By David Jones
One of the biggest challenges in American Buddhism today is the need to be right.
And few things can feed the need as strongly as the Noble Eightfold Path, all thanks to the word “Right.” In the quest for Middle Way thinking, we’re encouraged to avoid thinking of everything in strictly binary terms of right and wrong, since those hinge on the individual’s definition of what makes something right or wrong. It’s all-or-nothing, black-and-white, zero-sum thinking.
This is a way of declaring the results or outcomes of a game. It declares only one individual or team can be the winner, which then means all other individuals or teams have to be the losers. There’s no room for different levels or shades of winning, as a win must be balanced completely by someone else’s loss.
In these terms, only one individual or tribe can be right, which then means all others must be wrong. This dualism caters to the ego, as it elevates the winners and minimizes or degrades the losers. This leads to feelings of superiority, arrogance, resentment, and an instinct to sing We Are The Champions with a different slant than Freddie Mercury probably intended.
Putting everything in black-and-white terms is exclusionary and not inclusive. It promotes tribalism, an us-versus-them attitude that encourages biases against others who don’t share our definitions of what is Right. It shows up in church doctrine constantly, but Buddhism is not immune to the same trap.
In mainstream Christianity the ideas of right and wrong are so foundational because orthodoxy needs to be protected and defended, and there are clearly delineated consequences for being wrong within their doctrinal structures. But if you’re within a system that tends to be more accommodating about views and understandings, why is polarized thinking still a thing?
The temptation of being right.
Particularly in a polarized tribalist society, picking one side against the other becomes ingrained in our thinking and behavior. Being right to the exclusion of other concerns leads to declining compassion for others. “Why waste compassion on them? They’re wrong!”
In dogma there can only be winners or losers, those who are right or wrong. It leads people to judge others which isn’t cool. It replaces debate with bickering over words and views. Ultimately it removes individual agency to consider and decide matters for ourselves, telling people instead what and how to think. So if the overriding need to be right isn’t helpful, why does the Noble Eightfold Path focus on it? As Inigo Montoya said in the Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
What is the Right behind Right Thinking, etc.?
“Right thinking” in English carries a connotation of having correct or acceptable thoughts. That isn’t incorrect, but it is limited. As with the Bible and other scriptures, the translation establishes the limited meaning of a word or term.
The word translated as Right in the Pali texts is “samma,” which carries the connotations of being “whole,” “complete,” “harmonious,” and “balanced.” The word translated as Right in the Sanskrit texts is “samyak” and carries similar connotations. The Importance and value of a teaching then isn’t based on wording but on the results of applying it.
In Buddhism, teachings aren’t good or bad by themselves, but are categorized by experiences with them, what their results are, and how they affect the individual and society. The Buddha’s guidance to the Kalamas in the Kalama Sutta makes that crucial distinction.
Teachings, like so much in Buddhist thought, are interdependent things. There’s a need for both an observer and something that is observed; as we observe the effects of teachings, we complete this formula. In fact, as we are affected by a teaching we become both the observer and the observed, evaluating teachings by what they move us to be – ethical and balanced, or improper and obstinate.
Rethinking the importance of being right.
Today when we hear how important it is to not be misled by wrong teachings, how vital it is to be on the right side, and how the teaching itself is the most important thing, we’d do well to embrace the Buddha’s perspective and concentrate on what a teaching results in.
Buddhism and other Wisdom Traditions agree that this is the necessary focus. The Bible teaches at Galatians 5:19-26 how the effects of a teaching can result in fruitage which is harmful or beneficial, desirable or undesirable. To determine whether a teaching is “good” or “bad,” 1 John 4:1 instructs us to put them to the test so we can evaluate their efficacy. Buddha taught this a bunch of centuries earlier.
To put a fine point on this, if a teaching moves us to treat others with respect, compassion, and love then it’s considered “good” or “preferred,” and any teaching that moves us the other way is considered “not good” and “not to be embraced.” This means the importance is not on the teaching itself but on the results it produces in any given person in any given circumstance.
Same seed, similar tree, different fruit.
The same teaching can produce compassion in one person and callousness in another. How can that happen if it’s the same teaching? Because the teaching is just a seed; what kind of heart or mind it’s planted in and what fertilizer is used matters too. For example, the teaching of No-Self can move one person to value others as equals while it can move someone else to dismiss others as inconsequential. As Jesus put it, you can tell a tree by the fruit it produces and not necessarily by the seed that was planted. That’s why it’s rather pointless to just argue over the teaching itself.
This is liberating because it frees us from trying to cram one peg into every hole whether or not it fits. It allows us to select our approach based on the result we want and not on whether the teaching is “right.” Religions often get this backwards and it results in rigid dogma.
We can practice skillful means, skillfully determining which guidance or approach to apply in a given situation in the moment rather than doggedly insisting on only one teaching in every instance. If one teaching doesn’t hit the mark, move on to another and see if that results in a desirable outcome. Religion says it’s wrong to do that, but Wisdom disagrees.
So it’s important to choose the understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration which results in peace, harmony, balance, compassion, and benefit for the self and everyone as much as possible. It’s literally the right thing to do.
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