I’m not interested in what goodness is because I don’t think there is such a thing. What I am interested in, for example in your situation, you want to write about your childhood. In writing about your childhood, you are writing about these other people, and these other people are still alive. Even if they are not still alive, there are people who remember them in a certain way. And so, you are going to change the way the dead people are seen and … maybe saying secrets that the living people are uncomfortable with other people knowing about them. That’s a very huge issue, and I wouldn’t want to connect it with goodness.
On June 29, I sat down at a dining room table in Lawrence, Kan., and set up two audio recorders (I’m a belt and suspenders sort of gal) to prepare for what I thought would be a normal interview. However, my conversation with Judy Roitman and Stanley Lombardo was anything but normal, which isn’t surprising given that there’s nothing routine about Judy and Stan.
Both are full professors at the University of Kansas, but they’ve also been practicing Zen Buddhism for decades. Stan (also known as Zen Master Hae Kwang) received transmission from the founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen, Seung Sahn, in 1998. To “receive transmission” is to become a Zen Master, but the term also has nuances I don’t fully understand and won’t try to explain.
Judy received inka (full authorization to teach) from Seung Sahn in the same year and has the title of Ji Do Poep Sa Nim (Dharma Master). Today Judy is the guiding teacher of the Kansas Zen Center.
I met them both about 10 years ago when I attended the Zen Center and served on the Center’s board of directors.
For our interview, we sat down at a rectangular table with a plate of strawberries and chocolate-covered cookies in front of us and cups of tea. The instant the interview began, the two of them switched the game on me and went from interviewees to interviewers, which is something I find enormously uncomfortable.
By the way, this interview is so long that I’m breaking it into five parts. I’ll publish one each morning this week.
DIANE: I’m here to ask you what appears to be a very simple question: What is goodness?
JUDY: Can I ask a question of you?
DIANE: You can ask me anything. This is a conversation.
JUDY: (On your blog) you said you needed to look inside for a while. I was wondering what you meant by that?
DIANE: (I explained my original plan to interview a variety of experts for this project) … But the other part (of the project) is talking about my own life and my own experience with good and evil…. The first thing I think I’m going to write about is coming out as a lesbian, and being automatically labeled as evil, going through having to figure out that I’m not. I also had a pretty violent childhood, and one of the things I had to figure out after I began to come to grips with that was the question: Was my father evil? That’s one of the questions I actually asked my therapist, which is why this issue is really personal to me as well as utterly fascinating intellectually. That’s what I’m talking about.
DIANE: So, I’m going to write a narrative and post it in bits and pieces.
JUDY: That’s very brave.
DIANE: Part of (my issue) is: How brave can I be? I’ve started talking to my mother about it. If you’re doing a project about goodness, you have to attempt to be good, so I’m checking with my family before I write too much about my family. I have to call my brother now. In the past, I probably would have just leaped in and done it.
STAN: But why do you feel that you personally have to be good in order to write this?
DIANE: What I’m looking at is how do we do the right thing, be good, do good as human beings, and what stops us from doing it. What helps us do it? How do we do it? And so, I don’t know–
STAN: You’re making it your practice.
DIANE: I’m making it my practice.
STAN: As well as a project.
DIANE: I am making it my spiritual practice I guess you could say, or whatever kind of practice, as well as a project.
STAN: Yes, that’s cool.
DIANE: I should have known you guys would start by asking me questions instead of letting me do the asking. … So, what is goodness. Let’s start with that question. Turn it into anything you want.
JUDY: Beats me.
STAN: It sets up a duality immediately.
DIANE: And dualities are problematic?
STAN: And dualities are immediately problematic.
JUDY: And it’s a reification.
DIANE: A whatification?
JUDY: A reification.
DIANE: I don’t know that word.
JUDY: Reification is making something real. That’s like the notion of beauty. There is no such thing as beauty. Some people in some cultures think a certain thing is beautiful. Some people in other cultures might not think that’s beautiful, but that something else is beautiful, which the first group did not think is beautiful.
JUDY: So there is no such thing as beauty, but we make something called beauty. We create a noun. If there is a noun, then there has to be a thing that corresponds to it.
DIANE: Like many years ago, a woman was beautiful if she was heavy.
DIANE: Now a woman is beautiful if she is thin.
JUDY: I had a cousin who was very heavy 40 years ago, and she went to Tahiti, and she was gorgeous.
DIANE: (laughing) I need to go to Tahiti.
JUDY: That’s a reification. A reification is when you take something that actually has no real existence — if anything does, but that’s another issue — so, you take something, and you make it in your mind. That’s reification.
STAN: You’re making an abstraction into a thing, or something real… For some cultures and philosophers that’s not a problem. Plato really did believe in the existence of what he called ideal forms, such as beauty and goodness, and that these things were more real than a particular good thing or good person or beautiful thing, that the abstraction was the ultimate reality. For Plato, the ultimate among these abstractions was goodness. He is supposed to have once given a public lecture on the form of the good, “form” being a translation of the Greek idea, a Platonic idea or Platonic ideal. He thought the good, the form of the good which exists in some other world of which we only see particular in substantiations or pale reflections or dim shadows of. He felt the form of the good actually gave existence to all of the other forms. They could not be without the form of the good, so he’s the person you really should be asking this question.
DIANE: That’s certainly Plato’s idea, and that’s one of the reasons why you’re perfect people for me to interview. And my job today–
JUDY: Perfect? What’s perfection?
STAN: Another ideal form.
DIANE: My job today–
JUDY: They always say perfect when you order something in a restaurant, they say, “Perfect!”
DIANE: I’m not going to get sidetracked! My job today is to do the best job I can to understand what you’re saying, so I’m not here to impose my ideas. I’m here to understand your ideas. Right now you’re giving me a lecture about Plato, which is wonderful. That’s the classics professor talking. What about the Zen Master?
JUDY: Don’t worry about Zen. Zen is not about is. So each of us practices, and our practice will express in various ideas. Those ideas are not the heart. The real question is: What do each of us as individuals who have practiced Buddhism for a long time, what do we think of goodness, what do we think goodness is? We might not agree.
If you pull another Buddhist teacher in here, they might not agree either. Even if they’re in the same school, they might not agree, so I’ll just jump in and say that I always think reification is a huge problem because then it gives us something to check ourselves against. That comes between us and whatever is actually happening. I’m not interested in what goodness is because I don’t think there is such a thing.
What I am interested in, for example in your situation, ou want to write about your childhood. In writing about your childhood, you are writing about these other people, and these other people are still alive. Even if they are not still alive, there are people who remember them in a certain way. And so, you are going to change the way the dead people are seen and … maybe saying secrets that the living people are uncomfortable with other people knowing about them.
That’s a very huge issue, and I wouldn’t want to connect it with goodness. I’d want to connect it with: What is the effect on these people? … When we talk about things that have been difficult in our lives, often we help other people. Right? Caryn (Mirriam-Goldberg) talks about her breast cancer. It helps a lot of people. Helps lots and lots of people to talk about it. You talk about coming out as a lesbian, and it helps lots and lots of people.
On the one hand, you can help a lot of people, people who had childhoods like yours, people who grew up with that and grew out of that, and you can help a lot of people. On the other hand, there’s a possibility of really hurting people that you have some kind of responsibility towards. So, I’m not interested in goodness. If I were you I’d be interested in: What do I do in this situation?
You’re asking their permission. You’re going to have to decide where the line is drawn, where you can talk or not, and I don’t see that as about goodness. I see that as about this group of people here, this group of people over there. This group is kind of theoretical, the ones you could help, because you don’t know them. And this group is very real, and you have this kind of responsibility towards them. You will weigh that, and you will find your solution. And to me that doesn’t have to do with goodness. It just has to do with being human and recognizing your responsibilities, recognizing your place in the world. That’s how I would see it. Now you can ask Stan.
The Complete Interview:
- Part 1: Goodness Doesn’t Exist
- Part 2: Confronting Suffering
- Part 3: The Cruelty of Moral Codes
- Part 4: Compassion and Wisdom
- Part 5: No One Ever Finishes