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Good and evil have often been looked upon as diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. But in a real, practical sense, such a simplistic way of thinking is unsatisfactory. Even the cruelest of criminals may possess a strong sense of love or compassion toward his parents and children. Is such a person fundamentally good or evil?
The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are innate, inseparable aspects of life. This view makes it impossible to label a particular individual or group as “good” or “evil.” Every single human being is capable of acts of the most noble good, or the basest evil.
Moreover, good and evil in Buddhism are seen not as absolute but relative or “relational.” The good or evil of an act is understood in terms of its actual impact on our own lives and the lives of others, not on abstract rules of conduct.
Evil actions are those which are based on a narrow selfishness, the delusion that our lives are fundamentally disconnected from those of others and that we can benefit at their expense. Evil views life as a means to be expended, not an end in itself. Good is that which generates connection between ourselves and others, healing and restoring the bonds among human societies.
related article The Simultaneity of Cause and Effect The nine worlds, representing cause, and the world of Buddhahood, representing effect, exist simultaneously in our lives. This is symbolized by the lotus plant, which bears flowers (symbolizing the common mortal) and fruit (symbolizing Buddhahood) at the same time. In the context of Buddhism, good is identified with “the fundamental nature of enlightenment,” or absolute freedom and happiness resulting from profound self-knowledge. Evil indicates “fundamental darkness,” or life’s innate delusion which negates the potential of enlightenment and causes suffering for oneself and others. This inner darkness echoes with the despair that our lives are ugly and meaningless; it also drives a wedge of fear that splits the hearts of people into “us” and “them.”
A Buddha is someone who has the courage to acknowledge these two fundamental aspects of life. As Nichiren states, “One who is thoroughly awakened to the nature of good and evil from their roots to their branches and leaves is called a Buddha.” Buddhas accept their innate goodness without arrogance because they know all people share the same Buddha nature. Buddhas also recognize their innate evil without despair because they know they have the strength to overcome and control their negativity.
Unwillingness to acknowledge the potential of both supreme good and evil can stem from the fact that as individuals we are reluctant to see ourselves as either very good or very bad, hiding instead behind a collective moral mediocrity that requires neither the responsibility of goodness nor the guilt of evil. And perhaps this moral ambiguity within seems to demand quick judgment of others—viewing those who serve our interests as “good people” and those whom we dislike as “bad people” as if to counterbalance that inner confusion with external clarity.
Some view Buddhism as a teaching of tranquillity and repose—of passivity even—whereas in fact the practice of Buddhism is not about “staying safe.” It is a constant struggle to create value and change evil into good through our own efforts to confront it. Nichiren writes, “Opposing good is called evil, opposing evil is called good.”
If we lack the courage to confront evil acts, or tendencies toward hatred and discrimination, both within ourselves and in society, they will spread unchecked, as history shows.
Soka Gakkai founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, imprisoned for his criticism of Japan’s wartime policies, is said to have engaged his fellow prisoners in a debate on the nature of good and evil, asking if there was a difference between not doing good and committing actual evil.
If we lack the courage to confront evil acts, or tendencies toward hatred and discrimination, both within ourselves and in society, they will spread unchecked, as history shows. Martin Luther King, Jr., lamented, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
In the words of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, “The universe, this world and our own lives, are the stage for a ceaseless struggle between hatred and compassion, the destructive and constructive aspects of life. We must never let up, confronting evil at every turn.”
And in the end, the evil over which we must triumph is the impulse toward hatred and destruction that resides in us all. The process of acknowledging, confronting and transforming our own fundamental darkness is the means by which we can strengthen the functioning of good in our lives.
[Courtesy October 2002 SGI Quarterly]