Rehabilitating Niceness

David Chapman has a post on his website challenging Buddhist “niceness.”  He wrote that “niceness does not define Buddhism, or have anything much to do with it.”   He sees the emphasis on niceness in Western Buddhism as a consequence of the 1960’s Hippie movement.  In his version of history, the Hippie rebellion against 1950’s conformity left a vacuum “opening the door to a nihilistic void of dead-end drug use or mindless rage and rebellion” that they filled with “Buddhist ethics.”  But since Buddhism didn’t have a unified theory of ethics, and since aspects of traditionalist Buddhist ethics reflected conservative values, Western Buddhism swapped traditional Buddhist ethics with “nice liberal ethics.”  In the end, Chapman says, Western Buddhist ethics resemble Universal Unitarian values more than Asian Buddhist ones — Western Buddhist ethics are really an amalgam of political correctness, liberal Christianity, socialist impulses, and psychotherapeutic values.  Western Buddhists promulgate “a morality of good intentions, harmonious behavior, and inoffensiveness” when they should be striving for Enlightenment instead.  Chapman doesn’t like niceness.  In fact, as far as he’s concerned, “niceness sucks.”

I derived my own commitment to “niceness” from the teachings of parents and teachers, from the Jewish tradition of menschlichkeit, from my respect for public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and from a genetic endowment that inclined me in a non-aggressive direction (mild temperament, small stature).  Later influences fit David Chapman’s bill — sixties Hippie (check) political liberal (check), psychotherapeutic values (check).  O.K.!  So, I admit it!  I brought my liberal Western values and ethical principles with me to Buddhism.  I think, however, they are concordant with the core of Buddhist ethics (non-harming, non-hatred, non-greed) and where they are discordant (e.g., traditional Buddhist misogyny and homophobia) they improve upon it.

Is Buddhism invariably nice?  No.  One can point to a wide variety of “not nice” behaviors in the stories of fierce mahasiddhas, Tibetan yogis, and Zen masters that have come down to us through the ages.

But these stories are counter-narratives. They’re interesting because they rub against the predominant grain of Buddhist thought and teachings, in much the same way the Heart Sutra rubs against the grain of the Tripitaka teachings that preceded it.  Buddhism doesn’t want us to grasp onto anything — including Buddhism.

The fact is however, that the Buddha of the Pali Canon is invariably nice.  If he has something unsettling to say to someone, they have to request it from him three times before he’ll say it.

Other Asian Buddhist teachers who have shaped Western Buddhism have also been notably “nice,” following the example of the Buddha:  Angarika Munindra, Ajahn Chah, Lama Yeshe, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to name a few. I’m sure readers can come up with others (as well as some exceptions).  Niceness is normative Buddhism. The not-niceness in Buddhist stories is there to remind us, as Shunryu Suzuki suggested, that the very heart of Buddhism is “not always so.”  Niceness as a rigid straight-jacket that constrains one under all circumstances?  No.  Niceness as a norm to strive for whenever appropriate?  Why not?

What is niceness, exactly?  One should never confuse it with its near enemies: passivity, deference, and conflict avoidance.  Niceness is based on a set of principles: that everyone deserves respect, that kindness can be one’s default option, that understanding other’s concerns, problems, and desires is an important part of negotiating relationships and resolving conflicts.  Niceness doesn’t obviate truth telling.  One can tell the truth in ways that are respectful to others.  As a therapist, I frequently had to tell patients how their behaviors and beliefs were undermining their goals and well-being, but I strove to do so with kindness, in a way that promoted understanding without provoking defensiveness.  Niceness doesn’t have to imply being a doormat or pushover.  Even Mary Tyler Moore stood up to Mr. Grant at times!  As Roshi Joan Halifax suggests, keep a “strong back, soft front.”

Are there times when niceness is out of place?  After all, the world is not entirely made up of nice people.  There are a reasonable number of psychopaths, narcissists, thugs, bullies, terrorists, tyrants, and miscreants around who pursue their own will-to-power without empathy or remorse.  How does one defend oneself, one’s loved ones, and civil society as a whole, against would-be predators?

The answer is, of course, that one should, one must.

The question is, in what spirit does one go about doing it? Does one do it with malice, out of hatred?  Does one do it skillfully and effectively, without becoming a predator in turn?  Albert Camus suggested we should strive to be “neither victims nor executioners.”

A menacing stranger once tried to pull Sharon Salzberg from her rickshaw while traveling through a dark alley in Calcutta.  A friend managed to push the man away and they luckily escaped unharmed.  When she told Angarika Munindra what had happened, he exclaimed “Oh, Sharon, with all the lovingkindness in your heart, you should have taken your umbrella and hit the man over the head with it!”  Criminals need to be deterred, invaders repulsed, bullies withstood.  But is it possible to do so motivated by our highest aspirations rather than our basest instincts?

This week my grandson, Roshan, received a “Good Manners Award” in his kindergarten class.  This teacher wrote:

“Roshan… always has such a positive attitude and is really fun to have in class! Today I heard him talking to some friends while playing a game and he kept saying “Can you please pass me that piece?” and “Thank you!”  He won the award for having such nice polite manners. I also looked over to the art center and saw him cleaning up everyone’s paper scraps without being asked! Thanks Roshan!”


The family tradition of niceness continues.

No, David. Niceness doesn’t “suck.”  If anything, we need more of it.

 Bodhidharma cartoon courtesy of Adam at Sweeping Zen

29 Replies to “Rehabilitating Niceness”

  1. Not really. I thought David was primarily ruing the importation of Western liberal values into Western Buddhism — they weren’t sufficiently Buddhisty for him. My response is that those values are mostly consonant with the main thrust of core Buddhist values of non-harming, non-aversion, and non-greed, and where they differ, e.g., around traditional Buddhist misogyny and homophobia, they are an improvement. If he was also making the argument that “kindness” and “niceness” were different, and that niceness necessarily implies being a doormat, I’m not sure which Buddhists he was criticizing. Not the ones that I know.

  2. Buddhism aside, I sometimes find niceness a problematic superlative myself because it often connotes a kind of genteel avoidance of issues in the name of politeness. However the examples Seth cites of Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King speak to a very different kind of superlative – deeply compassionate and also fiercely committed to ethical principles. I attended a retirement party today for someone who many would regard as ‘nice’ because she is in part an exemplar of kindness and gentleness, yet as one person described her – there is also a storm inside her of strong committment. I mostly agree with, and as usual am inpsired by, what Seth writes but I would suggest that compassion without passion is the crux of the problem with ‘niceness’ – at least as i see it.

    1. Thanks for your input, Roy. This seems to be mostly a disagreement about semantics, with the word “nice” having different connotations and subtle overtones for different listeners. In my vocabulary, niceness comes out of a deep commitment to a way of being-in-the-world, and genteel avoidance is not part of that way-of-being. I can see that for others it is part of its meaning. I appreciate that difference in perception. In my post I was trying to rescue a word that seemed perfectly serviceable from malignment. I can see that you understood my intention, but that you think the word itself might be beyond rescue. I can appreciate that! Best as always!

  3. I read David’s post and he did come across as being a little harsh. That niceness belongs within Western Buddhism is a no-brainer to me. Every culture brings its own traditions and values to the dharma – and I think your post makes a strong point for its place.

    However, I’m not sure I agree with you when you say that the Buddha was invariably nice in the Pali canon. Niceness after all by definition Western. At the risk of being pedantic, I’d say that he was invariably compassionate – probably the best translation of metta.

    Anyway, I did enjoy your post – I found it through a post on google+ btw.

    1. Thanks for visiting, Jonckher. Is niceness really by definition Western? I’ve met a lot of nice Asians over the years! This word “nice” sends so many readers running for other synonyms! I’ll accept “compassionate,” or “kind” or “respectful,” or “considerate.” They all work for me. All “nice” words!

  4. Like Seth, I fit “the profile” to some degree. However, I have known many Buddhists who do not. In my experience, a particularly difficult problem for Westerners has been dealing with the imposition of Asian cultural values and modes of behavior and it is far more prevalent than what Chapman is citing with “his version of history.”

    That’s about all I can say on this subject because anything else I could add would not be very nice.

    1. We old Hippies need to stick together! While I never considered myself a “Hippie,” I suppose others might have characterized me that way. I can’t remember Mr. Chapman’s “nihilism” and “rage,” but then, if you remember the 60’s, you weren’t there.

      1. Unfortunately, Seth, remarks like this only reinforce Chapman’s contentions about hippies, even though according to him, all the hippies went to Asia in the 1970’s. He doesn’t tell us if they ever came back.

        I’ve decided that folks like Chapman and Glen Wallis represent the Tea Party faction within Buddhism: ridiculous over-the-top notions based on a completely phony version of history for the purpose of making a name for themselves.

        1. David, its always hard to know the motives of people we have never met. I like to assume the best – that they are just sharing their own particular take on things as they see it. The Opinion-O-Sphere is a very big place, and we all have our little parts in it. As Mao, once said (unfortunately, insincerely), “let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend.” We sharpen our own ideas by testing them against the ideas of others that challenge ours. We just both happen to see things differently than they do.

          1. Well, I am not feeling very “nice” this morning, besides it’s a free country and I can question the motives of anyone I like. I’m sorry, it’s just that I have little patience with junk like this.

  5. Seth is discussing this post on his Google + account. There, Petteri Sulonen summarizes two important points which I think are accurate.

    You wrote your response to David [Chapman] from two mistaken assumptions: that he was making an argument against kindness, and that he was making an argument against the importation of Western liberal values into Buddhism. In fact he was arguing against niceness, explicitly contrasted with kindness, and Western liberal values masquerading as Buddhism.

    Here is the link, but I think you have to be in Seth’s circle to read this — I still don’t fully understand Google +.

  6. Hi, Seth,

    Thank you for your nice review of my rant!

    In it, I certainly failed to be clear about what I was contrasting “niceness” with. That left open the obvious interpretation that I was advocating nastiness, or rudeness, or something. I didn’t mean to do that… I try to be polite under most circumstances, and to be kind under all circumstances (although undoubtedly I fail sometimes).

    Mainly, Petteri Sulonen’s comments on the G+ thread seem to accord with my views, and he’s articulated them nicely, so perhaps there is not much more to say.

    But, a metaphor that might be helpful:

    Suppose you are invited to a party, and when you come in you find that there is a human corpse laid out on the living room table…

    So, being a nice person, you try hard not to stare at it, and instead you talk about the weather and last night’s football game. That’s only polite. It would be quite rude to say “Hey! What’s up with the dead body? There’s blood spilling over the edge of and pooling on the floor, and the guts are wound around the table leg… What’s that about?” Not a nice question to ask… but it might be helpful. Compassionate, even.

    The alternative to “niceness” I had in mind was a kind of straightforwardness, clarity, and realism; a willingness to not-pretend, when pretending would be the easy way out; to see clearly, when looking away would prevent anxiety.

    To torture the metaphor a little further, the corpse in this case is dead body of Buddhism, killed (or perhaps only severely wounded) by Western confusions—many of them deliberately perpetrated. Maybe we can resuscitate it; but before we can do that, we have to admit it’s bleeding.

    If my writing is sometimes inadvertently harsh, it is in an attempt to break through what appears to me a complacency and blindness in Consensus Buddhism. Of course, it may be that Consensus Buddhists see the corpse clearly and they like it just as it is. But my blog series is prompted by signs that the Consensus leadership recognizes, at last, that the approach isn’t working, and that significant change is needed.

    1. Hi David. Thanks for stopping by!

      Suppose you are invited to a party, and when you come in you find that there is a human corpse laid out on the living room table… So, being a nice person, you try hard not to stare at it, and instead you talk about the weather and last night’s football game. That’s only polite.

      David, I disagree with the idea underlying your metaphor that a nice person wouldn’t comment on the dead body and would look the other way. A genuinely nice person would say “how can I help?” and take responsibility for making things better. A nice person would call the police and the undertaker, get a mop and bucket, and start cleaning up. As I tried to make clear, my vision of niceness is not the same thing as conflict-avoidance. But this is mostly a matter of semantics. You define niceness differently than I do.

      If my writing is sometimes inadvertently harsh, it is in an attempt to break through what appears to me a complacency and blindness in Consensus Buddhism. Of course, it may be that Consensus Buddhists see the corpse clearly and they like it just as it is. But my blog series is prompted by signs that the Consensus leadership recognizes, at last, that the approach isn’t working, and that significant change is needed.

      As I suggested in my dialogue with Petteri, we disagree on two main points here. I happen to think Western Buddhism — far from being a corpse — is lively, thriving, and doing just fine. I also think “Consensus Buddhism” is a caricature/straw man without an substantial reality to it. Western Buddhism is an incredibly diverse universe with many disparate voices in it — and its diversity is its strength. I’m not particularly worried about its future.

  7. “Let them be able and upright, Straightforward and gentle in speech, Humble and not conceited, Contented and easily satisfied, Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways. Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful, Not proud or demanding in nature… Wishing: In gladness and in safety, May all beings be at ease.” — Karaniya Metta Sutta

    I suspect that the instructions of the Buddha in that sutta would leave a bad taste in Chapman’s mouth. I admit, I too was skeptical. It sounds like the Buddha is asking us to become mealy-mouthed, inoffensive little pukes. What use is such a person to the world? However, I have approached that particular sutta as a sort of challenge: am I willing to renounce my inclinations to be petty, cheeky, facetious, derisive or sardonic, to attempt to be seen as witty or whatever is driving my behavior in a moment of confrontation? Sometimes I can manage to do it, and sometimes I can’t.

    I was reading Gil Fronsdal’s translation of The Dhammapada the other day. One of the things that struck me about Fronsdal’s approach to translation was how willing he was to humble himself before the text, even when he didn’t agree with it. In his introduction to this translation, he writes: “Over the years I have read the Dhammapada in a variety of ways, sometimes casually and sometimes with great care. I have calmed my mind in meditation so that I could encounter the text in creative and intuitive ways. I have read it out loud. I have memorized verses. Some passages I have reread many times until they revealed new understandings or insights. I have read the verses for my own inspiration, as well as to discover what inspired ancient Buddhists in their religious life. At times I have approached the text with an inquiring attitude, sometimes to see how the text might address a particular question I’ve had, and sometimes to allow the text to question my own views and biases.”

    That last point is important. We can easily dismiss Buddhist ethics as simplistic. But try it. You may find, as I did, that those seemingly “Victorian” ethical prescriptions are just as important an ingredient in your understanding of the Buddha’s teaching as meditation or intellectual inquiry. Being “inoffensive” has not resulted in denial or letting other people get away with unskillful things, as I had initially feared it might. In fact, it has freed my conversations from being a battle of egos to a focus on the actual issues. It has enriched my understanding of “anatta.” In being kind, you minimize the reinforcement and solidification of either your own self-concept (as “the right one”, “the smart one”, etc.) or the other person’s self-concept (as “the wrong one”, “the stupid one”, etc.). This leads to a greater flexibility and fluidity in both parties and avoids the snags and ossification that often occurs when people are not mindful of being “nice” and instead just fuel each other’s indignation.

  8. Seth –

    Perhaps the etymology of “nice” might be relevant here. According to C.T. Onions, the word nice comes from the Latin nescius-s, meaning “ignorant.” It is a composite of the prefix “ne” and the root “sci,” which means “know.” In the thirteenth century the English synonyms of “nice” were “foolish” and “stupid”; in the fifteenth “coy” and “shy,” and in the eighteenth “”dainty,” “appetizing,” and “agreeable.” The English “nice” also echoes the Old French “nice,” meaning “silly” or “simple.”

    One wonders whether traces of these earlier meanings persist in the present English word, which to my ear connotes a polite, agreeable deference to others’ views and needs, rather than a deep-seated empathy, loving-kindness, or compassion. When we say that someone is “just being nice,” or, more colloquially, “making nice,” I think we mean something like ignoring or papering over differences for the sake of harmony or congeniality, perhaps at the cost of emotional honesty.

    I doubt that niceness, as so defined, has much to do with the core values of Buddhist practice or the experiential insights that Buddhist meditation affords the dedicated practitioner. Those who practice for many years come to see that the interdependence and interconnectedness of all living beings is not so much a tenet to be endorsed as a reality to be directly experienced. In the Dalai Lama’s words, “enlightenment engenders compassion.” That is a far cry from merely being nice.

    Thanks for another provocative post.

  9. Thanks, Ben, for the etymological update! The Buddha might say that word meanings, like everything else, are impermanent. It’s wonderful to see how meanings change over the years, sometimes evolving into their opposites. When we hear music that’s “cool,” it doesn’t mean it leaves us cold. Even “bad,” “sick,’ and “stupid” have positive connotations in today’s pop culture.

    The word “niceness” has clearly different connotations for you and David Chapman than it does for me. I still feel the word is perfectly serviceable, but I’m afraid this leaves me a bit in Humpty Dumpty territory:

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

    Given your definition of “nice,” your conclusion is one I think both I and David Chapman can largely agree with. But I still object to the words “nice” and “merely” in the same sentence. To me there is nothing “mere” about genuine niceness. Given a choice between a genuinely nice person (by my definition — not yours or David’s) and a not-nice person who has many meditative attainments under his belt, I’d choose the nice person nine times out of ten.

    Thanks as always for your contributions!

  10. Given a choice between a genuinely nice person (by my definition) and a not-nice person who has many meditative attainments under his belt, I’d choose the nice person nine times out of ten.

    Me too!

    So, we agree that the word ‘nice’ is ambiguous, and that it was unfortunate that I wasn’t clearer about what I meant, and that when ‘nice’ means ‘kind’ then it is a particularly good thing.

    With that confusion out of the way, maybe you’d like to re-read my post and see what you think about the actual point I was making? That is: do you agree that “nice” in the other sense is a bad thing? And do you agree that it’s prevalent in mainstream Western Buddhism?

    Agreement or disagreement about that would be substantive (not merely definitional), and might lead to greater clarity about both our understandings of what’s happening in Buddhism today.


    1. With that confusion out of the way, maybe you’d like to re-read my post and see what you think about the actual point I was making?  That is: do you agree that “nice” in the other sense is a bad thing?  And do you agree that it’s prevalent in mainstream Western Buddhism?

      If by “nice” you mean being unable to point out and resist evil, I would agree that according to that definition, being “nice” can be an insufficient response and in fact makes one complicit in evil. Nevertheless even then, one’s basic human decency and respect for the humanity of the other must be factored into any and all forceful interventions. Force is often necessary, but how one employs it — and the spirit in which it is employed — is crucial.

      Weak inoffensiveness, however, doesn’t strike me as a prominent feature of mainstream contemporary Buddhism. INEB and BPF, for example, have been notable facets of Contemporary Buddhism for two decades, vigorously addressing issues of economic inequality, militarism, racism and sexism both in Buddhist sanghas and the broader culture. Contemporary Buddhism has produced a number of significant heroes and heroines, such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Sulak Sivaraksa, willing to risk their lives and freedom for what they believe in. The sixty-two Zen masters who recently signed the open letter to Dennis Merzel provide another example of Buddhist willingness to address wrongs openly. Books like Brian Victoria’s Zen at War have openly addressed Zen’s moral failures in World War II. And, in case you haven’t noticed, the Buddhist Blogosphere seems full of combative and argumentative personalities. So I guess I don’t see that kind of moral weakness as being particularly characteristic of contemporary Buddhism.

      Your experience may be different than mine. It might be helpful, David, for you to give two or three examples of the kind of weak “niceness” that concerns you. I might find I agree with you on those specific examples. Trying to convince me that the problem is endemic to modern Buddhism might be a somewhat steeper climb, but let’s see.

      You also make a social signaling argument:

      “For perhaps a majority of Western Buddhists, “I am a Buddhist” means “I am a good person; I am aligned with an ethics of caring; you can rely on me to be emotional supportive.” (In some circles, this is an essential part of courtship rituals.) It doesnot necessarily mean that you know anything about Buddhism except that it is the religion of niceness, nor that you actually do anything Buddhist.”

      Again, I don’t see that as being characteristic of the Buddhists I know and practice with. Sure there are superficial and fatuous people who call themselves Buddhists, just as there are superficial and fatuous people who identify with being Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. I don’t see this as being more true for Buddhists, however, than for other faiths or ideologies. I meet Buddhists with differing levels of meditative experience, knowledge of the suttas and sutras, and levels of social and political engagement, but most of the folks I meet take their practice, whatever it may be, pretty seriously. Please tell me why you see this differently.

  11. I wonder if David Chapman has ever been to Thailand? A throughly Buddhist-infused culture, where “niceness” is a core value. I forget the Thai term, something like “ken ren” or “ken yen” or something, that is the ultimate in “niceness.” An awful lot of what passes for ‘normative’ social behavior here in the west is just plain “rude” by traditional Thai norms. In fact, the tone of David’s argument would be found “not nice!”

    That said, I do see sometimes what I refer to as the “Pod People Syndrome” in some Buddhist centers (as well as at many yoga ashrams) where pasted on smiles and the posturing of ‘no preferences’ and ‘harmony’ is all too painfully obvious. The niceness has to be authentic or it’s really creepy!

  12. Thank you for this fine post, Seth. I find it helpful in my struggle to make sense of the mind-boggling presidential election results. How serendipitous that this is the second time today I’ve heard that Sharon Salzberg umbrella story! So I guess I’ll have to use it in one of my own blog posts here at One Man’s Wonder.

    1. The umbrella story is a wonderful story. It’s amazing how teachings come to us when we need them. My main post-election thought is that a bodhisattva’s work is the same in good times and hard times. Optimism and pessimism are both something extra. We just keep our commitments to our vows and keep taking care of whatever we are given to take care of.

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