October 30, 2014

Virtue & Basic Goodness: The Lost Conversation.

Stupa Buddha

This is part one in a six-part series in which Acharya Fleet Maull explores some major themes we all struggle with:

1. Virtue & Basic Goodness: The Lost Conversation.

2. The Human Condition and our Western Culture of Unworthiness.

3. Working with Fear and Vulnerability.

4. Fundamental Goodness vs. Fundamentalism.

5. The Neuroscience of Transcending Fear-Based Mind and Culture.

6. Awakening Through Service.


The words goodness and virtue may sound old-fashioned, or even pious and religious. Virtue or virtuous behavior could be described as behaviors, actions or non-actions, that bring about happiness for ourselves and others. Whereas, non-virtue would describe behaviors that produce suffering for ourselves and others.

Virtue is simply the kind of behavior that arises when we trust in our innate goodness and are not overcome, or overly influenced, by fear, doubt and unworthiness.

When we are in touch with our innate goodness and our confidence in that, we naturally act with kindness, mindfulness and precision. We have a sense of inner congruence and wholeness and our mind is not wavering. We have greater discernment about what we do and how we do what we do.

And since we are not caught up in the speed and aggression that arises from a sense of unworthiness and fear, we are naturally more compassionate and kind. Such virtuous behaviors have natural strength and momentum. They produce positive energy.

This is why, in Buddhism and other traditions, we have the notion of “merit,” or accumulated positive energy, which we dedicate to others, for the benefit of others, at the end of or our practices sessions.

Merit is basically the accumulated energy of virtue.

The Tibetan word for virtue is “gewa.” There’s also another Tibetan word, “dewa” which means bliss, or could be translated as happiness and well-being.

As you may have already guessed, there is a direct correlation between happiness and virtue. The underpinning of happiness and bliss is virtue—this is what creates positive momentum and inner happiness.

Most of us are familiar with the expression virtuous cycle that is related to things we are trying to accomplish—like meditation practice, diets or workouts. We try to establish a routine or positive habit and get a good momentum going.

At first we feel it, yet somehow we often start to lose track and find ourselves caught in an non-virtuous cycle, or what we sometimes call a vicious cycle. As we all know too well, once this happens, our momentum starts going backwards until it (hopefully) finally spins us into a place where we bottom out and get motivated to take action.

Reminded of our original inspiration and frustrated with poor results, we discover the motivation to once again take the actions needed to establish a virtuous cycle of the desired behaviors and results.

So this is a very common idea in the world, conventionally, with all of our human activities. However, when I refer to virtue here, I mean the behaviors that arise from a sense of inner congruence and wholeness, originating from our trust in our own innate goodness, and in the innate goodness of others.

Trusting in and developing unconditional confidence in this innate goodness creates a self-existing virtuous cycle that is much less vulnerable to the ups and downs of our conventionally motivated efforts to improve ourselves or create desired results of some kind.

So, this brings us to goodness. And what do we mean by goodness? We all know about the relative meaning of goodness (good vs. bad). But the goodness we are talking about here, in terms of basic goodness or unconditional goodness, is deeper and more profound than the relative sense of “good” that is juxtapositioned with “bad.”

Basically everything we experience, the good, bad and the ugly, arises out of the same ground of basic goodness, as either an expression of confidence in that ground or in fear of it.

There’s only one ground of being. There is no such thing as “good” people and “bad” people. The idea that some people are born with good genes or a good soul, and that other people are born bad is simply not true. There are no “border tribes” that are bad and evil that somehow snuck on our planet. What we call evil is simply the momentum of non-virtuous action that arises out of fear, which arises from a lack of familiarity with, and trust in, the ultimate ground of our being.

The ground of being for all beings, all of life, is fundamentally good and pure.

How could it be otherwise? It is life itself.

From the earliest historical times, human beings have been asking, “What is this all about and how did we get here?” This inquiry into the nature of and origins of reality and existence goes way back. We have continuously wondered:

“How did we get here, and why do we look the way we do? And why up versus down? And why are trees green instead of blue? And why do we have two eyes and two arms? Theoretically it could all manifest in a million different ways. So why, why are things the way they are, and where did this all come from? Where did this all start, and why did it start?”

As we know, there is a great diversity of philosophical and religious systems, indigenous stories and rituals, and all kinds of creation stories and narratives that have arisen in our attempts to understand all of this; but the idea that this whole thing, whatever it is and however it came into being, could somehow be a mistake, or that the whole thing is somehow fundamentally flawed, doesn’t even make sense.

Whatever this is, this thing we call reality or life, it is simply here…there isn’t another reality. Things are as they are. The idea that somehow this is all a big cosmic mistake…or that human beings are some kind of cosmic mistake or inherently flawed or unworthy doesn’t hold up to any kind of logical analysis. As well, it’s not really our felt experience at the deepest level. Yet, we have a couple of challenges that tend to lead us in that direction of feeling unworthy.

What, you might wonder, leads us to distrust, if not our own, then the basic or innate goodness of others? Why do we doubt ourselves, each other and our society so deeply? What is it in our Western culture that causes us to feel bad about ourselves, that creates this shared ceremony of unworthiness?

As you can see, I’m just starting to poke around a little with these themes. There is a lot to explore here. So, please, take some time this week to reflect on what you think I may be getting at and join the beginning stages of a much deeper conversation with yourself.

Please, feel free to answer those questions above in the comment section below (I’ll be reading and commenting back) and please share whatever may be arising for you in relation to the ideas and questions I’m raising here. Finally, please join us next week for Part Two (in this six-part series), as we dig even deeper and start to explore the Human Condition and Our Western Culture of Unworthiness.



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Author: Fleet Maull

Editor: Travis May

Photos: Used with permission by Cody Lee Hanson, Stupa Buddha by Travis May

Reply to OliverDMK cancel

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OliverDMK Jan 11, 2015 10:23am

I dont know why my explanation does not show up, but maybe because the universe is telling me to explain in small pieces.
I would LOVE to share my perspective to help people and be helped myself.
I will share this though…
If and/or understand that we are in a perfect tapestry called the multiverse you should appreaciate your role in it, and that as eternal children, as we grow everything grows with us. We are more than the induvidual.

Oliver Jan 11, 2015 9:24am

The idea of transending fear I believe is very possible…
I belive to do so one must must first accept it, address it than to overcome it by trusting in the universal Goodness of our multiverse.
I may have miss-explained my opinion on the first comment, but I will attempt to explaine it a little more throughly on later postings possibly.
The important thing in my opinion is that you must first find the right question than when we get the right answer, accept it.
There is an underlining pattern to reality that all things follow.
The other thing is that we will never know everything and fundamentally we are ignorant, but ignorance is the gateway to understanding. Fear is a form of ignorance but also a tool, we are given myriad tools for myriad pourposes, It is pritty much learning to use what tool for the right situation. I am hesitant to deeply accept absolutes beyond what I understand, but accept that there are answers, right answers. An answer is an absolute, but we must remember that our answers lie in illussion… Illussion of self.
I deeply believe in reincarnation and we ascend and decend down the spiritual totem poll not as an actual gain loss fashion but more of a means to temper and purify our soul(s). I fundamentally believe that God is perfecting it self buy perfecting us, I belive there is no end…
From unknown places into single cell organisms to plants to insects exc… into humans and eventually into solar systems, gallaxies exc… As we ascend the rules get more complex and we adjust.
This can only be acheaived by respecting the order of things including our needs as humans to nurture and protect, aswell
To attempt to sustain our lives and learn, to find joy to respect the flow of things, to understand and to share, to help as many people as possible, as it ultimatly helps ourselves (what does ourselves actually mean?).

Oliver Jan 11, 2015 8:28am

The idea of transending fear I believe is very possible…
But only once we accept it.
I think that to reach that point we have to see, truly see the truth and keep an open mind, and have acceptance that we will never know everything, but may be able to understand the underlining princible(s), that everyting follows.
We must be able to know what the question is and then accept the answer.
Once we know the answer we can ask the next question… This proccess is on-going, there is no limit in my opinion.
I agree with Fleet Maul on everything he said, and thank you!

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Fleet Maull

Fleet Maull is an intrepid social activist/peacemaker and itinerant meditation teacher who travels the world leading retreats, peacemaker trainings, prison programs and transformational seminars. He is an empowered senior teacher in two Buddhist lineages, as an Acharya in the international Shambhala Buddhist Community and a Sensei in the Zen Peacemaker Order. Fleet is well known as a prison reform activist and the founder of Prison Mindfulness Institute (aka Prison Dharma Network) and the National Prison Hospice Association. He is also a sought after business consultant, trainer, executive coach working with business leaders in diverse industries to build healthy and sustainable enterprises with cultures grounded in mindfulness, emotional intelligence, transparency, accountability and integrity. Fleet offers similar training to the general public through his Radical Responsibility® and Radical Possibility™ Seminars in cities all across the United States.

When Fleet’s not traveling the world speaking and teaching, he loves to take his sailboat out on the Narragansett Bay with his son Robert and/or his best (dog) pal, Ziji, who happens to be a master sailor. Fleet is the author of Dharma in Hell, the Prison Writings of Fleet Maull and numerous articles and book chapters. He is currently completing his latest book called Radical Responsibility. Follow Fleet’s work and/or get involved through his website, TwitterFacebook or at Prison Mindfulness InstituteNational Prison Hospice Association, orShambahla International.