Pursuit Of “The Good” Is Another Illusion

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Goodness is a noble quest, but the pursuit of good is another form of living an illusory life. We must be wise in our understanding of the ethical reality in the meaning of the Three Pure Precepts and how we connect with others. If an individual wishes for others what is good for themselves without really knowing what that good is, then the potential for doing harm is real. We know in principle that happiness can not be found in hedonism or utilitarianism (the profit motive). A life pursuing pleasure, ambitious self-centered interests alone, or riches results in a kind of intolerable servitude where what we seek will be always out of our grasp. This type of life-path is always about trying to find ways of surviving in the future and may be incapable of living in the moment. The Buddha would say that a life only motivated by profit and pleasure is unworthy of one walking the Path.

Yet we need to be careful in thinking that a heroic, virtuous, and self-sacrificing life is an ideal one. Considering a life based on “being good” can be fraught with ambiguities surrounding the notion of what is good. What one considers good can be making another value statement. History teaches us that the goodness of the good and the nobility of the great may contain the hidden seeds of ruin. What is interesting about a Buddhist practice of perfecting doing good is that it often reflects that same ambiguities as the hedonist or even the utilitarian. Why? Because working to achieve doing good as an object is engaging in a self-conscious and intentional pursuit to do good in a belief that one’s actions are right and therefore will achieve happiness. This way of social engagement is putting happiness and the notion of what is good as something to be attained, and thus places them outside selfless action and into the world of object, as though good was a commodity. This results in a life-dilemma between one not yet in possession of what they seek as good, and the future in which one things they will have what is desired in order to counter unsatisfactoriness. This dilemma is about how an individual interprets what is right or wrong, as opposed to the notion of right and wrong held by others.

We can find resolution of this dilemma in our practice by not debating with ourselves on what is happiness or unhappiness by trying to find what “should be done”. Doing good should never be debated if we also have an adequate understanding of the situation and not try to over-think the karmic consequences. We can never know for sure how any good action will work out in our mutual-causal world. The more we seek doing good from the perspective of desired consequences, we enter into the weeds of over analyzing the nature of the importance of just trying not to do harm.

An awakened Buddhist practice recognizes that our body-mind is ready to do good as an expression from our Buddha natures. Instead of self conscious cultivation of what is good, we grow quietly in the humility of a simple, ordinary life, and this way is trusting that our actions come from a cultivated body-mind rather than seeing it as the fruit of our efforts. This is a practice not intent upon results and is not concerned with consciously laid plans or deliberately organized endeavors. It is a life awakened to how each moment is and how we are reflected in it. It is about learning to find the harmony in each moment, and between the elements we meet in those moments. If one is in harmony in the moment, happiness and goodness will make itself clear when the time comes to act, for then one will act not according to the human and self-conscious mode of deliberation, but according to the awakened social-self that is the source of goodness. The other way of acting is conscious striving, even though it may claim to be a way of virtue, is fundamentally a way of self aggrandizement and pride, and will be in conflict with the path away from suffering. This is not an easy lesson to comprehend, as it takes time to realize how to act from a deeper place cultivated from our silence. Thus we sit in silence to cultivate serenity from which compassionate action arises.

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