How to Recognize Goodness
If we carefully think about goodness, we will realize that there are many different types—real and false, honest and crooked, hidden and visible, apparent and actual, proper and improper, full and half, big and small, and difficult and easy.
These different types each have their own causes that need to be understood. If we try to practice good deeds but do not know how to distinguish between right and wrong, we may end up doing more harm than good and all of our efforts will have been in vain.
True sincerity in practicing goodness is to do so without asking for anything in return and is the crucial factor in such matters. Good acts that have conditions attached are wrongdoings, not goodness.
For instance, some people, especially Buddhists, do not understand that Buddhism teaches us to eliminate wandering thoughts and attachments. When they go to a temple to pay their respects to the Bodhisattvas, they do so to ask for something. If they do not want anything, they do not go. They burn incense in front of the Bodhisattvas and pray for assistance and guidance. If the Bodhisattva can just grant what they want, they will remain the favor with special offerings. This is trying to strike up a bargain! Not only are the insincere, they think the Bodhisattvas will accept bribes. Obviously a serious offense!
Zhi Li’s father was virtuous. The prisoner’s offer of his wife as reward was immoral but Zhi Li’s father was not offended and continued to help the prisoner. Thus it was fitting that he received such good fortune.
The previous ten accounts are examples of good actions. Now, we will look at the concepts that they illustrate. We need to know the principles and proper ways to accumulate goodness.
What are “real goodness” and “false goodness?” In the Yan dynasty, a group of scholars went to visit Master Zhongfeng. One said “We hear in Buddhism that the karmic reward for good and bad is ‘like a shadow, following the form wherever it goes.’ But why is that although some people practice goodness, their families and descendants are not prosperous? On the other hand, while others behave immorally, their families and descendants do very well. What has happened to cause and effect? Are there no standards in the Buddha’s teachings?
Several scholars, who visited the master, said that both Buddhism and Taoism taught that the law of causality was true and inescapable. But, the fact that descendants of good people sometimes had problems while descendants of immoral people sometimes prospered seemed to contradict the law of causality.
Master Zhongfeng replied: “Ordinary people are blinded by worldly viewpoints and not having cleansed their minds of impurities are unable to see clearly. Consequently, they look upon real goodness as wrongdoing and mistake wrongdoing as goodness. This is very common today.”
Ordinary people view everything as ordinary. Their minds are impure due to worldly emotions and they are still bothered by many wandering thoughts and attachments. Not having the Buddha’s eyes of wisdom to discern the truth, they often confuse good with bad. Although many people were like this, the master just said courteously that such people did exist.
“Moreover, these people do not blame themselves for failing to understand and unfairly blame their misfortunes on the heavens.” The scholars questioned how good and bad could be mistaken for each other.
The master then asked each of them to voice their thoughts on what was bad and good. One scholar said that to yell at and hit others was bad; to respect and treat others in a polite way was good. The master replied, “Not necessarily.” Another scholar said that being greedy and taking another’s money was bad while being generous and behaving properly was good. Master Zhongfeng again replied, “Not necessarily.” The remaining scholars expressed their views on what was bad and good, but Master Zhongfeng always concluded, “Not Necessarily.”
The master said that their standards were unreliable and disagreed with their answers. With that, everybody asked him to explain his standards, since his differed from theirs.
The Definition of Goodness
Master Zhongfeng said: “To do things for the benefit of others is good; to do things for self-benefit is bad. If what we do is for the sake of benefiting another, then it does not matter if we yell at or hit them; it is still good. But, if our intention is for self-benefit, then regardless of our appearance of respect and courtesy, it is bad.”
This talks of the Buddhist standard for good and bad. Anything done with the intention to benefit others is good, even if a certain amount of corporal punishment is involved, while anything done with the intent to benefit ourselves is considered bad. It does not matter how courteous we may be towards for our intentions may be tainted. For example, we may be courteous to ingratiate ourselves with others or fawn on others to gain something for ourselves.
The master continued: “Practicing goodness solely to benefit others is considered public benefit and is real goodness. If we only think of ourselves while doing good acts, then that is considered private benefit and is false goodness.”
This is the true standard for goodness: to benefit and provide goodness for every living being. If in the act of doing good, we are still concerned about our own welfare or reward, then the act is no longer sincere or pure but has become tainted. In addition to goodness that is “real or false” there is goodness that is “full or half.” To understand full and half goodness, we need to be able to differentiate between goodness that is “full or pure” and “half or mixed.”
All the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, sages and virtuous people think not of themselves but of others. A good example of this is Fan Zhongyan. Exemplifying true and perfect goodness, he was an excellent role model for he was not concerned for himself. He wanted to create good fortune for others so that they could benefit the country and all of society.
Today, when we practice good deeds, we do so sparingly. We exert just a fraction of our potential effort but consider ourselves good people. Not only that, we expect great benefits in return for our little bit of goodness. Many people go to temples to burn incense and make offerings. Why? Because they believe this can profit them the most: a dollar invested for millions in return. So, they burn incense and worship the Buddha thinking they will gain good fortune in return. If they donate a dollar today, maybe they will win 10,000 dollars in the lottery tomorrow. Such thinking degrades the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Master Zhongfeng explained further: “When goodness springs from the heart, it is real goodness. But, when we do something good just because others are doing so, it is false. When we do good without expecting anything in return, it is real goodness. But, when we practice good deeds for some purpose other than to benefit others, it is false. Those who wish to practice real goodness need to consider all these differences.
Goodness springing from our hearts arises from true sincerity and is true goodness. What is true goodness and false goodness? We must look into our hearts to see if we are genuinely practicing goodness. “False goodness” is simply following others, to act without sincereity while wishing for a return. “True goodness” is to wish for nothing in return.
The scholars said greed and excess possessions were bad, but Master Zhongfend said: “Not necessarily.” To use money and possessions to do good, to benefit the public, is considered goof not bad.
If we see things superficially, then it will be difficult to distinguish between good and bad. It all depends on the heart. The accumulation of great goodness and merits arises from the heart of sincerity. This is especially true for the great Bodhisattvas who appear as ordinary people. They do not think of the fact that they are Bodhisattvas or about trivial matters. They think purely of benefiting all beings and thus, their views are very different from ordinary people.
What are “honest goodness” and “crooked goodness”? People today often look upon an extremely conservative and nice person as good and kind.
“Honest” means being virtuous, dignified and just, “Crooked” means being dishonest. When we see a “Yes Man” who is very respectful and acquiescent to others, we may think he is a good person. Many employ such people because they are willing to do whatever they are told. People think this type of person is good and often like to have them around. But he is just a lackey obeying every command and attending to every need with a respectful demeanor.
However, the ancient sages and virtuous people have shown that they preferred those who were aspiring and dignified. As for those who appear to be compliant and careful in their actions, everyone may like them, but sages often speak of them as “thieves of virtue.” From this, we can see that the viewpoint of ordinary people on good and bad differs greatly from that of sages and virtuous people.
Although compliant people are well liked, sages often call them “thieves of virtue” because in their confusion about the truth, they cannot distinguish right from wrong. Virtue refers to proper customs and morality. People who cannot differentiate between right and wrong have broken the moral tradition, like thieves who have broken the law.
Because of this, our judgment could be erroneous. Beings and spirits of heaven and earth all look upon good and bad from the same viewpoint as the sages and not that of ordinary people.
We cannot always distinguish between real goodness and false goodness. Why do spirits and beings of heaven and earth have the same standards as the sages and virtuous people? They do because they all have the same view and intentions.
Therefore, when we wish ti accumulate merits, we must not give in to greed or be affected by things around us. As soon as improper thoughts arise, we need to be aware of them and then purify them
Honest goodness is to be respectful and comes from the thought to sincerely help all others. Crooked goodness is to act without sincerity and arises from the thought to flatter others to obtain what we want. To love others is honest, and to hate others and be jealous is crooked. These all need to be very carefully differentiated.
We need to avoid all that is evil and embrace all that is good. We begin with ourselves. First, we cannot allow ourselves to be affected by worldly phenomena. In other words, we must not be attached to the Fire Desires and the Six Sense Objects but let go of them, for as long as we cling to them, we will never eradicate our selfishness. These thoughts of self-benefit are the root of all negative karma. All good deeds that are done out of evil intentions will become evil. This is why Master Zhongfeng did not agree with what the scholars categorized as good because good things done with selfish intent are impure and false. Therefore, we must become less attached to worldly desires to reduce our selfishness.
Honest goodness comes from sincerely trying to help others. It takes only one sincere thought to benefit all beings. We help others to understand the true reality, to eliminate delusion and attain awakening. As soon as they do this, they will naturally learn how to eliminate evil and practice goodness. The foremost merit in Buddhism is that which helps people to learn about the truth of life and the universe so they will be free to choose which of the Ten Dharma Realms they will be reborn into.
Crooked goodness arises from thoughts of flattering others so that we can obtain what we want, for example, fame and wealth. Obviously, this is wrong and any good acts performed out of such motives would be crooked and not honest. We need to be careful and respectful when interacting with others and circumstances. Acting without sincerity is a fault. To correct it, we need to recognize it.
What are “hidden goodness” and “visible goodness”? Goodness is hidden when no one knows about it and visible when our acts are known to others.
Ancient sages and virtuous people taught us to accumulate hidden virtues instead of visible goodness. When we do something and are praised for it, that praise was our good fortune. For example, receiving and award is good fortune.
Those with hidden virtues will naturally be known by the heavens and be rewarded. Those who practice visible goodness will be known by people and enjoy fame. Fame itself is good fortune, but heaven and earth shun fame. Those who have great fame, but lack the virtue to support it will eventually encounter overwhelming adversities. Those who have not done anything wrong but are falsely accused will have descendants who will often suddenly become prosperous and successful. From this, we can see how important it is to understand hidden and visible goodness.
If we desire popularity and fame, getting them can be considered good fortune and they may be seen as our reward. But actually, they are not considered a good return because they can cause envy among people as well as among beings and spirits of heaven and earth. Worse yet is for us to take credit for virtuous conduct that we did not do, for this will inevitably be followed by adversity.
On the other hand, if we have done nothing wrong but are being wronged or reviled by others, then we actually are accumulating goodness. The more jealous people slander us, the better it is. Why? Such slander and hindrances will reduce our negative karma. So, when we accumulate virtues, it is best to do so quietly with no one knowing about it. There is ne need to seek praise or respect.
When all of our negative karma has been eliminated, our accumulation of goodness will become even stronger and our good fortune even greater. This will result in the sudden prosperity of our descendants. When we carefully observer those who suddenly attain fame, we can see that their ancestors possessed many hidden virtues. Once we understand this, we will appreciate the value of such virtues.
What are “apparent goodness” and “actual goodness”? In the Spring-Autumn Period, the county of Lu made a law that rewarded those who paid the ransom to free their fellow citizens who were servant-slaves. At that time, Confucius had a rich student named Zigong who, although he paid the ransom to free people, did not accept the reward for doing so.
Why would someone become a servant-slave in the homes of the nobility? They had broken the law and were sent to these homes to serve their sentences. The government passed a law stating that as long as someone paid their fine, they would be freed. It then encouraged the wealthy to pay the fine in the hope that the criminals would reform.
Upon hearing this, Confucius was very unhappy and scolded Zigong: “You acted wrongly. When sages and virtuous people do something, it is to improve morality and teach people how to behave. We do not do something for self-benefit or reputation. In Lu, the poor outnumber the wealthy. Since you refused the reward, others will thin that accepting reward money is being greedy and if this happens, no one will pay the ransom to free our people.”
Confucius was displeased because Zigong had not seen the situation from the standpoint of a virtuous person but from that of an average person. The teachings of virtuous people are for the benefit of all people, not just for certain individuals. From an individual’s standpoint, Zigong’s action was praiseworthy; however, he had erred by going against local customs and disrupted the government’s plan.
At that time in Lu, the poor greatly outnumbered the rich. The reward plan was designed to motivate average citizens. When Zigong refused the reward, everyone praised him. But he had set a harmful example because anyone who similarly performed a good deed would also likely refuse the award. To accept it could result in others thinking that the deed was done solely for the reward. This refusal to accept rewards would ruin the government’s system. Since the purpose was to encourage everyone to perform good deeds, Zigong should have accepted the reward, not to benefit himself, but the public. This shows how sages and virtuous people interpret things differently from average people.
Another student of Confucius, Zilu, once saw a man drowning in the river and rescued him. Later, the man thanked him by giving him a cow. When Confucius heard that Zilu had accepted the gift, he was happy and said: “In the future, people will be eager to help those who are drowning.”
In the eyes of ordinary people, Zigong’s refusal of the reward money was good, while Zilu’s acceptance of the cow was not. Who would have expected Confucius to praise Zilu and scold Zigong! From this, we can see that those who practice good deeds must not only consider the current outcome but that of the future as well. Neither should be only consider our own gain and loss but think about the impact made on others.
When Zilu accepted the cow, Confucius praised him because when others realized saving a life might result in a reward, it could become an incentive for people to be braver in helping others.
When Confucius praised Zilu instead of Zigong, his viewpoint was very different from that of ordinary people. However, he had sound reasons for doing so. Looking at sages and virtuous people, we will see that their vision is more pervasive than ours, with our limited vision, we do not realize the long-term effects that our actions may cause. We need to consider matters from the aspect of benefiting society, the country, and even the world, as well as how history will regard events. When we realize the broad scope involved, our views will be very different than before and we will understand that Confucius was correct. Therefore, good and bad cannot always be determined by present actions. We need to consider whether the long-term results will be positive or negative in order to judge wisely.
What we do now may be good, but in time, may prove harmful. Thus, what seems like goodness may actually be bad. What appears to be bad may actually have positive, long-term effects, turning out to have been good after all. Thus, what seems like a bad deed may actually be goodness.
For example, apparent responsibility may be actual irresponsibility, apparent propriety may be actual impropriety, apparent trustworthiness may be actual untrustworthiness, and apparent kindness may be actual unkindness. We need to carefully differentiate to make proper choices.
Something we view superficially may appear to be good, but actually, it is not. Or it may be good for a specific individual or for a particular time. However, it may not be good for society as a whole or it may not be good for future generations. This is why in Buddhism the determination of good and bad is never based on current action. What has been good throughout history is the real goodness, for the good has benefited generation. That which is good now but is not good for future generations, or that which has destined us to be reborn into the Three Bad Paths is not true goodness.
In the case of Zilu, accepting the reward might not have seemed to be good at the time; however, since the long-term results were good, it was good. This is a good example of apparent goodness and actual goodness. What are responsibility and propriety? What are trustworthiness and kindness? There are apparent and actual goodness in each of these. If we cannot distinguish between them then it is likely that we were doing good. If we wish to practice to accumulate good fortune, we must first possess wisdom. Without it, no matter how hard we try, we will not obtain good fortune.
What are “proper goodness” and “improper goodness”? Lu Wenyi was a prime minister in the Ming Dynasty. When he grew old, he retired to his hometown where he was well loved and highly respected. Once, a drunken villager went to his home and began to yell insults at him. Mr. Lu told his servant, “This man is drunk, don’t argue with him.” With that, he closed the door and ignored the onslaught of insults.
A year later, the same man committed a grave crime and was sentenced to death. Hearing this, Mr. Lu remorsefully said: “If only I had taken him to the authorities for punishment that day, perhaps a little discipline could have prevented this. At the time, I was trying to be kind but I inadvertently encouraged his arrogance and cruelty. Now, he has been sentenced to death.” This is an example of having good intentions but doing something bad.
Mr. Lu’s virtuous conduct and great merits had earned him respect from virtually everyone. When a disgruntled man who had becme drunk came to his hime and verbally abused him, Mr. Lu did not take the incident to heart. He tolerantly told his servant to just close the door.
Later, Mr. Lu heard that a drunkard had been given the death sentence. Mr. Lu remorsefully believed that he had mishandled the situation. Had he pressed charges and sent the man to jail, things might have been different.
We see many examples of “having good intentions but doing something bad.” This is especially true of today’s young parents who unwittingly spoil their children, so much so that when the children grow up, they may not respect their parents and may even break the law. It may be too late when the parents realize their grave mistake.
Children need to be properly taught when they are young for the child is the father of the man. If children are not disciplined when they are young, it will be too late to do so when they have grown, for they will most likely rebel against their parent’s wishes.
In ancient China, a criminal sentence could be issued under the heading of “Parental Rights.” If a parent went to a judge, complained that the child had not fulfilled his or her filial duties, and wanted the child sentenced to death, the judge would do so without even holding a trial. Parental rights were given the highest consideration. This was why children were petrified of their parents, because if the parents were to file a complaint and wished a particular sentence issued, there was no recourse.
Parental rights existed through the mid 1990’s. With such a law, no child dared ignore filial duties. They could not even ask for a lawyer because no defense was allowed.
There is also an example of those who achieved goodness although they had acted from improper intentions. Once, after a devastating famine, people were reduced to stealing food in broad daylight. A wealthy family reported this to the authorities who did nothing. As the poor gre more daring, chaos was imminent. The family, taking the law into their own hands, caught and punished the thieves. In this way, peace was restored and the thefts were stopped. If this had not been done, chaos would have erupted.
When a famine strikes, the poor may turn to robbery. In this account, when the wealthy complained of the robberies, the authorities ignored them for fear of starting a revolt. When the thieves became for daring, the authorities had no way of controlling them. So, the wealthy people took matters into their own hands and in this way, peace was restored. If this had not occurred, then order would have been completely disrupted. The action was bad and was done with selfish intentions; however, the result benefited everyone.
We all know that goodness is proper and wrongdoing is improper. However, there are cases where deeds done out of good intentions resulted in bad. This is called the “improper within the proper.” There are also deeds done out of improper intentions that resulted in good. This is called the “proper within the improper.” We can benefit from understanding this.
Good intentions are “proper” and bad deeds are “improper.” In the previous example, Mr. Lu had done a bad deed although his intention was good. This is the “improper within the proper.” The standard for good and bad is determined by the effect an action has on morality and society as a whole.
For instance, becoming a vigilante and punishing someone on our own is obviously not considered good. However, in this situation, the authorities had not acted and things were getting out of control. Something needed to be done to protect lives and possessions. By taking the law into their own hands, the wealthy family restored order as they stopped the thieves from creating further chaos and disrupting a proper way of life. Thus, a good deed was done through selfish intentions. This is “proper within the improper.”
What are “half goodness” and “full goodness”? We read in the I Ching: “People who do not accumulate virtuous deeds will not achieve honor while people who do not accumulate bad deeds will not bring about self-destruction.” And from the Book of History we learn that “Zhou, who was the last emperor of the Shang dynasty, committed horrible crimes.” The dynasty ended with his death.
This is a lesson taught by ancient sages and virtuous people. Such lessons were later called sutras and respected as such for they teach the truth. The truth surpasses time and space. If we do not practice goodness, we will not attain integrity, and if we do not commit wrongdoings, we will not suffer self-destruction.
It is like collecting objects in a container. With diligence, it will soon be full but if we are lazy, then it will only be half full. This is an example of full and half goodness.
Imagine we are trying to fill a container with goodness. If we are persistent, we will eventually succeed. But if we are not persistent, it will not become full. This illustrates the importance of accumulating goodness. And most importantly, we must not accumulate wrongdoings or we will destroy ourselves.
Once a woman visited a Buddhist temple and wished to make a donation. Being extremely poor, she only had two cents but she unreservedly gave these to a monk. To her surprise, the abbot himself came to help her regret for past offenses and to dedicate her merits. Later, she was chosen to enter the imperial palace, and obtained wealth and prestige. Clad in her riches, she returned to the temple to make a donation, this time bringing a small fortune.
To her dismay, the abbot sent another monk to help dedicate her merits. She did not understand and questioned the abbot: “In the past, I only donated two cents, yet you personally helped me regret my past offenses. Today, I have brought much money but you will not help me perform my merit dedication. Why?”
The abbot replied: “Although you gave only a little in the past, it came from a true and sincere heart. It was necessary for me to replay your sincereity by personally performing your dedications. Today, your donation is much greater, but the heart of giving is not as sincere. Therefore, it is enough that my student performs your dedications for you.” This is an example of how thousands of silver coins are only considered “half goodness” and two cents are “whole goodness.”
This is a true account found n Buddhist records. A laywoman wished to make an offering, but she only had two cents to give. Due to her sincerity, the abbot personally helped her to dedicate the merits from this good deed. Later, she returned with a large amount of money but the abbot did not greet her personally. Being confused, she asked why?
This abbot had very high moral standards. This is unlike what we all too often see today, where we witness many Buddhists behaving improperly. In the past, those with high moral standards judged people by their sincerity. If people were sincere, then no matter how little they donated, the abbot personally performed the dedications. If the donors were not sincere, then the abbot was not obligated to do so. With sincere hearts, the donors nutured good fortune by making offerings to the Buddha and only had to donate a little to gain infinite benefits in return.
However, in this example, the woman had gained wealth and prestige and her sincerity had been clouded by her new way of life. By sending his student to greet her, the old abbot was trying to awaken her. This was the greatest kindness. He was trying to show her where she had erred, in the hope that she would feel remorse, acknowledge her mistake and correct her behavior.
When the woman had initially donated two cents, her return of good fortune was full and complete. But on her second visit, her return of good fortune was only half-full and incomplete. When practicing to accumulate good fortune, it is important to realize that the determining factor is not the amount of money or the number of good deeds but the heart of sincerity. As long as we do things with utmost sincerity, we will accomplish full and complete goodness.
When we dedicate our merits, we do three things to show our heart of true sincerity. We think to ourselves: “Today, when I practice, I do the following. First, I dedicate my merits to returning to the state of reality and I wish to attain clarity of mind to uncover my original true nature. Second, I dedicate my merits to awakening and I wish to awaken from my state of delusion and to understand the truth of the universe. Third, I dedicate my merits to all living beings. I hope that all beings will be able to eliminate delusion and attain enlightenment, to eradicate selfishness and suffering, to gain happiness. I hope that all will become Buddhas and that upon attaining Buddhahood that they will help others to do the same. I dedicate my merits for all others, not for myself.
If this is truly our intention, then with this thought, we will achieve full merits and virtues. But, if there is the slightest thought for ourselves, for fame or wealth, then we will not gain merits and virtues, not even a “half” return. In fact, we will have probably achieved much negative karma instead. Therefore, never look at things superficially, but learn to look into the profound truth of reality.