January 9, 2014

Do Psychopaths have Basic Goodness, too? The Buddhist Perspective.

Even psychopaths need love.

Q: How do Buddhists reconcile with the idea that psychopaths (aka sociopaths, like Hitler, Manson, Bundy), may not be born with basic goodness, thereby shattering the tenet that all beings are born with basic goodness?

As unpopular as this view may be in today’s world, the Buddhist perspective is that everyone is born with basic goodness.

Even Hitler. Even Manson. Even Bundy.

Even those messed up people who go into schools and murder innocent people. They are all basically good. They are not inherently evil. They are so very confused. They deserve our compassion.

I believe that when people hear me speak of this topic, they think I am defending these individuals. I certainly am not. There are some people out there who have done some really horrendous things, things that break my heart. I am, however, defending the view that these people are basically good. During a leadership gathering Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche spoke about society and said,

“What will determine our success is the ability to remain open to the universal message [of basic goodness] and to remain unequivocal in our trust of human nature.”

Traditionally we are asked to practice compassion for everyone. Everyone, in this case, includes that man who mugged us for drug money years ago, or the strung out man who barfed on our shoes last week. Everyone is people we love, people we hate and people we don’t give a fuck about.

Compassion, in this larger context, means that we have to have trust in human nature, as the Sakyong points out. Even the sick individuals who kill or otherwise harm loved ones or children can be redeemed. We have to acknowledge that even those people are just that—sick—and still have a shred of basic goodness in their being. If we can, then we are remaining open to the universal message of basic goodness, and positively influencing society overall.

Last year I led a meditation workshop at Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts. The day participants arrived, tragedy struck America; 28 individuals lost their lives in the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. One man shot and killed his mother, then went to the school where she worked, killed 20 first graders and six more of their teachers before taking his own life.

I feel now, like I felt then, that no words can really accurately describe this profound loss. These children will never grow up to meet their first loves, or make an impact in their chosen profession, or know the joy of being married or having kids of their own. The amazing educators who gave their life protecting the children are such heroes; they saw an opportunity to save precious lives and took it.

That night, I gave a short introductory talk to the participants. It was an overview on why meditation is helpful in today’s world. I felt such sadness in the room so I knew it would be best if we spoke of this tragedy openly. At the end, we each made an aspiration or said a prayer for the victims of the Newtown tragedy. The next day, we included them in our loving kindness meditation practice.

Halfway through the workshop one of the participants approached me privately. She explained that earlier that week she was at a mall in Portland when yet another deranged individual walked in and opened fire. She told me that if she had decided to get a hamburger instead of sushi, she would have turned right instead of left, and walked straight into the line of fire. She could have easily been killed. She was lucky to be alive, but was clearly traumatized.

After our loving-kindness practice she told me that she had a breakthrough. “I don’t forgive these shooters,” she said, “but I did find myself hoping that after a life of suffering they were finally at peace.” This woman’s breakthrough touched me deeply. Even if we cannot summon the same level of compassion and open-hearted affection for Hitler as we can for our mother, we can still wish these beings peace.

When we engage in compassion practices we have to be open to helping everyone.

In talking about committing to the Mahayana path, Pema Chodron once wrote,

“Making the second commitment means holding a diversity party in our living room, all day every day, until the end of time.”

We cannot choose who we invite to our compassion party. Our mother may show up, but so may Hitler. So may other people who are very confused, and who act out of that confusion and harm innocent people. We have to offer them all the guacamole dip and invite them to take a seat.

In offering compassion to everyone, we are developing trust in basic goodness. The Sakyong, in that same talk to the leadership, said,

“The result of trust is joy. Our effectiveness in helping others will be based in that trust in basic goodness. Shambhala is saying not just that humans are basically good but that society as a whole is basically good.”

We are all in this society together. We cannot close our hearts to psychopaths, or potential psychopaths. We have to be willing to help everyone. In fact, the potential psychopaths are the ones who need our help most of all.


From ‘Walk Like a Buddha’ by Lodro Rinzler, © 2013 Lodro Rinzler. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, Mass.


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