The Question of Essential Human Goodness > IMCW

The Question of Essential Human Goodness

The Question of Essential Human Goodness

By Editor | Apr 1 2012

... And Its Effect on Intention and Effort

by Carl Skooglund, IMCW teacher

Like other spiritual traditions Buddhism has debated over the course of its history whether human nature is basically good or basically flawed.  Buddhism today, through its myriad forms, presents to us two very different models of human nature: one of inherent goodness and purity, and one of plasticity, of malleability, of no-essence.  Where we come down in this issue – consciously or unconsciously – determines what we see as our existential starting point and necessarily leads to two very different frameworks of intention and effort.  It has a profound effect on what we think our Dharma practice should be about.

In metta practice, we are not just watching and allowing, we are evoking and cultivating a positive state and making it strong where it might not otherwise be.

It has been said, “The mind is luminous by nature and inherently pure…aggression, hatred and greed are based in delusion and [cover] over our innate goodness…When you reawaken to your original nature [aggression, hatred and greed] fall away.”  [1] 

To me, the words “inherent,” “innate” and “original” are significant.  I believe this view, which is not uncommon, contributes to the ambivalence we in the West feel about the role of effort in our practice.  When I read Dharma publications and listen to other practitioners speak I sense many are conflicted about effort and others downright opposed to what is pejoratively termed “efforting.”  What typically follows these views is the notion of getting out of our own way and letting our innate purity blossom forth.  The emphasis is on relaxing, watching and opening to the inherent goodness in our nature.

Personally, when I am just relaxing, watching and opening, in a highly charged interpersonal interaction, for example, what I often see are reruns of the same old movie with the same tragic end.  The first impulses I experience are like flood waters rushing down an ancient ravine of habit and pattern, and it takes no effort for me to become aggressive or defensive.  On the other hand, I have to use great effort to reset my intention, restrain my speech and action, redirect my attention away from painful external circumstances and towards my internal reactions to those circumstances, and thereby cut a new channel so that thoughts, words and actions go in a new, helpful direction.  And as my partner once said about her own tendencies to create suffering for herself: “It’s one thing to see something and another thing to change it.”>

>As you may know, many recent discoveries in neuroscience complement Dharma teachings.  For example, mirror neurons make us “naturally” caring and compassionate – we are hard-wired for empathy.  At the same time, there are parts of our neural makeup – again, wholly natural – that only incline towards sense pleasure, reproduction and survival, making us hard-wired for aggression, fear, blindness and cruelty.  My concern is that if we emphasize or call “true” only the positive aspects of human nature, then we inappropriately search for or try to rely on some “golden” essence we believe rests at our core underneath a false veneer of defilement.

Scientists have found that “the evolutionary primacy of the brain’s fear circuitry makes it more powerful than the brain’s reasoning faculties.  The amygdala…sprouts a profusion of connections to the higher brain regions – neurons that carry one-way traffic from amygdala to neocortex.  Few connections run from the cortex to the amygdala, however.  That allows the amygdala to override the products of the logical, thoughtful cortex, but not vise versa.  So although it is sometimes possible to think yourself out of fear…it takes great effort and persistence.  Instead, fear tends to overrule reason, as the amygdala hobbles our logic and reasoning circuits.  That makes fear far, far more powerful than reason.”  [2]

Science is telling us two things: first, the dukkha (suffering)-producing aspects of our nature are every bit as “original” as the positive aspects – more so, in fact – and, second, survival mode tends to override “freedom mode.”

More broadly, science tells us that this mind is the product of three billion years of random mutation, and natural selection.  Species, and the aspects of species, are not fixed.  At no point in our evolution could we have taken on any innate, inherent or immutable characteristics, an essence of any sort – luminous and loving or deluded and fearful.

Other Dharma sources note, “…the crux of the Buddha’s insight was that there are no essences…The middle path between intrinsic goodness and intrinsic evil is the insight that human nature is a product of interdependently arising factors…”  [3]

These insights point away from the idea that the mind is a Garden of Eden that somehow became tainted along the way.  If anything, the mind evolved as an untamed wilderness, or, put into Buddhist parlance, a vast field of dependent co-arising.  Within this field there are capacities, potentialities and tendencies that lead to harm or benefit rather than core attributes of good and bad.  Our minds are more like clay – with nothing inherent.  If the clay has any “suchness” about it, any characteristic, it is that of plasticity, malleability.  Thus, the mind can be molded and shaped into whatever you want to make of it, whatever intention and effort repeatedly incline it towards.

This “clay” model points us back to the balanced and comprehensive approach to Right Effort classically described in the Eightfold Path: guard against unarisen, harmful states; abandon arisen, harmful states; develop unarisen, skillful states; and maintain arisen, skillful states.

In addition to redirecting ourselves out of the ancient patterns of fear and aggression, Right Effort takes the form of positive practices like metta, in which we incline the mind toward something beneficial and keep it in that beneficial state, make it strong and reliable, make it a habit, an inclination.  In metta practice, we are not just watching and allowing, we are evoking and cultivating a positive state and making it strong where it might not otherwise be

The good news of the Buddha, and what the neurological sciences are now confirming, does not stem from humanity being innately good.  Instead, it is based on our capacity to become aware of and intervene in our own evolution.  It is based on there being the potential for freedom alongside the imperative for survival.  This is from an article on empathy in the Health section of the Washington Post: “…research shows that as you refocus your thoughts, feelings and behaviors in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced.  What’s more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you are making in your thinking.  The result is a self-reinforcing loop….” [4]  The Buddha pointed to this fact 2,500 years ago when he elegantly stated, “Whatever you reflect and dwell upon, that will be the inclination of the mind.”>

Science points to the naturalness of both our baser and higher tendencies.  History provides ample evidence of the human capacity to act on both extremes.  To me, the question is not how to rid our practice of “efforting,” or uncover an original, innate purity.  It is whether the intentions underlying our efforts are based on craving and delusion, or wisdom and compassion and the corresponding sensitivity to what is beneficial and appropriate.  The question is which tendencies we let become our habits and inclinations.  Or as it is said in the often-told story of the Cherokee grandfather speaking to his grandson about the good and evil “wolves” he senses inside him: the wolf that wins is the one you feed.

Here is how I think of it: Whenever we do, think or say something, we are giving ourselves practice at doing that thing.  If we do, think or say something a lot, it becomes a habit, an inclination.  One way to practice is, in any given moment, to reflect: “What am I giving myself practice at doing right now?  Which capacity am I making strong right now?”


To further explore this topic, please see "The Alchemy of Wise Effort in Spiritual Life," by Tara Brach (21 March 2012).


[1] Jack Kornfield. “Beyond Mental Health,” Inquiring Mind(Fall 2007).

[2] Sharon Begley. “The Roots of Fear,” Newsweek (24 December 2007).

[3] Andrew Olendzki, “No Essence,” Tricycle Magazine (Winter 2005).

[4] Douglas LaBier, Washington Post, Health section, (25 December 2007).




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