January 25, 2011

Buddhism and Evil

On Sunday, we used a quote from David R. Loy's piece, "The Nonduality of Good and Evil" as the day's Daily Dharma. I then posted this excerpt to our Facebook page,

If you want to hurt someone, it is important to demonize them first—in other words, fit them into your good-versus-evil story. That is why the first casualty of all wars is truth.

In response, one woman on Facebook wrote,

How do I overcome that tendency toward Sarah Palin when everytime I see her she is demonizing everyone that doesn't fit her mold. She offends me deeply and I cannot see her as anything but evil. A strong sense of hatred rushes thru my body... and I don't know how to let that go. I get nonduality otherwise, and have no issue with anyone else, but that woman, I don't know how to let the strong feelings of hatred that over take me when I think of her. I have tried not thinking about her, turning the tv and radio off, meditating on it, but even in my most peaceful, blissful day, when she comes up (and she is everywhere), I want to kick her in the face. Advise please.

to which one person responded,

Honey, I suffer the same affliction. If you do metta practice though, I'd try putting her in there. Think of her as a teacher; recommit to your own values (as many of us who are not on the far right need to now more than ever.)

and another,

What helps me is to start by considering what I have in common with someone like that: We are both subject to sickness, suffering, and death. We both want to be happy. We have both experienced yearning and disappointment. And probably we both want to make the world a better place - even if we have very different notions of what that means and how to accomplish it. By connecting at this fundamental level, it is much easier to cultivate compassion. It is also helpful to consider that the unskillful things that others do are most likely rooted in their own ignorance and suffering, and we can have compassion for that and wish that they be free from it.

I think these responses are great.

I began to contemplate this woman's statement and found that there was something from my own experience that I wanted to add. Growing up as a second-generation Western Buddhist, I recall the word "kleśa" being thrown around a lot, so much so in fact, that it was one of the Buddhist terms that I didn't realize wasn't English until I was grown.

As defined by Wikipedia,
The Buddhist term kilesa (Pali; Sanskrit: kleśa or klesha) is typically translated as "defilement," "affliction" or "poison." In Japanese the term Bonno can be translated as worldly desires.[1]  In early Buddhist texts the kilesas generally referred to mental states which temporarily cloud the mind and manifest in unskillful actions. Over time the kilesas, and in particular the "Three Poisons" of greed, hatred, and delusion, came to be seen as the very roots of samsaric existence.

I've also heard it defined as "obstruction" which I believe is a more common definition within yogic contexts.

In my family, the definition used was "poison." I was taught that when neurosis takes root deep enough in one's psyche and habitual patterns, it can literally solidify into a toxic poison. This is not some kind of teaching metaphor. Just as the physical sickness one feels after ingesting arsenic or cyanide is real, the samsaric sickness that is a result of greed, hatred, and delusion is real.

So, while as a Buddhist I have sometimes been frustrated with the idea of "evil" that is prevalent in cultures where Abrahamic religions are dominant, I do very much believe in kleśas. In fact, in many cases I believe the two words are perfectly interchangeable.

However, there are some differences.

While the Western conception of evil is often eternalistic and dualistic (us "the pure" vs. them "the wicked"), the Buddhist concept of kleśa encompasses truths such as dependent origination and impermanence. Dark malicious energy does exist, but it arises from causes and conditions just like everything else and can always be conquered by wisdom and compassion. Mental poison has no central source at the fiery center of the earth.

Buddhist history abounds with great figures who were able to transmute unfathomable amounts of kleśa poisoning. There's Angulimala, a prolific serial killer who became a student of the Buddha and rapidly attained complete liberation. There's King Ashoka, a ruthless warlord who found the dharma and went on to become one of the greatest forces of peace and philanthropy the world had ever seen. And let's not forget Milarepa, the yogi who is said to have used black magic to crush his entire village yet still became one of Tibet's greatest enlightened saints. When you look at the stories of these figures you won't find action movie demon-slayers. You find examples of people who, with tremendous diligence and exemplary guidance, were able to conquer the dark forces within their own being.

It is very important to note that, as unenlightened beings, each and every one of us has kleśa poison within us. This is the nature of the samsaric condition and should never be forgotten. That said, the amount of poison in people DOES vary. Just as we need to be humble enough to accept that certain people like great teachers and Bodhisattvas have less poison in them than ourselves, it is also possible that we will come across those who are far more "infected" than we are. Sociopaths, violent fundamentalists, and blood-thirsty dictators DO exist.

This relates to the original dilemma posed by the woman on Facebook about the disgust she feels towards a certain public servant. I very much agree with the advice she was given regarding seeing the person as a teacher, recommitting to her values, examining the commonalities between her and the person, having compassion for her and so on. However, I found myself also wanting to add that there is in fact a place for such feelings.  Buddhism is not about repression.

There is a very old Kagyu saying, "Revulsion is the foot of meditation."

This line is about how revulsion is an incredibly important motivator in practice. We shouldn't be complacent or accommodating when it comes to being poisoned. The thought of being poisoned should disgust us. It should enrage us. It should motivate us to get off our asses and do something about it, to be Buddhists.

So when we are confronted with someone else's poison, it is perfectly plausible that we will be repulsed by it. We just need to know what it is that is disgusting us. It's the poison, not the person.

This is why certain enlightened beings are depicted as wrathful monsters. The rage of a wrathful deity is like that of a mother who sees that her baby is being hurt, except in this case, the mother is the enlightened mind and the baby is all sentient beings.

Mahakala (Bernag Chen)


















Image 1 via BuddhistHumor.org

Image 2: Mahakala (Bernag Chen)
Tibet, 1700 - 1799
Nyingma and Karma (Kagyu) Lineages
Ground Mineral Pigment, Fine Gold Line
Collection of Rubin Museum of Art

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Tharpa Pema's picture

I also have been angry and afraid (=revulsed) sometimes at political figures in the news.

I use Karuna, or Compassion, to work with that feeling of revulsion. I am aware that it feels absolutely awful in my body, the worst feeling in the world. I imagine that the party saying the things that repel me has said those things precisely because he or she also feels revulsed at something, usually something with which I identify!

It's an accident beyond my control--although my control increases as I awaken--what stimuli condition fear in my mind and body. The same is true of the putative political opposition. "They" also are responding to conditioning beyond their control. We share the same victimhood to samsaric delusion, just the specific delusions are different.

Then I can see how much pain "they" also suffer and my revulsion dissipates to be replaced by compassion for all us struggling creatures.

Another essential element for me in dissipating revulsion (=fear and anger) is to make a regular practice of coming to terms with my own death. The revulsion is triggered by a survival instinct--fear and anxiety about my own potential for pain and death.

The pain I can moderate with Buddhist practice. And I make a point of reminding myself that I am surely going to die one day. Do I want to die with peace in my heart or with anguish? While I am here I endeavor to live--as much as I can--in a way that I can believe has left more peace than strife behind me for the suffering sentient beings to come.

These reminders usually calm me and I am able to move on.

With Karuna, Linda

James Shaheen's picture

About the word "revulsion": I've heard scholars struggle with this translation of the Pali word nibbida. Many feel "revulsion" is too strong. But this, from Nyanaponika's translation of the Bhutamitam Sutta: This Has Come Into Being:


"This has come to be"— do you see that, Saariputta?


"'This has come to be" — that, O Lord, one sees with true wisdom, as it really is. And having seen with true wisdom, as it really is, that "this has come to be," one is on the way towards revulsion from what has come to be, towards dispassion and cessation.... [Emphasis added]


And this, from Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Fire Sermon:


Bhikkhus, form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, volitional formations are burning, consciousness is burning. Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form ... feeling ... perception ... volitional formations ... consciousness .... Through dispassion [this mind] is liberated....[Emphasis added]


We often come across "disenchantment" instead. There's a lot of nuance here, and disagreement about nibbida's translation into English is common. For instance, here's one opinion:


Revulsion has too strong a negative connotation. Disenchantment is much better — one experiencing nibbida towards X is no longer enchanted by X, the spell (enchantment) has been broken.


Not all scholars and translators agree. Bhikkhu Bodhi, I believe, has been back and forth on this and after what must have been careful consideration, settled on "revulsion." In other words, maybe "disenchantment" is too weak. (I'll check on this, but as I remember there was a period when Bhikkhu Bodhi stopped using "revulsion"—can anyone help here? I'm pretty lazy this morning, maybe trudging to work in the snow every day has finally caught up with me.)


Revulsion always struck me as aversive, but, in fact, the teachings do discuss revulsion toward samsara as a strong entry point on the path. As the Kagyus point out, it is the very "foot" of meditation.

dklonsky's picture

Buddhist involvement in social and political action goes back a long time. In Asia, not the United States. There is no reason that a Buddhist cannot be concerned for the welfare of all sentient beings and take appropriate action. There is lots of reason that a Buddhist can and ought to do so. Meditation is not always and only about sitting on a cushion, or bench.

Monty McKeever's picture

thanks for commenting dlonsky and and LeeinOk,

I guess you're right dklonsky that Buddhist social action does not go back a very long time in the US, but on the other hand, the US itself doesn't go back very far. Compared to Asian countries, the entirety of US history is quite brief.

Here are just a few of the many socially engaged Buddhist groups that are in or based out of the US that are doing good work:

LeeInOK's picture

Appropriate action indeed! Reflection on the reality that behind her tirades, or charades if you will, is a person that must be pretty (pun intended) miserable - helps to develop compassion on the cushion. Although compassion leads to a desire to act, discernment often reveals equanimity as the only refuge. Determination and persistence on the cushion helps one to hold on to these skillful qualities off the cushion.
Can our anger and hatred towards others have a footing where karma is truly understood?

bendorje's picture

While I see how one can have a certain revulsion towards those that do nothing but spew hatred and slander, if you consider yourself a true follower of Buddhism, not the New Age Americanized version of Buddhism, but real deep down in your heart and mind Tibetan style Buddhism, then one would never allow this hatred to enter their mind. Americans think they can re-make Buddhism to fit their lives, but we really need to except the fact that Buddhism isn't an American Religion, and we should not try to change it so that we fit in. If one follows the true path of the Buddha, then these issues never come to pass. Either be a true Buddhist in every way, or stop all together. One can't be both a Baptist and a Buddhist.
All of this is about both anger toward others, and equanimity toward them. As a true Buddhist it should be natural as how to work through both issues with little effort.Meditation is always the answer, and one can never meditate enough.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Just a slight detour from the main line of discussion.
Re: "Buddhism isn't an American Religion, and we should not try to change it so that we fit in."
This was also the case when the Law was being transmitted to other cultures beyond its country of origin 2,500 years ago. As you mention, among a variety of others, there is also a "Tibetan style Buddhism" that was changed to fit in the indigenous Bon religion.

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks for your comment bendorje,

I agree with you, people should not try to re-make or "New-Age-ify" Buddhism. That said, I am curious why you would post that comment here. My blog was a about klesas, a term/teaching used by the Buddha. My understanding of it, while not removed from the original Pali, comes (via my parents) from a Tibetan Vajrayana master. In short, there is no re-making or new age-ifying going on here.

As far as your claim that Buddhism is not an American religion, I very much disagree. Asian-Americans have been practicing Buddhism in America for centuries. As far as Westerners like myself that descend from regions that are traditionally non-Buddhist are concerned (like Europe), we take refuge just like everyone else. The Buddha explicitly instructed his followers to go forth into the world, cross borders, and teach the dharma; and to always do so in the local dialect, in "the idiom of the times." Masters like the 16th Karmapa, Maezumi Roshi, Bhante Gunaratana, Suzuki Roshi, and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche planted the seeds of dharma in the West. They were not New Agers.


kentc33's picture

"Cultivating equanimity (as well as love, compassion, and joy)" for Klesa-mara, or Mara as the embodiment of all unskillful emotions--our own and others.

Monty McKeever's picture

Ah, I see what you're saying.

I think an important distinction is that in a Buddhist context "getting off our asses and doing something" simply means practicing and studying the dharma. I'm not talking about taking to the streets in some sort of frenzied campaign against samsara. I'm talking about cultivating equanimity (as well as love, compassion, and joy).

Thanks for commenting Rudi

rudi's picture

I don't want to belabor my point, Marty... but I am not sure you do see what I am saying... I was aware that you were not talking about taking to the streets, however martial your tone seemed to me... My question is, why does one decide to cultivate equanimity?... Your answer was "revulsion is an incredibly important motivator in practice"... My sense is that revulsion makes a distinction between good and bad, that it "demonizes" greed, ill-will and ignorance and enlists meditation as a way of combating them... This is what I was referring to when I said that Loy was setting up the very same distinctions that he would like to resolve. I don't think that one can cultivate equanimity by starting from a position of dis-equanimity... One may recognize that the mind is conflicted over such things as greed, but it seems to me that such recognition must be unbiased from the start to have any lasting effect...

Monty McKeever's picture

Now you lost me Rodney. This just sounds like nit-picking for nit-picking's sake.

Revulsion is a genuine present moment reaction, not an expression of dualism.

rudi's picture

OK, Monty... In my view, any reaction is by its very nature dualistic, especially once it is named... but I have no desire to nit-pick... Thanks for the opportunity to comment and the occasion to read Loy's article... rudi (although "Rodney" works as well)

Monty McKeever's picture

No problem Rudi!

Monty McKeever's picture

Hi Rudi, if you're still around,

Looking back a day later (and having a tiny bit more free time), I think we may have missed a potentially teachable moment here. It also seems I may have been a bit dismissive. My apologies.

I see the logic of "any reaction is by its very nature dualistic," because indeed, a reaction implies an action and reactor, a duality. You seem to be implying that anything with a THIS/THAT distinction is duality. This makes sense considering that duality is defined as "–noun, a dual state or quality. [1] "

However, the definition of duality that I was employing is more specific:

"a : a doctrine that the universe is under the dominion of two opposing principles one of which is good and the other evil

b : a view of human beings as constituted of two irreducible elements (as matter and spirit) [1] "

I feel that these are the definitions of duality more commonly used in religious or philosophical contexts, such as Loy's article or my blog. When I reject duality, I am rejecting what Loy refers to as a the "good-versus-evil story." I see no use in perpetually rejecting all subject/object relationships as "dualistic." This just doesn't seem practical or beneficial to me in day-to-day life.

It does however make perfect sense in practice and ritual contexts.

There are many Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings that explain reality just as you seem to be viewing it-as a singularity, a self-existing luminous void with no beginning, end, or boundaries.

However, I think it is important to note that most of these traditions require a great deal of preliminary study and various initiations before getting into deeper, more expansive existential terrain. The reason for this as I understand it is that, without proper guidance and containment, such endeavors can rapidly become intense nihilism or indulgent intellectualism (or as I would say "nit-picking for nit-picking's sake.")

rudi's picture

"The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart."
-- Verses on the Faith Mind by The 3rd Zen Patriarch, Sengstau

Although I happen to hold with Dzogchen, "that the two perspectives (truths) are ultimately resolved into nonduality as a lived experience and are non-different," (Wikipedia), I think that the distinction you have made between our two perspectives, helps clarify them... Thank you...

p.s. It's not the first time I have been accused of nit-picking, and doubt it will be the last... No apologies necessary...

Monty McKeever's picture

why would that be a different perspective rudi?

rudi's picture

"We shouldn't be complacent or accommodating when it comes to being poisoned. The thought of being poisoned should disgust us. It should enrage us. It should motivate us to get off our asses and do something about it, to be Buddhists."
To me, this sounds like demonizing... My sense is that rage and disgust are counter-productive... I prefer equanimity, even to the point of dispassionate acceptance of those same emotions when they arise... Choiceless awareness is not complacency, in my view...

rudi's picture

For a slightly different perspective: Let's assume that demonizing any feelings one way or another, even towards our own responses to experience, might be the problem... Professor Loy states that, "Because this view offers us a better understanding of what actually motivates people—all of us—it also implies a very different way to address the problems created by ignorance and desire and violence: not a new holy war against evil, but a less dramatic struggle to transform our own greed into generosity, ill will into love, and ignorance into wisdom."
It appears to me that he is setting up the very same distinctions that he would like to resolve... greed versus generosity, ill will versus love and ignorance versus wisdom... And the war goes on....