Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!
This is the old, strange, and troubling line from the great Shantideva that ran through my head deep in the night on a recent sleepless Tuesday, amid involuntary convulsions of body and mind, wracked by shock and fear for my children, my friends, and my planet.
The fuller line, in another translation:
The power of good is always weak, and the power of evil is vast and terrible.
This may seem despairing – Really?! Good will never prevail?! – but in fact I find in it an antidote to despair.
Evil, injustice, and inhumanity are not some exception, are not evidence of things having gone horribly wrong somewhere. They are just the basic state of things, not to mention the overwhelming historical truth of humanity.
The remarkable thing, the exceptional thing, the incredible, unprecendented, unimaginable thing in this world isn’t the collapse of reason and justice and humanity – it’s reason, and justice, and humanity!
Selfishness and hatred shouldn’t alarm us. Compassion should.
Norman Fischer in a post-election comment reminds us of the Dalai Lama, all that he has lived through without losing his compassionate attitude. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that, but I think this is one of them: His Holiness isn’t coming from the assumption that things are “supposed to be” good. He is coming from the assumption that the tremendous thing, the tremendous opportunity of this world, is goodness. And it’s a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous project, just exactly because it’s not the basic state of things. We practice wisdom and compassion, and we practice it relentlessly, precisely because it’s so fleeting, so frail.
Undertanding that things are not “supposed to be” good now also points to some equanimity with respect to whether they’re “going to be good” later.
Later isn’t the issue.
Buddhism is not an optimistic religion (notwithstanding the guarantee of universal Buddhahood a zillion kalpas out). And Buddhism is not a pessimistic religion (notwithstanding abundant teachings on the irredeemable and endless vileness of samsara).
In Buddhism, optimism and pessimism both are entirely beside the point. “It will get better” and “it will get worse” are just thoughts, mental formations. Neither thought touches reality, and neither is at all necessary for the full expression of the Bodhisattva’s Vow.
If it seems to you that one of those thoughts is helpful – in the same way the thoughts “my breath” or “friend” might sometimes be helpful – then by all means think it! But as Bodhisattvas let’s not stick to any of these thoughts, or believe them too deeply, or put any kind of lasting faith in any one of them. The ground of our life, and of our action, lies elsewhere.
So what does Shantideva say, what is his point? How do we live and act in such a world of vast and terrible evil, atop such a frail goodness?
By vow, that’s all. We abide in a vow to live for the sake of the awakening and well-being of all sentient beings. No conditions at all make it easier or harder to live by that vow. It is not easier to be a Bodhisattva under Obama, nor is it harder under Trump. It is not easier when well nor harder when ill. It is not easier in abundance nor harder in loss.
We have no problem and no excuse, only opportunity. And there is never, ever, cause for despair.
Here’s Shantideva, in the Padmakara Group translation:
Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!
Except for perfect Bodhicitta,
There is nothing able to withstand
The great and overwhelming strength of evil.
Or with its preceeding verse, in Crosby and Skilton’s translation:
At night in darkness thick with clouds a lightning flash gives a moment’s brightness. So, sometime, by the power of the Buddha, the mind of the world might for a moment turn to acts of merit.
This being so, the power of good is always weak, and the power of evil is vast and terrible. What other good could conquer that, were there not the perfect Awakening Mind?
7 thoughts on “Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!”
Wonderful, Mark, thank you.
Thank you, Jiryu. I was just thinking (and writing) about the American sense of entitlement, born of an extraordinary period of relative peace and rationality in this one part of the world. I am not ignoring the tremendous suffering and injustice that is and has always been here as well (slavery, and ongoing deliberate destruction of the African-American people, genocide and ongoing genocide of the native peoples to cite two). But studying the history of humans, this is quite a special time, post-WW2. And now it may be over, which is shocking, frightening, disorienting. We children of this time will need to learn some new skills and expand our views which have up to now separated us from most of history and our fellow human beings. For me, that we found a way to live in some relative peace and accord for a while brings determination to keep on trying. And hearing the words of Shantideva that evil has overwhelming strength does not discourage me; these words are bracing.. They seem more true than the false comfort I have been reading the last few days on social media about everything will turn out fine. It may; it may not. But vow is what I will cling to, I hope and pray. I read somewhere once that the much discussed term “bodhisattva” could be translated wisdom warrior (sattva being a term for warrior in some archaic sanskrit translations). I don’t know how much foundation there is for that , but I nevertheless like it. Seems in line with Shantideva. Thanks again, Bows, Shokuchi
Thank you, Jiryu!
It’s always a pleasure to hear from someone with expsetier.
Strong medicine. And just what I need to hear. Thank you!
Beautiful. Thank you, Jiryu. Strong medicine, as Karen says. It clears the head.
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