Reflecting on Evil

Fountain of Peace, St John the Divine

By most counts I am a religion nerd. Not only is it a favorite topic of discussion, but if there is a church, temple, mosque, synagogue, shrine or ritual place of note in the area that allows visitors, I am there. So when I learned that the fourth largest Christian church in the world - the Cathedral of St. John the Divine - was in New York City, I of course had to go.

The cathedral itself was grand, Gothic, and a little too dark, but what I most remember is that just outside the building was a sign inviting visitors to stroll in the “Children's Peace Garden.” And in the center of the small garden, dominating the space, was a very large statue of the Archangel Michael, wings unfurled, sword drawn, standing over the prone and nearly decapitated body of Satan, his horned head hanging over the edge of the piece by a single bronze ligament. And I thought in horror, “Who in their right minds would put something this violent in a children's peace garden?

Reading the inscription, I understood. For the creators of this garden, peace comes when good annihilates evil. In their theology, there are good people and bad people. If you are a good person, then goodness is inherent and evil is external to you, and if you are a bad person, then evil is inherent in you. Actions are neither inherently good nor evil, people are. So killing an evil person is a good act because it reduces the amount of evil in the world. The ends justify the means. According to that theology, Michael decapitating Satan is the triumph of good over evil.

This is the same thinking, regardless of religion, that motivates religious wars and attacks. It's the thinking behind capital punishment. It's the thinking behind most murders, actually, like the many we’ve grieved this month including in Baton Rouge this morning. And if I am honest, it's the same thinking, on a smaller scale, that I revert to when someone has hurt me and my first reaction is to hurt them back. Verbally. When my desire is to say something so devastating that the person is overwhelmed and does not mess with me again.

In those moments, I have to stop and remember that from a Buddhist perspective, overcoming evil doesn't work that way. First, as the Heart Sutra says, “All phenomena in their own-being are empty.” No thing including us is inherently in and of itself anything. All things including us are conditional upon other things. (That whole interdependent web of existence.) Thus, people are neither inherently good nor evil. Whatever state we're in is the result of our conditions.

Now, emptiness doesn't mean that there is no good and evil. It's not “all relative” and “anything goes.” Rather, the focus is on actions, not people. Those actions that benefit beings are wholesome and can be considered good and those that cause harm to beings are unwholesome and can be considered evil.

The focus is on actions, or karma. In common usage, karma is often interchangeable with punishment. Sometimes, punishment and reward. In the original Sanskrit, however, the word “karma” literally means action. Simply put, karma is the consequences of our actions, all consequences of every action. We cannot take any action, good or bad, without it affecting both the wider world AND ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective, even an angel of God such as Michael cannot kill someone, even the Devil himself, without that act of violence tainting their own being, making them more inclined to violence in the future. Because of karma, the means are the ends. Thus, we cannot end evil through violence, because violence itself increases the evil in the world.

And unfortunately, that includes name-calling and insults. The only way to overcome evil is to meet it with good, to meet violence with compassion. SO MUCH easier said than done. But then I remember that the good news is, if every action we take affects our being, then when we do kind things - even if we don't feel particularly kind at the moment - it makes it easier for us to be kind in the future. Little by little, it makes us better people. We really can “fake it to make it.”

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Acknowledgments

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