Human nature

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The word nature (dhammatā or pakati) has several meanings but can be used in the sense of the basic quality of a thing. The English word comes from the Latin natus meaning ‘born’ and in the term ‘human nature’ refers to the in-born or innate character of human beings.

Religious thinkers and philosophers have long pondered the question of whether human nature is good or evil. Confucius implied that humans are basically good, Mencius made this idea explicit in his teachings and it came to be accepted in Confucianism from that time onwards. The Christian doctrine of Original Sin asserts that humans are born sinful and prone to evil, having inherited sin from Adam and Eve. Theologians like Luther and Calvin deduced from this that humans are incapable of good and are saved only by the grace and mercy of God.

The Buddha never directly addressed the question of whether humans are essentially good or evil. However, he said that we have the capacity to do good and implied that given the right circumstances, we have a leaning towards goodness. He said: ‘Develop the good! It can be done! If it were impossible I would not urge you to do so. But since it can be done I say to you “Develop the good!” And if developing the good caused you loss and sorrow I would not urge you to do so. But since it conduces to your welfare and happiness I say to you “Develop the good!” ’ (A.I,58). The Milindapaṭha says that our natural tendency to do what makes us happy causes us to gravitate towards goodness. ‘The King asked: “Venerable Nāgasena, which is greater, good or evil?” “Good is dominant, evil less so.” “Why is that?” “Sir, someone doing evil is remorseful and therefore avoids evil. But someone doing good is not remorseful, free from remorse he becomes glad, from gladness comes joy, being joyful the body is tranquil, with a tranquil body one is happy, the happy mind becomes concentrated and one who is concentrated sees things as they really are. And so it is that good is dominant’ (Mil.84).

Later Mahāyāna thinkers developed the doctrine of Buddha Nature, the idea that all humans, indeed all beings, have the same nature as the Buddha and thus are inherently good. The Ratnagotravibhāga uses a striking parable to explain the idea that Buddha Nature is immanent in everyone and only has to be realized. A thief broke into a house and stole a precious gem. As he was making his getaway, the owners of the house awoke, saw him and began chasing him. As he ran through the streets he saw a beggar sleeping on the side of the road and put the gem in his pocket so that if he was caught he could plead innocence and then retrieve the gem later. The beggar awoke the next day and continued his life of hunger, want and unhappiness. One day he happened to put his hand in his pocket and found the gem. He suddenly realized that he had been fabulously rich all along but never knew it.

The idea of the basic goodness of human nature had a profound influence on theories of jurisprudence in Buddhist countries. The second article of Prince Shotoku's famous Seventeen-point Constitution reads: 'Sincerely revere the Three Jewels (i.e. the Buddha, Dhamma and Saṅgha). These three constitute the highest ideal for all human beings and are the ultimate foundation of all nations. Very few people are really evil. If only we teach them what is right and wrong the great majority will follow it.'