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Dec 19
Opinion Pieces
Basic Goodness and Original Sin

A theologian explores the relationship of two concepts key to Shambhala and Christian teachings

by Steven Shippee

adam-and-eve-798376_1280In 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.

waterfall-540117__480What 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.

tree-407256__480Even 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).

person-371015__480So, 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.

Steven Shippee

Steven Shippee is a member of the Milwaukee Shambhala Center.  By trade, he teaches Catholic systematic theology (Christian ‘View’) and especially loves to work in the area of Buddhist-Christian dialogue.  
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26 responses to “ Basic Goodness and Original Sin ”
  1. Michael Carpenter
    Jan 17, 2017

    Thank you for this writing. I found it very enlightening and helpful, and find that it provides me with an opportunity for reflection on my own tendency towards blaming and judging. I am also heartened by resonance and parallels between Christianity and Buddhism being so lucidly stated, as it helps me realize that what is important is truth and clarity, not doctrine and dogma.

  2. Steven Shippee
    Jan 3, 2017

    Dear Jim Hartz, Thank you for your entries. Generally, systematic and dogmatic theology are the same. In my seminary, all my courses are in the area called ‘systematics’, but each course is listed as a ‘dogmatic theology‘ course.
    To your question, “isn’t [the] teaching of ‘radical aseity’ our Tricky Monkey Mind’s way of turning “non-duality” into a virtual HERESY?,” the Buddhist answer is clearly yes.
    But, just to play my role as Christian theologian one minute longer, I think this makes aseity the culprit only by removing it from its native context, namely the Christian or theistic context in which it can make sense. Any number of religious ideas are easily falsified by being judged by criteria foreign to them. Very many Buddhist ideas are obviously false to a Christian judging by Christian criteria. Very many Christian ideas, like God’s aseity, are no less surely false when judged by Buddhist canons. But, if we leave divine aseity where it belongs, as it were, which in this case is within Christian faith, then we may see its intelligibility. It might be stated something like this:
    The absolute gap between the Creator and the created is the foundation for the Christian metaphysics of love and gift/generosity. Because God is Totally Other, and created reality is non-god, the only way for there to be the intended depth of union between God and a creature is for God to give Godself freely to the creature. That God does this is the premise of the theology of grace. Within most Christian logics, Otherness as real ontological difference is the condition for an ontology of selfless love. Here, union is not thwarted by an absolute ontological difference; rather, such difference is the condition for the possibility of that union being truly free, truly loving, ultimately communitarian. Theologically, this all flows from the communitarian (i.e., trinitarian) nature of God as a community of three loving persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. For trinitarian theology, divine aseity is where difference (the difference between the three persons, which classical trinitarian thought calls their ‘relations’) eternally exists within the unity of the one God, who is love (1 Jn 4:8).

  3. While we’re Waiting for Godot (if anybody still is?) to “moderate” my hastily done Comment above, I’d like to ask Steven Shippee (and Brian Callahan, too) if “Systematic Theology” and “Dogmatic Theology” are the same?

    At the heart of one of those two bodies of Christian teachings (maybe both) is the Medieval concept of “radical aseity.” That teaching–in fact, it’s a stern warning, it seems to me–teaches that a metaphysical gulch must be maintained (I guess at all times) between “Creator” and “creature,” a very solid depiction of a “higher” and a “lower,” a primary “This” over against a bunch of secondary “thats.”

    But this is one reason why Meister Eckhart’s famous statement (among many others), “The eye wherein I see God, is the eye wherein God sees me,” got him in trouble: it blurs the hard-edged distinction between “Creator” and “creature,” “higher” and “lower”–which made the knees knock of canon lawyers and censors, devoted, as they tend to be, to the “logic of non-contradiction”: “this” can’t be “that,” “that” can’t be “this.” Or, if we recall the Heart Sutra, the notion that “form” is “empty,” and “emptiness” is “form” would likewise be problematic, from the “logic of non-contradiction” very solid point of view.

    In one of his many brilliant toss-off statements, Trungpa Rinpoche in the early KARMA seminar, states that there is no such thing as a “Buddhist point of view.” And he went on to say, “Buddhism is about how we constitute various ‘points of view,'” and from there came the teaching of “no reference point,” or “pointless point of view.” For an image we might use to depict something akin to that perspective, consider eyeballs screwed into boundless centerless space.

    Anyway, Eckhart has sometimes been referred to as a “dialectical theologian.” It seems “dialectics” (the Logic of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, for instance) and “rationality” (embodied in that “law of non-contradiction” stricture) are at odds with each other, historically.

    If we’re aware of this statement by the founder of the Kyoto School of Zen Philosophy, Kitaro Nishida, that the Logic of the Prajnaparamita Sutra contains the supreme dialectical system, East or West–and Eckhart’s statement above does embody a kind of prajna-oriented way of seeing, or logic–then it seems to me we need to distinguish the paradoxical Logic of the Prajnaparamita Sutra from the rationalistic logic of “radical aseity.”

    So, I pose this question to our Shambhalian theologians, isn’t that teaching of “radical aseity” our Tricky Monkey Mind’s way of turning “non-duality” into a virtual HERESY? We might recall, Eckhart died before he could seriously be brought up on charges, but two of his brilliant women students, Dominicans, WERE burned at the stake.

  4. Steven Shippee
    Dec 27, 2016

    Hello and thanks again, Jay Lippman. You rightly point out that Christian theologians here need to be challenged to address the distinction between the innate and the adventitious. That is what I was trying to do in the article. In my reply to David Schneider, you’ll see my second attempt (there called the ‘nature-condition’ distinction.)
    Reading your second comment, I think I see a weakness in my explanation that might account for you thinking I’m trying ‘to have it both ways’. Namely, I failed to distinguish explicitly between ‘creation’ and ‘origin’ as used within theological anthropology. When I say “human nature is not itself evil,” I am referring to it as the good creation of God–made in the divine image, etc. But in my phrase “this condition is derived from the origins of the human being,” the word ‘origin’ refers to human beings at their historical or human (not divine!) origins–that is, as deriving from each other, and mythically, from the first parents. So, original sin is a historical condition derived anthropologically from our first parents (mythic!, I know, but please indulge me), not derived ontologically or from-the-divine-source.
    In case it helps anyone (and I’m not sure it will!), there is a frequently missed difference between the so-called first sin of Adam and original sin. Adam did not commit the original sin. His sin, as opposed to being ‘original’, which please recall means inherited, was a ‘personal’ sin, meaning it was a personal decision (which is much the point of the temptation story). So Adam and Eve supposedly committed “the first sin.” We have become involved therewith only by inheriting the effects of their fault, from them.
    Finally, on a different point, I would very much like to “go so far as to say that human nature, in both its ultimate and relative aspects, is intrinsically good.” But I must register a reservation, not about human nature (!) but about the framing. I’m just not sure that the frame of reference (of the unity of ultimate and relative truth) has an analogue in Christian theology.

  5. Steven Shippee
    Dec 27, 2016

    Dear Acharya David, Thank you for questioning the value of the distinction between our nature and our historical condition. As you say, ultimately, the remedy involves refraining and cultivating. But this is precisely where I find the ‘nature-condition’ distinction important because whether we understand (and experience!) it or not seems to affect significantly our practice of the discipline of refraining and cultivating. Natures are inevitable; conditions are … well, temporary conditions. :) That is, if we feel we are by nature ‘wicked’, then we tend to have big problems in our discipline because we have the poverty mind that knows that complete enlightenment can’t really manifest. But if we know our neuroses are merely adventitious, just conditions that have ‘come along’ in the second place, then our minds can be buoyant and gentleness, fearlessness, and delight in our disciple are real possibilities.
    In wanting to meet your desire to hear more about the sources of the distinction, I’m afraid I’ve run into my own theological limitations. I’ll have to think about the sources more (beyond the Genesis story and the way it’s been received and interpreted generally in the Christian tradition). At this point, I must confess that it’s just part of my ‘mental furniture.’ I’ll hope to do better and try to find some other sources.
    Thank you for what was, for me at least, a very helpful reply.

  6. Mark Szpakowski mentioned my work on the friendship of Thomas Merton and Chogyam Trungpa above, so I thought I might chime in a bit.

    For me, Thomas Merton and Chogyam Trungpa are the first two “Shambhalians,” as concerned (to use Buddhist and Shambhala language) about “enlightened society” as about “enlightenment.” In fact, it was Thomas Merton’s peerless writing on the turmoil in society in the 1960’s that initially drew me to him, not his strictly “spiritual” writings–though, of course, Merton didn’t separate the “sacred” and “profane” (as his friend, Sister Mary Luke Tobin pointed out) any more than Trungpa Rinpoche separated the “spiritual” and “temporal,” his preferred language on that reflects that coupling.

    But it was being sent a copy (hot off the monastery’s mimeo machine) of Merton’s dying-breath Talk in Bangkok, December 10, 1968, entitled “Marxist Theory and Monastic Theoria,” by his secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, along with an RSVP to Merton’s funeral, where I first heard of Chogyam Trungpa. Shamefully, in the otherwise excellent film about Merton’s life, MERTON: A FILM BIOGRAPHY, toward the end, where there’s a short grainy clip from the Bangkok itself, just when he’s about to praise a quote he got from Trungpa Rinpoche, the film is edited to make it appear Merton is citing the Dalai Lama, not Trungpa Rinpoche! Ah, the Church up to it’s old Stalinist “street sign changing” tricks. I guess we can all sleep better at night knowing the Dalai Lama is not drinking sake or touching anyone else’s pee-pee, not even his own–or, maybe a little bit.

    Anyway, here’s Trungpa’s way of couching that unity between “sacred” and “profane,” “temporal and “spiritual,” in fact, pointing the way to transcending the notion of “oneness,” and realizing “none-ness” or “non-ness,” which subject comes up in a very interesting dialog between Father Thomas Keating and Chogyam Trungpa in one of the Christian-Buddhist Dialog hoedowns NAROPA sponsored some years ago. You can find that back & forth between Keating and Trungpa in SPEAKING OF SILENCE, edited by Susan Walker, pp. 165-173, particularly page 169. In a very real sense, for those familiar with Trungpa Rinpoche’s Tantric Buddhist Teachings, you can see in this exchange Trungpa making a subtle distinction between a Mahamudra View and a Maha Ati View, and, in a way, providing the opportunity for Keating to relate in a fresh way to the NADA teachings of Carmelite Spirituality, not to mention other anomalous Christian mystics who suggest a View which “transcends experience” altogether, very Maha Ati-like. That’s where we get to the “heart of the matter.”

    Here’s that Trungpa Rinpoche quote:

    “There are many people that are more learned than I am, more elevated in their wisdom. However, I have never made a difference between the spiritual and temporal. If I understand the ultimate aspect of dharma, there is the ultimate aspect of temporal. And if I maintain the ultimate aspect of the temporal, this must be in harmony with the dharma. I alone am the one who presents the tradition of thinking this way.” (Chogyam Trungpa, diary entry, 1967.)

    That’s a bit of a boast on Trungpa Rinpoche’s part: he hadn’t met Merton yet at the time of that diary entry, but when he did, Trungpa referred to him as “the first genuine Westerner he had met,” that they “agreed on everything,” and they planned to a book together. Then Merton was dead, under suspicious circumstances.

    There’s much to say on the relationship between Thomas Merton and Chogyam Trungpa which requires more than a passing acquaintance with both their teachings, and never more necessary than NOW! There are many angles of approach, certainly. Here’s an outline of mine, which Mark Szpakowski makes reference to above. It first became a seminar I taught in 1996 at the international SOCIETY FOR BUDDHIST-CHRISTIAN STUDIES conference held at DePaul in Chicago. It has more recently been expanded into a full-bodied weekend seminar, somewhat modeled on a Shambhala Training weekend, if anybody’s interested. Here’s the abstract for it:

    “Old Paradigms, New Insight:
    Thomas Merton’s Bangkok Talk in Light of Shambhala Vision”

    Thomas Merton’s Bangkok Talk links the Christian notion of The Fall or Original Sin, the Buddhist notion of Avidya or Ignorance, and the Early Marxian notion of Alienation. Chögyam Trungpa distinguished his Shambhala teachings from his Buddhist teachings by suggesting Great Eastern Sun Vision is “enlightenment gone politics, whereas ordinary enlightenment is religious.” This presentation will re-view Merton’s Bangkok Talk in light of Shambhala Vision, and underscore its importance not only for Christian-Buddhist dialogue, Liberation Theology and Engaged Buddhism, but for Marxism, Environmentalism, and the End of History debate.

    A word of caution: I notice a current Shambhalian at this site, a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche–following in that teacher’s current footsteps, apparently–referring to “Goodness,” not “BASIC Goodness” as Trungpa Rinpoche first coined the term, to describe the primordial state of mind. Using just “Goodness” to name that primordial state of mind (or Zen’s “No-Mind,” we could say) results in a kind of slippage in the direction of Platonism, away from what Trungpa Rinpoche originally meant by the term.

    That is, to switch to Judeo-Christian language, Trungpa was very definitely pointing to the pre-“apple eating” mode of mind, pre-“Knowledge of Good AND Evil” mode of mind, when he chose the term “Basic Goodness.” (It also refers to Samantabadra, of course, the “ALL GOOD” of Nyingma iconography, and practice.) But at the time Trungpa wanted to block the tendency of the Western Judeo-Christian mind to slip back into it’s habitual “oppositional (Good Vs. Evil) thinking” (and, hence, experiencing). Remember, “Knowledge of Good AND Evil” was the punishment for Adam and Eve eating the “forbidden fruit.”

    Anyway, Merton referred to that primal situation, the pre-“apple eating” mode of mind as EDENIC INNOCENCE. To realize that “state of mind” NOW is to have “Regained Paradise”! It’s a “structural homology” (I think that’s the correct term) with “vidya” (or “rigpa,” or “nature of mind” in Tantric Buddhist language). To put it another way, what Tantric Buddhism refers to as “dualistic fixation” (the Ist Aspect of the 1st Skandha in Buddhist psychology, a teaching Zen doesn’t have, by the way–: and this is especially important when we start to look at society, particularly the powerfully determining factor of POLITICAL ECONOMY, through a Tantric Buddhist lense) is a more scientific (Merton understood Tantric Buddhism had a profound “science of mind,” as he said in the ASIAN JOURNAL, I suspect primarily getting that in his all night discussion with Trungpa Rinpoche in that hotel in New Delhi–it was like they were long lost friends, for both of them!) way of describing “eating the apple,” which is more metaphorical, or mythical.

    Anyway, Trungpa said somewhere, we have an “habitual tendency” to “dualistically fixate,” and have been doing so, apparently, since virtually the birth of sentience. I mean, no wonder our world is so screwed up! “Dualistic fixation” is the CONDITION OF POSSIBILITY for all our current woes, from sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, militarism, anthropocentrism, all the way to political economy, you name it. In this regard, I once said to Merton’s secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, using Christian language, “Eating the apple was not a one-shot deal by our apple-eating ancestors. We eat the apple, over and over, in present time. We should hear apples crunching under our feet every step we take!” How did Patrick respond, he said “AMEN!”

  7. Roberta Canfield
    Dec 25, 2016

    Very nice article Steven; been waiting for it. Thanks.

  8. Thank you so much for this piece. Following Mark, I just want to add that Thomas Merton’s writings on Buddhism (esp. Zen) and Catholicism are simply magnificent.

    ‘The story of the Fall tells us in mythical language that “original sin” is not simply a stigma arbitrarily making good pleasures seem guilty, but a basic inauthenticity, a kind of predisposition to bad faith in our understanding of ourselves and the world.’

    — Thomas Merton, “Nirvana” Zen and the Birds of Appetite (1968)

  9. David Wimberly
    Dec 24, 2016

    Explore goodness tonight, all you good girls and boys waiting for the gifts of Christmas. Is that apple wisdom to recognize goodness and choose intentional compassion in love?

  10. Dear Steve Shippee,

    Thank you for writing on a basic point of confusion and for clarifying and illuminating two important points of Christian doctrine. One is the Genesis statements about “good and very good.” The other is about the “wounding of our nature.” I too have tended to read the “reality on the ground” take on original sin as being definitive. Now I see more light on the subject, thanks to you. When I teach NVC to anyone, including the prison population I emphasize the wounding aspect as the most incisive and accessible for moving forward with the healing journey. I have corresponded with your wife in the past about my bringing NVC to your Shambhala center, but nothing ever came of that …want to revisit that?? Pls reply via email [email protected]

  11. John McQuade
    Dec 23, 2016

    I appreciate very much this discussion. Certainly in the Dharma tradition debate is encouraged. It is not so much a matter of ” being right” as engaging prajna on the way of the Way together. What struck me in Mr. Shippee’s very articulate presentation was not so much the issue of the ” original sin” but the first move: man as the image of God. To a degree is seems that ” original sin” is a falling away or even turning away from this first move: the image of God.
    It seems that this first move – the image of God – is the difference with the views of Theism and Non-Theism. Even if one – like a Saint – re-oriented through and beyond the ” false view” of original sin to the ” right view” of the image of God – one would not be God. There is the connection and the difference. The only way to overcome the difference is for God to become human: Jesus. So faith or identification with Jesus becomes the way to overcome the difference.
    The Buddhadharma view is that there is a kind of equivalence – a principled non-dualism – between the human – with other sentient beings – and the Buddha and BuddhaNature. It is not so much that a human could become a Buddha – that is impossible – but that a human could realize being a Buddha. The difference between Theism and Non-Theism is more in this ontological realm rather than in the ethical dimensions of Original Sin and Basic Goodness.
    At the practical register there are at least two interrelated points. 1. We can have Dharma debate and dialogue. It is not about even trying to find a common ” ontological ground”. That is very unlikely and actually counter-productive. Rather the way is to highlight our differences and then – when workable – accept these differences as an ongoing Prajna engagement. Let the Sparks Fly. 2. On the ground practice – our main engagement – I have in mind a saying of the Dalai Lama : ” my religion is kindness”. Here is a focal that we can work together even as we engage our Dharma Debates – which are important – but may not be of immediate interest of those who need kindness.

  12. Mark Szpakowski
    Dec 23, 2016

    Jim Hartzz, building on some dialog between Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Thomas Merton, has suggested that it would be fruitful to explore three notions: 1) Buddhist avidya (vidya being clear seeing, so avidya being its active ignoring), pretty much the buddhist word for original sin, the root of the 3 poisons, 5 skandhas, nidanas, compulsive circling and recurrence of the wheel of life); 2) Christian original sin (a “fall” from original condition of grace/goodness): “phoenix culprit”, as Joyce called it (a pun on felix culpa, oh happy fault); and (trigger warning! radical thoughts!) 3) Marx’s notion of alienation.

    Seems to me in this age of political disintegration and anthropogenic eco-climate catastrophe that would be A Good Thing™. Really. The world needs this.

  13. Mark Szpakowski
    Dec 23, 2016

    Repeating here what I commented on a FB post on this article… Well said, and long overdue. Most Buddhist sangha people who grew up as Christians experienced the result of a pretty low level understanding of their own Christianity, which is then contrasted with the most subtle and sophisticated Buddhist view. That’s essentially the gist of the response Trungpa Rinpoche made to me after a talk at 1975 Seminary, when I said that some remarks he had made there did not reflect the kind of deep understanding of Christianity that a peer of his in that tradition would have (i.e., Thomas Merton, or Thomas Aquinas (who would definitely have been buddies with Rangung Dorje or Longchen Rabjam)). CTR agreed, saying he was speaking to a “peasant” view of Christianity.

  14. Very helpful, and, for me, very new. Thank you, Steven.

  15. Jay Lippman
    Dec 23, 2016

    Thank you Stephen and all, for your insightful comments. Perhaps I could elaborate a bit on my understanding of basic goodness as a way of furthering this discussion. The Shambhala teachings explain that basic goodness is reality, at an ultimate level. That is, it is experience beyond duality. As Shambhalians we know that this ultimate reality is, as the Sakyong teaches: continuously “streaming through our senses”. Since our senses are always functioning, we can touch that ultimate nature of goodness at any time simply by relaxing the mind, thus dissolving the dualistic barrier, and fully feeling the experience of our senses. Thus, basic goodness is never hidden. It is always available, though we may not experience it directly because we are caught in duality.

    At the same time, Basic Goodness also expresses itself at a relative level, in our relative, dualistic reality. Here we’re talking about the relative qualities which are good, as opposed to bad: kindness, gentleness, tenderness, intelligence, goodness and so on – a whole array of virtuous qualities that are linked to each other. The key point is that these relative virtues are also innate to the mind, just like the ultimate nature. While negative and afflictive emotions can be extremely powerful, they are nevertheless adventitious. They are long standing and deeply developed habits of mind which ultimately can be completely removed. Innate qualities on the other hand are inherent. No matter how much they are covered over by habitual tendencies, they cannot be completely removed. They are fundamental to our nature as human beings.

    As Buddhists trying to understanding original sin, it seems to me that we need to challenge Christian theologians to address this distinction between innate and adventitious relative qualities. Stephan’s comments that: “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”, does not clarify this question but seems to want to have it both ways. Elsewhere he seems to clearly say that human nature is not intrinsically bad. But would he go so far as to say that human nature, in both its ultimate and relative aspects, is intrinsically good?

  16. Jeff Wilzbacher
    Dec 23, 2016


    I didn’t know it until reading this article, but I have been waiting for this message to get out for a long time. As a Shambhalian I have often found myself in an environment where Christianity is put down in subtle and overt ways. As someone who has deep appreciation of Christian teachings and who sees alignment in the essence of both Shambhala and Christianity, I have become defensive and felt alienated when in that context. I’ve longed for more mutual understanding.

    When dharmas are perverted and teachings are presented without full understanding or truth it can do harm. I recall a new Shambhala student that was deeply offended and turned away from my center when someone suggested they show up in an “uplifted” collared shirt instead of a t-shirt. They heard that coming as you are is not ok and that they were not accepted. And they now associated that with Shambhala rather than the experience of raising lungta which was the intention of the suggestion. Originals sin seems to be the poster child of such misunderstandings and I greatly appreciate your effort to create more clarity, understanding and empathy.

  17. Thank you very much for this post,

    I am not a Christian, more from a materialistic-atheist background originally, but for a long time found contrasting of these two views in Shambhala centers superficial and misleading. Even though we often say that Basic Goodness is not a concept and go more towards feeleing about it, once we start to name it and talk about it, we should use our words and logic carefully.

    There is a great paradox in the middle of our reality, and even though direct feeling and perception of it can be simple and straightforward, and there is the possibility to relax in this simplicity, words about it easily becomes unbelievably complex and full of paradoxes:

    – Where did original sin and the rest came from if God is all-good?
    – Where did ignorance and the rest of suffering came from if everything is basically good?
    – Where did universe/appearenceas/God/mind-consciensnousness come from at all?
    – … etc

    All such are questions with the same logical structure and a common problem. As far as I understand Buddha even discouraged, at least in the begining, to ask such questions at all, probably becouse students would got stuck on them for a long time.

    But it is one thing to stay simple for the sake of saving some time for our meditation, and another when we start to communicate our experience to others by words.

  18. David Schneider
    Dec 23, 2016

    Dear Steven Shippee,

    Thank you for this piece. Your thoughts, and the responses so far, already further the dialogue between Buddhists and Christians initiated by the Vidyadhara. It’s particularly helpful to be reminded of the doctrine of good creation.

    You write — and it’s a crucial point in your argument:
    “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.”
    I would appreciate hearing more about this — the sources for this very fine, if not practically ungraspable, distinction.

    I suppose this is in part my personal problem with theology (though I find it attractive). At some point it hardly seems to matter whether it is “our nature” or “a condition one inherits.” In either case, effort is going to be required to let go of some things, and to cultivate others.Possibly this is part of what is being pointed to by the phrase “on the ground,” as you used it?

    A reason some Shambhala teachers make the gross distinction between basic goodness and original sin–I confess to having done this myself—-may be that it’s just not all that easy to talk about basic goodness.

    In any case, please take this topic further. It’s very beneficial. Thank you.

  19. Steven Shippee
    Dec 22, 2016

    Thank you, Jim Wilton, for your kind reply. I just want to respond to one thing.
    You say that CTR never used the word ‘sin’ to describe the three poisons. I trust that you’re correct. But, at least occasionally, he did use the words sin (and evil) to describe the impure acts that stem from the poisons. The poisons, as you indicate, lead to negative habitual patterns or obscurations, which brings up the two types of impurities: dikpa and drippa. CTR said of dikpa that it is “closest to the concept of sin, that which makes you sort of downgraded and evil.” I gladly grant that the qualifying phrases ‘closest to the concept’ and ‘sort of’ are important, as they indicate that he’s using the words with some real reservations. Clearly, Buddhism and Christianity do not simply agree on the nature of negative actions. Apparently, there’s also a difficult translation issue here. CTR said they had translated dikpa “with a lot of effort and juggling of ideas.” Anyway, my point is just that CTR did not simply exclude words like sin and evil from his teachings in this area. (Both quotes are from the VNM’s two articles on dikpa).

  20. Steven Shippee
    Dec 22, 2016

    Thanks so much for your response, Jay Lippman. I would like to reply to each of your points. First, your impression is of course correct about changes in doctrine over time. This is usually called the development of doctrine, though the use of development as the controlling image is often criticized for being too ‘organic’–i.e., for assuming that changes in Christian doctrine are always somehow deeper insights into the same truth. While I’m not sure I would agree with Bentley Hart, at least not without a lot of nuance, the claim of his which you report (I’ve not read him myself) seems to be a good example of what many find in the study of the nature of doctrinal change, namely that it sometimes includes, as you say, very fundamental differences. In any event, it is clearly the case that the doctrine of original sin is one of those teachings that has developed and changed, and about which there are diverse positions.
    However, among those Christians who affirm any doctrine of original sin, I think what I wrote is really quite representative. There are other, much more argued and arguable aspects of original sin which I did not discuss in the article; there I was actually just sticking to what are usually called “the effects of original sin” and on these there is a lot of consensus (I can’t say total consensus for how would I or anyone know). Please understand that I’m not claiming monolithic sameness of all Christian understanding on the point. But the basics of involvement with negative powers, human woundedness, the reality of ignorance and suffering, etc. — in general, the need for medicine and a path of transformation — these are things which I think the great majority of informed, practicing Christians affirm together. To deny them seems to be to fail at a sober enough estimation of the human condition.
    Second, I appreciate your acknowledgement of the service of accurate doctrinal representations in the Buddhist Christian dialogue. But I most appreciate your observation about the ‘reality on-the-ground’. Clearly, in terms of offering the Shambhala teachings, that reality is far more important than doctrinal distinctions and clarifications. And when and if someone attributes a poverty-feeling or negative self view to original sin, I don’t think it is a Shambhala teacher’s place to argue with them. Perhaps the most I can say in this respect is that, in our own teaching, we can at least not harden the lines between someone’s Christianity (whether still affirmed or not) and the Shambhala path.
    Again, thank you for your helpful response.

  21. Torgny Vigerstad
    Dec 22, 2016

    Dear Friends:

    This is a wonderful article.

    When having this discussion, it may be helpful to remember that Basic Goodness is not a concept, it is a felt experience. And when Trungpa Rinpoche talked about Buddhist Christian dialogue, he talked about dialogue between contemplative traditions. He really supported the contemplative traditions of all the world’s religions. I hope we can further his wishes.

  22. Marcia Usow
    Dec 21, 2016

    I’m posting this to my FB page so my Wisconsin family can read it.

  23. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

    But there is a distinction that it is important not to gloss over. Chogyam Trungpa R. never used the word sin to describe the three poisons. Buddhism views these as negative habitual patterns or obscurations rooted in confusion — whereas Christianity views sin as evil. There is a lot of similarity between both the Buddhist and Christian path approaches to cultivating virtue. Because I am a Buddhist chauvinist, I tend to think that the Buddhist path has more skillful means than the Christian path — but they are close (and Christianity has better music — so maybe the Christians have the advantage).

    Where the two religions diverge is toward the end of the Buddhist path — at the point where a Buddhist practitioner begins to see the path as confusion. As is said in the Sadhana of Mahamudra: “Until you stop clinging to this concept [of good and evil] the mahakalis will continue to manifest as friendly goddesses and harmful demons.” Toward the very end of the Buddhist path, there is a precept: “Don’t meditate, but don’t be distracted.” It would be unusual for a Christian practitioner to see prayer as an obstacle.

    If course, none of this makes much difference since we are all on the path. There is a lot of room in Shambhala (at least as it was taught by Chogyam Trungpa) for the Christian path as well as the Buddhist path.

  24. Manuel Medeiros
    Dec 20, 2016

    As a former Catholic who has a soft spot for the Catholic mystical tradition, I very much appreciated reading this. Thank you for taking the time to write it!

  25. Brian Callahan
    Dec 20, 2016

    Steve, thank you for this thoughtful post.
    I applaud your suggestions for a more thoughtful dialogue – especially developing a more subtle sense of the theachings of the “other” tradition.
    As a former Catholic priest, now a long term Shambhalian – also trained in theology, I too have cringed inwardly when “original sin” has been talked about.
    It helps me to remember that when I hear my fellow Shambhalians talking about their own experience of feeling inherently flawed or bad. They are engaging what they took away from Sunday school or church lessons or parochial school rather than dogma.
    No one has been very interested in the history of the idea of an original sin either. The historical evidence that this idea was linked with the Roman Church’s attempt to solidify control and gain ascendancy over other sects in the late 4th / early 5th century.
    Some of these themes appear in a novel I published in October of 2015: The Secret Love Letters of Saint Paul. I attempt to look, through the lense of basic goodness + psychology, at some of the pivotal events in the earliest formation of Christianity as a religion.

  26. Jay Lippman
    Dec 20, 2016

    I greatly appreciate Professor Shippee’s very helpful explanation of the meaning of original sin in the Christian tradition. However I would make two points. First, it is my impression that Christian views on profound philosophical topics have changed over the course of time. Even the understanding of the concept of God has become radically different from how was understood in earlier times. For example, Eastern Orthodox Christian theologian David Bentley Hart explains that today, God is understood as a discrete being within existence, whereas in classical times God was understood to be existence itself. A very fundamental difference. So which teachings on original sin, when, and by whom, matter. Second, having myself presented the notion of basic goodness many times to new people in Shambhala, it is often they who contrast basic goodness with their understanding of original sin. While knowing the actual doctrine of Christianity is certainly important in a Buddhist/Christian dialogue, the reality on-the-ground is that these days, people with Christian backgrounds do seem to attribute their sense of unworthiness in part to their understanding of original sin.

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