“As we become more conscious, we begin to see that there are consequences. There are consequences to everything, and they get bigger and bigger the more we behave in ways that are not in harmony with what we know is true… Reality is always true to itself. When you are in harmony with it, you experience bliss. As soon as you are not in harmony with it, you experience pain. This is the law of the universe; it is the way things are… We realize that to behave from any place other than our true nature is destructive to ourselves, and, just as important, to the world and others around us.” – Adyashanti
We are living in an age of self-indulgence. I don’t think this statement should be a controversial point of view. Our culture instills in us a value system that says the best society is one that encourages the individual in the expression of their liberties and appetites while what holds this license from turning into anarchy is moral instruction, often codified into law, telling us what we are not to do – lie, cheat, steal, and kill (or be different in ways that convention disapproves of). The problem is that the first instruction, the one on liberty, license and indulgence is so much stronger and is reinforced constantly through the media and our social and commercial interactions. The culture tells us that self-absorption and self-indulgence are good as long as they are within the boundaries of legality and our society’s wide latitude of social acceptability. The morality that is the basis of subjective limits on our appetites and urges is left to religious instruction and to fear of others’ judgment and the consequences of getting caught and punished, influences that just aren’t sufficient to bring about a virtuous society populated with virtuous people. The very strong libertarian self-indulgence message overrides and causes us to relate to morality, which is given strong, yet hypocritical, social endorsement, as a limitation on our personal liberty to be gotten around as much as possible. Also true is that social norms and laws can be molded to fit what is expedient to our true values, and the codes of morality then tend to follow.
Early in my career, I did a lot of counseling with teenagers and their families, and a pretty common problem was kids from “good” families acting out in ways that were pretty hurtful to others, and even themselves. Everyone was baffled that the child of a banker, lawyer, doctor, successful businessperson, or a church-going working-class family could be behaving in such hurtful, dishonest, and immoral ways. But they do, and we go on, generation after generation, blaming it on “human nature,” preaching and punishing, to hold in check that which humans in their “fallen” state, as evangelicals like to say, are going to do because we are just sinful. Buddhism disagrees. Actually, so does Jesus, when in agreement with Buddhism, he taught that love is our basic nature. It is so basic that it can even explain how unloving we come to be.
There is a psychological theory put forward in the 1950’s called “adolescent super-ego lacunae” by psychoanalyst Adalaide Johnson, which postulated that teenagers may act out the “holes,” which is what “lacunae” means, in the family’s and the society’s morality system when they commit in crude ways the sophisticated and socially accepted moral violations of adults – for which the adults are more likely to be rewarded than punished. That is, while robbing a bank will get you thrown in jail, for a bank to foreclose on a mortgage because a person had fallen on hard times, is just business, and lawyers are just doing their job when representing shady and dishonest people or businesses, often at the expense of honest and naive or poor people – while getting rewarded handsomely for it. Or for a teenager to tell their wine-drinking, pill-taking, shopaholic, truth-bending mother they were doing homework with a friend when they were actually off smoking marijuana with that friend will get them grounded. All-the-while the ad campaigns on television are telling kids that their life will be sunny and beautiful if they buy into the American way of consumer addiction. They sense the hypocrisy, the hole in the morality system, of their families and of their society and they act it out. In a sense, they are acting out of love, unconsciously wanting to identify with the parents’ value system replicating it in a cruder manner among their adolescent peers for the purpose of being accepted. And sometimes it’s an appropriate “cry for love” to their parents and a society too focused on status, money-making, and narcissism to show love. They are so-called “rebelling” by crudely violating hypocritical rules, while, in truth, they are internalizing the hypocrisy. So, generation after generation passes with very little improvement in the overall virtuousness of people or society.
Buddhism takes a very direct approach to this problem, teaching it is more effective to develop people’s inner sense of virtue as the path to a virtuous society than by preaching morality. It does so by teaching what ought to be obvious, that is, that virtuousness comes from the development of people’s natural sense of goodness and truth rather than the imposition of the social and religious rules that constitute morality. This may sound like just a matter of semantics, but it is not, for the basic premise behind these two approaches for addressing human behavior is radically different. Instead of people being seen as “fallen” and naturally “sinful,” as morality systems do, Buddhism teaches that people are the same goodness and truth that is the natural world, and that “sin” (a word that Buddhism seldom uses) is just ignorance, like its etymological origin suggests, simply “missing the mark” of what it is to be a natural human with instincts for decency, kindness, and honesty.
Buddhism tells us that people get corrupted away from their natural goodness and virtue while morality systems believe that people behave self-indulgently because it makes them happy to do so, and so there must be a kind of violence applied to keep this happy-seeking behavior under control. Buddhism contends just the opposite – that what makes people happy is thinking and behaving virtuously. Experience shows the Buddhists to be on to something.
Buddhism’s most recognized teaching is called The Four Noble Truths, a teaching about what is usually called “suffering,” a term Westerners have a hard time really grasping because the suffering being referred to here is very different from what a Westerner understands by this term as a physical state. The term in the original language of Buddhism is dukkha, which can perhaps more accurately be translated as to be unsatisfied, dissatisfied, or maybe, just unhappy, a specifically psychological state. What Buddha recognized is that we humans are unhappy in most unnatural ways, and it has to do with grasping after the ephemeral materiality of the world, believing that materialism brings happiness when it doesn’t.
All things pass from fashion or interest, wear out, and break, and all life, including we humans, get sick, age, and die, and we suffer. So too it is with morality, for morality is always an artificial belief system tied to dogmas, ideas imposed by authorities about how we should behave, usually implying a stifling of our pursuit of happiness. Notions of morality change over time with changing religious, political, and generational beliefs and their violation is easily rationalized precisely because they are imposed and changing through time and circumstance. In contrast, virtue is what is naturally within us and is both eternal AND relates to the uniqueness of the moment. Our sense of what is virtuous is then less easily ignored, while more vividly ringing true.
Buddhism teaches, very rightly, that happiness cannot come from outside of us, not lasting happiness anyway, that it must come from within us, that happiness is the natural result of being in harmony with ourselves, with others and the world. The observation is made that giving is much more likely to bring about harmony and happiness than taking, and cooperating and sharing brings more good feeling than competing and hoarding. These are natural truths within us. These are the ways little children behave before they are corrupted into selfishness. Buddhism calls this natural human virtue. The Four Noble Truths, after addressing the existence of this human problem it calls dukkha diagnoses this malady as arising from ignorance into our very nature as being whole, connected to everything, and virtuous, and that this ignorance causes all kinds of clinging and grasping behavior leading to much unhappiness and dissatisfaction. It, however, then encourages us that there is a cure through the cultivation of our natural human virtues. Buddhism tells us that we can free ourselves of our delusions about happiness and in the process become enlightened genuinely happy human beings. These instructions are not about things we are not to do in the manner of a morality system, but what we are to do to develop our natural capacity for virtuousness, and thus, happiness. Modern behavioral psychology would largely agree, noting that punishing negative behavior is much less effective than rewarding and reinforcing desirable behavior, particularly, as Buddhism teaches, when what is being reenforced is our own innate goodness.
As with much of Buddhism, the concept of virtue is couched in paradox, a mental subtlety we in the West are not very good at. It teaches that really the most self-serving thing we can do, if self-serving is the maximizing of our happiness and peace-of-mind, is to be unselfish. In truth, it isn’t hard to understand that in our society the unselfish way is so often seen as the path of the victim or “sucker” because there is so little unselfishness around us, so many looking to take advantage, to rob literally or through legal commerce, even stealing our self-esteem and equanimity through cruel comment or action. It seems that the unselfish are at a distinct disadvantage in this zero-sum game of a society where “winners” are established by creating “losers.” But really – where and when have any of us been the happiest? Is it not when we can let our guard down, when we can trust others to treat us kindly and honestly, and when we can experience how good it feels to treat others with kindness and honesty? This is virtuousness and it has the ring of truth to it. Buddhism teaches us the attitudes and practices that allow us to hold our center of peace, virtue, and wellbeing independent of others’ beliefs and actions, and this is the greatest freedom of all. It could be said that Buddhism teaches us to live as neither a victimizer nor a victim. Imagine a world that taught our children that their natural urges to kindness and generosity were the absolutely “right” ones, and that they could trust that this is the way they would be treated by others. You see how much better this world would be? How much better this is than teaching that the world is unkind and dishonest, a ‘sinful,” world that requires coercive morality and laws to keep corrupt human nature in check? Yes, you say, but that’s not the way the world is, I’m not going to be a sucker. I agree. This is not the way the human world is now, but it could be and needs to be. And in the meanwhile, Buddhism teaches rightly, that it still applies that if you want to be happy and peaceful, the only way for that to happen is for you to cultivate these qualities and practices in yourself. The added benefit is that a truly virtuous person does not need others to behave virtuously to be peaceful and to maintain their faith in goodness and in themselves. Those who practice virtue increasingly know who they are and what is right and true – and no cheating, dishonesty or cruelty by others can take this from them – and this is true freedom.