When Righteousness Goes Wrong
- By Fa Dao, OHY
- Nov 11, 2004
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Chan Buddhists, just like followers of other religions, want to do what's right. We strive to be righteous and to avoid self-aggrandizing actions and activities. It's imperative that we consider what it means to "do right" since we often fall into the trap of "doing wrong." We must identify and distinguish self-righteousness from righteousness in order to avoid it. Luke 18:9-14 "And (Jesus) spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
'Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
"The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men [are], extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
"I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
"And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as [his] eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
"I tell you, this man went down to his house justified [rather] than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
Why does a Chan Dharma Article start with a citation from the Christian Bible? Wisdom reveals itself in all religions and as Buddhists we sometimes need to remind ourselves that Buddhism has no lock on the Right and the Righteous. Regardless of our religion, Righteousness will be a cornerstone of our faith, so it is important for all of us, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, alike, to be aware what happens when Righteousness goes wrong.
Chan Buddhists, just like followers of other religions, want to do what's right. We strive to be righteous and to avoid self-aggrandizing actions and activities. It's imperative that we consider what it means to "do right" since we often fall into the trap of "doing wrong." We must identify and distinguish self-righteousness from righteousness in order to avoid it.
Doing Right is the cornerstone of Buddhist practice, something we know about from the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path which defines righteous action as a means for liberation and salvation - overcoming the pain and suffering of samsara. It may not be as well known that, according to the Ariyapariyesana Sutra, the pitfall of self-righteousness was of such importance to the Buddha that it almost kept him from teaching his Truths. When the Buddha contemplated about whether to continue pursuing his own perfection or spread the Dharma, his thoughts, it is said, were: "Mankind is intent on its selfishness and takes delight and pleasure in it. It is hard for mankind to accept my doctrine of righteousness overriding selfishness." This very difficulty tempted Gotama Buddha to abstain from teaching because he feared the teachings could not be understood in light of people's overpowering egos.
To the great fortune of the world, he opted to teach. And as we all know, the basics of all his teachings are contained in his Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding, Right Thoughts, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
The Buddha emphasized that we "do right" not for self-centered reasons - gain of merit or fear of punishment - but because "doing right" leads to the cessation of suffering. When we apply ourselves to follow the Path, clearly, we must "do right" and it's also clear that in order to "do right" we must do these things without selfishness, i.e., without any personal desire for attaining anything. Our minds must be focused on the simple actions of "doing right," devoid of the shroud of egoism.
We "do right" onlybecause it is right and for no other reason. Righteousness is then reflected in a mode of behavior that transcends personal desires and attachments, beliefs and opinions. In Daoism it is called, simply, "The Way".
Unselfish righteousness itself is the foundation of Buddhism. It is a cause with happiness as the consequence. From verse 169 of the Dhammapada: "Pursue a righteous life. Do not observe unrighteousness. The righteous live happily both in this world and in the next."
From Paul Carus' 1894 translation of The Gospel of Buddha: "Righteousness is the place in which truth dwells, and here in the hearts of mankind aspiring after the realization of righteousness, there is ample space for a rich and ever richer revelation of the truth … Truth is the essence of life, for truth endureth beyond the death of the body. Truth is eternal and will still remain even though heaven and earth shall pass away. There are not different truths in the world, for truth is one and the same at all times and in every place. Truth teaches us the noble eightfold path of righteousness, and it is a straight path easily found by the truth-loving. Happy are those who walk in it."
So how can Righteousness go wrong? Righteousness is, by definition, Right.
When we insert our ego, our sense of a possessed, independent and autonomous identity, righteousness turns into self-righteousness. And that's when the problems begin.
In Buddhist terms, we fall victim to five of the ten First Temptations of Mara:Uddhacca, (self-righteousness, "restlessness," agitation of the heart, turmoil of mind); Sakkaya-ditthi (Conceit, arrogance, pride); Patigha (ill will, hatred, anger, resentment, revulsion, dissatisfaction, aversion, annoyance, disappointment);Mana (conceit, arrogance, self-assertion or pride, feeling oneself to be superior to others) and Avijja (ignorance and delusion, especially relating to the Four Noble Truths).
We enter a state of delusion which, by it's own nature, we are unaware of. We may consider ourselves the font of "rightness" and morality, a delusion that leads us to think that we can dictate to others what they should believe and how they should live their lives, based on our own ideas and opinions on those matters. We may tell people how to worship, what religion they should belong to, and may even lecture them on what side to take in political decisions. If we are clerics, we may do these things in the name of our religion. Or we may do them through a sense of self-importance and self-righteousness. But Righteousness is not to be found near or far when the ego is at the center of our cause. All we find is Samara's hell.
Self-righteousness poisons the well that is the source of happiness. We become pariahs to the world. We may find a following of people who like what we say, but we just as readily become disliked, or even hated, by others. We find ourselves walking a tightrope -- inventing elaborate stories to defend our position on a subject or an action we took that we knew was wrong but refuse to admit to ourselves or others.
We become the walking damned. Our life becomes hell.
And this so often happens to those people in positions of influence over others when their religious doctrine of righteousness is perverted to suit selfish ulterior motives. They may want to attain (or maintain) a position of power among their constituents: a sangha, a clergy, a cult, a corporation, a country, or a family.
Righteousness appeals to us because we all have an inner desire to do what is right, to make the right decisions and to act nobly and wisely. But when we get confused by life's circumstances we often look to others who seem to have the answers, and they are usually others who act Righteous, whether they are or not: a well-polished politician; a pastor, rabbi, or priest; a political commentator; a famous charismatic person like an actor or musician, etc. But the moment we put our trust in another person, we fall victim to the possibility that what we perceive as righteousness is disguised egoism. We may be led the wrong way and end up in very deep waters ourselves.
The solution, of course, is to avoid giving ourselves up to any person, regardless of the height of the pedestal on which we may want to hoist them. We must stand our own moral and spiritual ground regardless of the pressures from those around us who demand that we join in the hoisting. An egoistic impostor may lash out at us with venom, but our steadfast adherence to the Path renders them harmless to us.
The truly Righteous will celebrate as the Buddha did: "Let not a man abandon his own good for the sake of another's good, however great. Once a man has clearly apprehended his own good, let him pursue it with diligence." (Dhammapada, 166)
Each of us walks alone in this life. We are born alone and we die alone. We must be wary of encounters with the others claiming Righteousness as their personal domain, regardless of their religious affiliation - Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, etc.; and we must avoid, with diligence and unrelenting effort, becoming one of them, for it's a trap all too easy to fall into at any stage of our spiritual practice. Those who have taken this unfortunate detour can turn themselves around, but it must be through their own effort. We need to take heed to carefully avoid mingling our karma with theirs.
Blindness does not happen only because we have our eyes closed. We have a choice.
May the eye see the I, and may the wisdom of all faiths bring the Self out of the self-righteous.