ON GOOD AND BAD
-By Bhikku Abhinyana An English monk ordained in Thailand
In this article, we are going to look at these two terms 'good' and 'bad,' terms that are found in every language. Words, which make up languages, are symbols for things that we experience through our senses; we have no words for things beyond sensual experience, or, if we have, those words can never properly indicate the thing beyond that we attempt to catch with those words.
So, words are subjective attempts to describe things, and each and every one of us uses words in different ways to indicate what he or she feels or thinks about something; the difference may be very slight in some cases, but in others, the interpretation, which is always subjective differs very much and sometimes causes a lot of trouble. We all have our interpretations of words that are known to us and they tend to be symbols that conjure up mental images; the word 'chair,' for example, would mean different things to different people, and if asked to draw the Image that comes to mind upon hearing the word 'chair,' there is hardly a chance in a million that two people would draw a chair of exactly the same design. So, language is a subjective thing, not an objective one.
These two words, 'good' and 'bad' are used to describe subjective feelings and have no objective reality in themselves. Everyone knows the famous words of William Shakespeare:
There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Now, Buddhists, who are very interested in the mechanism of thought, would agree whole heartedly with this. Indeed, the opening verses of the Dharmapada state quite clearly that:
Mind is the forerunner of all (unwholesome) states.
Mind is their chief, and they are mind made.
If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows one, ever as the wheel follows the hoof of the ox (that draws the cart).
Mind is the forerunner of all (wholesome) states.
Mind is their chief, and they are mind made.
It one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows one, even as one's shadow that never leaves.
As far as my memory serves me, the Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth contain but one reference to the working of the mind, and this when he says:
You have heard it said:
'You shall not commit adultery'; but I say unto you: he that looks upon a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery.
Here, Jesus was referring to manokamma, "mental action." The Buddha's Teachings, on the other hand, are full of references to the way the mind works; they are a complete system of psychology.
We all use these words 'good' and 'bad;' and usually, as with the use of countless other words, we are not fully aware of their meanings or implications. Actually the study of etymology root meanings of words though intellectual, can certainly provide insight into one's own use of language and can broaden one's point of view considerably. To illustrate this, let us consider the word 'forgiveness;' What does it imply? Generally, as with the word 'tolerance,' it is regarded as a spiritual virtue; but is it really? Is it not just the opposite? For does it not meant that in order to forgive, one has first of all to hold a grudge, to hate? Hold no grudge, do not hate, and there is no need to forgive; so there's no need to speak of forgiveness as a virtue. It is the same with this word 'tolerance', we near so much about 'religious tolerance,' but it of ten seems to be begging the question. The reason most interreligious conferences fail to achieve much is because everyone is fearfully clinging to his own viewpoint, and thus is unable to see things clearly; nobody tries as the Sage Emperor Marcus Aurelius advised:
"Enter into each person's being, and let each person enter into thine."
So long as we see 'our own' religion apart from that of others, there will be no true harmony; so long as we insist on fragmenting and dividing life into such arbitrary and meaningless categories as Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, American, Russian, Chinese, English, French, German, etc. there will never be peace, no matter how many interreligious international conference halls we build.
So we should learn to be aware of the meaning of the words we use, for unconsciously and unintentionally, as well as consciously and intentionally, words can be very dangerous weapons.
return to our two chosen words 'good' and 'bad,' these are used to express
our preferences, our likes and dislikes. Something is good to us when we
like it, and when it suits our purposes; when we do not like something or
it does not suit our purposes, which in ordinary people are primarily
subjective and selfish, we say it is 'bad.' But just because we like or
dislike something, is it necessarily 'good' or 'bad'? Some people like
sweet food and other people like salty food. Is sweet or salty food good
or bad, both or neither, just because of personal preference? Surely,
sweet food is sweet food, and salty food is salty food, nothing else.
Again, a sudden thunderstorm after a long period of drought would be hailed by the farmer as 'good,' while the same shower would be regarded by people on a picnic in the country as 'bad.' But it is neither 'good' nor 'bad'; it is merely rain.
From these simple examples, we have attempted to show how we subjectively color our environment and our lives and the lives of others with our preferences, our likes and dislikes. It is to be hoped that if we examine things in this way, we can eliminate a lot of unnecessary suffering from our lives or, rather, that a lot o; unnecessary suffering would never came into being in the first place.
Actually, in Buddhism we learn to see how certain causes give rise to certain effects, and assign values of wholesome or unwholesome as the law of karma dictates, rather than by arbitrary personal opinion or preference.