Basic Goodness or Original Sin?
Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human
beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness,
intelligence and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological
expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha
(birthplace of the enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience-the
experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding
is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for Buddhist practice and Buddhist
Coming from a tradition that stresses human goodness, it was something
of a shock for me to encounter the Western tradition of original sin. It seems
that this notion of original sin does not just pervade western religious ideas.
It actually seems to run throughout Western thought as well, especially psychological
thought. Among patients, theoreticians and therapists alike there seems to be
great concern with the idea of some original mistake, which causes later suffering-a
kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being
wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the
idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have
done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.
with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hinderance
to people. At some point it is of course necessary to realize one's shortcomings.
But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one's
vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful, and in fact it seems
According to the Buddhist perspective there are problems, but
they are temporary and superficial defilements that cover over one's basic goodness
(tathagatagarbha). This viewpoint is a positive and optimistic one. But, again,
we should emphasize that this viewpoint is not purely conceptual. It is rooted
in the experience of meditation and in the healthiness it encourages. There are
temporary, habitual neurotic patterns that develop based on past experience, but
these can be seen through. It is just this that is studied in the abhidharma,
the Buddhist teachings on psychology: how one thing succeeds another, how volitional
action originates and perpetuates itself, how things snowball. And, most importantly,
abhidharma studies how through meditation practice this process can be cut through.
attitude that results from the Buddhist orientation and practice is quite different
from the "mistake mentality." One actually experiences mind as fundamentally
pure, that is, healthy and positive, and "problems" as temporary and
superficial defilements. Such a viewpoint does not quite mean "getting rid"
of problems, but rather shifting one's focus. Problems are seen in a much broader
context of health: one begins to let go of clinging to one's neuroses and to step
beyond obsession and identification with them. The emphasis is no longer on the
problems themselves but rather on the ground of experience through realizing the
nature of mind itself.
When problems are seen in this way, then there is less
panic and everything seems more workable. When problems arise, instead of being
seen as purely threats, they become learning situations, opportunities to find
out more about one's own mind, and to continue on one's journey.
which is confirmed by study, the inherent healthiness of your mind and others'
minds is experienced over and over. You see that your problems are not all that
deeply rooted. You see that you can make literal progress. You find yourself becoming
more mindful and more aware, developing a greater sense of healthiness and clarity
as you go on, and this is tremendously encouraging.
This article is adapted
from "The Meeting of Buddhist and Western Psychology," which will appear
in volume two of the forthcoming Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, to be
published by Shambhala in 2003. Used by permission of the copyright holder, Diana