The problem of evil! It consumes Western Abrahamic philosophy – how can a God who is both all-powerful and all-good allow evil into His universe? People tie themselves up in knots trying to answer this one (without taking a step back and wondering if their base assumptions about God are, in fact, not correct). And it’s not just the West that struggles with the nature of evil; even supposedly non-dualistic Eastern philosophies spend time trying to figure out why evil exists.
But what if it doesn’t? I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but I’ve been reading a book about the philosophy of Zen Buddhist icon Dogen, and his thoughts on evil are really intriguing to me. The basic idea: there’s no such thing as evil. Evil isn’t a thing. It’s an action.
“It is not that there are no evils: it is only that there are things that one should not do. It is not that there are evils: it is only that there are things that one should not do. It is not that evils are lacking in form: it is simply that they are things not to be done. It is not that evils have some particular form: simply they are things not to be done.”
This reminds me of my understanding of the Buddhist concept of no self, which tripped me up for a long time. Right now I understand the self as I understand sailing: of course there’s sailing, except there’s no such thing as sailing.
Sailing is a thing you DO. It requires other conditions and phenomena to come together to exist – you need a boat, and you need wind, and you need an ocean. Take any of those away and you’re not sailing anymore. So when I say to you ‘Sailing doesn’t exist,’ you might say ‘Of course it fucking does, otherwise what is Popeye’s job?’, but when you understand that sailing is a confluence of actions and conditions, and that with any of those actions and conditions removed (you can be on a boat, sail unfurled, wind westerly, but be on dry land and you are for sure not sailing) it is not happening, you understand what it means for the self to not exist.
Take that another step and apply it to evil, which is what Dogen is doing here. Evil is not a thing, some monstrous energy caught in a jar like in a John Carpenter movie. Evil is action. Evil doesn’t exist if we don’t do it. It’s a simple, obvious thought, but it’s also profound. How do we stop evil on Earth? We stop doing evil.
There’s more (there always is). If evil is not a thing, evil is hard to define. Says Dogen:
‘All evil’ is not exactly the same as what is considered wrong among us in the monastic community or among those in the mundane world, nor is it exactly the same as what was thought of as evil in the past or what is thought to be so in the present. And it is not exactly the same as what is considered evil among the lofty or among ordinary, everyday human beings. And vast indeed is the difference between the way that good, evil, and neutral are spoken of in Buddhism and the way they are spoken of in the world of ordinary, everyday people. What is seen as good and what is seen as evil depend on the times, but time itself is neither good nor evil. What is good and what is evil depend on what thoughts and things they give rise to, but whatever arises is likewise inherently neither good nor evil. To the extent that thoughts or things are alike, they partake of good alike, and to the extent that they are alike, they partake of evil alike.
There’s an interesting idea here, that evil is kind of inherently subjective. It’s like BDSM – it’s a situation where chaining a person to a piece of wood and whipping them mercilessly is actually GOOD. It isn’t that chaining a person to a piece of wood and whipping them is bad (it inherently contains no meaning and is empty), but the intention behind the act (and the consent of the parties in the act) render it good or bad.
The takeaway here is the understanding that people are not evil – they do evil things. You are not bad, you have done bad things. If you have done evil things you can stop doing evil things. Just as there is no innate self, there is no innate evil. We are our actions, and we can change who we are by changing our actions. And we can change our actions by changing our thoughts, which lead us towards favoring one action over another, and which lead us to have certain intentions that can be wholesome (whipping someone in a consensual BDSM scene) or unwholesome (kidnapping a stranger and whipping them against their will).
All of this, by the way, grows out of Dogen discussing one sentence from the Dhammapada:
To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
This is pretty solid, common sense stuff. It’s even echoed in Christianity (“hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians). It’s simple, even. But it’s something that we as humans seem to still have a hard time mastering.