Doing the Right ThingSome students at the Providence Zen Center went to their teacher with a pressing moral dilemma: “Should we kill the roaches in the meditation hall?” If the students didn’t eliminate the roaches, the building might get infested, but killing living beings is a violation of a fundamental Buddhist ethical principle.

Ethical behavior—what I think of as integrity-in-action and moral accountability to other people and ourselves—is the glue that holds together relationships and families, communities and societies.

From CEOs who increase their already-bloated salaries while laying off thousands to widespread cheating among high school and college students, we live in an increasingly immoral world. The current mindset of I-must-get-mine-no-matter-what-the-cost-to-you is an emotionally impoverished way of living that misrecognizes what helps us flourish—harmonious relationships, a sense of purpose, and a meaningful existence. When our self-gratification is more important than the feelings and needs of other people, we not only remain alienated from the best within ourselves, but also erode safety and trust and generate resentment, demoralization, and fear in our relationships.

Secular culture contributes in various ways to undermining ethical behavior. It feeds the egocentric fantasy that each of us is the center of the universe. Let me give two brief examples. Cell phones have replaced phone booths and most people treat public spaces as if they were living rooms; we are oblivious to the existence and feelings of others and our disruptive impact on them. Children and adolescents used to say, “I want” (a toy or candy or pet). Now they say, “I need,” as if not getting it deprives them of something vital.

One of the curious things about ethics is the conspicuous disparity between our cherished ideals and our actual behavior. Buddhism, like other religions, offers exemplary ethical ideals, which are deeply inspiring and a counterpart to the secular moral vacuum. Unfortunately, intense feelings or desires—emotional deprivation or rage, envy or injured pride—may cause us to act against our cherished principles.

The postmodern notion that each ethical viewpoint is as partial and as valid as any other—that what you find morally deplorable, like shooting hooded women on their knees, is acceptable to someone else—pervades secular culture. All perspectives are seen as legitimate, which erodes the basis for any standards of right and wrong.

Let’s return to the conundrum confronting the students at the Zen center. In response to their moral dilemma about killing cockroaches, Zen Master Seung Sahn answered: “No such thing as right or wrong, but right is right and wrong is wrong.”

I love his response. There is “no such thing as right or wrong” because no ethical principles are applicable to every situation. Any moral concept that one makes into a universal principal—say, “be honest”—fails to do justice to the complexity of life and can be found wanting in a particular instance. For example, lying is a violation of Buddhist ethical guidelines, yet in Hitler’s Germany, deceiving the Nazis about the Jews hidden in the attic may have saved their lives.

But the second half of the Zen master’s response—“but right is right and wrong is wrong”—is also true, because most people know the difference between right and wrong and value human decency and justice.

Seung Sahn debunked the idea that ethical principles are true in every situation, but at the same time he avoided the postmodern evasion of ethical responsibility, which denies there are things it is wrong to do. At the same time, he left his students to be adults and figure out what to do on their own.

If the students had asked me what to do, I might have told them a story about a highly moral teenager who felt alone in a world in which he believed most adults were halfhearted, heedless, and hypocritical—not, in other words, what he called “all in.” After he returned a lost wallet, the appreciative owner offered him a reward. “Why should I get paid for doing the right thing?” the teen replied.

A steadfast commitment to do the right thing is a deceptively powerful principle to guide one’s moral decisions. Following it would help us keep in mind what is fair and just, as well as aid us in taking into account the feelings and needs of others.

But, of course, “the right thing” is often self-evident, but still difficult to do.

Pai Lu-Tien, a Chinese poet, author, and statesman, inquired of an eminent Buddhist monk about the fundamentals of Buddhism.

“Commit no wrong, but good deeds do, and let thy heart be pure,” the monk replied.

“Every child is familiar with this Buddhist injunction,” Pai Lu-Tien impatiently responded.

“Every child may know of this,” the monk replied, “but even a silvery-haired man fails to put it into practice.”

And so do most of us.

There are also times when “the right thing” is maddeningly unclear.

In the face of such pervasive moral confusion and free-for-all, Buddhism, like all religions, offers ethical ideals and guidelines called the Precepts. They ask that we abstain from: taking what is not given, false or harmful speech, sexual misconduct, killing, and mind-harming intoxicants. Following these guidelines can teach us to be less selfish and thoughtless. Buddhist ethics help us to loosen the stubborn and harmful grip of the fantasy that we are the center of the world and open us to the importance of other people. They refine our moral sensitivity and teach us how to treat others more honorably.

Yet Buddhism has fallen victim to moral scandals involving enlightened teachers—who presumably exemplify the highest moral behavior—sexually exploiting students and expropriating funds from the community, as I wrote about in my book Psychotherapy and Buddhism. Buddhism, in other words, fosters greater ethical sensitivity yet doesn’t prevent immoral behavior.

One of the curious things about ethics is the conspicuous disparity between our cherished ideals and our actual behavior. Buddhism, like other religions, offers exemplary ethical ideals, which are deeply inspiring and a counterpart to the secular moral vacuum. Unfortunately, intense feelings or desires—emotional deprivation or rage, envy or injured pride—may cause us to act against our cherished principles. The countless and ever-expanding numbers of politicians and religious leaders who have ruined their careers by sexual indiscretions suggest that reason and moral principles are often no match for desire and challenging emotions.

To paraphrase “The Godfather,” we need to keep our moral strengths close, and our ethical vulnerabilities closer. Studying gaps between our ideals—what we wish to do and be—and our actual behavior is a crucial aspect of self-awareness.

Easy formulas for moral living don’t, to my knowledge, exist. And yet, while determinations of wise action are made, as Aristotle suggested in his Ethics, on a case-by-case basis, there are ways to cultivate what he called “phronesis,” or practical wisdom and ethical know-how.

We increase our chances of behaving ethically, of “doing the right thing,” by sharpening our clear-sightedness and self-awareness, deepening our empathy and broadening our moral imagination, and refining our ethical wisdom-in-action. This helps us learn to work with our own ethical challenges more skillfully, and to take into account and sympathize with the perspectives and feelings of other people.

In Psychoanalysis and the History of the Individual, Hans Loewald aptly links morality with increased self-knowledge—especially understanding and integrating our personal history, which includes knowing what we value and our characteristic temptations—and handling our emotions wisely.

Each of us has moral vulnerabilities as well as strengths. Buddhism suggests that we examine four areas—speech, self-care, work, and relationships. Do we habitually lie to avoid conflict with our partner, or regularly treat ourselves meanly after someone betrays us? Do we steal supplies from work when we feel unappreciated, or discuss the faults of other people when we ourselves feel emotionally shaky?

To paraphrase The Godfather, we need to keep our moral strengths close, and our ethical vulnerabilities closer. Studying gaps between our ideals—what we wish to do and be—and our actual behavior is a crucial aspect of self-awareness. While it is more pleasurable to focus on and fortify what we do well, we learn more by working on our weaknesses. Our moral lapses provide a clue to recurrent patterns that get us in trouble.

We need to explore the source of our ethical lapses with compassion and patience. Let’s say we tend to discuss the faults of others—a violation of one of the Zen precepts. Was this a form of bonding as we were growing up—a favorite meal topic in our families? Or is it a way to win people to our side? Do we lapse into such negative speech when we are upset about something else or not feeling good about ourselves? Does gloating at someone else’s expense make us feel, at least initially, superior?

We need to study the impact of our potential actions and decisions on others. And we must be willing to adjust our subsequent behavior based on what we learn.

On the other hand, reflecting on successful moments when we did the right thing and were guided by a sense of fairness and justice can shed light on the ingredients of ethical discernment. And that can be an invaluable resource.

Left to our own devices we are often self-preoccupied, prideful, and avaricious. The chief enemy of morality is pathological selfishness—making our own desires and wishes paramount—which causes us not to see or care about the welfare of anyone but ourselves.

Keeping a check on our selfishness is necessary, but insufficient. We also must expand our moral imagination—deepen our capacity to empathize with, and be responsive to, the welfare of others. One of the best ways of doing this is through the mirror of relationships. Certain moral blind spots emerge there that may remain otherwise hidden. Our interactions at home, at work, and with friends and colleagues reveal where we are conditioned and reactive and highlight emotional wounds and vulnerabilities of which we are ordinarily unaware. And communities of moral accountability—family, friends, and colleagues who support the best within us—nurture our moral evolution.

We need to study the impact of our potential actions and decisions on others. And we must be willing to adjust our subsequent behavior based on what we learn.

Doing the right thing—and periodically failing to and learning from that—is not only crucial to a meditative life, it is essential in a world in which immorality reigns. It not only helps us flourish, it breeds safety and trust and strengthens the connections we have with each other.

Click here to find out about Rose’s thoughts on wellbeing and health

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