Basic Goodness and Original Sin
A theologian explores the relationship of two concepts key to Shambhala and Christian teachings
by Steven Shippee
In Shambhala, the view of basic goodness is sometimes sharply contrasted with the Christian doctrine of original sin. The purpose seemingly is to highlight how much the view of basic goodness differs from the feeling of wretchedness that plagues so many of us, and for which we assume the teaching of original sin is to blame. I have noticed how many Shambhalians resonate with the contrast, and so I have no intention of dismissing any person’s negative experience of Christian teachings. One can only regret any harm done under a religious guise.
As a Christian theologian, however, I have always been disappointed both by the contrast itself and even more by the caricature of original sin (that we are basically bad) that often follows. There are at least two reasons to correct this. The first is that the Shambhala community has played a distinguished role in establishing authentic Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Trungpa Rinpoche and some of his students actually spearheaded this dialogue with a series of meetings at Naropa in the 1980s. These were marked by deep respect and mutual learning.
Misrepresenting another’s doctrine and then contrasting that with one’s highest wisdom falls short of this community’s own historical practice of dialogue. We have a responsibility to purify our interreligious speech. Second, the Sakyong has emphasized dialogue as a foundational aspect of enlightened society. It is important, therefore, and increasingly so in our day, that dialogue partners practice hearing each other clearly and speaking of one another accurately and kindly. I want to offer, therefore, some clarifications on original sin, and to suggest a few striking convergences between original sin rightly understood and aspects of the Shambhala Buddhist dharma.
What is Original Sin? First, what it is not. It is not Christianity’s understanding of the basic nature of humanity. That distinction belongs to a teaching known as the good creation, the Christian doctrine that best corresponds to basic goodness. The first chapter of the book of Genesis, mythically depicting the creation of heaven and earth, is the classical source of this teaching. It may be familiar to you. God creates light, then the regions of sky, earth, and sea, and then their inhabitants: sun, moon, birds, plants, land animals, and fish. All throughout, a delightful refrain follows each aspect of creation: “And God saw that it was good.” God then creates humanity “in the divine image, according to the divine likeness.” Here the refrain modulates to “and God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” This is Christianity’s (and Judaism’s) most basic view of humanity—made in the image and likeness of God, and part of a world that is good and very good. The great majority of Christian traditions believe that this divine image is not lost by the tragedy of sin soon to follow in the story. Human beings remain a very good creation in the image of God. Paradoxically, it is within this context of original goodness that the teaching of original sin is located.
Even so, the teaching is sobering. It affirms that human nature as we find it in our world is involved with a power of degradation, death, and indeed evil. Human nature is not itself evil, but a good nature infected with evil. Since this condition is derived from the origins of the human being it is called original. The force of the Latin word originale is hard to capture today, but it designates a condition one inherits; it describes the historical human condition in which we find ourselves, not our most basic nature. Understood this way, we can see important convergences with the teachings of Buddhism.
There are Shambhala Buddhist analogues for original sin. In the Catholic tradition, at least, this human condition is regarded not as a total corruption, but as a serious wound. Human nature “is wounded in its natural powers; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin.” This quote from the Catholic Catechism resonates with several crucial dharmic categories such as the poison of ignorance, the noble truth of suffering, and habituation to non-virtuous actions. According to one common formula, the effects of original sin are “a darkened intellect and a weakened will.” One representative theologian, Thomas, further understood that original sin weakens patience (which we could relate to what the dharma calls aggression) and disturbs our ability to enjoy rightly the delightful and pleasurable aspects of reality (related to what the dharma calls passion).
So, generally, while Christians speak of the effects of original sin, Buddhists speak of ignorance, passion, and aggression. Our convergences here might be stated this way: first, neither tradition holds that human beings are intrinsically wicked or evil. But both traditions are keenly aware of the difficulties accompanying our current condition. Both traditions depict the human being as wounded or sick, and so both Buddha and Christ are sometimes depicted as doctors or healers of humanity. The Christian understanding of the effects of original sin, and the Buddhist teachings on the noble truth of suffering and the root poisons, are both diagnoses of what ails us, not normative descriptions of human nature or buddhanature itself. Finally, just as Shambhala vajrayana teaches that the realization of buddhahood is the realization of our true nature, so the Christian view is that a saint has simply realized fully the image of God given in the beginning.
What, then, can Shambhalians do to promote more authentic dialogue? Here are three suggestions. First, we can be more curious and circumspect about the causes of our poverty-mentality and feelings of wretchedness. The general breakdown of communities and families, our alienation from the harmony of the natural world, and the dominance of utilitarian narratives like consumerism and materialism merit more reflection in this regard. Second, we can realize that contrasting religious traditions–which is often very fruitful and enriching–requires a subtle sense of the other tradition. If one stands outside that tradition, a good method is to ask a practitioner of that tradition if they can recognize their wisdom in our words. If they cannot, then we have an opportunity to listen and learn. Finally, we should stop contrasting basic goodness and original sin, since that approach is misleading and misrepresents a key concept of the Christian tradition. If a contrast for basic goodness is necessary, it can be found within the Buddhist teachings themselves.