"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Is It Good, or Bad?

"Nothing," Shakespeare observed, "is good or bad, but our thinking makes it so." This truism, from Act II, Scene II of "Hamlet" is one of Shakespeare's most famous lines. It is an original line, but the essence of its meaning is expressed over and over in stories that can be tracked back into the mists of time.

The ancient Ashtavakra Gita - "Gita" meaning "song" in Sanskrit - notes that, "If one thinks of oneself as free, one is free, and if one thinks of oneself as bound, one is bound. Here this saying is true, "Thinking makes it so."

In a very real way, it is our thinking and our perception (quantum scientists would say our conscious observation) that 'crystallizes' our world and our 'reality.' If we judge that reality to be "good," it is "good." If we judge it as "bad," it is "bad." This point is the essential teaching of a traditional Taoist parable:
An old farmer had worked his crops for many years with the help of his wife and his only son. His only possession of any worth was the horse he used to work the fields he rented. And then one day, One day his horse ran away.

The farmer's wife and son were distraught. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "This is terrible," they said. "Such bad luck," they murmured sympathetically.
"Is it good, or is it bad?" the farmer asked. 

Several days later the farmer's horse returned, leading a whole herd of wild horses into the farmer's corral. The farmer's wife and son were ecstatic.
"How wonderful," the farmer's neighbors exclaimed. "you are the richest man in the village!"
"Is this good, or is it bad?" the farmer mused. "We'll see."

The neighbors went away perplexed at the farmer's reaction to such good fortune.


The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The farmer's wife was unconsolable, sobbing and rubbing ashes over her head and face. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on the farmer's misfortune. "This is awful," they exclaimed. "Such a great misfortune."


"Is this good, or is this bad?" the farmer mused." "I just don't know," he said, resignedly. "We'll see."

The neighbors left the farmer, commenting amongst themselves at just how callous the farmer was regarding this grave injury to his only son.

The day after, military officials came to the village and drafted all the young men of the village to fight in a battle few would return from. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out after all

"We'll see" said the farmer.
The farmer was, indeed, dispassionate in the truest sense of the word. He neither suffered from seeming bad news, nor rejoiced for the seeming good. He accepted without judgment life as it presented itself, free of attachment to the course of events.

In a similar story from the Zen Buddhist tradition, the same unattached dispassion is exemplified.
A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life.

When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter's accusation, he simply replied "Is that so?"

When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility.

"Is that so?" Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.


For many months he took very good care of the child, until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect.

The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened.

"Is that so?" Hakuin said as he handed them the child.

The point is nothing is 'good' or 'bad,' per se. It is our self-centered judgment that imbues everything with its seeming 'goodness' or 'badness.' In doing so, we create our own suffering. "Judge not, lest ye be judged," Jesus cautioned us. He did not mention that we are, the judge, jury and executioner, when we do so.

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