The Human Condition:

Gautama and the Godfather – August 5, 2012

We were sitting around the table recently discussing a problem we had with one of our members. She was experiencing what anyone else would consider a minor problem that could easily be fixed in a day, yet she had let it drag on for several years, and then fought all attempts at a reasonable resolution. She found minor faults in the way she was being treated and turned them into great wrongs, and then fought for the most exaggerated forms of compensation. When she didn’t get what she wanted, she screamed at people and made wild accusations. None of this was forced on her by poverty or lack of resources—or, at least, material resources—because she was apparently quite wealthy.

Someone at the table then leaned forward and said, “With her, it isn’t about the money. It’s about winning.

My immediate reaction was, “That’s a waste.” And then I paused and wondered, because I knew I had heard that thought before. Two names came immediately to mind, a surprising conjunction: Gautama Buddha and the Godfather.

In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, there is a scene in which the family is planning for war after Vito Corleone has been shot. Sonny, the new acting don, is calling for revenge on a personal level and doesn’t care who gets hurt. Tom Hagen, the consigliere, reminds him that the Godfather always said such personal reactions were a waste. He’s not against taking revenge itself, but the action should be taken for strategic and business reasons—to secure your position, discourage your enemies, and protect your greater enterprise. Reacting out of anger and hurt feelings achieves nothing.

I’m not sure the Buddha ever used the exact phrase “that’s a waste” in any of his teachings, but the thought is certainly present, and it permeates the traditions of Buddhism and Zen. Both teach mindfulness of what’s important. The gratification of ego, the feeding of anger, the natural human reaction to perceive offense in any hurtful action, and the unreasoning rush to strike back—all of these the Buddha would discourage. They represent the ungoverned feelings of a person tossed on the waves of samsara, the ebb and flow of living in the world, of pleasures and pains, receiving and giving suffering, succumbing to agitation and distress. The unsettled mind, focused on immediate losses or gains, cannot see the world and its true nature clearly.

Some people become so bent on winning—whether it’s a minor argument or major dispute, or advantage in a commercial or social exchange, or any amount in a poker pot—that they willingly distort the truth. Impersonal perception and reporting of the truth, of reality as it exists outside your own needs and wants, hopes and fears, is the kernel of all right thinking. Once a person, consciously or otherwise, decides to ignore that impersonal perception of reality, they tend to replace an existential appraisal of what might constitute equity and justice with their own needs and wants. In that situation, one freely undertakes to deceive others, to trick or cheat them, to damage a reputation one might otherwise believe to be clean, to engage in accusations and name-calling, to flail at them with raw emotion rather than reason.

The Godfather, of course, never cared about existential questions of equity and justice. He was always about protecting his own family, those who swore loyalty to him, and those who could do him some future service. The Godfather didn’t put any faith in the greater society around him and his family. He didn’t rely on the justice, protection, or good intentions of the civil authority or the church. To him, all politicians and churchmen were simply pezzonovante or big shots, competitors for his own carefully constructed personal authority, who have no more legitimacy than he does in the community.

This is not an unreasonable position to take, in the context of 19th century Sicily. That island had been a crossroads of the Mediterranean for the past 1,500 years, if not longer, and was trampled by Arab invaders, Crusaders, pirates, and brigands. The governors and bishops in the larger cities were far removed from village life, and the authority of Rome even farther. Often as not, the local magistrate and priest would be as much wolf as shepherd. And everybody was, at some level, tainted with corruption. In the benevolent view of the Godfather, who else would protect the average person, if not the man who has seized and wielded power on his own authority?

But neither is the Buddha a believer in the benevolence and disinterested goodness of civil and religious authority or of society as a whole. Of course, any person who would live according to the Noble Eightfold Path1 does not live as a gangster or disrupter of civic order, as the Godfather and his family felt they had to be. The Buddhist respects tradition and authority when he possibly can, and quietly goes his own way when he cannot. But the Buddhist does not rely on a king, politician, or priest to tell him how to act, how to think, and how to know what is right. It is the responsibility of an adult to consider and meditate on these things, to inquire and learn, and to determine what is the true and right thing to do in any situation. Kings, politicians, and priests may be people to respect, but one does not hand over one’s personal responsibility or the necessity of salvation to such people. Despite all tradition and trappings, they are only struggling human beings themselves.

Both Gautama and the Godfather realize that, in an uncertain and storm-tossed world, each of us must make our own way. They may differ on exactly how a person is to know what the right way might be: loyalty to the family vs. loyalty to a well-reasoned intellectual tradition. But neither would advocate personal surrender to any kind of higher power, whether to the authority and protection of the state, or the righteousness and teachings of a priestly class,2 or the perceived injunctions and demands of an all-powerful and supernatural god.

But both have a world view broad enough to see that devoting oneself to petty and selfish things—disputes over trifles, argument pursued for its own sake, anger and fury as a habitual response to the trials of living—is a waste of both personal energy and personal potential.

To be alive is to grow and expand, to look beyond the ground right at your feet. The human mind was designed by evolution to think ahead and think around, to look beyond the next meal, the next fight, the next bend in the trail. The human mind is an engine for appraising any new situation, predicting and detecting its dangers, seeing and resolving its conflicts, seeking new goals, and constructing plans to reach them.

To become ensnared in the backwaters of anger and jealousy is truly “a waste.”

1. Eight practices encompassing wisdom (right view, right intention), ethical conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood), and concentration (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration).

2. This might seem like a contradiction: that Buddhist teaching would urge a person not to put his or her ultimate faith in the teachings of the Buddha and his followers. But Buddhism, unlike most other human religions, lacks any sense of apostasy and heresy. If the path of the Buddha contains anything offensive to an individual’s unique (or Buddha) nature, and if the teachings prescribe anything that the person finds to be in conflict with reality as he or she perceives it after sufficient thought and reflection—then the individual is free to walk away and seek a different path. There is no forced conversion, no dogma, no heaven or hell—only liberation.