Are We Good?

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I recently attended a talk given by a Buddhist teacher, Mipham Rinpoche, in which he asked this question: “Are we good?” He said this is the central question of our time and the most important global issue. “The notion of human goodness and dignity is doubted,” he said. And then he asked, “Have we given up on ourselves?”

baby laughingDoubts about our worthiness — individually and collectively — have a powerful influence on our actions. Beliefs such as “I am unworthy, I am less, my life is pointless,” or “humans are selfish, ignorant, and lost,” or "my group is good, but your group is less than human" have led to profound suffering over the course of human history.

Given the welter of violence, suffering, judgments and phobias streaming at us from media, it’s not surprising we doubt human goodness. And as for our own worth, many of us seem unable to resist doubting, comparing, and undermining ourselves.

Basic goodness, basic selfishness, basic nothing — which is it? Where can we look for an answer? This question of human goodness brings to mind Einstein’s observation that, in his view, the most important question we can ask is: Is the universe benign?

Einstein didn’t offer a direct answer to this question, but he did go on to describe three alternative scenarios:

If we decide the universe is an unfriendly place then we’ll use our technology and resources to wall out the unfriendliness, and we’ll create ever-more powerful weapons to destroy everything we think is unfriendly — which will certainly increase our sense of isolation, and may well result in our destroying ourselves.

If we decide the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly, then we’ll end up feeling we’re victims of random chance and that our lives have no purpose or meaning.

However, if we decide the universe is benign, then we’ll use our skills and resources to better understand and align ourselves with that universe.

Einstein’s three alternatives may give us a clue to answering Mipham Rinpoche’s question, Are we good? or at least how we might begin looking for an answer. Einstein doesn’t appeal to an ultimate source of truth where certainty can be found. Instead he points to the consequences of each alternative response, and we suddenly understand that how we answer is key.

Personally, if I were asked these questions I would answer without hesitation, Yes, we are good, and Yes, the universe is benign. But if I were to justify my answers with some kind of reasonable thoughts, they could easily be rebutted by equally reasonable thoughts. The literatures of religion and philosophy — and the evidence of history — are full of these contrary positions and arguments.

My sense is that answering the question of basic human goodness and dignity is not a matter of uncovering an ultimate truth written in the stars somewhere, or in our DNA. The “answer” is revealed instead in a more immanent way, through a responsiveness arising from the clear, open presence we are, prior to our thoughts and beliefs. The “immanence of response” I’m speaking of isn’t based on a reasonable argument or a religious conviction. It arises simply and spontaneously when we experience our interconnection with all being.

Of course, to access the “clear, open presence we are” is a subtle matter, though at the same time it couldn’t be more obvious. Accessing the clear, open presence we are is the work of continual awakening we dedicate ourselves to, no matter what spiritual path we follow. “Deconstructive inquiry,” “unlearning,” “purification,” “unknowing,” are some of the ways this work of releasing the hold of thoughts and beliefs is described, a work that ends up revealing what is already and always so.

I remember toward the end of his talk, Mipham Rinpoche paused — he had been speaking about the importance of community and taking action together to “uplift”  — and, placing his hand vertically in front of his heart, said, “If the basis is no mistake…”

That gesture and those few words touched the clear, open presence we are, the basic goodness that is no mistake. Then he added, “There is power here. We’re all sitting on a very powerful egg!”