The Problem of Evil

There may be no good or evil in absolute reality says Norman Fischer, but in the relative world there certainly is.

Norman Fischer
7 April 2017
Evil clouds.
Photo by Anandu Vinod.

Beheadings. Drone attacks. Suicide bombers. Mass shootings in malls, movie theaters, and office buildings. Religious fanatics slaughtering innocents, sometimes by the thousands, in an effort to purify the world according to their lights.

The world today seems more filled with evil than ever. But no doubt people felt this in 1918, 1946, and afterward, as they reeled with the shock of then-contemporary events. How could our reasonable, scientific, enlightened, and progressive culture, in its most promising century, have produced two world wars, the Holocaust, mass starvations, and the long, terrifying shadow of nuclear weapons?

How do we reconcile our hope that people are basically good with all the evil in the world?

We have been trying to digest this crisis of culture for a hundred years, to understand the perceived failure of modern Western civilization, and the horrors, confusion, and despair it has left in its wake. Meantime, the planet is heating up every day—with as-yet-unknown but certainly dire consequences—and humanity can’t seem to find the political will to do anything about it.

And all of this is perpetrated by people, ordinary human beings like you and me. How do we understand human nature in the light of these sobering realities? How do we reconcile our hope that people are basically good with all the evil in the world?


Zen Buddhism is usually characterized as a nondualistic tradition. In the realm of the absolute—of oneness, self-nature, true nature, buddhanature, etc.—good and evil are aspects of the one reality. There is no fundamental difference between them.

As the Sixth Zen Ancestor challenges: “Without thinking good or bad, what is your Original Face?” All things, no matter what they are, are as they are; they can’t be some other way. And what they are is buddha, the absolute reality beyond good and evil (and every other dualism).

It is true that in Zen there are precepts that describe moral rules not unlike those followed by any religion or ethical humanistic program—not killing, stealing, lying, and so on. But Zen teaching distinguishes three different levels of precept practice: relative (or literal), compassionate, and absolute. On the relative or literal level, we try to keep the precepts as written and simply understood. On the compassionate level, we sometimes violate a precept in order to benefit others. The absolute level proposes that there is ultimately no way to keep any precept, and no way to break it. All precepts are always broken and kept. This is nondual morality—beyond good and evil.

Or so it seems.

When the precepts are deeply considered, it’s clear that literal, compassionate, and absolute are only words, distinctions meant to help us appreciate aspects of the precepts we might otherwise miss. In the actual human world, we can’t avoid the choice between good and bad, because there is no absolute level apart from the relative and compassionate levels. Relative, compassionate, and absolute are ways of talking about the moral choices we make with these human bodies and minds, in an actual, lived, physical world.


Of course there is a difference between good and evil. But we notice that not everyone agrees on which is which (though I believe that as a human family we are getting closer to unanimity on this point). Nor can we help but notice how much evil is perpetuated in the name of combatting evil.

When evil is perpetrated it becomes a fact of existence. We have to somehow take it in, difficult as that may be, because it is now a part of our world.

In Zen precept practice, the fundamental, absolute ground of ethics is being itself. Because we and the world exist, there are precepts. Things are. Life is. And in this, not being is also included. A moment of time arising is a moment of time passing. Being born is the beginning of dying. This is sad, tragic, and probably impossible for us to fully appreciate. Yet we can and do feel the immensity of being itself—and the strangeness of unbeing. Grounding our lives in this fundamental truth is the fruit of our practice. This is where the teaching of “no difference between good and evil” comes from. It is essential. But it can’t be taken out of context.

When evil is perpetrated it becomes a fact of existence. When ISIS militants behead people in Syria and Iraq, or when children are used as suicide bombers, evil is being perpetrated. This becomes something that is. It is undeniable. We have to accept that this evil has actually happened. We have to somehow take it in, difficult as that may be, because it is now a part of our world, of our human life.

This doesn’t mean we have to condone it or accept it in a moral sense, or that we shouldn’t do everything we can do to prevent it from happening again. It only means that we have to accept it as having happened. This acceptance is how I understand the absolute level. When evil exists, we accept it as existing, just as we have to accept a loss that’s happened to us, even as we grieve it. If we deny or refuse to accept reality as it is, we won’t be able to cope with it. We will keep on making the same mistakes again and again. Our losses, if we don’t accept them, can destroy our lives. To attempt to relieve our pain by identifying evildoers and vowing to wipe them out, as if that will remove the loss’s stark grip on us, won’t work. It will only add to evil’s mounting pile.

What does “nondual” mean after all? I am not sure I entirely understand the concept. Some years ago I was invited to make a presentation at a conference whose theme was nondualism. I was surprised to find that to many of the speakers nondual meant “oneness.” I guess this makes sense—either it’s dual (which means two or more, like dual headlights) or it’s not dual, which means it’s one (or “One,” as most of the speakers seemed to understand it). By this logic, good and evil as separate things would be dualism, two different things. Nondual would mean that good and evil aren’t different; they are one thing.

But to me the concept of oneness is also dualism, because you have oneness on the one hand and dualism on the other hand. And they seem like two different things: “I agree with oneness. Dualism is a mistake.” This seems like dualism.

Sometimes reality arrives as one, sometimes as more than one. Nondualism must include dualism. If nondualism doesn’t include and validate dualism, then it is dualistic! Saying it like this seems odd, but in actual living it simply seems to be true.

Oneness would be: yes, this happened. A man was tortured to death. A child was born. Like all that happened or ever could happen, these are true, living facts, and as such I must accept them as real—good or evil, whether I like it or not. Dualism would be: wrong is wrong, and I am committed to doing what is good and right, not what is evil or wrong.

In actual living, I can’t see any way but to embrace both of these ways of seeing. How else could we live a reasonable human life?


Zhaozho once asked Touzi, “When someone who has undergone the great death then returns to life, how is it?” Touzi said, “She can’t go by night, she should arrive in the daylight.”

In Zen language, “the great death” stands for the nondual sense of life as one. All things, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, express that oneness. To experience the great death is to see, face to face and for oneself, that everything is real, everything is true, everything is just as it is. Such an experience, if it is an experience, is certainly important in Zen practice, if not all-important. What does that—and this story that speaks of it—imply for our collective moral lives?

A commentary to this story cites another story about this same monk Touzi. In this story Touzi asks his teacher Cuiwei to explain the most mysterious and essential aspect of the Ch’an teachings. In response, Cuiwei turns and looks at him. Touzi says, “Please direct me,” and Cuiwei says, “Do you want a second ladleful of foul water?”

The great death, oneness, enlightenment, total acceptance of reality beyond good and evil—this is a necessary step in Zen or any other profound spiritual practice. But although this may be ultimate, it is only a step. Zen calls it “the great death” for a good reason. It is a kind of “death.” It requires a complete letting go, a complete relinquishment, in trust, of everything that one has identified as one’s life.

All our religions, all our explanations, all our moralities, are mixed and impure. To accept and embrace this is what brings an end to our suffering.

To be truly alive, as Zen practice sees it, one has to die—to let go of life. But until we are physically dead we can’t remain dead. We have to be alive. We can’t remain in the darkness and purity of beyond-good-and-evil. We have to arrive in the daylight of this physical, limited world of distinctions and moral choices. Difficult though it may be, there is no escape and no alternative. And yet we celebrate. Having died the great death, we know what a miracle it is to be alive, and how strange and marvelous it is—even with its difficult and sad challenges, which are themselves miraculous.

Almost all Zen stories are encounters between individuals, and therefore essentially dualistic. When Cuiwei faces Touzi he is saying to him: I am me, you are you. We may be one, we may be inherently empty of any difference or separation, but as long as we are alive we are different people. This essential difference—even though it is, in the light of the great death, unreal—is our life. “Appreciate and understand this,” Cuiwei is wordlessly teaching his student.

But Touzi requires a bit more explanation, so Cuiwei says to him: “Do you want another ladleful of foul water?” To be alive in this world of human beings, plants and animals, flesh and blood, earth, sky, fire, and water, is to be immersed in trouble, in essential imperfection. “All conditioned existence is suffering, unsatisfactory, dukkha,” the Buddha originally taught. In its purity, being is beyond good and evil, beyond moral dilemmas. And it’s not. We all want to escape to some ultimate goodness, some ultimate certainty, some ultimate peace. We hope, as Touzi hopes, that our religion can give it to us. But all our religions, all our explanations, all our moralities, are mixed and impure. To accept and embrace this is what brings an end to our suffering.

The story continues: after Cuiwei says this, Touzi gets it. He is, as Zen stories alway say, “enlightened.” He bows and readies to leave. As he is going, Cuiwei says to him, “Don’t fall down!” Meaning, “In this sad world of birth and death, do your best to remain on your feet and do the right thing.” And also meaning, “Of course you won’t be able to do that. You’ll be constantly placed in moral dilemmas, you’ll make mistakes all the time. So when you fall down, get up as gracefully as possible.”

To die the great death is to see and feel life as being/non-being itself, sadly and beautifully beyond good and evil. But death is useless; it can’t produce anything in this world. You have to come back to life, and, as Touzi says to Zhaozho in our original story, you can only do that in the daylight, not in death’s darkness.

Yes, “life and death are one” is a deep and ineffable truth. Killing and being killed, one. All victims of violence would have died soon enough anyway. All of them were, like us, more or less already dead—impermanence, emptiness, means that we are all already dead, losing our lives (evanescent as smoke) moment by moment anyway. Our having an actual possessable life has always been a painful illusion. The change of state from life and death is slight, the curtain between them far thinner than any of us believe. From within the great death everything is acceptable; everything is all right all of the time. Things are just as they are, not some other way. But this, monstrous as it sounds, is so only when you are dead—only when you have entered the samadhi of the absolute, which is stasis.

We can’t stay dead. We have to come back to life because this is our condition, privilege, and obligation. We enter the world of face-to-face encounter, of the difference between us. Oneness isn’t anything other than this. There is no difference between oneness and manyness. These are just ways of speaking. In the light of life there’s only me and you, Touzi, Zhaozho, and Cuiwei, and what we and they can do together to bring some goodness to our lives. Following precepts is very clear. There are no two ways about it: don’t kill, never kill, don’t support killing, try to prevent killing when and however you can. Support and promote life and do what you can to nurture it. And when killing happens anyway, grieve with bitter tears the innocent death, because you are a human being, and it is very sad and terrible.

Are human beings basically good or basically evil? This isn’t a sensible question. Human beings are buddha, because life is buddha, all-inclusive. Understanding this, you know you have to forgive, although not forget.

A person who’s died the great death before reentering the light understands how all this happens, and knows that in some form or another it will always happen as long as we are human. Of course it can happen more or less drastically, and one needs to work daily and tirelessly to make it better. But there will never be an end to this work of making things better, because it is our human birthright to make things worse and to make them better.

Are human beings basically good or basically evil? This isn’t a sensible question. Human beings are buddha, because life is buddha, all-inclusive. Understanding this, you know you have to forgive, although not forget. You know that you can’t go forth with vengeance and hatred, or with a sense of moral superiority. Because you are you and not someone else, you know that there will always be foul water in your mouth—that the evil deeds of others are yours as well, that they are ours collectively. So you protect and defend as you can, but you don’t condemn. Evil is part of all of us—and part of buddha too, according to the Zen teachings.

There’s a line about this story of dying the great death that appears in The Blue Cliff Record, a Zen koan collection: “Where right and wrong are mixed, even the sages cannot know…. She walks on thin ice, runs on a sword’s edge.…”

Moral choice is fraught. The more you know and the more you appreciate about a given situation, the more fraught it is. At the beginning of this piece I mentioned drone attacks. Are they good or evil? Do they kill innocent civilians? Yes they do. But even when they don’t, are they targeting the right people? Who are the “right people”? If someone is forced, by social pressure and the threat of murder, to harbor a so-called terrorist, or even to commit so-called terrorist acts, is such a person worthy of being targeted? Is anyone? And who decides? On what basis?

Can anyone, in this corrupt, unjust, unfair, confused world, claim a position of moral superiority? Is there anyone who can sit on a pristine throne of moral rectitude from which to proclaim the judgment of who shall live and who shall die? According to this commentary, not even the sages can say. They, like us, are walking on thin ice that might break through at any moment. Yet we must walk and run; we must make ethical choices based on our best understanding of and firm commitment to precepts and the goodness they represent.

A verse on this story says: Even the ancient Buddhas, they say, have never arrived / I don’t know who can scatter dust and sand.

In Zen, teaching is a dubious proposition. That’s why it’s called “scattering dust and sand.” Like Cuiwei, with his “ladleful of foul water,” Zen ancients recognized that all religious and moral systems, however necessary, must be taken lightly. They will always be partial and therefore potentially destructive in this checkered world. Even the buddhas, as Zen sees them, are still working on being able to understand their own lives, and ours, well enough even to be able to spread the half-truths that constitute Buddhist teaching.


The three pure precepts of Zen come from the earliest Buddhism, long before Zen. They are: “To avoid evil, To do good, To benefit all beings.” We may not really know what this means. We may not know how to do it. But it is our commitment, the effort of our lifetime, to be carried out with energy, appreciation, forgiveness, non-condemnation, understanding, and grief.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.