from Rebel Buddha, Chapter 13, “The Good Shepherd and the Outlaw” (pp. 185-6)
Because truly direct experiences of the world are not much present in our ordinary lives, we find ourselves living either in concepts or in an emotional world of past or future. And when our concepts become solidified, when they become so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our mind that they seem to be part of our being, that’s when they become what we call “values.” All cultures have their values and principles, but if we accept them blindly, without reference to their personal and cultural subjectivity, then they can become a source of confusion, of judgments about the legitimacy of other ideas or even the value of a human life. Yet values are no different from our other concepts, in that they come from this day-to-day mind; they are produced in the same way. We go so quickly from perception to concept to emotion, and from there it is just one more step to value judgments, concepts so solidified that they’ve grown impervious to doubt and questioning.
Society in general seems to be especially focused on the idea of values—democratic values, religious values, family values—as a force for good and a protection against chaos and evil. Sometimes we judge what is “good and safe” and what is “bad and dangerous” by just one thing, like color. Take black and white. Is white the color of purity and innocence, or death? In Asia, white symbolizes death and is worn at funerals, but in the West, doctors and brides wear white. It’s peaceful, safe, and comforting. In the West, we wear black to funerals; it is associated with what we fear—death. Yet, if we want to appear fearless—powerful, rebellious or mysterious—we wear black. Just look at the streets of NYC.
It is good to inquire of ourselves how often our labels truly represent our reality and how often they misrepresent it. When I am on an airplane these days, I look around to see who is on the plane with me. Sometimes I’ll think, wow, that guy over there looks dangerous…is he going to blow up my plane today? But when I see that the airplane is full of white people, I feel very comfortable, very safe. I feel that I am with the “good people,” because there aren’t many scary-looking people, like me, on board. But I know the guy next to me is probably feeling uncomfortable about me and thinking, wow, look at that evil person—is he going to blow up my plane?
We all have our values. More and more, everything seems to be about good and evil, right and wrong. These concepts are so solidified now that they are on the point of becoming a law. I wouldn’t be surprised if a “good and evil” bill was put before the U.S. Congress. And not only do we have mundane labels to define good and evil, right and wrong for us, but on top of that, we have religious labels to help us further, or to make it even worse. All religions seem to be trying to scare us into doing the right thing—or else.