Buddhists are nice, right?
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
“Buddhists are nice”, right? Buddhists are nice because you meditate, you practice compassion, you’re peaceful. You’ve taken up a life of pacifism and vegetarianism from hearing that the Buddha was liberated from the three poisons; greed, aggression and ignorance. It’s true, the Buddha instructed in tolerance, compassion and morality. And for the more advanced audiences he pointed out that in seeing through the ignorance of our cherished ego-identification, practitioners may dwell undisturbed in “high equanimity”. This feels nice.
One trouble, though, is that you are not always equanimous and you have a tendency to get hooked on feelings. Especially nice ones. You want to feel good and leave out what feels bad. And the ideal that you should only feel good creates quite an elaborate prison, especially when you gather with other Buddhists, mesmerized by the same belief system. Watch how the rule “we are nice” gets hijacked into a collective rule that “we have to be nice” to fit in with everyone else we are practicing with. It’s a cozy little family.
How uncompassionate, actually. If we have to be nice, then the unspoken rule is we can't make you feel bad so we can't actually serve you by pointing out where you're stuck. Seeing how stuck you actually are feels very shitty. Yet that’s the whole point in Buddhism, we’re stuck. It’s the First Noble Truth, life is suffering.
You might think, “but actually, I’m really a nice person.” But the Buddha never taught you that because there is no such thing. Every school of Buddhism accepts as a major tenet, your sense of “person” or “self” is simply a preprogrammed bundle of causes and conditions, and an error that strings the past and future together to create a false reality of a private, separate sense of self. So from an absolute point of view you are not a person, let alone nice or not nice. It really isn’t relevant.
But from a relative point of view you are both nice and you are not very nice at all. You are part of the human conditioning which is sometimes generous, loving, equanimous and nice. You are also capable of arrogance, war, hatred, greed, and screwing over those you love. Just let yourself be pushed far enough. Take a good look at the high horse you ride, thinking you’ve worked through your anger and greed as you dilute your potential for true liberation by hanging out with a bunch of other nice Buddhists “on the good side”.
An antidote to this shadow side of niceness is an ethic of treating each other real, which is often kind and not always so nice. What would it be like to care for ourselves enough to tell it like we see it, to make mistakes and to not be so perfect? It might look like showing up with the integrity to be honest and vulnerable with ourselves and others when we see behavior (including being fake) that contributes to suffering. It’s risky but transformative. Sometimes it looks like taking a stand on something unpopular without backing down which doesn’t negate having the humility to admit it when we’re wrong. It’s the antidote to mediocrity, to naive hopefulness and to being superficially intimate. And ironically, when practiced regularly it grows us up out of passive aggressiveness and shame and into a generous outpouring of real compassion.