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Trying to be a Good Person

by Fleda BrownOctober 24, 2011

What a good talk we had yesterday evening about the second (of the traditional Buddhist 6) skillful actions: sila, or morality. We didn’t get far in Goldstein’s chapter, “Acting for the Good,” from One Dharma, but felt like an important issue—morality. How do we think about “rules” of behavior? We mentioned that some of us grew up thinking of them as “either you do this” or you’ll incur the wrath of God. I mentioned the Puritan preacher Johnathan Edwards’ fiery sermons that described his congregants as hanging by a thread over the pit of Hell, held up only by the whims of God! We talked about how in our country with that heritage, the tension of holding ourselves to “right behavior” is very strong. We never live up to our own expectations. Janet said that it’s hard for us to get rid of those deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.

Buddhist teaching looks at the issue differently. The practice doesn’t involve trying to rid ourselves of bad feelings, or punish ourselves for our bad actions, but to just look at them squarely on, see without turning away the harm we’ve done, see how we are when the feelings of unworthiness arise. That very piece of us that we want to discard is an important part of what’s real and true. When we really see what our behaviors have cost us and others, the change is effortless. Pema Chodron says, “Pointing ourselves toward what we would most like to avoid makes our barriers and shields permeable.”

Diane reminded us that the attitude we intend to bring toward others—generosity, kindness, forgiveness, comfort, etc.—are the very attitudes we must turn toward ourselves as well. It’s all circular, as Frank said. One action leads to another—the root idea of karma. When we behave in a way that makes us feel peaceful about ourselves and the world, we calm down and are more able to concentrate, so we begin to see into the truth more clearly. This is what Goldstein says, too.

I think of it this way—what we want is to see what is really the truth of our existence. Who am I? What is this life? Every time I behave in a way that agitates the water—for example, I hurt someone, I feel remorse, I punish myself in my mind, etc.—the water is all muddied and I can’t see the truth. I remain confused. When I behave with kindness, I become quieter in my mind and body, and I enable myself to see more deeply into the nature of things.

Next week we’ll look at the last two of the “wholesome” or “moral” behaviors: listening and hearing the dharma, and meditating.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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