The Good Heart

Doestoevsky's notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov
Doestoevsky’s notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

My wife and I like to read to each other after dinner. One of us reads a chapter while the other of us enjoys listening while slowly savoring a cup of hot tea; then we switch off. I usually add a teaspoon of Kerrygold butter and a half-jigger of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey to my tea. While the Jameson’s isn’t strictly in keeping with the Buddhist precepts, it seems harmless enough, a guilty pleasure. In the past year we’ve completed Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Goldfinch, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (how does the Sesame Street song go? ”Which of these things is not like the others?”) and we’ve recently begun Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.

Good books, all of them.

It’s The Brothers Karamazov, however, that’s prompting today’s reflection, one that’s refracted through the lens of this summer’s discouraging news. This has been a particularly disheartening summer, filled with gruesome accounts of strife and mayhem in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Gaza. It almost seems as if the world is coming unglued. Machiavellian leaders like Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin, ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau seem to be having their way with the world. Tolstoy wrote that ”God sees the truth but acts slowly.” This summer He seems to be asleep. As Mark Twain once wryly noted, ”the Eye That Never Sleeps might as well, since it takes it a century to see what any other eye would see in a week.” I suppose its always been this way — from Caligula and Nero, through Stalin and Hitler, down to today’s assorted warlords and tyrants. For we, the observers, however, now and then, seeing evil triumphant — even if just for a hopefully brief moment — raises an almost inevitable and cynical question:

Are we Buddhists deluding ourselves? Is keeping a good heart really so important?

Maybe it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and there’s no such thing as karma. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought a little more like psychopaths, feathering our nests at the expense of others. In a world of winners and losers, why not be a winner? The temptation to a lesser humanity is always close at hand.

Which brings me to The Brothers Karamazov. At the conclusion of the novel — after all the murder, melodrama, and hysteria has drawn to a close — Alyosha, the Karamazov brother with the saintly disposition, is talking with a group of young schoolboys after the funeral of Ilyusha, one of their comrades. The schoolboys had taunted Ilyusha and thrown rocks at him, but Aloysha helped reconcile them, and the boys learned to treat Ilyusha with kindness during his final days. In the final scene, beside the stone by which Ilyusha is to be buried, Alyosha bids the schoolboys to hold onto the memory of this kindness for the rest of their lives:

“Whatever happens to us later in life, if we don’t meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones… and afterwards we all grew so fond of…. And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honor or fall into great misfortune — still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time we were loving that poor boy, better perhaps than we are… If a man carries… such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving him… Perhaps we may even grow wicked later on… But however bad we may become… when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days… the cruelest and most mocking of us — if we do become so — will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been kind and good at this moment! What’s more, perhaps, that one memory may keep him from great evil and he will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!’ Let him laugh to himself, that’s no matter, a man often laughs at what’s good and kind. That’s only from thoughtlessness. But I assure you, boys, that as he laughs he will say at once in his heart, ‘No, I do wrong to laugh, for that’s not a thing to laugh at…’ I say this in case we become bad…”

Alyosha exhorts the boys to safeguard their good hearts. This truth, that our good heart — our capacity for love and compassion — is the very best part of us — one that needs protection and nurturing — never seems more important than at times of discouragement, when cynicism seems within easy reach. When we sit zazen we know the warm glow of the heart’s expansion, and the cold chill of its contraction. When we perform acts of kindness, we know the feeling that accompanies them, the sense, for that moment, that we are, as Alyosha says, ”perhaps better than we are.” When we are consumed by envy, vengeance, or hatred, some small part of us is still capable of noting that we are permitting a corrosive poison to flow through our veins. This vital answer, that we secure our well-being by nurturing our good hearts, our Buddha-nature, is all the answer we need to defeat skepticism.

Are the warlords and petty tyrants of this world ever truly happy?

Are they happy in the same way you and I are happy, or is their ”happiness” in some way an inferior one? Maybe they’re tormented by fears of disloyalty and betrayal, preoccupied with endless plotting and scheming against enemies real and imagined. Maybe they never feel powerful enough, invulnerable enough, in control enough to ever enjoy the fruits of victory for more than an evanescent moment. Maybe they are paranoid and miserable despite outward signs of achievement. Maybe their stone-cold hearts — like the Grinch’s, several sizes too small — preclude their ever feeling fully human, fully alive, fully loved. Maybe there is a rough kind of justice in the world in that people who nurture their humaneness have a higher order of happiness — eudaimonic as opposed to hedonic, a pervasive sense of well-being — that’s hard to shake under even the most trying of circumstances. The sun always shines above even the darkest of clouds; the stillness of the ocean deeps is untroubled by the surface waves.

Maybe. Who knows?

Happiness is, after all a subjective thing, impossible to quantify. We can never know whether others mean the same thing by it as we do. All we can do is observe how our own happiness fluctuates with the expansion and contraction of our hearts. We can think about how much more we as readers love the saintly Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov than his passion-driven brother Mitya, his intelligent, cynical brother Ivan, or his spiteful, murderous half-brother Smerdyakov. All have grown up in the shadow of their narcissistic, brutish father, but only Alyosha has managed to preserve his good heart and enlarge on the better angels of his nature. This is why we read great literature and why we practice zazen — to keep the flame of our humanness lit, to blow on its glowing embers and help it breathe, to experience ourselves and the world more deeply.

So, dear reader, let us follow Alyosha’s admonition. Let us recollect our own acts of kindness and decency, and let us cultivate what we Buddhists call bodhicitta, the heart/mind of enlightenment — the wish to become enlightened for the benefit of others — our own good hearts.