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The phrase comes up -- especially when discussing 'militarism' -- in the secondary literature; e.g.

that “one must sacrifice the lesser good for the greater good”; so too must “our heroes sacrifice their lives in order to preserve the naition...

Buddhism and Politics in Thailand, p154

Did the Buhddha say anything like this? The closest I know of is "be a lamp unto yourself", but in effect that could legitimize all sorts of errors.

Specifically I mean examples analogous to serving in the military: when some wrong doing is permitted due to "the greater good".

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  • this may be a duplicate
    – user2512
    May 13 '20 at 13:29
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If this is the lesser good:

AN4.95:2.2: The person who practices to benefit neither themselves nor others is like this, I say.

Then this is the greater good:

AN4.95:3.1: The person who practices to benefit others, but not themselves, is better than that.

If this is the lesser good:

AN4.95:3.2: The person who practices to benefit themselves, but not others, is better than both of those.

Then this is the greater good:

AN4.95:3.3: But the person who practices to benefit both themselves and others is the foremost, best, chief, highest, and finest of the four.

Notice in particular that "heroes sacrificing themselves for the nation" is only third best. There are two practices better than that. Indeed, one reads that practicing to benefit oneself is better than being a hero. But to understand this fully, one must also know that practicing to benefit oneself requires one to make progress on the Noble Eightfold Path. The first step of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right View. And that Right View includes the direction to perform good deeds.

MN117:6.1: And what is right view? Right view is twofold, I say. There is right view that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment. And there is right view that is noble, undefiled, transcendent, a factor of the path.

The greatest good, however, is to practice to benefit both ourselves and others. And how do we practice to benefit others? We teach them Right View.

AN2.126:1.1: “There are two conditions for the arising of right view. What two? The words of another and proper attention. These are the two conditions for the arising of right view.”

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  • "is only third best"... actually akusala, deluded, straight to hell, and possible not of use and something if slight to encourage, but sure, it might have been sais, thinking it's a greater benefit to still maintain hold on, good householder. And whats the use of right view for one on the path if that to enter isn't established yet? To be able to act further for a higher good?
    – user11235
    May 13 '20 at 13:09
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Something similar is said in the Dhammapada

If by giving up small pleasures great happiness is to be found, the wise should give up small pleasures seeing (the prospect of) great happiness.

Dhammapada 290

https://www.tipitaka.net/tipitaka/dhp/verseload.php?verse=290

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"There are these four types of brightness. Which four? The brightness of the sun, the brightness of the moon, the brightness of fire, and the brightness of discernment. These are the four types of brightness. And of these four types of brightness, the foremost is the brightness of discernment." An4.144

There are other similar comparisons of pleasant abidings, ranking various classification of pleasure & happiness ìn the pali texts of early schools.

"And what, Ananda, is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that? There is the case where a monk, with the complete transcending of the dimension of nothingness, enters & remains in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. This is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that. Though some might say, 'That is the highest pleasure that beings experience,' I would not grant them that. Why is that? Because there is another pleasure, more extreme & refined than that.

"And what, Ananda, is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that? There is the case where a monk, with the complete transcending of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, enters & remains in the cessation of perception & feeling. This is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that. Now it's possible, Ananda, that some wanderers of other persuasions might say, 'Gotama the contemplative speaks of the cessation of perception & feeling and yet describes it as pleasure. What is this? How can this be?' When they say that, they are to be told, 'It's not the case, friends, that the Blessed One describes only pleasant feeling as included under pleasure. Wherever pleasure is found, in whatever terms, the Blessed One describes it as pleasure.'"

The difference between these classifications and the saying "that “one must sacrifice the lesser good for the greater good”; so too must “our heroes sacrifice their lives in order to preserve the naition..." is that the Sutta classification is precisely expressed & it's meaning is easily here drawn out, sun is brighter than the moon obv. The quotation about "hero sacrificing life for the nation" is far from precise because the words 'hero, nation' are very abstract terms and open to interpretation. It can easily be argued against as not being 'the greater good' and one can argue about what constitutes a real hero. It's kind of typical of politians&poets to use language in this way.

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