Our Fundamental Nature
Option/Position 1: We are basically Selfish and Greedy Beings
We Westerners, having been figuratively breast-fed on both the theory and the practice of the capitalist system, have all imbibed such beliefs as the right to private property, the right to amass ever and ever more wealth, along with the concomitant beliefs in outward success professionally and in the power to do things. We are brought up with a philosophy which places us at the centre of the universe (often one of our own making) and that we have a right literally to achieve anything we so wish. In short, we are egotistical or selfish – literally all out for ourselves. Now, the more sophisticated amongst us will add in certain ethical principles that curtail the more obscene nature of such arrogant capitalism. Books have been written and continue to be written about applying ethical standards to the capitalist outlook, books firmly convinced that one can do so in a highly ethical way.
Now, another thing we have learned, having been breast-fed on the above presuppositions, and indeed prejudices, which indeed they are, is that that nature of the human being is basically one of greed and selfishness. This is a belief which is also a presupposition and indeed a prejudice. Given, our circumstances here in the West, it’s hard to deny this very common belief.
Option/Position 2: We are basically Gentle and Compassionate Beings
Now this basic pre-supposition is certainly not a prejudice because it puts other people first. However, it is very hard for us Westerners to accept, as the capitalist system surrounds us with such mind-benumbing propaganda through both the media and all official and unofficial organs of society. However, if we are truly human, we must be trained to question our own presuppositions as prejudices. Let me here return to the profound words of the Dalai Lama on our basic nature:
Now, we are made to seek happiness. And it is clear that feelings of love, affection, closeness, and compassion bring happiness... In fact it is one of my fundamental beliefs that not only do we inherently possess the potential for compassion but I believe that the basic or underlying nature of human beings is gentleness. (The Art of Happiness, p. 37)
Now, the Buddhist axiom that he bases this belief on is the Doctrine of “Buddha Nature.” This doctrine states that at base we all are gentle and non-aggressive. Briefly, it is our duty to uncover or discover our basic Buddha nature through the various practices of meditation and living a good life.
However, the Dalai Lama points out that this is not the only ground on which he bases his belief in humankind’s gentle and compassionate nature. After all, human gentleness and compassion are indispensable factors for day-to-day living.
It’s hard to square all the suffering there has been historically over the lifetime of civilized humankind and the wilful suffering that still continues on a global scale today with this rather romantic belief of the Dalai Lama.
(I might add in a rather long parenthesis here, if the reader forgives my self-indulgence, that I am no way being cynical or sarcastic here in my use of the word “romantic” as I am a firm romantic in the classical sense of that word. I remember many years ago a priest-poet Fr Padraig Daly who at the time was my student master in religious life – where I spent 3 happy formative years – telling us that religious life, and certainly the monastic forms of it, were all based on a romantic impulse. People have always believed in romantic ideals like escaping the hostile world to live a life more in harmony with nature. Beliefs like the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind are also romantic in nature. The desire to set up communes, whether they are hippy ones or religious ones is also romantic in quality. However, I hasten to add that cults are never romantic in nature as they are based on the obsession with power by the cult leader who exercises such power over his followers even to the extent of raping and killing them, e.g., Jim Jones and David Koresh. Such beliefs like the perfectibility of humankind, continual linear progress, belief in a Heaven after this world, or in the possibility of a Utopia here on earth are all forms of the Romantic thrust in humankind. Indeed, we need such dreamers and dreams to encourage us on our onward path through life. Otherwise, we would succumb to severe depression or at least black pessimism which would take away all our zest for life.)
This is a very positive stance by the Dalai Lama and indeed in Buddhism. Christianity, or versions of it, has not always been as positive. Most mainline Christian churches have at one stage or another seen humankind as literally “a fallen people”, “a massa damnata” (a mass damned to hell as one ancient theologian put it once – perhaps St Augustine – I have forgotten) in need of being redeemed by a loving and forgiving God. Most mainline Christians, consequently, believed and still believe in original sin, namely that even new born children are stained with the sins of their forbears. And yet, St Augustine, a great philosopher and theologian could come up with a theodicy or theology of evil which stated that the good was always logically prior to evil. This theodicy had such lovely gems as “malum est privatio boni” which translates as “evil is the lack of the good” in something. The way this thought worked was interesting: Leave an apple on a table and it rots. Now, the rottenness or rot needs somewhere to inhere. In fact, it naturally inheres in the good fruit of the apple which it destroys.
However, no matter what version of Christianity you follow, Buddhism offers a far more positive take on the human condition. The Dali Lama, does, of course, allow for evil of all kinds – greed, hatred, jealousy – to be part also of the human condition, but his argument is that while it is there it is not the first basic unspoilt condition of our nature. Let’s little to the sage’s own words here:
Anger, violence, and aggression may certainly arise, but I think it is on a secondary or more superficial level; in a sense they arise when we are frustrated in our efforts to achieve love and affection. They are not part of our most basic, underlying nature. So I believe that our underlying or fundamental nature is gentleness, and intelligence is a later development. And I think that if that human ability, that human intelligence, develops in an unbalanced way, without being properly counterbalanced with compassion, that it can become destructive. It can lead to disaster. (Ibid., p. 39)
Training in Compassion
Hence, the Dalai Lama offers a programme in training the mind in compassion as one seriously important aim of education. It is hard to see Western capitalist systems owning this as a goal or aim in their educational policies. He argues cogently that when human intelligence and human goodness are used together that all human action becomes constructive. When we combine a warm heart with knowledge and education, we can learn to respect the views and rights of others.
More Negative Western Thinking
I have described much of our negative western ways in my opening paragraph. However, it is worth noting how many scholars over the centuries added to this negativity. It is hard to blame them as they were born into societies shot-through with such negativity. The seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes saw the human race as basically violent, competitive and concerned with self-interest. When caught giving alms to a beggar, he replied: “I’m not doing this to help him. I’m just doing this to relieve my own distress at seeing the man’s poverty.” (Quoted ibid., p. 41)
The Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, concurred with Hobbes and noted that while caring and loving impulses did exist they were far weaker than evil impulses of “profoundly selfish man.” (Quoted ibid., p. 41) Modern psychology caught hold of all these sentiments and imbibed them like a child at its mother’s breasts so that it saw all human motivation as ultimately egoistic, based purely on self-interest.
However, Dr Cutler adduces modern research which refutes not only the idea of humanity’s innate aggression, but the idea that humans are innately selfish and egotistic Indeed, much research has shown that reaching out to help others may be as fundamental to our nature as communication. All humans truly may be endowed with the seeds of compassion just as they are endowed with the seeds of language.
Conclusion: Positivity beats Negativity any day
|Family relax after a game of calcio on Sant'Andrea Beach|
Starting with the basic assumption – let’s call it an axiom – that human nature is essentially compassionate and gentle rather than aggressive and rough, our relationship with the whole world around us changes immediately. Seeing others as basically compassionate and gentle instead of hostile and selfish helps us relax and live with more trust, ease, hope and peace in our lives. In short, with such a basic axiom as our firm starting point we become so much happier