The Moral Quality of Our Own Intentions Is What’s At Stake
Weekly Column By Sharon Salzberg for On Being
Originally Published May 31, 2015
The Buddha, 2600 years ago, challenged a commonly held view in India that sexual desire arising in a man’s mind was a woman’s fault, being the result of the female’s temptation of the male. Doesn’t this sound familiar, even today?
I’ve heard variations of this view expressed in Asia, in Europe, in Australia, in America. I haven’t been to each and every country in the world, so sometimes I wonder if it is simply everywhere to one degree or another. I don’t know how many news reports I’ve read this week about the Christian ministry followed by the Duggars of 19 Kids and Counting claiming “immodest dress” and “indecent exposure” as incitements to molestation.
Many completely secular institutions have also quite finely honed victim blaming. And of course the Buddha may have issued the challenge, but far from all Buddhists heed it.
The Buddha refuted the common view by saying that, whatever the object of one’s desire, the nature of desire arising in anyone’s mind is the same, and the choice of how to respond is the responsibility of the person in whose mind the desire arose. In the end, deflecting responsibility merely condemns us to being a disempowered agent in our own lives.
Freedom is a real potential, but it is up to us to experience it or not, depending on how we work with our own minds. He was also saying that ultimately we each have to take responsibility for our choices and actions.
At the time, the social structure in India was built on the rigidities of the caste system. It was the duty or destiny of certain classes or castes of people to rule, for Brahman males to mediate with divine forces, and for other people to be engaged in production of food and material goods. Within this worldview, actions seen as moral and appropriate for one caste or gender were considered completely immoral for another. It was proper and beneficial for the Brahman male to read and study the scriptures, while this was forbidden and considered unacceptable for someone who was an outcast.
Into this social context, the Buddha introduced his revolutionary teachings. What he taught in terms of ethics was radical then, and it is radical now.
He stated that what determines whether an action is moral or immoral is the volition of the person performing it. The moral quality of an action is held in the intention that gives rise to the action. “Not by birth is one a Brahman, or an outcast,” the Buddha said, “but by deeds.” This teaching, in effect, declared the entire social structure of India, considered sacrosanct by many, to be of no spiritual significance at all. By pointing out to us the crucial importance of our own intentions, the Buddha was making clear that each of us is responsible for our own minds, and therefore for our own freedom.
The Buddha was declaring that the only status that truly matters is the status of personal goodness — and personal goodness is attained through personal effort, not by birth. It did not matter if you were a man or a woman, wealthy or poor, a Brahman or an outcast. An action based on greed would have a certain kind of result, and an action based on love would have a certain kind of result.
“A true Brahman is one who is gentle, who is wise and caring,” he said, thus completely negating the importance of caste, skin color, class, and gender in any consideration of morality. The Buddha was clearly stating that we are not held to different standards, nor are we free to hurt others, because of any circumstance of birth or social status.
In this one teaching on volition, the Buddha burst the bubble of social class, of deflecting accountability, of mindless deference to religious authority, and of defining potential according to external criteria. In this one teaching he returned the potential, and the complete responsibility, for freedom and morality back to each one of us.
About On Being with Krista Tippett
On Being is a Peabody Award-winning public radio conversation and podcast, a Webby Award-winning website and online exploration, a publisher and public event convener. On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? On Being airs on more than 330 public radio stations across the U.S., distributed by American Public Media. The podcast reaches a global audience via SoundCloud. Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join the conversation.”
Photo by Paul McGeiver