Huineng said, “Without thinking of good or evil, what is your Original Face?”
On the other hand, when asked what the essence of Buddhadharma was, Daolin replied, “To refrain from all evil and do all that is good.” How is it possible to reconcile these two correct teachings?
First things first, I’ve gotta realize that there’s no such thing as “a teaching,” not in any objective, tangible sense. If something’s “objective” that means it can exist as it is without us, the subjects. Without the student, there is no teaching. So when I look at how both of those statement can be true, I have to look at myself, the one reading them, because they don’t exist apart from me.
Now that I’ve wrestled the teaching away from objective reality, I can take Huineng’s advice and wrestle good and bad away from it as well.
Good and bad aren’t facts or truths because they’re not constant or universal. I think most Country music is bad, but someone else might think it’s good, and still another person has no view on it at all. That means Country music isn’t really good, bad, or neither. Its goodness or badness is a judgment, not a truth.
Now I just have to take that and apply it to everything, inside and out. That’s easy in some cases when there isn’t a lot of attachment bound up with my views. If someone said, “Licorice isn’t good or bad,” I could accept that easily. If they said, “Murder isn’t bad,” “Abortion isn’t bad,” “Depression isn’t bad,” “Happiness isn’t good,” “The right to choose isn’t good,” or, “Saving a life isn’t good,” well, that might be a little harder to swallow.
But, that’s exactly what Huineng is asking me to do, and it includes all Buddhist doctrines as well. “Ignorance isn’t bad, wisdom isn’t good; samsara isn’t bad, nirvana isn’t good; not meditating isn’t bad, meditating isn’t good,” and so on until there isn’t one personal judgment leftover that’s masquerading as an objective truth.
Then, once all that’s been dealt with, I can ask, “Who am I?” If I ask before then, while my mind is still full of judgments, then I’m not going to see myself clearly enough to experience the answer since none of my judgments are my Original Face, they’re all empty hand-me-downs given to me after I was born.
Who am I without them? What does this world look like without them? When I take judgments as facts, the world can be a pretty shitty place. I could look around and conclude, “Life is shitty, the world is terrible, and I’m a bad person.” But none of those are facts, they’re just judgments that arise from my personality, culture, genes, and experiences.
Life isn’t really shitty or amazing; the world isn’t terrible or awesome, and I’m not really a good or bad person because none of those views exist without me. They’re not objective.
“So, are we just supposed to live without views and judgments altogether?”
No, “supposed to,” is another judgment, not an objective value. We’re not supposed to do anything. The sun isn’t supposed to shine, the grass isn’t supposed to grow. Those are human perceptions, what we’re talking about includes that, but also goes beyond it.
The freedom of not seeing good and bad as absolute is that I can either not hold any judgments whatsoever, I can craft my own, or pick them up and set them down as needed. There aren’t any rules, and we don’t need to explain our views or values. Since they’re not objective, they don’t require objective justifications.
So, when I see through my judgments, I see through my reasons and justifications as well. “Because” is something extra, we don’t need a “because” to think, feel, or act a certain way. Most of the time, our reasons come after the fact anyway as an effort for us to understand ourselves, but we’ll never understand ourselves going that route. We just end up falling down a rabbit hole where each reason leads to another, and another, and another. All of it bullshit. Smoke and mirrors. Also, understanding ourselves isn’t objectively good.
One thing I will say, is that viewing good and bad as subjective judgments rather than objective truths, seems to be objectively good. That’s where Zen and nihilism part ways. Nihilism plunges us into silence. Zen does that too, but there’s also illumination in Zen. The absence of good and bad is truly good because anyone who groks it directly is helped by it. It seems universal and constant, and that’s our criteria for objective truth.
That brings me to Daolin’s advice. “Refrain from all evil, do all that is good.” No good and no evil is the foundation of all that’s good, and it’s what allows me to do all that’s good. On the flip-side, I could tentatively say that believing in objective good and evil is the foundation of all that’s evil.
When I believe in objective good and evil, then I’m going to be predisposed toward helping people who fit my prototype of a “good person” and either ignore or harm people who don’t. “Ah, they were awful, so they deserved what they got.”
That kind of judgment isn’t possible without objective good and evil. If I know that my view is just my view, not a truth, then there’s no means for me to hold someone else accountable to it. The only person on Earth who’s accountable to my views is me, and even that’s just because I decided to be accountable to myself.
Since I’m not holding anyone accountable to my views, then there’s no justification for me to harm or help anyone. Zen observes that, without that justification, we tend to naturally lean toward helping rather than harming, the same way that grass tends to grow better in neutral soil—not too acidic, not too alkaline.
So, basically, if I believe that good and bad are real, then that’s bad. If I realize that they’re mind-made, then that’s good.
“But since good and bad are never objective, the whole thing kind of falls in on itself.”
It would, yes, if there was really such a thing as “objective.” There’s only mind here. “There’s no such thing as objective truth,” is the objective truth. Like I said before, Zen and nihilism have a lot in common, but that’s where they part ways, mostly because Zen’s views are founded on an experiential meditative mindset, whereas nihilism is founded on thoughts and reasoning—the very things that nihilists point to as illusory.
Nihilism doesn’t say anything, Zen only says one thing: You’re Awake.