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Buddhism and Evil

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Evil is a word many people use without thinking deeply about what it signifies. I'd like to compare common ideas about evil with Buddhist teachings on evil, if for no other reason than to facilitate deeper thinking about evil.

First, a qualifier: This is a topic I've wrestled with for some time, and my understanding continues to change. This essay is a snapshot of what my understanding is right now, not perfect wisdom. If you have other perspectives you'd like to share, I encourage you to visit the Buddhism forums and leave a message.

Thinking About Evil

Over the years I've observed that people speak and think about evil in several different, and sometimes conflicting, ways. The two most common are these:

Evil as 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 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.

As I've said, these are common, popular ideas. You can find much more profound and nuanced ideas about evil in many philosophies and theologies, eastern and western. But for this essay I want to focus on Buddhist teachings and explain why Buddhism rejects both of these common ways of thinking about evil. Let's take them one at a time.

Evil as 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 them harm. And in that thinking are seeds of genuine evil.

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

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

For this reason, a Buddhist is strongly advised not to fall into the habit of thinking of himself and others as intrinsically good or bad. Ultimately there is just action and reaction; cause and effect. And this takes us to karma, which I will come back to shortly.

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.

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