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