Only God Is Good

A Buddhist Reads the Bible (And Can’t Stop Thinking About It)

Ever since I read the story in the Gospel of Mark about the man that Jesus loved—the wealthy man who asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life—I have puzzled over Jesus’ statement, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  In context, it seems one of those passages where Jesus is getting testy with his followers, actually seems a little grumpy.  You want to say, Hey man, chill out.  Turn some water into wine and have a glass.  Something.  It is also, for some Christians, a place of doctrinal difficulty, because Jesus seems to be denying his own divinity.  But as I’ve thought about it, and delved into my own tradition, and—especially—pondered some questions I’ve had, the statement becomes more intriguing.

The passage reads differently in various Gospels.  Luke refers to the speaker as a ruler.  Matthew doesn’t have him calling Jesus good, but referring to a “good deed” (even at that Jesus takes exception).  Mark is the only Gospel which includes the amazing sentence, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  He speaks those words after the man tells him he has kept all the commandments since his youth.  Jesus has that moment of feeling love, then tells the young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor, and follow him.  The young man—despite Jesus’ love—leaves discouraged, because he has many possessions.  Jesus makes the famous statement about the camel and the eye of the needle, and the disciples are discouraged too, asking how anyone can be saved.  Jesus says it impossible for men, but with God all things are possible.


Buddhism doesn’t much use the word goodness, but in the Shambhala teachings, Chogyam Trungpa uses the term Basic Goodness to refer to the most fundamental fact about human beings, what other traditions call Buddha Nature.  Basic Goodness describes not something that people have, and not something they have a certain quantity of.  It describes what human beings basically are, the wide-open awareness that sees everything and reflects it back.  We discover this goodness through meditation, perhaps seeing more and more of it gradually, but we’re not developing, or increasing it.  It’s already there, luminous and infinite.

What clouds this container is what we put into it: our thoughts, feelings, intuitions, our whole lives.  Everything that is David Guy gets in the way.  Now and then we have moments when that part falls away, and we see the vast luminous emptiness.  Those are moments of grace.  In my experience they aren’t permanent.  I have such moments, then David Guy comes rushing back.[1]

The precepts, in Buddhist practice, are our guidelines for living a moral life.  They’re not so much commandments as they are warning signs, letting us know the various danger zones in human existence.  But they are also, in an ultimate way, the Mind of Buddha.  If you are one with the Mind of Buddha, with your Basic Goodness, you don’t need precepts.  You naturally follow them.

It’s the same as saying, Love God, and do as you will.[2]

When the young man asked Jesus about eternal life, he gave a standard answer.  Keep the commandments.  The young man said he’d done that since I was young, a startling reply.  I don’t know another place in the Gospels where somebody says such a thing.  (Some of the priests and Pharisees seem to think they lead a righteous life, but they’re bean counters, following the rules.  They don’t seem in touch with basic goodness.)  Jesus seems to realize he’s in the presence of an exceptional young man, who really is sincere.

He loves him for his sincerity, so he gives him the real answer.

What he’s saying is, you’ve got to drop it all.  Everything you have, everything you are.  It’s all got to go if you’re to experience eternal life.  The things you have, the things you are, are getting in the way.

The young man doesn’t see how he can do that.  He goes off with this koan.[3]

I think Jesus is saying we’re always living in the two worlds.  The vast container that is empty and luminous.  The collection of things that make up our individual lives.  No human being, inasmuch as he’s human, is good, even if he scrupulously obeys the commandments.  At the same time he’s nothing but goodness, if he lets everything about him fall away.  That explains how someone can be completely enlightened and still screw up.  It explains how somebody can screw up so much that they become enlightened.  They get so sick of what they are that they drop it for good.

I think he was saying that he lived in those two worlds like the rest of us.  It wasn’t appropriate to call him good.

But he saw those worlds with a clarity we can’t even imagine.  And he was able to live out of the good.


[1] There are people who claim to be in this awakened state all the time.  I’m not saying they’re lying.  I just haven’t experienced that.

[2] Some Buddhist teachers literally do what they will, and say it’s all right, because they’re enlightened beings.  They’ve done some pretty wacky things with that excuse.  I’m not sure I believe them.

[3] I don’t think he necessarily gives up.  But he’s flummoxed.