“O” is for Opposites…., Right?


“O” is for Opposites…. Like Evil vs. Good, Right?

I recently had a conversation with Thomas on the topic of “evil.”

He asked, what does Buddhism teach as the essence and cause  of “evil?” My answer was “Ignorance.” In Buddhism, ignorance is considered the first step in the 12 links of Dependent Origination.  In particular we talked about self-responsibility balanced with the wisdom of interdependence;  so there are many causes and conditions for actions and events.

It was a brief conversation during a lunch break in the midst of a workshop but the conversation stayed with me….

Then there was the Charlie Hebdo shootings and its aftermaths ….And in the same week, the shooting of four men across the street from SFZC’s City Center.

Around these events, I was in the midst of teaching a class series on The Heart Sutra in my sitting group. I was working on a talk to summarize this seminal teaching in the Zen tradition. One of my reference was Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Heart of Understanding. In a chapter entitled “Buddha is Made of Non-Buddha Elements,” he tells a story of a visit between Buddha and Mara which gave me the inspiration for the talk on the topic of “evil;” which seems especially pertinent given these events.

Usually, when we think of “evil,” my take is that our conditioning is to think it as the  direct opposite from “good.” With this dualism as a framework, we tend then to reject “evil” if we want to hang on to “good;” especially the “I’m a good person!” instead of the “I’m a bad person!”

Our continual grasping at “evil” and “good” as polarized concepts — which also often leads to similarly framing groups of people — tends to increase suffering and can trigger reactions of hatred.

When we’re able to let go of our conditioned dualistic framing — when we’re not so rigid in thinking we “KNOW!” what makes another (or ourselves!) “evil” versus what makes another (or ourselves!) “good” —  the possibility for accessing compassion as a response becomes more possible.

That’s my take, framed here at the talk for EBMC’s POC Sangha January 8th:

“Evil” from a Buddhist Perspective: Buddha and Mara

  • What’s yours?

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