of my life. And though I am taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, where I place my faith is that these three things are manifestations of a single truth – that people are good.

Of course, this begs the question “What is good?” I have only a very simple response. Good is that which reduces suffering and increases happiness. I recognized this is not a very nuanced answer. People could spend days arguing what constitutes suffering and what constitutes happiness. By this definition, illegal drugs might be considered good, in that they make one happy in the moment, though they breed great suffering later. Therefore we need two tools in order to know what is good: compassion and wisdom. Compassion helps us recognize suffering when we see it, in ourselves as much as others, and motivates us to act. Wisdom guides us to understand the causes and skillful alleviation of that suffering in the long term and for as many as possible.

Therefore, to say that people are good is to say that all people, regardless of their outward actions, have the capacity for compassion and wisdom. Moreover, that people, by and large, all seek to cultivate these capacities to at least some degree. That people are good at all, is mysterious, awesome, and draws me in like nothing else.

To me, institutions like the Three Jewels and the Refuge Vow are tools for the public acknowledgement and cultural prolongation of this idea, something that people trust in and commit their lives to. Do I have faith in the Buddha himself? Sure, but it is not the “ultimate concern” of my life the way the goodness of people is. Nor is the Dharma or the Sangha. These things exist because of and in service to that “ultimate concern,” but cannot take its place.

To crib Huineng, the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.

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