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?
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.