By Guy Newland
Long ago, a Chinese philosopher said:
All human beings have a heart that cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. Even now days, if someone suddenly sees a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will not contrive to feel this way as a tactic to gain the favor of the child’s parents, or to gain the praise of their neighbors and friends. Nor do such feelings arise just because they are afraid of getting a bad reputation for having been unmoved by such a thing.
He goes on to argue, such feelings arise spontaneously, regardless of what actions are subsequently taken, in almost all human beings. They are, as we say, natural. Some might call it an expression of our Buddha nature, an activity of “basic goodness and universal liberation” in the human heart. Some understand this as the activity of mirror neurons.
However we think about it, we see that this Chinese philosopher was pointing at something true.
On the other hand, another Chinese philosopher came along and—in order to make a dramatic counterpoint—proclaimed that human nature is evil. By “evil” he meant nothing diabolic; he meant our basic nature is a fundamental source of trouble. It is human nature, he said, to be born with fondness for profit, a sense of envy, and a craving for stuff like frozen yogurt, sex, drugs, Mozart, and Impressionist paintings.
Two childish humans sitting together, left to nature alone, could quickly come to blows over some particularly delicious cookie. Yet we so rarely have riots in the cafeterias. This is because hard-earned cultural training, discipline, manners, and law and order, teach us to take turns, restraining our chaos-inducing basic natures. Especially if we have raised kids, we may sense that this second philosopher—while contradicting the firs—also points at something true.
These two ancient Chinese thinkers anticipated the European philosophies of Rousseau and Hobbes.
In the religion business, maybe the words of all the prayers and chants—Pure Land, Theravada, and born again Christian—reflect some version of one or the other of these two views of human nature. There is a Calvinist sort of view, that humans are fundamentally depraved and, at the antipodes, there is the notion of Buddha nature.
Daoists are famous for the go-with-the-flow, harmonize-yourself-with-nature approach. Paradoxically, accomplishing this turns out to be very hard work. Some Buddhists say that we are all fundamentally perfect; our minds are sky-like and spacious. Yet the Buddha also famously said that his way goes against the grain; it is like paddling upstream. In Zen, the perfect way is wide open because it leads to this very moment.
How is it then that getting to right here is so extraordinarily difficult, requiring effort such as might break our bones?
It seems somehow both of those Chinese philosophers were onto something about being human. Except, how can we be, by nature, both compassionate helpers and also, at our core, terrible, self-centered troublemakers? Maybe our oldest genes and the oldest parts of our brains reflect the raw sense of nature, red in tooth and claw; they generate cutthroat competition—including violence and deception. Some later-evolving, still authentically important other mammalian features, which are equally “natural,” guide us toward kindness, cooperation, and social virtues. Thus accounting for our impulse to save the child at the edge of the well.
Philosophers and religious teachers agree in seeking to guide us toward kindness, but some frame this as our natural and recovered (social/mammalian) goodness, while others see this as an achievement of will and culture and effort; hard-earned by working against the hard-wiring of the oldest portions of our brain. Philosophies and theologies of humans as basically caring or else basically selfish bear fruit in political systems, wars, revolutions, and martyrs.
The notion that we are naturally, and in fact, rationally, self-interested lies at the basis of capitalist economic theory, where the greed of the rich turns out to be a very good thing for everyone. Adam Smith claims:
The rich … consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, … though the sole end which they seek from work of the thousands … they employ is the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires [in the end] they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.
We have Former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, John Boehner’s weepy pleas to protect the precious “job-creators,” the Wall Street mantra “greed is good,” and the (still mysteriously unsuccessful) efforts to make trickle-down economics work.
While the true-believing, capitalist, free-marketers sincerely valorize selfishness, communists are often faulted for ignoring the basic selfishness of human beings. By proclaiming and then attempting to enforce the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” one communist government after another—from the Soviet Union and Mao’s China to Albania and now Venezuela—has forced its people into prisons, poverty and starvation.
Actually, Karl Marx never said that it would be easy to realize the ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Nor did he say human beings are fundamentally good. Rather, he wrote of human nature as something constantly recreated through social and material forces, hence malleable.
What seemed quite natural in the Middle Ages no longer seems natural today; social institutions and material technology have so greatly changed. Marx hoped socialist revolutions, building up socialist societies, would serve as the growth media within which genuinely socialist human beings—people who naturally share and share alike—would one day be born.
This a beautiful dream, full of rich depth, wrought with subtlety and nuance.
It is a post-religious, post-theistic vision of the Pure Land, the Promised Land. Perhaps the very beauty of this vision—and the horror of the misery it aspires to relieve—have inspired the misguidedly dogmatic pursuit of its realization. 20 million state-induced, unnatural deaths during Stalin’s reign? This communist out-Hitlered Hitler. Let’s not forget Mao Zedong, the superstar of mass death. Mao was responsible for, by far, the most state-sponsored deaths of his own people in history; 50 million is a conservative estimate and some put it closer to 80 million. Is it a coincidence he also was a deeply committed, very sincere communist revolutionary?
It seems the more idealistically and aggressively the communist dream is pursued, the more the actual economy founders.
People with specialized skills are suspected of elitism and summarily executed, as in China’s Cultural Revolution and in Cambodia under Pol Pot. When the mechanics aren’t paid, so that they might not think of themselves as better than others, then the machines are not fixed; the factories grind to a halt and the farms produce less and less food. When the professors are not paid, they have to moonlight on the black market to buy food, and the students don’t learn.
This is Venezuela today. The US press usually blames the current near-famine conditions of Venezuela only on low oil prices, but non-communist oil-producing countries remain socially ordered and relatively prosperous.
While remaining nominally or aspirationally a communist state, the People’s Republic of China has thrived only as it has allowed free market incentives to increase productivity, and has tolerated some of the resulting inequalities. Grotesque income inequalities produce misery, resentment, and waste. However, insisting that any economic inequality is intrinsically unjust and is therefore the problem to be solved, using police power to mandate its immediate eradication.
Well, this predictably and reliably creates situations in which almost everyone is equally impoverished. To their credit, and in spite of their other flaws, Chinese communists, whether they are still really communists or not, figured this out.
Evidently, what’s best is a healthy blend of idealism and pragmatism.
Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, but never suppose we can create a social system that will miraculously induce people to become bodhisattvas. Like Moses and Martin Luther King Jr., we have to point toward the Promised Land without demanding or expecting arrival in this lifetime, or even in the next. The material conditions of our genes and our brains are such that “share and share alike” cannot be sustainably enforced.
There is no single Buddhist perspective on these issues. My particular perspective is the nature of things, and therefore also of people, have no core, no basic nature.
Based on certain causes and conditions, in certain situations, this or that tends to happen, this or that behavior just feels right. Set up as we are, we are predisposed to experience ourselves unrealistically. We seem to be at the center of the world’s dramatic action; we seem separate from other people and the rest of the world; and, most absurdly, we seem to ourselves to be unchanging.
When we stop and reflect—when we ask what it really means to be this particular human, we see that in order to be who we are, we each depend entirely on all of the non-me things: carbon molecules and liver cells, air and the sun, other people, space and time. When we inquire into our basic nature, we should find at last, in the very final analysis, there is nothing at all that can be pinned down and, conversely, nothing at all that is left out.
“I am large, I contain multitudes.” ~ Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Helpful care is no longer a good deed when persistent, attentive inquiry opens this perspective. It is not compassion for someone else or basic goodness. It is just a reflex, a spontaneous gesture. The right hand never congratulates the left hand on having given to the poor. No one earns any extra credit points; no one has a core nature that is equal to their most commendable actions.
I doubt we can claim “essential goodness” without quickly becoming entangled in hypocrisy. At the same time, no one can be as bad as the worst things they have done; no one is fundamentally blameworthy and depraved.
It is wise to hold in mind both the practical actuality and the radical openness of the human situation. We should consider both our gene-driven, self-centered competitiveness and also the depth and genuineness of our social-mammalian caring. In this way, skillful political and religious visions take full account of both human selfishness and human love.
Without celebrating either as a metaphysical core or a basic nature, we can work to build, perhaps gradually, more and more inclusive and just communities.
Guy Newland is the author of A Buddhist Grief Observed (Wisdom Publications, 2016), Introduction to Emptiness (Snow Lion Publications, 2009) and other books, articles, Dharma talks and sermons. He has two adult children and has taught Buddhism at Central Michigan University since 1988.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak