Against The Stream ~ MANY FACES

I ONCE TOLD SOMEONE that there are four types of people in the world:

(1) Those who are beautiful or handsome externally, but who are not so internally— that is, in their hearts;

(2) Those who are not good-looking externally, but who are kind and ‘beautiful’ inside;

(3) Those who are not good-looking externally, and who are also not good on the inside;

(4) Those who look good outside, and who are correspondingly good on the inside.

The person who I explained this to then asked me how to distinguish good people from bad, when the outer appearance is not always indicative of their ‘inside’. I realized and admitted that what I had just told him wasn’t as clear-cut and simple as the way I had conveniently categorized people for him. We humans— unlike other animals, which live mainly by instinct— are extremely complex and unpredictable. While it is true that we often function by habit, we are more prone to change than the other animals; one day, we will do something in a particular way, and the next day, we might do the same thing quite differently, depending upon our mood or feeling at the time.

All religions tell of the eternal conflict between Good and Evil, a conflict that is going on inside and outside each of us. Most of us take sides in this conflict, or get drawn into it, but because our minds change so quickly and are not yet firmly decided, sometimes we find ourselves on this side, and sometimes on that side. No-one is either 100% good or 100% bad; we are a mixture, not really knowing where we stand from one day to the next.

If asked, "What color is the sky?", most people would say, "Blue". Well, certainly, it is blue, but not always, is it? Sometimes it is gray, or white, or black; sometimes it is orange, pink, or red. Likewise, it is incorrect to say about someone: "He’s a bad man", for although he might be bad at times, there would surely be times when he isn’t bad.

Here is a quotation from The Gulag Archipelago, by prominent Soviet dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good from evil runs through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

As a species, we are still evolving, though from what to what, we are not sure. Now, with improved communications and ease of travel, people of different religions and cultures intermingle, until the edges become blurred and not so distinct. It is an age of rapid change, and as a result, there is a lot of confusion and conflict; but if we are not too rash and can restrain ourselves from destroying everything in our impatience, much good will come of it. We will probably emerge from it— like a butterfly from a chrysalis— as more-balanced, tolerant and wiser human beings. Surely, we shall all need to make compromises in this transition period, and that is seldom easy, but the fact that we have survived this far is ample testimony of our ability to do so.

Now is a time for ‘traveling light’, a time to sort through the baggage we have collected over the ages, to discard the obsolete and unnecessary while retaining the essence of our experiences— things that are valuable and useful in any situation. It is like embarking on a refugee-boat, where space is very limited and few possessions can be taken along: before boarding, we must decide what we shall take with us: only the bare essentials. If necessary— as most refugees know— we can get by with very little.

Buddhists are fond of saying that all living beings have ‘Buddha-nature’— that is, the capacity to become enlightened, though this doesn’t mean that they will become enlightened as animals, fish, birds, etc. It means that, after many lives in many forms, they will finally wake up to Reality, as human beings; the human condition is therefore looked upon as very fortunate. It may be that we have ‘Buddha-nature’, but we should realize that, along with the capacity to become enlightened, we also have other propensities— darker aspects— that impel us to behave badly and cause suffering. And in most of us, the lower urges are stronger than the impetus for good— just as darkness is stronger than light. Some people might not agree with this, and say that darkness and light are equal, as in day following night, or that light is stronger than darkness. Well, we all know that day follows night and that night doesn’t last forever; but for the sake of my illustration of Man’s nature here, I still say that darkness is stronger than light, because, look: we don’t pay for darkness, do we? It’s free, whether we want it or not; but the electricity-bills we have to pay show that light is not!

Yes, maybe we do have ‘Buddha-nature’, but we have ‘animal-nature’, ‘demon-nature’, and ‘hungry-ghost-nature’, too. What is ‘Hungry-Ghost-nature’, you ask? Well, the Buddhist scriptures say that, as a result of karma done in previous existences, ‘hungry ghosts’ are miserable beings who can never satisfy their constant hunger because of their immense stomachs, mouths the size of a needle’s eye, and necks, arms and legs so thin that they look like twigs. Well, I don’t know if there really are such beings— I’ve never seen any— but there are many people who, though well-dressed and good-looking, behave like Hungry Ghosts; their greed to acquire and possess is unquenchable; this is what it means to be a Hungry Ghost!

Most people know the old fable of the Goose that laid Eggs of Gold, but it illustrates very well what I am talking about here, so it will do no harm to repeat it:

There was once a couple who had a remarkable Goose that laid an egg of solid gold every day. For some time they were happy and content with this; who wouldn’t be? But, as the Goose continued to lay the daily egg of gold, the woman and her husband came to expect it as their right, and took it for granted that there would be an egg of gold every day. No longer did the man ask his wife: "Did the Goose lay today?" when he came home from work. Thus, they came to look upon this wonder as commonplace.

Of course, it wasn’t long before their expectation turned to greed, which grew and grew, like a cancer— as greed does— until the man said to his wife: "Look here, this goose lays one egg a day, no more and no less. It must have a great store of gold inside it, from which it produces the eggs. If we kill it and cut it open, we’ll be able to get all the gold in one lump, rather than waiting for it in pieces, day-by-day". Seeing the logic of this, the wife reached for the knife. But alas! After the goose had been killed and disemboweled, there was no gold to be found! Their grief and remorse knew no limits, but too late. Overcome by greed, they had destroyed their good fortune!

Each of us has his own life to live. Should we not think for ourselves and decide what we want to do with our lives, and which way we want to go? Sometimes, it may mean swimming against the stream, as many people seem to have no minds of their own and act like sleepwalkers or zombies. If others want to follow the way of Hungry Ghosts, that is up to them, of course, but does it mean that we have to do so, too?

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