Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Although the world gives us plenty of evidence to the contrary, human nature is basically good, says Sakyong Mipham. Believing in humanity’s basic goodness is our hope for the future.
Throughout history, the deepest minds have come to the conclusion that there is something profoundly worthy about being human. In the Shambhala tradition, we call this the sun of basic goodness. The sun is a symbol of life, warmth, and wholeness, like the wisdom that is naturally within the mind. When we practice the view of basic goodness, we enter the heart of being human by connecting to our inherent dignity.
Right now there seems to be a not-so-subtle feeling that humanity is bad. The tragic stories we read in the news are often a sign that people are not connecting with their own and other people’s goodness. The moment we do not respect ourselves or others, we have bought into a system that destabilizes our dignity as individuals and as a society. For what is society but a network of relationships among people?
How we conduct our lives is based on our values and understanding of ourselves. Through the ceremony of daily life humans collectively perform, we contextualize our existence and come up with a sense of self-identity. At the same time, our environment has a tremendous influence on our sense of who we are. Based on this feeling of self-identity, we determine how life will proceed. This is what the Buddha called interdependence.
When we consider the basic goodness of ourselves and others, we are exploring a very big question—emotionally, ethically, and philosophically. Could it really be that humanity is basically good, kind, wise, and strong? In a materialistic society, we know the outer elements of what it means to be successful, but we are becoming less familiar with the inner elements that lead to deep happiness and positive social connectivity. Through meditation, we practice reawakening those qualities by feeling our own worthiness. Yet when we sit down to meditate, we might not even understand what we are trying to awaken. We need to go on a journey to figure out what’s real.
Basic goodness is intangible. On one hand, you could say it is the highest transmission in Buddhist tantra, which would be not untrue. On the other hand, you can see it in a baby. Basic goodness is the unconditional foundation of every experience. It is always available in the present moment, healthy, whole, and without fault.
When we practice meditation, we strip away the words and discover how it feels to be human. We come to an inexpressible experience of our own being that can happen only when we let ourselves relax—when we are not afraid of ourselves, others, or the environment. Especially in a time when there is so much self-loathing, aggression, and mistrust—not just of the world but of our own inherent strength and sanity—there has to be a point where we allow ourselves to rest and feel who we are. That’s a very important moment, because when we feel who we are, we have the confidence of goodness no matter what experiences we are having. This is connected to nonattachment. Relatively we are having a lot of experiences, but ultimately we see that there really is no good day or bad day if you are thoroughly there to experience it. There is just basic goodness, beyond relative good and bad.
Meditation begins with taking your posture: open in the front, straight and upright in the back, legs crossed, hands on the thighs. The balanced container we create allows us to rest in our own vulnerability and strength. A moment of calm and openness at the beginning allows for space in which experience can occur.
As we practice, we maintain our mindfulness of the body and its language, which is the breath, and awareness of how we hold our mind, which is thought and emotion. Otherwise, obstacles arise—both spiritual and mundane—and instead of experiencing the confidence of goodness, we slowly withdraw.
When we lose connection with feeling, life become discombobulated. We dive into our speedy routine and become myopic and self-effacing, just trying to get by. Before we know it, we are participating in the creation of a world where there’s more and more paranoia and less and less security for the human mind and heart. We’ve got to be very determined people in order to carry our openness and compassion into daily life. As well as kindness, we need to develop wisdom and strength.
We do this by training in equanimity. In meditation we train in letting thoughts go. In addition, we discover that though a good meditation experience can be valuable, it can also be distracting. If you overvalue a good experience, you’re increasing the chances that a bad experience will disable you. Equanimity increases the ability of the mind to go forward when encountering the obstacles and vicissitudes of life. Without such freshness and fluidity, we are prone either to depression that cripples our ability to act or to elation that burns us out. Equanimity toward what is happening engenders a quality of steadiness, and at the same time frees us to continually move forward out of our comfort zone.
In meditation, you’re engaging in something powerful—the ability to actually experience your goodness and engender a deep sense of security in it. The process of allowing your consciousness to waken and rise is symbolized by the sun, which represents the absence of ignorance. It is the luminosity within your own consciousness.
This wisdom is the source of all happiness, because it has the potency to overcome suffering. Even momentarily reflecting on it brings dignity because its brilliance overcomes doubts and hesitations about our own worthiness. When we can rest in its self-generating, all-inclusive quality, our mind is no longer ravenous with desire, which only leads to more consumption. We can release ourselves from the trap of materialism and bask in the confidence of goodness. This is not a belief, but a feeling that we know and embody by practicing repeatedly in order to fold what we’re experiencing into our being until we make it our own.
Our journey trains us in the skills of mindfulness and awareness, which lead to equanimity and wisdom. This is where basic goodness begins to manifest as we recognize the potent quality of the human mind and spirit. If we understand and appreciate our worthiness, our life becomes a truly spiritual path, for when we manifest human dignity, our society has a natural predisposition to manifest it also.
If enough of us take this view, the fabric of our society will be completely interlaced with the sun of goodness, which allows the dignity of wisdom, kindness, and strength to arise naturally. The message of interdependence is that we are in the matrix of life, and there are no commercial breaks. By strengthening our own humanity, we engender confidence in the worthiness of humanity itself.