Sunday, October 17, 2010

Good vs. Evil


At our last meeting of the Society of Friends of the Buddha, one of my friends expressed his frustration when an excerpt from the Lankavatara Sutra seemed to say that everything is Enlightenment:


“When people attain Enlightenment in this sense, it means that everything is Enlightenment in itself as it is.”


“How,” my friend wanted to know, “is it possible that everything is Enlightenment. Is torture Enlightenment? Was bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki Enlightenment? Was the Holocaust Enlightenment? How can Evil with a capital “E” be Enlightenment?”

My first response is to join him in wondering about this. None of the things he mentioned seems particularly enlightened to me.

Yet I’ve come to learn in 30 plus years of studying Buddhism to suspend my initial difficulties with Buddhist teachings. Too many times I’ve grown older, and wiser. Eventually I see wisdom that wasn’t apparent at first glance.

Shunryu Suzuki once said, 

"If it's not paradoxical, it's not true."

Is it possible that evil is not Enlightenment and evil  is Enlightenment?

Perhaps so.

The Lankavatara Sutra says that in some ultimate sense, there is a unity of all things, of all events, of all actions—and that unity is Enlightenment. This sutra may be describing ultimate reality, not our ordinary everyday reality.

I hold the paradoxical thought that good and evil both exist and don’t exist at the same time. In everyday reality (where I spend most of my time) good is good and evil is evil.

However in a more rarified state of awareness, the opposite is equally and simultaneously true:  The world cannot really exist when good is purely good and evil is purely evil.

Taoists might point out that good and evil co-arise. We cannot know evil if we do not know good; we cannot know good if we do not know evil. Good and evil not only co-arise—they are two aspects of a same oneness that is neither good nor evil, but both good and evil and neither good nor evil.

In ordinary day-to-day reality, as a practical matter, we must nurture good as we resist evil.

To skillfully oppose evil here in this ordinary, everyday world, it is necessary to know something about evil—in any guise it might appear. We must have some “sympathy for the devil.” We must not be so taken by our ideas of good and evil that we fail to see the co-arising of good and evil. As we get to know “the devil” better, we can learn to effectively (and playfully) outfox and outmaneuver him.

Unless we accord evil its due respect, evil can make us crazy—either as we fervently oppose it, or as we fall under its seduction, or as we lose our bearings in apathy.

8 comments:

Von said...

All that exists is enlightening is it not? It's about what message you take from it and what you learn that's the key.

=I= said...

I think you have nailed it in your last sentence. I am not a Buddhist and therefore do not claim to know the subtleties as you do being and studying so, but I have recently been sorting through this very idea in the context of Jungian and archetypal psychology. My interest lies in the fact that we seem to push evil underground and therefore just make it an 'unconscious' phenomenon. I just recently re-read the 'layperson's' version of the Tibetan Book by Sogyal Rinpoche and I finally got the evil/good thing. Basically there is no difference between them, or rather, all of the 'good' deities and all of the 'bad' ones that we see in the dharmata (I think it is?) of dying are one and the same energy and the trick is in recognising this. Not saying of course that I will be able to do anything like that...anyway, I just did a pretty 'in yer face' blog about the dark face of 'God'. It is based on my own experience but I don't suspect too many people will know or want to know what I am talking about.

steven said...

a big question dan. my understanding is that like and dislike, good and evil are distractors. move beyond them and find greater riches. steven

Bonnie said...

much that is like enlightenment arises out of encounters with evil.

it would be an interesting exercise to try to apply the concept of 'no preference' to good and evil ...

Dan Gurney said...

Von, yes. I think it can be helpful to trust the idea that whatever arises in life provides exactly the material which you need to take the next steps towards Enlightenment. However that's easier said than done. Sometimes life serves up some pretty tough lessons.

Dan Gurney said...

=1=, a little fourth grader in my school and I were chatting the other day.

She held out her hand, extended her pointer finger and said, "When you point your finger at someone, remember that three fingers point back at you and your thumb points up to God. What you say about that person, you're saying about yourself and about God. It's three times truer of you."

Sometimes wisdom comes from unexpected places.

Dan Gurney said...

steven, I agree, ideas about good and evil can be very very distracting. Still, I think it can be perilous to ignore them and live our lives as if good and evil did not exist. Ethical behavior makes life in our real world a whole lot more conducive to spiritual progress.

Dan Gurney said...

Bonnie, your comment reminds me of the commonly said remark about some calamity, like a some terrible diagnosis or other: "It was a real blessing. It woke me up."

That "no preference" mind can be pretty fleeting in day-to-day life. It's available in special circumstances, like long retreats.