Parables

20 – The Question of Good and Evil

How do we make sense of the atrocities that are committed every day in the world? Is there a source of evil behind such things? In this episode, I will discuss the Buddhist understanding of non-dichotomy in relationship to good and evil. How does our understanding of interdependence influence our way of understanding the horrible things we see happening in the world? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to The Secular Buddhism podcast, and this is episode number 20. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the question of good an evil.

Welcome back to The Secular Buddhism Podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode.

If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. And if you’re in a position to be able to help I would encourage you to make a one-time donation, or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

On the topic of good and evil, I wanted to start out by saying in light of recent events, but the more I thought about this the more I realized that it’s not just recent events. Events for years and years now, if you look at the news you’ll see we have had catastrophes, and attacks, and all sorts of man-made problems from terrorist attacks happen almost on a daily basis in countries like Iraq, and in Syria, and then of course we had the shooting here in Orlando a couple weeks ago, and there are always, it seems, things in the news that remind us of the evils of the world.

So I wanted to talk about this topic of good and evil in the Buddhist sense, specifically with how we are to view or cope with the fact that atrocious things are committed almost on a daily basis all around the world. What is the Buddhist view of that? So to understand this a little bit we need to first discuss, at least in our western culture, the dichotomy of good and evil, the Judaeo-Christian background and our way of thinking of good and evil. Evil is usually perceived as the dualistic, antagonistic opposite of good, in which good should prevail and evil should be defeated.

It’s like an ongoing war of good versus evil, and I think we’re all familiar with that concept. That’s very much the way of thinking that we’ve inherited culturally. In Wikipedia you can look up good and evil, and get an idea of the origins of the concept of good and evil. It’s pretty fascinating to see where it starts, and how it spread. In the Buddhist non-dualistic worldview, both good and evil are part of an interconnected reality that encompasses all things.

Everything is interdependent with everything else. And if you’ll recall, in past podcasts podcast episodes I’ve talked about the analogy of a car, and the understanding that there is no such thing as the car in terms of, you can’t take apart all the pieces of a car and then pick which one of those is the car, because the car was always all of those parts. Same with a cake, right?

You can take something like a cake, and it exists, and it’s there, but there are components that make it what it is. There is no cake, per se, that exists independent of the parts that make a cake; the flower, the sugar, the heat of the oven, the container holding the ingredients, and on and on. So all things are interdependent with all the things that allow that thing to exist, and there’s a zen expression that says, “For every mile you walk east, you are walking a mile west.”

And this acknowledges the very idea that east requires the idea of west for east to even exist. You can also apply this to the sense of self that we have. Self only exists because we have the sense of other, self and other, when in reality all there is is just what is. So applying this to the thinking of good and evil, from the Buddhist worldview, is very similar. The only reason there’s good is because we reference in terms of what we consider to be evil.

So good and evil cannot exist without each other because, what would be evil unless it was the opposite of what we consider to be good? And in Buddhism there’s just oneness, it’s, “All things are one.” So this concept can be a little tricky when we’re thinking about specific events, the atrocities that we see on the news, examples being like the Holocaust, or mass shootings, so many forms of atrocities that are committed.

And it’s hard to look at something like that and not want to just label it as being pure evil, or thinking that the only way that this could have happened is to be inspired by some source of intrinsic evil because it’s so atrocious, and so not what we would do. So I want to explore this concept a little bit in relation to the concept of interdependence. If all things are interdependent, where, or how, does good and evil fit into this equation?

And to illustrate this, I want you to imagine the following story. Imagine a kid comes home from school and he’s upset because he was called a name, or something happened at school that made him upset. So he comes home and he talks to his dad and tells him what happened at school, and his dad says, “Okay, well I understand that this makes you upset. Of course it would feel bad to be called a name at school, but let me teach you a lesson about this,” and to teach the concept of interdependence the dad picks up a stick, and he starts tapping him on the head harder and harder, and the kid is saying, “Why are you doing this? Stop whacking me with the stick.”

Finally, the dad puts the stick down, and he says, “Well are you mad,” and he says, “Yeah I’m mad. Quit hitting me with that. I was trying to tell you what happened at school.” And he says, “Well, why are you mad at me? I’m not the one that hit you. The stick is the one that hit you.” He’s like, “Well that’s stupid. I’m not mad at the stick. You were the one holding the stick.”

And he says, “Ah, okay. Well let me teach you a lesson here, because in this example, how easy was it for you to understand that it would be pointless to be mad at the stick, because the stick was being controlled by something else?” And then he goes on to explain the concept of interdependence, and the things that happen to us are interdependent with the things that cause those things to happen.

And the idea here is, when something happens, we can be offended at the stick, mad at the stick, or we can understand that the stick is being controlled by something else. And if you understand that, and you understand the nature of interdependence, it makes it very difficult to pinpoint the one thing that you should really be mad at.

For example, am I mad at the actual word that I was called? Am I mad at the mouth that spoke the word that I was called, or am I mad at the person who was controlling the mouth who said the word, but even there, am I mad at him for saying that to me, or am I mad at maybe his parents for teaching him that that was a normal way of treating others? Maybe he was called those names growing up.

And this goes on and on, right? There are always causes and conditions to all natural phenomena, which means all things that happen because of the things that make those things happen. So it becomes this intricate web of interdependence, and when we isolate an event it can be easy to want to pin it on something that we think is inherently there, for example, evil, or the concept of maybe the devil, to think, “Okay, well there’s this source of evil, or the devil made this person do it,” makes it really easy to stop with feeling any sense of responsibility with understanding interdependence, because then we can just pin it on one thing and be mad at that, whatever that is.

But when we understand interdependence, it makes it a lot more difficult to feel hatred. We can certainly feel anger, and frustration, being mad at what happened is very different than hating the person who committed something, because if we understand interdependence we understand that this person is also a victim, is a victim of their own ideology, a victim of their own upbringing, their societal views, their concepts, ideas, or beliefs that allowed them to commit such an atrocious thing.

But from the Buddhist worldview, there isn’t a source of inherent evil, which means we can’t pin the atrocities committed, to just label it as, “Well that’s an evil person.” You can say the things that are being done could be considered evil, or what was done is horrible or heinous, but it changes the way that you view events and things that happen, and allows there to be room for compassion at every step.

For example, if I take a stick and I hit you with it, and you lash out at the stick and break the stick, there can be compassion for the stick thinking, “Oh that poor stick. It wasn’t even the stick, it was my hand that was controlling the stick,” and yet your anger took out the stick but didn’t ever understand or realize that it was me controlling the stick. And this is kind of what we do all the time when we interact with the events that are happening in the world.

It makes it very easy to want to retaliate at one level, without understanding that there is a complex layer behind every step that has led to that specific event happening. And I don’t say this to try to minimize in any way the atrocity, or the horribleness of what happened. It’s perfectly fine to recognize that what’s being done is horrible, but it’s different to immediately experience hatred towards this person because we consider them evil.

That’s the ultimate thing I’m trying to answer in this podcast is the question of good and evil. And another way to think about this is, imagine you’re in a campsite, and a bear comes in the campsite. You don’t just say, “Oh well, it’s a bear. None of us should do anything.” You would say, “Okay, well it’s dangerous to be in camp with a bear, and maybe that requires tranquilizing the bear and moving it to another part of the forest or putting it in a cage if required.”

There can be action around the events that are happening that can be driven still by compassion. You don’t take that bear and put it in a cage and say, “I hate you stupid bear.” It would be silly. There’s no anger or hatred there because, in this case, we understand a bear’s just being a bear. And yet when a human commits an atrocity, it’s very easy to want to immediately retaliate with hatred, and hatred is just not useful. It’s not a natural emotion.

Anger is a natural emotion. Sadness is a natural emotion, but hatred is not. Hatred is a way of responding to anger, or a way of responding to sadness, but … I don’t know exactly if this is making sense in the way that I’m expressing it, but what I’m trying to get across is that there are always things that are happening, and then there are complex layers of causes and conditions behind those things. That’s the nature of interdependence.

Too often I think we get caught up in the duality of good and evil making it very easy to think, “If I must be good, they must be bad.” Then we’re always stuck in this dichotomy of duality. There’s always a duality. There’s me and you, us and them, whoever them is. Them is always anyone who is not us, who doesn’t think like us, who doesn’t believe like us, and we’re always stuck in this world of duality and it makes it very easy and natural for good and evil to fit in that paradigm of duality.

There’s good and there’s evil, but even that becomes very subjective. What might be completely evil for one person would be completely normal for someone else. The idea of walking around the street without any clothes on, to some would be considered evil, while walking around without any clothes on in the Amazon jungle in a tribe, with a tribe of people who don’t wear clothes wouldn’t be evil.

So how do you pinpoint what is evil and what is good as inherent things. Well we don’t. The Buddhist understanding, which I think is similar to almost every major world religion, is the concept of the golden rule. Don’t do to others as you would have them do unto you, and the Buddhist view of that is, “Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to you,” but it’s the same concept. It’s the same idea. Causing harm is not intrinsically evil, it’s just very unwise.

Nobody wants to be harmed. You don’t want to experience harm. Everyone wants to feel loved and respected, and that’s our natural way of being. From the moment we’re born, we’ve evolved to survive 100% exclusively on the time, and attention, and love of another. Think of every human being who is alive now as an adult is only alive because you were cared for a considerable amount of time by someone else. We just can’t do it alone.

It’s not in our human nature. We’re not born and then boom, we’re independent. It takes years and years before we can be independent. So it’s our natural tendency to be caring and to want to be cared for, because it’s how we evolved. It’s a survival mechanism, and when we understand that and we view everybody with the same natural tendency, then we can understand what must be going on is what in Buddhism we call ignorance or delusion.

You can grow up and have ideas that are put in your head through your society, or through your religion, so many sources, through family, and they can be delusional ideas or concepts that make us ignorant to seeing reality. And inside of this delusion, we can commit atrocities. So you take this and apply it to someone like Hitler, and rather than saying, “Wow, he was just an evil man, and evil is what caused all this,” you can say, “Somewhere in this process there’s compassion for the fact that he was so delusional, and so ignorant of reality that he was deluded by his idea that he needed to exterminate an entire group of human beings.”

And it’s not that there was an inherent evil driving that, it’s that there was an inherent ignorance or delusion that was driving it. But that’s very different than recognizing there’s an inherent source of good and an inherent source of evil, and that’s the non-dichotomy of the Buddhist worldview. It’s not about good and bad, about righteous and evil. All things are encompassed in everything.

Everything is interdependent with everything else, and so when we talk about this concept of good and evil, there can be good things, and I think it’s more appropriate to say pleasant and unpleasant. What might be pleasant or unpleasant for everyone … Everyone’s on their own scale. So we want to foster the things that are pleasant, and try to eradicate or eliminate the things that are unpleasant, that are causing harm in the world, and we do that by starting with ourselves.

Everything starts with ourselves. We can’t make the world a better place unless we’re focusing on making ourselves better individually. We want to strive to be mindful and to practice compassion because it’s individual compassion that creates compassionate families, compassionate societies, and it’s compassionate societies that are going to make a compassionate world.

So it requires action on our part. It’s not just a matter of wanting things to be better, it requires action. So this is kind of the idea of goals versus values. You can go through life with goals, and you can have whatever kind of goals, but even more important than goals are values. If I know what my values are, then I can use my goals that are driven by my values. So an example of this, there’s a Buddhist prayer, ’cause people often ask me, “What is, when I hear the term of prayer in Buddhism, what is that referring to? Who do Buddhist pray to or what do they pray for,” the answer is that in Buddhism you don’t pray to anyone and you don’t necessarily pray for anything.

It’s just an expression that you do just to do. So an example of this is the popular Buddhist prayer, “May all beings be filled with loving kindness. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy and at peace.” So it’s like a declaration of the values that I stand for, and if that’s my value statement, then my goals, my life goals, are going to revolve around my values and around my value statement.

So that’s kind of the idea of goals and values, and the reason I bring this up is because, in light of the events that happen around the world, no amount of prayer is going to fix these things. These are man-made problems that need man-made solutions. It requires action on our part, and if I have my expression of prayer, “May all beings be filled with loving-kindness. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy and at peace,” that can be my value statement that is going to generate goals now to enact those wishes, and those goals may be what drives me to do humanitarian work, or whatever it is that I’m doing in terms of action, it can be driven the value.

Because the prayer alone, the sentiment alone, isn’t enough. I can wish for all beings to be happy and at peace all day long, but if I’m not doing anything about it I’m not contributing to the goal that I want to see in the world, and I think that’s something appropriate to bring up, because when we have these events taking place in society we need to be mindful of in what ways we can take action and contribute to hopefully minimizing or eliminating these acts from our society.

And it starts with working on ourselves individually, mindfulness individually, and then from there it spreads up until we’re making a change in society. That’s the topic I wanted to share today. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this. You can interact with me on secularbuddhism.com, or on the Secular Buddhism Facebook page. We also have a secular buddhism study group with three or four hundred members, it’s, instead of a page on Facebook it’s a group, so everyone can interact with the posts, and I usually post the podcast on there, and then we have a discussion on there.

And then, of course, another option is just emailing me directly, or contacting me on secularbuddhism.com. So before I wrap this up I do want to quickly remind you of some news. Let’s go to Uganda. This is an exciting opportunity that blends mindfulness with humanitarian work and adventure. From January 26th through February 4th next year, 2017, I’m partnering up with the Africa Promise expeditions, and with my friend Susie, who’s the founder of the Africa Promise Foundation, and we’re putting together this fun trip.

We decided it would … So she invited me to be a part of these expeditions that she puts together where they do humanitarian work, and when she approached me I said, “I’ve been wanting to go do humanitarian work, so I’m gonna go do that,” but I said, “Why don’t we spend time every evening on the trip teaching mindfulness?” So we’ll do, essentially a two-week workshop, or every day of the trip we’ll be doing mindfulness work in the evenings, and learning meditation, learning mindfulness, all the foundations of secular Buddhism, so it’d be like attending a secular Buddhism workshop, plus doing humanitarian work during the days.

Building schools, digging wells, there are several things that we’re gonna be doing, and then there’s the adventure component. Because, if we’re in Africa, it would be silly to miss out on some of the fun adventurous part of being in Africa. So we’re gonna end the trip with a safari, and going and seeing all the wildlife that you would expect to see in Africa.

So again, this is January 26th through February 4th, and you can get more information if you go to mindfulhumanitarian.org. You can get all the information there. Again, feel free to contact us through that site, or me directly if you have any questions. I’d be happy to answer any questions about this trip. So thank you for listening. I truly believe that if we want to contribute to making society, or the world, a more peaceful place, we must start by making our own lives more peaceful.

This is why I do the podcast. I’m determined to produce content and tools that will help us to be more mindful, because mindful individuals can make mindful families and mindful societies. And your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for The Secular Buddhism podcast, along with content for the workshops, and retreats, and seminars, so if you’re interested and in a position to be able to do so, please visit secularbuddhism.com and make a one time donation, or sign up to be a monthly supporter of the podcast.

So thank you for your continued support, and until next time …

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– old Zen story