Updated: Aug 4
The Buddhist tradition is over 2,500 years old. It's rooted in the ancient yogic traditions of India that stretch back another 3000 - 5000 years. With such a vast continuous history of deep contemplative practice, it is no wonder that discoveries from these traditions continue to resonate and provide much solace in today's manic modern societies. One of the teachings that has stands out for me is on the innate nature of human beings - said to be pure goodness. On days when this feels hard to believe, I go back to an episode in my life where I got to see first-hand to be true.
First, some background
Buddhists and yogic traditions at their heart are a process of inquiry. Methodical, structured and logical process of inquiry into things that are are the core of our existence - our minds, consciousness and more broadly the true nature of our reality.
The foundational practice is sound ethical conduct and cultivation of 'immeasurable virtues' - loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. On this solid foundation rests the introverted practice of meditation.
The intent of meditation is to cultivate high states of focus or attention that can then be applied to inquire into the true nature of self and more broadly, reality. There are many variants of meditation, with the the method taught and practiced dependent on the scholars' / students' / aspirants' natural strengths and weaknesses, interests and abilities, and critically, skill level.
This is a long process often complemented with the scholarly practice of studying ancient texts that outline the various paths and insights of past 'great yogis' (highly accomplished meditators). These include teachings on various different types of meditation practices, signs of progress, potential difficulties, antidotes to obscurations and of course discoveries into mind and consciousness.
It's important to recognise that these traditions are not religions, being belief systems based on blind faith.
Whilst practitioners are encouraged to approach the teachings with faith and reverence, they are told not to accept anything that is not in their direct experience on blind faith alone.
Rather they are told to practice 'the path' that is taught with an open mind and see the results for themselves. When not engaging in the practice itself, there is a long tradition of engaging in vigorous debates (about the purported paths and insights of great yogis) so as to critically examine and work through the many conundrums these raise for those that have not fully realised the truth for themselves.
The teaching on our innate nature
One teaching that has stood out to me over the years is around the insight into the nature of all human beings.
According to Buddhism, our innate nature is pure goodness.
Like all other teachings you find in contemplative widom traditions such as Buddhism, this is no optimistic or idealist viewpoint. Rather it is based on the direct insights gleaned by many great yogis after many years of deep meditative practice.
Meditation is a solo pursuit so these insights were first discovered (or re-discovered) individually and corroborated over time as many others (across many contemplative wisdom traditions) had the same experience and insights - not dissimilar to any other empirical system of study, discovery and validation.
Even so, on some days, the notion that humans are innately good is hard to believe ...
Not when you have just been cut off by a reckless speeding driver, had to put up all night with your obnoxious noisy neighbour, had your best work trashed by workplace politics, see governments, corporations and civilians do nothing to change their behaviour to save our planet ...
Life comes to the rescue
Life does have a way though to give us the experiences that we need to grow, to learn and to discover the essential truths we need to live.
In my case, there are five distinct episodes I can point to that led me to see the inner light in humanity.
Each time, I found my self in a hopeless, desperate situation, where I had to overcome my pride and ask a random stranger for help. Each time, the very first person I asked, helped, without any question or even a moment's hesitation.
On days that I doubt the teaching, I go back to an episode in my life that serve to remind me that the innate nature of all human beings is indeed pure goodness.
The forgotten bus fair
I was born and raised in the Fiji Islands and am probably the last generation that went through school without the internet let alone a smart phone. This first episode tool place whilst I was twelve years old, which is schooling year seven. In Fiji this is still classified as primary school.
I grew up having lived a fairly sheltered life, knowing what I knew about life from what my parents told us and the very academically orientated colonial-era curriculum our teachers taught us. My family were religious, so I had some spiritual grounding in Hinduism where the source of all life is said to be a common divine consciousness, which resides within us all ...
Whilst this knowledge was within the memory bank, it wasn't something I was deeply pondering at eleven! My life revolved around family at home and friends and teachers at school.
The rest of humanity I did not engage with, even avoided, partly because of my shyness and partly a lack of trust that society ingrains within us towards strangers...
Every morning, Dad would drop me off at school and I would have to catch the school bus back home on my own. I would have a small allowance each week to pay for the bus fair and maybe have 20-50 cents spare for pocket money - this went quite far back in the day!
One day I forgot to take my coins with me to school. I must have been involved in some after school activity that day so missed my regular school bus home. I had to walk 30 minutes from my school, through the sprawling Suva town to the Central Bus Station to catch a direct bus to home. This happened to be one of the first time I had to do this on my own so the whole thing felt like quite the adventure already!
Central Bus Station in Suva, Fiji Islands (Photo credit: Dreamstime.com)
It wasn't until I reached the bus stand that I realised that I did not have any money on me! I looked around and sure enough there were no friends, family or even remotely familiar people nearby - and there was no way to reach them either...
Surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the central bus station, I felt alone, probably for the first time in my life.
A sense of dread descended on me as I thought desperately, 'how am I going to get home?!'
I was never really one for breaking rules so the thought of sneaking onto the bus without a fare didn't even cross my mind. I realised that I had no choice but to ask someone to lend me money for the bus fare. I realised that I would have to beg!
This was a big thing for me as I was a very proud kid ... it would take a lot for me to ask for help let alone a total stranger for money...
I looked around to see who I could ask and it was then that I saw him - a slightly built, straggly-looking man, probably middle-aged although he looked much older. I had seen him on the bus before and thought him strange with his worn clothes, daggy backpack and longish messy hair.
I don't know why but I made up my mind to ask him and walked up to him.
"Excuse me. I was wondering if you can help me. I forgot my bus fare at home today and don't have any money to pay for the bus ticket. Can you please lend me 50 cents. I promise I will return it tomorrow."
I blurted this out, too embarrassed to make eye contact.
Without hesitation, he took his wallet out and handed me a two dollar note!
This was 'big money' back then - two dollars was a full meal. People who did not have skilled jobs were not paid much at all and I could see that he was probably in this situation.
"I just need 50 cents," I said even more embarrassed.
"It's OK," he said. "You can keep it".
The bus pulled up just then and everyone rushed to get on to secure a window seat. He gave me the money and without another word or look, got onto the bus. I hesitated for a moment, but followed, determined that I would find him and return his money the very next day.
I remember feeling relieved and grateful on the way home - but wishing he had only given me fifty cents rather than two whole dollars!
I told my folks about the whole saga that evening and remembered to get two dollars off dad to return to the kind stranger the next day. I saw him by the bus that afternoon and walked up to return the money - but he refused! He said, "I didn't need to return it." I insisted but he refused to take it.
I thanked him once again for helping and walked away a little confused - "why wouldn't someone not want their hard earned money back? Especially if it's obvious that they can use it... "
Even today I feel indebted to that kind straggly stranger - not necessarily for the two dollars he lent me but for the kindness he showed to me through the gesture.
This is but one small story from a very early part of my life - that as I now look back on seems to have been set in another era...
With hindsight, I am glad that I experienced this sort of helplessness at such an early age. It taught me to overcome my pride and ask for help. It showed me that when we do reach out for help, we receive it - from the most unlikely of all places.
We, none of us, are ever truly alone.
We are surrounded by so many other beings who are just like us. We all seek meaning and connection and in the moment that we extend ourselves to help another out, we discover that which makes us human - our innate goodness.
Maybe that is why he refused to take the two dollar note back ...
Join me next month for the second of my five stories on innate goodness...