Good-Evil Dualism in Music and Work

November 15, 2006

If only one who knows good from evil is capable of sin, and if we should avoid sin, and if by enlightenment it is possible to realize the emptiness of good and evil, then why should we not seek enlightenment?


As is well known, Buddhism teaches that good and evil are empty or, in other words, that neither has any fundamental reality in itself.  Moreover, Buddhism teaches that seeing the world in terms of good and evil is a form of delusion.  For a Christian, these teachings of Buddhism are “hard sayings.”  They are hard to understand, and they appear to be contradicted by much of our own daily experience.  At this stage in my practice of Buddhism, I have not yet appropriated these teachings.  Nevertheless, the insight of these teachings can be illustrated by examining a few examples from daily life: music and work.

Take the example of music.  Music can be wonderful, glorious, beautiful, and deeply moving — but of itself it is neither good nor evil.  It matters not to the quality of the music that Salieri may have been a better person than Mozart, or that Wagner was indisputably a louse.  Is God not pleased by the music of Mozart or Wagner?  Should we not enjoy their music? 

Under an extremely dualistic worldview, the answer might be “No, we should not.”  Under this view, one might believe that every choice we make, or a composer makes, is a moral choice, right down to the note.  Is this so far-fetched?  There is a strain of Christianity that does, in fact, turn every choice we make, and everything we do, into a decision for or against God.  Every moment and circumstance of one’s life is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate love for God — or hatred of him.  Even sleep, it was once explained to me, can be such an opportunity, to the extent that we exercise limited control over our dreams.  Thus, under this view there is no room for innocence (i.e., not knowing good from evil). 

Take another example: as I was riding into work on the Metro today a man beside me was reviewing a patent.  Question: is this action — reviewing a patent — a moral action or not?  To some extent, or from a certain perspective, the answer is yes: if one deliberately pays little attention to what one is doing, fails to ask the relevant questions or seek the answers to the questions, then then reviewer may be guilty of negligence.  Yet willing — which according to Christianity is a necessary component of moral action — is not the primary factor in determining whether the patent will be reviewed well or not.  Much more important is the skill and knowledge of the reviewer; even the attention he pays or does not pay to the task at hand is often not simply a matter of will-power.  If the reviewer finds himself in the “flow” of the task — in other words, in a state that zen practitioners might associate with samadhi — then the work will likely go very well.  By contrast, if the reviewer keeps thinking every few seconds that he is performing an act with moral consequences for his own salvation and that of others, that he may be meriting grace or damnation by his act, etc., then is it likely that he will ever enter into the flow or samadhi that is necessary for the work to be performed with excellence? 

Thus, the dualistic view suffers from this inherent contradiction: one can only perform a meritorious action (i.e., the opposite of sin) through the exercise of one’s will, and yet to perform an action with true excellence one must let go of one’s will and devote oneself fully to the task, thus rendering the action without merit. 


One Response to “Good-Evil Dualism in Music and Work”

  1. Thanks for this site. It is great to find other buddhist christian blog sites and progressive christian blog sites.

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