Hosho Peter Coyote on the unique way Buddhists look at — and co-exist with — good and evil.
The mass murders in Florida are a particularly painful reminder of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: suffering exists. The trauma and suffering of being shot and wounded; having your life terminated (and who knows what waves of regret, frustration, and grief might pass through the mind in its last milliseconds); of being a helpless witness to violence; the suffering of friends, parents, and family members of the dead or wounded, and of the empathetic first responders. It is easy to imagine expanding ripples of sorrow, anxiety, and grief washing the entire globe, stirring up action and reaction and generating endless cycles of karma.
Because we Buddhists work to perceive a totally interconnected reality and not the more dualistic world of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — divided into competing realms of Good and Evil, we are forced to include in our catalog of the afflicted the suffering of the gunman and also those alienated, propagandized, frustrated, unemployed young men — who may have never have held a partner’s hand, held jobs, or had prospects of marriage, love, affection, and family — who make up the hired armies of ISIL and Al-Qaeda.
You might demand to know “Why must I include these repulsive individuals who actively perpetrate everything which I have shaped my life to refute? Why must I acknowledge the humanity they have forfeited by their actions? And how will my including them in my consideration address the issues of mass violence, automatic weapons, and cultural collisions that we are constrained by today?”
To address these questions, let’s begin by examining Abrahamic conceptions of Good and Evil.
Good and Evil in the Abrahamic Religions
In Judaism, evil and good both reside within the individual. A Jew is not allowed to blame his circumstances or his environment for his failings. Jews believe that God created evil because it was necessary for men to have an option in order to make their choice of the Good meaningful. What would “goodness” mean, if it was the only way we were programmed to behave? Jews do not believe in original sin, and while they may be cranky at Adam and Eve for spoiling the party, their sins are their own and are not passed down to their heirs, who will be responsible for their own transgressions.
This thinking is paralleled to some degree in Christian thought. Toward the end of the 2nd century, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and an early Church Father, argued that evil is necessary for human moral and spiritual development and is part of God’s purpose. God created humans in a morally and spiritually imperfect state so that they could strive in response to their suffering, and grow into full Christian fellowship. Such thinking is widely accepted in Christianity today.
In Buddhist cosmology, Evil and Good are always co-dependent; they are conjoined and inform each other.
Muslims ask the same basic question as Jews and Christians, which is, “How can a loving God fail to protect his children? How can he allow evil to exist and harm them?” Muslims would argue that we cannot comprehend the subtlety and far-seeing nature of Allah’s mind, and just as a man forced to amputate his son’s gangrenous leg might appear cruel to those who did not understand all the facts, Allah knows all stories and is always behaving in our best interests, which the Muslim faith requires them to trust.
Furthermore, Muslims, like Christians, believe that suffering is a direct result of personal responsibility. In the Koran (Sura 42, verse 30) it says, “Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought, and for many (of them) He grants forgiveness.” Muslims have observed that in times of crisis people grow closer to Allah and begin repenting, while in times of ease and comfort they may drift away from remembering His blessing and use His gifts in committing sin after sin. Buddhists address these same problems somewhat differently.
The Buddhist View
For Buddhists, the world is not divided into sacred and profane. Everything is composed of, and consequently interdependent with, everything else, and therefore nothing exists outside of “all of it” where an anthropomorphic God might live separately from His creation.
This is not to say that we Buddhists do not believe in the sacred or even that we are atheists. Buddha’s deep insight about the “emptiness” of all compound things — meaning things which are composed of other things— as, for instance a tree is composed of water, cellulose, chlorophyll, and carbon, we are composites of our bodies, feelings, impulses, sensations and consciousness — implies that everything can eventually be broken down into the formless vitality, the raw creative energy of the universe which always manifests itself as infinite forms.
One way to imagine this is by envisioning a choppy sea with millions of tiny waves rising and falling. Those waves are like “the ten thousand things” which ancient Chinese Buddhists used as a metaphor to refer to the visible world. Like us, they rise into form for a while and then sink back into the ocean. Perhaps also like us, they forget that they have never, for one instant, not been part of the ocean. That generative energy, represented by the ocean, is, in its own right sacred and good. Furthermore, in Buddhist cosmology, Evil and Good are always co-dependent; they are conjoined and inform each other. There is a Zen expression, “For every mile you walk East, you are walking a mile West” which acknowledges that the very idea of East requires the idea of West for its existence.
For Buddhists, every human being arrives in the world at the tail end of an endless braid of ancestors, bearing with them an ancient, inherited, dowry of greed, anger/aversion, and delusion.
This leads us back to the Florida gunman. If we believe that “evil” was created by God for an ulterior purpose that we cannot understand, what can we do about him or any perpetrator of violence?
If it is God’s will, why should we not bow our heads and submit? That may be what we as a culture have been doing. It might explain why, for instance, in our avowedly Christian country, that despite all our prayers, demonstrations in honor of the dead, homilies and expressions of regret, even a known terrorist is legally entitled to buy a semi-automatic war weapon and cop-killer bullets. This sort of helplessness against a homicidal sleep-walker whose ignorance precludes him from seeing how he is actually a part of everything, begins to feel like the Arabic expression, Inshallah—“If Allah wills it.” Muslims are expected to do their best, and to try hard, but they understand that their efforts may always be superseded by the divine will.
For Buddhists, every human being arrives in the world at the tail end of an endless braid of ancestors, bearing with them an ancient, inherited, dowry of greed, anger/aversion, and delusion. Unlike Christians, who believe that we are born pure and are then corrupted by the world, Buddhists see the inherent selfishness, demands, and greed of an infant as our raw, untutored state — but understand that through discipline, patience, restraint, and devoted practice, that little bundle of needs and wants can develop into a Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa.
This perspective includes all humans, not just Buddhists or Christians or Jews or Muslims, and sees all humanity bound in a common heritage. This is a distinguishing characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism: that you, me, the gunman, the Pope, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and President Obama are all parts of the same reality produced by the same formless, creativity of the universe. We cannot say that some of us are indelibly stamped with evil and some with good, because we have understood through Buddha’s teaching (and, through the meditations of Christians, Jews, and Muslims) that what we call our “self” is not a fixed and permanent attribute, but an ever-changing focus of consciousness. What remains constant are our habits.
What Can We Do?
So how does it serve us to include in our consideration the gunman in Orlando and the soldiers of ISIL and Al-Qaeda? First, it reminds us that while humans may be essentially the same and share the same passions, feelings, and fears, those feelings have different content and meaning in different cultures. Some of us are deathly afraid of rattlesnakes, while the Hopis see them as messengers of the gods. Further, each human has a chain of personal history that has led them to the present moment, and without understanding that chain we can never understand their behavior.
Men and women who realize that they have never not been apart from the Universe are not afraid and do not commit and propagate the errors of fear-motivated behavior.
So what are we to do? First of all, by meditating daily, Buddhists allow themselves to sink into the formless and liberate their minds from the rigidities of dualistic thinking. We will inevitably come into contact with our own shadows and darkness as we meditate, and become familiar with impulses and feelings which we have to own and then accept responsibility for “cleaning up” or neutralizing. These are core practices to address the root of the problem—the feeling that “I” am a separate and isolated self, alone in a vast and impersonal universe—a feeling which can only provoke fear and helplessness within us when we consider the enormity of the rest of the universe. The waves that rise and fall are not afraid. Men and women who realize that they have never not been apart from the universe are not afraid and do not commit and propagate the errors of fear-motivated behavior.
Secondly, we might begin listening to our antagonists with some humility and recognition of our own culpability. Politicians often pride themselves on never apologizing, but it’s a good, healthy thing for humans to step up, confess their errors and apologize, and then seek avenues to make appropriate redress to those they have harmed. That is how trust between individuals, races, or nations is established.
It is not a stretch to say that distrust is rampant in our nation — various factions and subsets of each political party dispute one another’s motives and the validity of the institutions which have created our society. Many, the world over, view America’s behavior as self-serving, greedy, and oppressive, and no amount of domestic propaganda aimed at convincing our citizens of our own purity will cure this. If anything, it will make our own citizens less receptive and empathic, and more blinded to the facts of their own or their government’s behavior which may be motivating the actions of others.
The great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “The Vietnamese have been fighting for thousands of years, with bows and arrows. You [the Americans] brought us napalm.” Had the murderer in Orlando been armed with a club or a knife or even a six-shot revolver, the headlines would have been smaller and the body count lower by a factor of 10. We would not leave an infant alone in a room filled with broken glass, razor blades, drugs, and toxic substances, but we have guns scattered around our nation just as carelessly, easily available for the mentally infirm, the bitter, or those of borderline sanity, to pick up and use to settle scores. We do not need to believe in evil to try to contain these weapons. We only need to catch ourselves giving the finger to a driver who just cut us off. That is just one impulse away from pulling a trigger.
There is much more that we can do, but first and foremost we must realize “I am you, though you are not me”—the great Buddhist koan that urges us to see others as ourselves and to deal with them as sensitively and kindly as we would be dealt with.
We do not need to condemn the politicians who must raise money to pay for their political campaigns. Most Republicans and Democrats have chosen lives of service and both have favorite issues they will try to protect by remaining in office. If we, the people, were to assume the costs of funding our elections—as it is done in virtually every country in Europe—we would weaken the power of the special interests buying the loyalty of our political class by funding their campaigns. We can change that.
There is much more that we can do, but first and foremost we must realize I am you, though you are not me—the great Buddhist koan that urges us to see others as ourselves and to deal with them as sensitively and kindly as we would be dealt with; to understand that their shadows are our own. Purifying ourselves, drop by drop like dripping clear water into an ink-bottle, perhaps one day we and all others souls may be clear and fully enlightened.
That is the path we have set out on as Buddhists. That is our enduring task, but it is a task that begins at home, within our own bodies and minds working outward from there to fulfill our metta prayer:
May all beings be filled with loving-kindness
May all being be free from suffering
May all beings be happy and at peace.