Sunday, January 11, 2015

We Create the Evil in Our World

Evil is a word many people use without thinking deeply about what it means. I want to compare common ideas about evil with Buddhist teachings on evil, if for no other reason than to facilitate deeper thinking about evil. I do not have perfect wisdom or perfect understanding of evil, I'm just talking about it because of all the horrible things going on in our world everyday. I cringe when I turn on the news, but I have to watch it. I usually have what I think is a healthy detachment, meaning I can carry on with my life without too much fear or too much sadness while still maintaining an awareness of the world I live in. I believe we are doing this to ourselves. We live in the world we create.

Thinking About Evil

People have different ideas about evil, where it comes from, why it exists. Here are the two I think are most common.

Evil as an intrinsic characteristic. It's common to think of evil as an intrinsic characteristic of some people or groups. In other words, some people are said to be evil. Evil is a quality that is inherent in their being.

Evil as an external force. In this view, evil lurks about and infects or seduces the unwary into doing bad things. Sometimes evil is personified as Satan or some other character from religious literature.

You can find much more profound ideas about evil in philosophies and theologies, eastern and western. But for this post I want to focus on Buddhist teachings and explain why Buddhism rejects both of these common ways of thinking about evil. 

Evil as a Characteristic

The act of sorting humanity into good and evil carries a terrible trap. When other people are thought to be evil, it becomes possible to justify doing harm to them. And in that kind of thinking are the seeds of genuine evil.

Human history is thoroughly saturated by violence and atrocities committed on behalf of good people against other people categorized as evil. I think I can say that most of the mass horrors humanity has inflicted on itself have come from this kind of thinking. People who are intoxicated by their own self-righteousness or who believe in their own intrinsic moral superiority can too easily give themselves permission to do terrible things to those they hate or fear. Or who get in their way.

Sorting people into divisions and categories is very un-Buddhist. The Buddha's teaching of the The Four Noble Truths tells us that suffering is caused by greed, but also that greed is rooted in the delusion of an isolated and separate self.

Closely related to this is the teaching of dependent origination, which says that everything and everyone is a web of interconnection, and every part of the web expresses and reflects every other part of the web.

And also closely related is the Mahayana teaching of shunyata, emptiness. If we are empty of intrinsic being, how can we be intrinsically anything? There is no-self for intrinsic qualities to stick to. (there are a ton of posts about shunyata on this blog...)

For this reason, a Buddhist is strongly advised not to fall into the habit of thinking of herself and others as intrinsically good or bad. Ultimately there is just action and reaction; cause and effect - Karma.

Evil as External Force

Some religions teach that evil is a force outside ourselves that seduces us into sin. This force is sometimes thought to be generated by Satan or various demons. The faithful are encouraged to seek strength outside themselves to fight evil, by looking to God.

The Buddha's teaching could not be more different --
"By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another." (Dhammapada, chapter 12, verse 165)
Buddhism teaches us that evil is something we create, not something we are or some outside force that infects us.