What Are We To Do?

"Always treat others as you would like them to treat you."
Christianity, Matthew 7:12

"Hurt not others in ways, that you yourself would find hurtful."
Buddhism, Udana-Varga 500 BCE

"This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain done unto you."
Brahmanism, Mahabharata 1000 BCE

How do we know what to do? In prehistoric times, and in the 1960s, the guideline was "If it feels good, do it." Life experience eventually and inevitably shows this guidance to be faulty. Too many things that feel good are bad for you. So in prehistoric times, but not necessarily in the 1970s and 80s, people turned to the older and wiser people among them for advice on proper behavior. Jobs for shamans, kings, priests and judges were created. When the job of expounding moral authority and remembering precedents became too big for anybody laws were written down and lawyers were invented.

We got the Ten Commandments, which seemed like a complete and authoritative set, and handily, is just as many commandments as we have fingers, so it is memorizable. Still, few of us can recall all ten or obey all the ones we can remember. Wise men, nevertheless, felt compelled to add many more rules for living so that the chosen people could be safe from the dangers of the "If it feels good do it" crowd, who were dropping like flies from eating  bad shellfish and infested pork and such things.

Jesus determined that people were having a hard time with ten commandments, so he simplified it for us. He said: ‘"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind." That is the greatest commandment. It comes first. The second is like it: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Everything in the Law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments."’

In time, the Christian Church added a new collection of commandments. The underlying rule was do and think as you are told and submit to our authority. The secular authorities liked this point of view, with some notable exceptions, so they supported it. Governments got in the habit of making their own laws and have never stopped. In the US we employ hundreds of lawyers as our representatives in congress to come up with laws for us. They pass so many laws each year that nobody could read them all, let alone use them as a moral guide.

The world has gotten complicated. Our moral forbears did not directly address birth control, abortion, euthanasia, cloning, overpopulation, environmental degradation, child labor, violence in the media or numerous other moral issues of our time. It is left to us to figure out the best course of action. Here is what Buddha suggested 2500 years ago:

"It is proper to doubt. Do not be led by holy scriptures,
or by mere logic or inference, or by appearances,
or by the authority of religious teachers.
But when you realize that something
is unwholesome and bad for you, give it up.
And when you realize that something
is wholesome and good for you, do it."
He suggests here that there is something in us that can judge what is wholesome and good. We don’t absolutely need to check the scriptures or defer to higher authority, and we’d better not rely solely on logic. We need to develop discernment on our own. We must observe the world and observe ourselves to know what is good for us or bad for us, and for our neighbor. What will lead us to physical and emotional health? What will allow those around us and the planet we live on to be well? These are what we should choose. This is a sophisticated point of view that places great trust in the basic goodness of human nature. It assumes that we will cultivate wisdom and self awareness. Understanding rules requires knowledge. Understanding what is right when the rules are unclear requires wisdom.


Take some quiet time at the end of your day. Center yourself. Relax your mind and breathe more fully.

Examine your thoughts and activities of the day. Think of what you have done and what choices you have made. Which thoughts or acts were good for you? Which were bad or unwholesome?

Which were good for other people? Which were damaging to others or to your relationships with others?

Which of your behaviors promotes the wellness of the planet? Which damage the planet?

What should you do that you are not?

What should you refrain from doing?

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© 2002 Tom Barrett