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When a person or a group of people identify themselves with "the good" (in opposition to "not so good" or even "the evil" of others), quite often this can lead to "the good" getting overly aggressive in its pursuit of the goodness and de-facto turning into evil.

Is this an inevitable problem arising due to identification/reification or is there a way to keep it under control and identify with the good without becoming the evil? If so, how can that be achieved?

What guidelines do various Buddhist schools offer on this topic, if any?

P.S. by "to identify with" I mean "to consider themselves to be affiliated with, or to be representative of, the true something (in this case the good)"

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  • It might be situation-dependant. Personally, if I ever felt like my presence in a situation was unhelpful to myself or the situation, I removed myself, but I might endure some discomfort in the process. Being around people, I still find I have to try and interpret situations in a world where most people have their own conflicting interpretations. It is very challenging for me to share the values of humanity, and it is in that challenge where I've learned some surprising things. I will try to give an answer soon.
    – user17652
    Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 17:53

5 Answers 5

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The sutta quote below is a good guide.

If what one does, although perceived to be good by popular opinion, but in fact increases one's unskillful mental qualities and decreases one's skillful mental qualities, then it is not good.

And so on.

"When — by following a life of precept & practice (sīlabbata) , a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one's unskillful mental qualities increase while one's skillful mental qualities decline: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitless. But when — by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth — one's unskillful mental qualities decline while one's skillful mental qualities increase: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitful."
AN 3.78

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It's kind of like a poor person becoming spoiled by lots of money and starts looking down on poor people thinking 'having money is good i am good because i have money and the have-nots are bad'.

It's because perception of identification, perception of permancence (in general & in regards to status in particular) and perception of pleasantness in regards to dukkha (perversion of view in regards to gain) are well established in him.

Reflecting on impermanence, not-self & dukkha will prevent this. Wealth and gain don't corrupt those who seek the beyond.

One can appreciate one's good fortune without it being unwholesome if one looks at it objectively & uses appropriately.

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Well you know I think that canonically "conceit" is associated with disputes.

"The Good" was a subject of Plato's. When I was a teenager I found it unsatisfying as "logic" because I think he doesn't really define "good" -- or uses a circular definition -- but says that he and who he's talking with kind of know it for ourselves or recognise it when we meet it.

Also "the" good -- as a noun not just an adjective -- is obviously reified. And it's a dichotomy ("good or evil", "with us or against us"), and I beware of dichotomies.

Now I think that Buddhism does define "good" -- the precepts and the perfections.

But personally I think it cleverly substitutes "skilful" for "good", asking not only whether an action is good but whether it's skilful (or combining them as "skilful virtue"). To me the word "skilful" implies context, forces you to ask what's the goal -- like, "skill at what: making pottery? -- and there is a specific "goal" implied in the suttas.

Remembering the "goal" described in the suttas might be one way to "keep it under control" -- to avoid excess? Getting carried away?

γνῶθι σεαυτόν, "know thyself", as well as μηδὲν ἄγαν. Because of some past experiences, I don't especially trust myself: I've experienced being emoted by, exulting in, caught up in, carried along by, like fascist ritual -- exulting in the feeling of belonging to a power, a chanting crowd -- even a tight rugby scrum! -- which I'm in and which is greater than me, which amplifies what I'm doing. Since then, I'm wary now if I feel that effect.

I think the suttas say -- and experiences says -- that we're not supposed to identify. There are good and un-good (skilful and unskilful) thoughts and actions, they come and go, the doctrine says to recognise them and to foster or dismiss them as appropriate. Knowing that I'm theoretically susceptible to fascist propaganda doesn't make me good or evil, it makes me watchful.

The other thing is that the Buddhist precepts (perhaps the Vinaya, for monks) provide something a "bright line" for judging actions. I was trained to handle firearms for example and taught a lot of history including military, but now I avoid any invitation to touch a firearm, even for target-practice -- it's not that I don't know how to, it's just I don't foresee any particular good (only a waste of time) and I feel that my never having a weapon at hand is a fail-safe and a good reminder even in case of temporary madness (though I'm happy to forgive the Dalai Lama's carrying one as a disguise for his escape).

Self-image does come into this too. My wife declined weapons practice in Tai Chi, saying she found it un-lady-like (perhaps an example for me); and told me she was glad when I became too old to be conscripted; and she asked me to remain vegetarian. I think these are conceits -- not worth identifying with, and impossible to keep in mind continuously -- but also harmless and so not worth getting rid of.

Which leads to another Buddhist doctrine, "harmlessness" (ahimsa). I think that Buddhism is less "extreme" that Jainism in its doctrine of ahimsa, a middle way -- which doesn't mean "harmless but occasionally being violent", it means "avoid being violently harmless".

Lastly I don't know what to say about the poor soldiers caught up in this war. I don't entirely respect what the suttas say about wheel-turning monarchs and defence of the realm: I suspect that was "retconned" for Ashoka. Instead I'm reminded of the very little I know of samurai, from wholly unreliable sources e.g. manga (and the occasional Zen story) -- I used to wonder how they could be Buddhist and deadly -- something to do with accepting going to hell perhaps (as if that's the worst that could happen).

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If we can agree that "bright" and "good" can be treated as similar, then the Buddha teaches four things about deeds and results. The first three teachings can be used to examine the outcomes of identification with good (i.e., bright deeds).

AN4.233:1.3: There are dark deeds with dark results;
AN4.233:1.4: bright deeds with bright results;
AN4.233:1.5: dark and bright deeds with dark and bright results; and
...

However, the Buddha points to a different path as the fourth teaching:

AN4.233:1.6: neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds.

The fourth teaching leads to the ending of deeds bright/good as well as dark/bad:

AN4.233:5.1: And what are neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds?
AN4.233:5.2: It’s the intention to give up dark deeds with dark results, bright deeds with bright results, and both dark and bright deeds with both dark and bright results.
AN4.233:5.3: These are called neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds.

If we can agree that suffering is the problem mentioned in the question, then perhaps we should indeed examine our deepest assumptions that might lead to identification with and chasing of bright deeds.

MN14:17.8: With nothing to come up in the future, deeds end. With the ending of deeds, suffering ends. With the ending of suffering, feeling ends. And with the ending of feeling, all suffering will have been worn away.”

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identify

establish or indicate who or what (someone or something) is.

Dictionary

In Buddhism, to identify a "who" or collective "who" is always a problem. For example, the renowned Australian sutta translator named Bhikkhu Sujato translated:

These are all forms of identifying: ‘I am’, ‘I am this’, ‘I will be’, ‘I will not be’, ‘I will have form’, ‘I will be formless’, ‘I will be percipient’, ‘I will be non-percipient’, ‘I will be neither percipient nor non-percipient.’

‘Asmī’ti, bhikkhu, maññitametaṁ, ‘ayamahamasmī’ti maññitametaṁ, ‘bhavissan’ti maññitametaṁ, ‘na bhavissan’ti maññitametaṁ, ‘rūpī bhavissan’ti maññitametaṁ, ‘arūpī bhavissan’ti maññitametaṁ, ‘saññī bhavissan’ti maññitametaṁ, ‘asaññī bhavissan’ti maññitametaṁ, ‘nevasaññīnāsaññī bhavissan’ti maññitametaṁ.

Identification is a disease, a boil, a dart.

Maññitaṁ, bhikkhu, rogo maññitaṁ gaṇḍo maññitaṁ sallaṁ.

Having gone beyond all identification, one is called a sage at peace.

Sabbamaññitānaṁ tveva, bhikkhu, samatikkamā muni santoti vuccati.

The sage at peace is not reborn, does not grow old, and does not die. They are not shaken, and do not yearn.

MN 140

But, in Buddhism, to identify "what is what" is not a problem. For example, the renowned Thai Buddhist philosopher named Bhikkhu Buddhadasa said Buddhism is about "knowing what is what", as follows:

"Buddhism" means "the Teaching of the Enlightened One." A Buddha is an enlightened individual, one who knows the truth about all things, one who knows just what is what, and so is capable of behaving appropriately with respect to all things. Buddhism is a religion based on intelligence, science and knowledge, whose purpose is the destruction of suffering and the source of suffering. All paying of homage to sacred objects by means of performing rites and rituals, making offerings or praying is not Buddhism. The Buddha rejected all this as foolish, ridiculous and unsound.

Handbook For Mankind

Therefore, a problem in the context of the question appears to be both identifying with "who" and not identifying accurately or precisely "what is what"; as follows from the Dhammapada:

  1. Those who are ashamed of what they should not be ashamed of, and are not ashamed of what they should be ashamed of — upholding false views, they go to states of woe.

  2. Those who see something to fear where there is nothing to fear, and see nothing to fear where there is something to fear — upholding false views, they go to states of woe.

  3. Those who imagine evil where there is none, and do not see evil where it is — upholding false views, they go to states of woe.

Dhammapada

For example, yesterday the ear listened to the sound of this video about the systematic slaughter & capture of an army of a certain fattened-by-false-friends-for-slaughter nation and this video about the systematic propaganda about a certain fattened-by-false-friends-for-slaughter nation. The identification that occur here was good slaughtering evil and evil engaged in the same old 24 years of Neo-Con PNAC propaganda. No discernable suffering occurred because it was merely good dhatu/khandha (elements/aggregates) vs bad dhatu/khandha (elements/aggregates).

The Buddha never taught to abandon the perception of 'good' vs 'evil'. The Buddha only taught to be dispassionate towards these perceptions as follows:

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “Monks, the Tathagata—worthy & rightly self-awakened—has two Dhamma discourses given in sequence. Which two? ‘See evil as evil.’ This is the first Dhamma discourse. ‘Having seen evil as evil, become disenchanted there, dispassionate there, released.’ This is the second Dhamma discourse. These are the two Dhamma discourses that the Tathagata—worthy & rightly self-awakened—has given in sequence.”

See the two statements, declared in sequence, by the Tathagata, awakened, sympathetic to all beings. The first: see evil. Be dispassionate there toward evil. Then, with a mind dispassionate, you will make an end of suffering & stress.

Pali Suttas

The Buddha never wanted so-called followers to be identified as "The Biggest Loser".

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