What’s good?

I’m reading excerpts from the diary of Maura O’Halloran, an Irish woman who lived in a zen monastery in Japan in the eighties.

“Respect life,” she says. “Not because it’s right or good or moral but because it is.”

This thought came to her when she was sweeping the floor and she felt compelled to save the dying wasps that were collected together with the dust. She could have used a vacuum cleaner and finished work earlier, but she didn’t.

By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D

Maura died, aged 27. Because she practised zen so sincerely, people called her a saint.

Is it good to die before middle age?

Her diary is interesting. She comes alive in an honest, unadorned way. I can easily imagine her making her observations, walking around with her bald head and robes. Saying:

“Women are really repressed here, forced into a mold of a giggling innocent.”

She herself is what’s been called an honorary male: she chops wood, keeps the same hours as the monks and goes begging without socks:

“All the while there was the build-up to going begging this month. A couple of days before we were to leave for the north, one of the monks came to my room with an armful of bandages. I asked what they were for. “Your wounds,” he replied solemnly. We both consulted our dictionaries to make sure bandages and wounds were the right words. They were. I closed the door and wondered just what I’d let myself in for this time.”

Is it good to be brave?

I know a zen nun who told me people get up to offer her a seat on public transport. Not because she is a nun, but because they think she has cancer. This embarrasses her, although she holds no power over other people’s imagination. A bald head can mean many things to many people.

By Gee Song [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

By Gee Song [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

When I was thinking of shaving mine, another nun said:

“Let me just give you a number one crew cut. It’s the shortest you can cut your hair but it is still a haircut.”

She meant the haircut would be seen as a fashion statement, not as proof that I had joined a cult and gone mad.

Is it good to go all the way? 

A commentator on David Yerle’s blog said: “I believe in goodness.” That made me stop and think. What does he believe in? What’s good?

When Maura came to Japan, the floating world  and the austerity of the monastery appealed to her with equal force. In her own words:

“Either way was a search for liberation – freedom from inhibition, from other people’s values, from their suffocating puritan ethic born from the delusion of a retributory hereafter.”

Respect life because it is. Not because it’s good. Don’t waste time thinking about the dying wasp’s place in the whole of the earth’s ecology. How could we judge that? Tonguesandwich claims he’s a vegetarian because he hates plants. He makes an important point: should we be vegetarians for moral reasons?  And would that make us good people?

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain]

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain]

Darwin commented on the lengths plants go to for survival. Is that unimportant because they don’t seem to have a brain? Should I starve myself out of empathy? To save peas?

What do you think?


About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
This entry was posted in atheism, book review, zen and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What’s good?

  1. violetwisp says:

    Nice post! “Should we be vegetarians for moral reasons?” No, we should be vegetarians for logical reasons. We don’t need to consume meat to survive, and we are all 100% sure that most animals suffer through their lives in the meat industry. The only ‘reasons’ to eat meat are it tastes nice and everyone else is doing it. The scales of logical outcome don’t even tip slightly in favour of doing it.

    • Thanks for mentioning that. I do agree with you. And it’s certainly very good to look at it from a logical perspective. I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time, but reading “Eating animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer really helped. He looked at the problem from the angle of explaining to his baby son why we’re eating animals. Then he looked into how we’re eating animals. Then he became more than an occasional vegetarian. My point is that it’s good to look into our reasons why.

    • Argus says:

      Change religion if you feel guilty about eating animals. The Abrahamic God loves fresh roast lamb and stuff, so the ‘legal’ precedent is set (actually He gets quite Crabby if it’s not served up on time, in full, and in accordance with official regulations).

  2. Jack Kornfield has said that in the monastery, he discovered that you bow as you enter the temple, you bow to those who prepare your food and that after a time, “you bow to anything that moves.” The step by step respecting of life leads you closer to goodness, even if you never really reach it. I’m “nicer” than I used to be; I will still swat a mosquito.

    • Thank you for your comment. That’s from ‘After the ecstasy, the laundry?’ is it? I like your observation that by respecting life you can approach goodness step by step.

      I also found it helpful to be around people who were honestly trying to be aware of others (human, animal or vegetable). I think it’s had an influence on my behaviour too. With mosquitoes I have good days and bad days, both from my perspective and from theirs. 😉

      • Argus says:

        I save bugs. I sweep the spiders out of the letterbox before The Spouse gets to them. If I beat her to creepy-crawlies they get gobbled up by my matchbox and delivered outside. If a fly comes in I chase it back out — takes a while sometimes, they are zippy and stupid. Or am I slow and stupid?

        But I also defend myself with a clear conscience, if a bug bites me he’s history. By the same token, bumblebees used to love to land on me and wander through my curly hair, wasps and worker bees liked me too and none ever got thumped (except the one wasp that got caught under my shirt and I reflexively squelched him when he stung me).

        Do I eat meat? Yes. Very partial to chicken …

  3. The fact that life “is” doesn’t earn it respect in any way. In fact, the desire to respect it reveals an innate sense that there should be value in places where it cannot be in a world without God.

    • And you’re making that judgement on behalf of all of us?

      • I’m not sure what you’re asking. The desire to respect life is nonsensical if life is ultimately just a product of time, chance, and particles bouncing around in an empty universe. And yet, we have the desire to respect it.

      • I don’t think one needs to believe in a “maker” to find life worthy of feeling “wowed” about. Sure, it can all be the chance of bouncing molecules but once they have bounced into a form, I think there’s plenty to be awed by. Take “water bears,” the tiny organisms that live in pond water and, well, just about everywhere. I don’t care whether their existence is merely happenstance, I’m going to respect any bloody critter that can survive being frozen to 1 degree Kelvin, boiled, dehydrated for months and then revived with a drop of water and survive the vacuum of space. Heck, if they don’t deserve a bow of respect just “because,” then I would see myself as a pretty bad bag of molecules.

        • Thank you for your comment. I feel the same and I really like your example. The more I know about those bags of molecules, the more I feel inspired. It’s amazing to see what a process of evolution can come up with. And the molecules themselves are pretty interesting too. Personally, I’ve never seen a need to add something to life as appears, to give it meaning or to make it worthwhile.

    • Argus says:

      Sorry … life is no proof of God. And as a very devout practising atheist I’d say that life came first, then God. I also respect life very much.

  4. Argus says:

    Nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.

    In which case I still have a loooong way to go, good; because I hate what I see as evil. (Oops, so I still love and hate (sue me) but now and zen I have free moments.) (Briefly.)

    So I think that people hurting people is bad. I find that good, and hope I never do not so. Far from killing the Buddha on the road I’d join him if he were going off to thump ‘evil’ doers—but Buddhas don’t do such things, they leave that to we enlightened.

    As for ‘what do I think?’ … I think you should eat the goddamned peas …

    • I think you point at the big problem. I know what the buddhist answer is, along the lines of karma and the do no evil, talk no evil, think no evil doctrine (if I may be bold and concise) but I can’t say I’m content with that. They do have a point when they say it might be better to bring in the shopping for your elderly neighbour than to stay inside and shout at what you see on the news (I confess, I do that). Shouting will help no one.

      Well, you really made me think. Thank you for that. 🙂

  5. Bastet says:

    I enjoyed your post very much, and reading the comments was just as interesting. To me each person has his or her own path to follow according to one’s vision of life. I’m not fond of pigeonholing, including putting myself into a category, life is fluid and what is true today may be false tomorrow. I don’t worry about if God exists…the finite cannot conceive the infinite, we cannot even understand our place in this world, why then worry about creation. The here and now, being a part of the whole, realizing that we are the one and the many…is a wonderful goal, for me..

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