Doing Good as against Not Doing Harm

My impression is that there is a difference between typical Eastern and Far Eastern attitudes, and typical Western ones. Take a case given by the Chinese Zen master Tozan. You see a hungry snake pursuing a frog. What do you do? Not liking snakes, you get a stick and beat off or maybe kill it. You save the frog, and the frog immediately goes on to catch flies on its long sticky tongue. On the other hand, suppose you don’t interfere. Then the snake will eat the frog, and the flies will be safe, at least from that frog. So if you interfere, the snake loses, the frog does well, the flies lose. If you don’t interfere, the snake does well, the frog loses, and the flies do well. That is two to one! So you do better not interfering.

My impression is that most of the rules in the vinaya and other Eastern moral codes are mostly negative: don’t kill, don’t slander people, don’t get drunk. The form is negative ‑ don’t do harm to people, ahinisa.

Compare this with the so‑called golden rule: what you would like others to do to you, do that to them. Jesus is reputed to have said this. But about fifty years before Jesus, lived the great Rabbi Hillel who, as a matter of fact, anticipated a few of the sayings attributed to Jesus. He was asked by some idiot: ‘Can you sum up the whole of the Law while I stand on one leg?’ Now most people cannot stand on one leg for more than a few seconds, but Hillel told him, ‘Yes’. So this man stood on one leg, and Hillel said: ‘Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t Want them to do to you. That is the Law; all the rest is commentary.’

Don’t harm them, he is saying, don’t harm people, as opposed to saying do positive good to them. This latter, of doing positive good, has been criti­cized on the ground that my idea of positive good, namely what I should like for myself, may not be the same as your idea of positive good. When Einstein was young, he used to feel lonely, and he would have liked people to come and talk to him. But later on in life he was saying: ‘The great boon is to be alone.’ If someone had seen him then, he might have thought: ‘I like being talked to, so old Einstein would like that now’, and gone on chatter­ing, chattering, chattering.

I have suggested that many of the precepts are negative, not to do harm. But it is not simply that: a person concerned with not doing harm is setting an example of peace and calm, and because he is calm he can see more clearly what is harm and what is not harm, whereas too often one who is doing what he regards as positive good is setting an example of extreme agitation and consequently, not very good insight.

© Trevor Leggett

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