All about discernment

I used to be very gullible. Drop a tear out of your eye, and I was ready to rescue you. Though this might indicate a loving heart, in my case it was lack of discernment. No one had taught me what discernment was.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama explains, “All of our actions have consequences, and these inevitably have an impact on both ourselves and others. Since in everyday life we constantly have to make small decisions which have this ethical dimension, it is very helpful to have basic ethical rules or guidelines to fall back on. Even the choice of which products to buy or what food to eat involves some ethical discernment.”

My first lesson in discernment happened when I was in 6th standard. B, a classmate, approached me and said he was being beaten at home, that he had no food, and his family had no money.  Within days I had organised, with the school principal, the B fund. Students brought canned and dry foods, juices and condiments to be dropped off into donation boxes.

B was happy and he took aside some of his “special” helpers and showed us the lashes on his back, allegedly from the chains his parents beat him with. No one called the police because that sort of thing wasn’t generally done in our rural township. But it was not long after we had delivered the goods from the B fund to B’s address along with a check from the school itself made out to B’s father that we discovered B was a liar. 

He had actually inflicted his own lash marks to impress us. This time the police were called—by B’s outraged father and they came to our school. The check and the goods were returned. I felt puzzled and defeated. Even the school principal had been duped.
Dalai Lama might chuckle over this. He is very serious, on the other hand, when he says, “However, while sound compassionate motivation is the foundation of ethics and spirituality, a further factor is crucial if we are to achieve a balanced and genuinely universal system of ethics. While intention is the first and most important factor in guaranteeing that our behavior is ethical, we also need discernment to ensure that the choices we make are realistic and that our good intentions do not go to waste.”

Whatever B’s problems really were, we can only guess. Charismatic leaders often come from disturbed backgrounds. But many lack discernment. His Holiness addresses this when he notes, “If, for example, politicians take their country to war without having fully considered the likely consequences, then even if their motivation is sincerely compassionate, the outcome is likely to be disastrous. What is required, therefore, in addition to good intention, is the use of our critical faculty, our discernment. The exercise of discernment, which enables us to relate to situations in a manner that is in tune with reality, enables us to translate our good intentions into good outcomes.”

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