"Evil" in Buddhism

Taigen Leighton
Mt. Source Sangha, Bolinas - October 6, 2001

[Note: This talk was given within a month of the 2001 September 11th attack. As of this transcript being posted on the Mountain Source website a year later, in September, 2002, these issues remain highly relevant, and I believe we should continue to deeply consider the meaning of "evil" in our world, and in Buddhist teaching. .-Taigen]

A few days after we last gathered together here was September 11th, when "Everything changed," as all the pundits have been saying. Actually, from month to month, between each sitting we do here at Saint Aidan's in Bolinas, always, everything changes. But this time we can notice it more. Now we notice the change in terms of how we see our country, and in all of the feelings that have arisen: the fear, grief, anger. When they say everything has changed, actually that is only about this country. In places like Iraq, Colombia, Israel, Palestine, or Ireland people are used to having bombs go off. It has been happening drastically for some time. But now it could happen to us.

Soon after the collapse of the World Trade Center, President Bush announced that we have to have a crusade against terrorism, a crusade against Evil. What I want to talk about today is the meaning of "Evil," and the Buddhist perspective on evil.

No matter how we define evil, there is no question that the attack on September 11 was horrible; evil actions against the people riding in the airplanes, the people who were in the World Trade Center doing their jobs, making their morning coffee, starting to work. And suddenly everything crumbled.

It is not that there is no idea of "evil" in Buddhism. There is a Chinese character used in Buddhist texts, which is most appropriately translated as "evil." But it means something different than "Evil" does in the context of Western religion. I have been thinking about this since September 11th. In Buddhism there are evil actions, which we should seek to block, preventing harm from coming to anyone; but there is no absolute, unchangeable force of evil in the world.

Since September 11th I have been inundated with e-mails from various perspectives, and have only been able to read a small percentage of them. But there was one that maybe some of you have seen, with a Buddhist perspective about the new holy war against evil. It was written by David Loy, a very fine Buddhist scholar who lives in Japan. I mentioned him in the Sunday talk at Green Gulch about Consumerism, the day after the last Bolinas sitting, which was also just two days before the attack on the World Trade Center. Loy has written about consumerism and religion, and about the religion of the market. David Loy also wrote a Buddhist response to September 11th, and talked about what he called the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, having a problem with evil, whereas Buddhism has a non-dualistic perspective. Loy expresses much of my own perspective on evil.

Loy says, " President Bush declared that the United States has been called to a new worldwide mission to rid the world of evil." Bush said, "The government is determined to rid the world of evil-doers. Our land of freedom now has a responsibility to extirpate the world of its evil. We may no longer have an evil empire to defeat but we have found a more sinister evil that will require a long-term, all-out war to destroy."

Loy writes, "When Bush says he wants to rid the world of evil, alarm bells go off in my mind, because that is what Hitler and Stalin also wanted to do. I'm not defending either of those evil-doers, just explaining what they were trying to do. What was the problem with Jews that required a final solution? The earth could be made pure for the Aryan race only by exterminating the Jews, the impure vermin who contaminated it. Stalin needed to exterminate well-to-do Russian peasants to establish his ideal society of collective farmers. Both were trying to perfect this world by eliminating its impurities. The world could be made good only by destroying its evil elements. Paradoxically, then, one of the main causes of evil in this world has been human attempts to eradicate evil."

Loy continues, "What is the difference between Bin Laden's view and Bush's? They are mirror opposites. What Bin Laden sees as good, an Islamic jihad against an impious and materialistic imperialism, Bush sees as evil. What Bush sees as good, America the defender of freedom, Bin Laden sees as evil. They are two different versions of the same holy war between good and evil."

Loy goes on to talk about it philosophically in terms of Western religion's view of dualism. I think it is true that in our Western context, Evil has a big capital 'E' as an absolute force in the world. That is a common view in Western religion. A fellow I know from Graduate Theological Union wrote a critique of this article, which David Loy responded to, mitigating some of what he said. The criticism had to do with David Loy's view of Christianity and Judaism, as well as Islam, as being simplistic. There are aspects of those religions that are non-dualistic, not so caught up in postulating Evil; and there are aspects of Buddhism that can be dualistic as well. So it is not so simple.

But there is this deep way in which it seems that as human beings we want to have evil. Evil brings us together. We renew our feeling of America as a community, with fresh appreciation for what we have in our country that is good, and appropriate to have. This includes the very moving responses we saw by the policemen and firemen rescuing people, risking their lives, and even giving up their own lives to save people. Also there were noble, heroic people in the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, giving up themselves to prevent that plane from harming anybody else.

Although the terrorist attack was evil, we have to see its complex causes and conditions. I think what Buddhism really has to offer is to look at evil in a different way. Evil is not some absolute, ultimate power or external force. The beginning of our practice is to look at ourselves, and the practice I've been trying to do myself, and recommending to others since September 11, is to study the self, and all of our complex feelings. First is just total fear and dread - where are they going to attack next? - and then the grief and sadness of all those people lost. Probably all of us here at least know people who knew people who were affected in some way.

I was up teaching in the Seattle Area a couple of weeks later, and the priest at the Zen temple Ryoko-an in Olympia, Eido Carney told me about her brother, a fireman who was at the World Trade Center. As it was burning and as he was trying to rescue people, a chunk of concrete fell and hit him on the head and knocked him out. Another fireman dragged him out of the building. Just after they had gotten out, the building collapsed, so they were both saved by that falling concrete. There are so many dramatic stories.

I think the first place to practice with this is just to see our own feelings, including our own anger. We may be angry at Islam, or at Osama Bin Laden, or at those hijackers, or we may be angry at the CIA for having used all their budget without being able to see what was coming, or do anything to protect us from this. But the practice in Buddhism is just to watch these feelings. And part of what comes up in all of us, I think, is our own tendency to create an Evil outside. I think David Loy was at least partly right. In Western religions there is this tendency to see the divine as only external. That is certainly not completely true, and I do not want to simplify; the Kingdom of God is also within us. But there is a tendency to see the divine as other. And there is a beautiful side of that, which is the relational way of seeing the divine, and the consequent relationship. But then also, we see Evil as outside us. What Buddhism emphasizes is that it is all also right here, on our meditation cushion, within us.

So we have to understand what those hijackers did. Again, I think we all have this tendency, no matter how "Buddhist" we are, of wanting to make enemies. It makes us feel good. In your own personal life if somebody is giving you a hard time, if somebody has done something that hurts you, you may feel they are evil. You may not call them that, but you may feel like calling them some bad name. It comes up in little ways. When somebody cuts you off on the freeway, you may not call him evil, but you certainly may have a negative feeling. So I think it is not just a function of Western or Buddhist world views -although it may include those aspects -but there is this possibility in our consciousness, in the human mind, of separating ourselves from others, and seeing the other as something separate. Thus we define ourselves in terms of the other. This is the basic delusion in Buddhism: to not see how we are connected, to imagine that we are separate from the world and from others. And then if somebody is acting in an evil way, we decide they are evil persons. Or if somebody is just mean to us, we think they are a mean person. Part of our human capacity is to see and think that way.

And part of our deep tendency to create the external Evil "other" is that then we can feel like the good guys. We do this to feel better about ourselves, and also to avoid looking at our own part in events. When we have some "Evil-doers" outside, we can easily imagine that we are all the Good ones.

So I think this is a wonderful opportunity, actually, to study ourselves. The sense of everything having changed, at least in our country, gives us a chance to see our own grief, and our own fear and dread, and our own anger, and our own confusion, and shock. What Is This? What has happened? What is going to happen? By allowing ourselves to be aware of all of that, we can see ourselves more clearly. This is the practice of Buddhism.

Studying our own reactions, we can see our tendency to take sides. Maybe it is not a matter of evil, but we are all capable of both good and bad. Whether it is the hijackers, people around the world who support terrorists, people building missile systems, or those trying to build oil wells up and down the California coast -we may say they are evil people. But actually, in Buddhism it is not that there are evil people. There is a pain or suffering that can allow evil actions. It is not that there is no evil, but we can try to see the conditions of how evil actions have come about. Studying ourselves means seeing this process within our own feelings and emotions and thoughts, watching all these feelings arise, and seeing how we can make some person or some group of people into horrible Evil people. And if we could just kill all those Evil people, then everything would be all right.

But actually, as David Loy points out, this is the beginning of the cycle of retaliation. How can we recognize evil activity and not demonize certain people? We can do this on a personal level, and I think nationally, as a country. The United States is beyond the people in this room, but we are the United States, too. To see our country and to respond to what is going on is to see how in our country we create evil, too. Before we had Saddam Hussein; now we have Osama Bin Laden. Again, what those people, those hijackers, did was certainly a great evil. So it is very convenient to have Osama Bin Laden to put a bulls-eye on. I've seen a bulls-eye with Osama Bin Laden's picture on it. But I think that is not really facing the problem, not looking at the reality, the suchness, of the arising of our desire to create evil as a country. Maybe we should send Green Berets or some other commandos into Afghanistan to find Bin Laden and bring him and his cronies to trial in Washington or perhaps the World Court at The Hague. But that would not solve the whole problem.

How do we study the self of this situation? How do we see its causes and conditions? How do we see the connectedness, so that we can also see our own personal feelings of separation while looking at this other person who is acting intentionally hurtfully, or bullying to us? What is going on? Is there something that I have done that contributed to that? Maybe not, and yet, you are part of it. How can we start to see the causes and conditions for this arising?

As a country this is a wonderful opportunity, actually, for us to examine the causes and conditions. There is a lot more attention now by a vast majority of people in this country to the Mideast and to Islam, trying to find out what is going on. The causes and conditions of this whole situation and the relationship of the West to Islam goes back more than a thousand years. I think we need to educate ourselves to the national problem, but also our practice is to look at ourselves in the process of creating evil. Part of the national problem is what we have done in Iraq, for example, with the economic sanctions and bombing that has continued without hurting Saddam Hussein, but has killed thousands and thousands of children in Iraq. This is partly why Islamic people in the Mideast hate America.

Osama Bin Laden's biggest complaint against the United States is our troops in Saudi Arabia. So a big part of the situation is our own consumption of oil, and the way the oil companies have manipulated politics and the economy so that we are dependent on it, and the way we then prop up governments like the Saudi Arabian dictatorship. A small percentage of people there have a lot of wealth, while most of the people there are in a pretty desperate situation.

All of this is part of the causes and conditions that may mean that lots of people from that region, not just Osama bin Laden, are willing to do something like this. I think we need to look at that. But the practice itself is just looking at all of this arising, studying it in ourselves first of all, and then in our country, and responding.I think the bottom line is that evil actions, whatever they are, come from pain, including the pain for Arabs about what is happening to their part of the world. With the threat of future terror and wars, we all have the pain of not actually being able to see the world in the future, and for our descendants.

So the practice is to see the suffering of the world, and stay open to our own suffering. How do we respond without making somebody into the devil? We should find Osama bin Laden and other terrorists and stop them. I am not talking about being passive. If we see somebody hurting somebody else, or even hurting us, we should do what we can to respond to that, and try and bring peace to the situation. Sometimes bringing peace to the situation means putting somebody in jail. But there is a network of causes and conditions. Seeing and bringing our attention to that, we do not necessarily need to find some easy answer, like reactively and automatically sending in troops and dropping lots of bombs on civilians in Afghanistan.

Our sixteen bodhisattva precepts include taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and then vowing not to do evil, to do good, and to benefit all beings. I think if we are looking at how to benefit all beings, we start with how do we not commit evil ourselves, rather than vowing to eliminate all evil from the face of the earth. Sometimes this precept about evil is read as, "To embrace and sustain right conduct." That has to do with forms and ceremonies. How do we act, and take on proper forms? How do we use the forms in terms of the societal situation? How do we take on the forms of diplomacy and justice? But in our own life, we start by sitting zazen. Most of the time when you are sitting zazen, you are not doing evil. And actually, you are even doing good, by being upright as you face the wall. I do think this benefits all beings.

So please examine and see if it is possible to do evil while you are sitting zazen. Are you plotting all kinds of mischief as you sit there, uprightly? It may be possible. But actually, while you are there, sitting on your cushion, even if you have many thoughts of plotting mischief, you are not doing it. There is a karmic difference between thinking something and actually acting it out. And there is also a difference between thinking something, saying something, and actually acting it out.

Do you know what the opposite of evil is? "Evil" backwards is "live." The first of the ten precepts is that a disciple of the Buddha does not kill. But that also means to support life. Evil is what acts against living, against totality. Katagiri Roshi said, "The truth to live is just to live." Supporting life and vitality, our own and all others, is the point.

So evil is not something that we can exterminate, out there. We should look at this with some subtlety. Again, the main practice is just to see our own tendency to want to have some evil out there that we can be against, so we can feel good about ourselves. Much of the world's great literature is about the battle of good and evil. This does happen. World War II we can consider a just war. Not that everything that happened on our side was good. But sometimes we do have to act to stop harm. So we need to have some kind of police action, rather than necessarily a war, against the terrorists. Historically a great evil of the last fifty years is that now in warfare killing civilians is considered a legitimate means of war. This is certainly evil. But still we should see that our definition of evil is not evil, is not what actually is evil. I am not saying there is not evil, but that it is subtle.

But the practice is just to consider what the consequences are of this action now. How am I creating evil in the world? How can I not create evil in the world? But also, it is not just about being good ourselves, but also about supporting good in the world, and trying to stop harm. So the precept about not doing evil, and the precept about not killing, do not mean just being a vegetarian, although that might be a good thing. But also you should support life, and try and do what you can to stop others from harming others. This is not easy; it is a difficult, painful world we find ourselves in.

But actually, I think this is a wonderful opportunity, and it is wonderful that we are practicing now. Because the world needs help so much, we can make a huge difference now. Whether it is in how you take care of your own life and treat those around you, or even, for those of you who are so inclined, to act in the world, perhaps writing letters to congress people, or to the newspaper editor, or just expressing the possibility of life and helpfulness, acting appropriately, with consideration and restraint.


Discussion Excerpts:
Question: I feel what is happening is that a lot of people are focusing on the internal, on what can happen to them, and not focusing on the total picture of what could happen to other people over there. Down the road, in twenty years, there may be a chain reaction. I feel responsible to help people who are paranoid or upset or selfish or self-absorbed or arrogant. The more you can relax and smile and talk to people, the more you open up the picture. This is a turning point for Americans. I hope it is a turning point where Americans learn to see beyond their own boundaries, and borders, and see that we are just one piece of earth connected to other pieces of earth. And that how we respond personally and how we respond culturally makes a difference.

Taigen: Good. I think being -not cheerful necessarily in a Pollyanna way- but positive, and not succumbing to fear, is helpful for those around us. But if we are afraid we have to be with that too. I think there are real reasons that allow us to be afraid. There are possible things that can happen. And yet, I don't know that being afraid is of any help.

Question: I have a little bit of trouble in generalizing this big-they are Evil and we are Good. People don't know what to do about it. Somehow it's more useful to think about it as an adjective. Not that what they are doing is Evil, but they are doing evil acts. Maybe the hijackers sometimes in their lives did good acts.

Taigen: One of the points is that evil is not something out there, or some people out there. Evil, just as awakening, is not something out there. Enlightenment is not something out there, either. Enlightenment is a way we can be, actually. And so is evil. So in some sense I do not like to use that word at all, and for a while when I was translating Buddhist texts I would try not to use the word evil; "committing misconduct" is enough.
I don't think that it's helpful to think about forces of evil and forces of good. There are good forces in the world, people interested in kindness, such as the response of the firemen, and all of the people who have been making donations to the relief funds for the people affected.
The practice, our reality, our life, our liveness, our non-evilness, is just to pay attention and to do what we can, to respond as we feel we can right now, as in the example Janine gave of being positive and not falling for the fear in this situation. It is not that somebody up there, or the laws of the universe, or however we want to say that, is going to make it all work out. Karma and precepts are about taking responsibility for sitting on your cushion, and for expressing that in your life in whatever way you can, in whatever way may be positive. That is not something that we can fulfill based on some campaign against Evil. We cannot exactly know if we are doing it right. Can we be willing to not know what is the right thing to do, but actually just pay attention to how it feels, right now, to respond, to do what we think is best, to keep paying attention to what we're doing, to stay upright in the middle of all of the confusion? That is how I think we have to respond as a country. This is a difficult situation. And we are all really wrestling with all of this, individually and as a country.