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Barbara O'Brien

Bodhisattvas from Birth?

By November 6, 2013

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Recently I read a magazine article that said human babies are born to be sociable and helpful. Babies as young as 18 months will try to help adults pick up dropped items, for example. From the age of 12 months they will point to objects a researcher has pretended to have lost. Because this behavior is consistent across cultures, some scientists propose that humans are born with a cooperative nature.

By the time most children are 3 years old, however, they may want to be helpful to some people but not others. They're also catching on to social "norms" and may be a bit bossy about everybody following rules.

There's a long-standing debate about whether humans are intrinsically violent. I've heard it said that some of the recent violence within Buddhism, such as Buddhists attacking Muslims in Burma, just shows us that people are inherently violent and there's not much you can do about it. But babies show us that, maybe, that's not true.

It makes sense that, as a species, we'd be wired to be helpful to others. We are social creatures and need each other to survive. But evolution might also have left us with a tendency to form tribal loyalties and to conform to group norms, whatever those are. That can get us into trouble if we aren't careful.

On the other hand, I don't see how being greedy, bigoted or violent might have given earlier hominids an evolutionary advantage over other species. If our ancestors had all been murderous thugs, I don't think any of us would be here now.

The Buddha taught that our capacity to harm ourselves and others ultimately comes from our false belief in a permanent self that must be protected and provided for at all costs. This is the ignorance of the Three Poisons.  To me, this makes much more sense than just believing we're just bad because we're made that way.

Comments
November 7, 2013 at 6:54 am
(1) Hein says:

“some scientists propose that humans are born with a cooperative nature.”
It appears that scientist are catching up with what the Buddha said :)
On a more serious note; I have never thought about it this way around. I have noticed my grandson as he grows older how he is falling in the trap we are caught in; “the conditioned self”. The sense of self is growing and i can merely observe it realising that i have also created one.
“If our ancestors had all been murderous thugs, I don’t think any of us would be here now.” Aye, an eye-for-an-eye” leaves a lot of people blind.
To be “bad” is a lot less effort (although it consumes a lot of energy) than being “good”. It takes effort to conquer/get over the self.

November 7, 2013 at 2:53 pm
(2) lee says:

My experience shows me that I am both cooperative and helpful and full of compassion and also I can be violent. I eat to live … that means I consume living things. Most living things that are going to be consumed undergo some violence. I worked in a slaughter house … I killed … It is violent, intense and …. I bowed to each one I killed … I doubt human being are either naturally violent nor naturally loving and nice; at least I’ve not found this so within what I know as ‘me’.

November 7, 2013 at 5:43 pm
(3) Mila says:

re: “To be “bad” is a lot less effort (although it consumes a lot of energy) than being “good”. It takes effort to conquer/get over the self.”

what is “effort” if not an expenditure of energy?

seems to me that what requires the greatest amount of effort is continuously needing to prop up — in various ways attempting to convince ourselves of the validity of — what turns out to be a completely fictitious, non-existent entity, namely the separate self. Given that there’s no actual evidence of its existence, to create the illusion that it actually does requires huge amounts of mental and emotional energy — it’s pretty much a full-time job!

which is why letting go of this delusional belief so often precipitates a huge release of tension, and liberation of energy/intelligence that previously had been bound up in this ultimately futile endeavor

November 7, 2013 at 9:48 pm
(4) donald cook says:

in therapy, i tell my clients this is all a process to get back to Our born-good nature; to Ourselves as we were when We were born — fully worthy of love, and reaching for love. It’s when a client can accept–as naturally as breathing– that they are good, that healing can begin. This is where Our true nature lies, before all the webs of deceit and self begin. May We all Have Happiness!

November 8, 2013 at 6:54 am
(5) Hein says:

“letting go of this delusional belief so often precipitates a huge release of tension, and liberation of energy/intelligence that previously had been bound up in this ultimately futile endeavor”

Fair point Mila and a very accurate way to look at it.

Last night I read a part of Master Yin Shun’s “The Way to Buddhahood” where he talsk about right effort (as part of the Eightfold Path). Now would letting go also not require effort and should one then also apply “right effort” to do so? I am really struggling to bring these things together i.e. right effort, letting go, no-self and our inherent nature. :(

November 8, 2013 at 6:57 am
(6) Hein says:
November 8, 2013 at 8:54 am
(7) Mila says:

re: “Now would letting go also not require effort and should one then also apply “right effort” to do so? “

Yes, this also is a very fair point — which points to what is perhaps the central dynamic of the entire path: effort & surrender, intention & release. It’s a dance ….

In relation to our attitude toward the process as a whole, what I have found useful is to notice the difference — in “flavor” if you will — between, on the one hand, a heavy kind effort as struggle, duty, obligation, burden — and, on the other hand, a joyful-light sort of effort which perhaps is best described as enthusiasm, interest, openness, alignment, resonance, or (skillful) desire. It’s the latter that I take to be “right effort” — letting the whole thing be a “labor of love.”

And, within this, as often as possible, entertaining the question: WHO or WHAT is it that is making this effort, WHO or WHAT is it that is acting, WHO or WHAT is it that is feeling enthusiastic etc.?

November 8, 2013 at 8:59 am
(8) Mila says:

Now, on a more “micro” level, there are perhaps constricted egoic patterns — habits or addictions — whose momentum includes a superficial feeling of their being “easy” to continue doing. To begin to unwind these may require strong resolve — which is best garnished via *seeing clearly* that the habitual/addictive behavior is not, in fact, “delivering the goods” — i.e. not producing the happiness the we truly desire — but rather, in only a momentary way, giving us a taste of the desire-less state. In other words, in the moment that I fulfill my desire, I am without desire. It’s the desire-less state — not the object or substance per se — which is the source of happiness. (The mistake that we frequently make is to attribute the happiness we feel to the object/substance itself.)

So these kinds of circumstances may initially require action which feels “effortful” in the sense of doing something that is non-habitual. Eventually, this more useful or aligned action will acquire a familiarity which will become a positive habit …. which will allow us to more closely resonate with the “space” of our True Self (or no-self) — from which such “positive habits” aka “right action” will emerge spontaneously.

November 8, 2013 at 10:26 am
(9) Hein says:

What you are saying Mila seems similar to what Master Yin Shun said. The effort “saturates” all action, thought, speech and livelihood. But this effort – if i understand it correctly – is like an effortless effort…”doing without doing”?
Thanks for your effort – no pun intended – in explaining these matters…will gnaw on it and apply it. I find it amazing how everything in Buddism comes back to the Four Noble Truths?

November 8, 2013 at 12:39 pm
(10) Mila says:

“I find it amazing how everything in Buddhism comes back to the Four Noble Truths?”

Indeed …. & I find it equally amazing that the Four Noble Truths come back to the One Truth of freedom, liberation, already here as the core of our being.

i.e. “the truth of the cessation of dukkha” is the ultimate teaching; the other three, relative/provisional ….. just my take on it :)

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