Goodness is the Wrong Question

Stanley Lombardo, classics professor and Zen master

Stanley Lombardo

Judith Roitman

Judith Roitman

Plato’s concept of goodness and the startling thought that my entire project could be based on a fallacy were among the topics Stanley Lombardo, Judith Roitman and I tossed around during a 70-minute conversation yesterday. I kid you not when I say that our discussion was more fun than sex and chocolate put together. During the talk, I felt exhilarated, challenged and emotionally and intellectually whole in a way that I’m not certain I can even begin to describe, at least not yet.

Stan is a classics professor who is acclaimed for his translations, including  his versions of Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Sappho and Plato. His most recent translation is Dante’s Inferno. Stan is also Zen Master Hae Kwang and one of the teachers at the Kansas Zen Center, an affiliate of the Kwan Um School of Zen.

Judy is a mathematics professor who specializes in set theory, topology, Boolean algebra and mathematics education. She has the title Ji Do Poep Sa Nim (Dharma Master), and is the guiding teacher of the Kansas Zen Center.

The two are also husband and wife. I met them about 10 years ago when I briefly practiced at the Zen Center.

Stan started our conversation with an impromptu lecture on Plato’s view of goodness. Judy began by questioning the purpose of my quest. I found both his lecture and her critique to be fascinating. Details on Plato will have to wait for the transcript, but Judy’s challenge remains fresh in my mind.

If I’m understanding her correctly, Judy is saying that concepts like goodness erect walls between our minds and reality. To use another image, these concepts (maybe all concepts?) suck us into the illusion that there are certain rules that will save us from our own failings. But there are no rules, no concepts, no “things” that can do that; such “things” can only mislead us. We spent much of the rest of the discussion talking about how we stumbling human beings can learn to clear our minds, see reality for what it actually is and act, for want of a better word, skillfully.

This morning Judy e-mailed me to report that she and Stan “independently realized that we never mentioned to you the well-known Zen saying, ‘good and evil have no self-nature.'” This is part of a poem attributed to Dae Soen Sa Nim (Seung Sahn, the founder of the Kwan Um School). Here’s the poem:

Good and evil have no self-nature.
Holy and unholy are empty names.
In front of the door is the land of stillness and light.
Spring comes, the grass grows by itself.

I’m planning to post part of this interview as a podcast. Since this is the first time I’ve tried to create a podcast, my only comment is to stay tuned and hope for the best. A transcript will be appearing in the near future.

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4 Responses to Goodness is the Wrong Question

  1. deepforestowl says:

    maybe she was trying to say, beware the binary? Humanity is too complex to boil it down to are you good or are you bad?

  2. Fascinating comments overall, and I can’t wait to read the interviews. It does sound like more fun than sex and chocolate (although I like to keep sex and chocolate apart).

  3. Pingback: Elena Kagan and the Power of Misconception | In Search of Goodness

  4. Pingback: Fish Hooks, Shenpa and Stumbling Down the Goodness Trail | In Search of Goodness

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