GOOD vs EVIL: A Buddhist Reflection on the New Holy War
Very interesting. The full article is here:
GETTING BEYOND GOOD vs EVIL
A Buddhist Reflection on the New Holy War
David R. Loy (from KJ #51)
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
In his autobiography Gandhi writes that "those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means." 1 Perhaps this is more obvious to us after September 11th, but it should always have been obvious: religion is about how we should live, and politics is about deciding together how we want to live. The main reason it has not been obvious is because most modern societies have been careful todistinguish the secular public sphere from the personal, private world of religious belief. This has been essential for creating a multicultural climate of religious tolerance, but at a price: such tolerance effectively "displaces morality" by "asking you to inhabit your own moral convictions loosely and be ready to withdraw from them whenever pursuing them would impinge on the activities and choices of others."2 Many people would prefer that Osama bin Laden inhabited his moral convictions more loosely, but the downside of loose convictions has been an increasingly amoral public sphere.
In two other ways, however, Gandhi's comment seems especially important now.
First, the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were engaged in a political act that was religiously inspired, however badly they may have misunderstood their religion. In fact, it is difficult to think of any other motivation that can inspire people to sacrifice themselves, and others, so willingly. (The kamikaze pilots of World War II were not an exception, for at that time the Japanese emperor was considered a god, so he was a religious leader as much as a political one.) Although they left no suicide notes, the September hijackers seem to have understood themselves as engaged in a jihad defending Islam against the globalizing West.
And that brings us to a third aspect of Gandhi's statement, the one that I wish to focus on the intersection of religion and politics in the way we comprehend good and evil. Our understanding of good and evil cannot be simply identified with any religious worldview, but the two are intimately related. The new war against terrorism, like the long-standing tension between Israel and the Palestinians, and like many earlier conflicts among Jews, Christians and Muslims, can be viewed as an Abrahamic civil war. These encounters are so violent and so difficult to resolve not only because they draw on old historical tensions, but because the opponents seem to share some very similar views about the struggle between good and evil. This essay originates in the curious fact that the al-Qaeda understanding of good and evil the need for a holy war against evil is also emphasized by the administration of George W. Bush. Three days after the September attacks, President Bush declared that the United States has been called to a new worldwide mission "to rid the world of evil," and two days later he said that the U.S. government is determined to "rid the world of evil-doers."3 America, the defender of freedom, now has a responsibility to rid the world of its evil. We may no longer have an "evil empire" to defeat, but we have found a more sinister evil that will require a protracted, all-out war to destroy. Later Bush unwisely referred to this war as a "crusade," and in his 2002 State of the Union address he identified a new "axis of evil," especially Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
If anything is evil, the terrorist attacks on September 11th were. That must not be forgotten in what follows. At the same time, however, we need to take a close look at such rhetoric. When Bush said he wants to rid the world of evil, alarm bells went off in my mind, because that is also what Hitler and Stalin purportedly wanted to do.
What was the problem with Jews that required a "final solution"? The earth could be made pure for the Aryan race only by exterminating the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally-defective, etc. all the impure vermin who contaminate it. Stalin needed to exterminate well-to-do Russian peasants in order to establish his ideal society of collective farmers. Both of these great villains were trying to perfect the world by eliminating its impurities. The world can be made good only by destroying its evil elements.
In other words, one of the main causes of evil in this world has been human attempts to eradicate evil, or what has been viewed as evil. In more Buddhist terms, much of the world's suffering has been a result of our way of thinking about good and evil.
On the same day that Bush made his first pronouncement about ridding the world of evil, the Washington Post quoted Joshua Teitelbaum, a scholar who has studied the al-Qaeda movement: "Osama bin Laden looks at the world in very stark, black-and-white terms. For him, the U.S. represents the forces of evil that are bringing corruption and domination into the Islamic world." 4
What is the difference between bin Laden's view and Bush's? They are opposites, of course in fact, mirror opposites. Let's look at that Teitelbaum quote again, changing only a few names: "George W. Bush looks at the world in very stark, black-and-white terms. For him, al-Qaeda represents the forces of evil that are bringing corruption and domination into the Western world." You're either with us or against us.
What bin Laden sees as good an Islamic jihad against an impious imperialism Bush sees as evil. What Bush sees as good America the defender of freedom and democracy bin Laden sees as evil. That makes them two different versions of the same holy-war-between-good-and-evil.
This is not to equate Bush's actions with those of bin Laden (although I can appreciate why such an argument might be attempted, because of the large number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan). Rather, I am making a point about our ways of looking at the world, at the spectacles bin Laden and Bush and we use to understand what happens in it. From a Buddhist perspective, there is something delusive about both sides of this mirror-image, and it is important to understand how this black-and-white way of thinking brings more suffering, more evil, into the world.
This dualism of good-versus-evil is attractive because it is a simple way of looking at the world, and I will have more to say about that later. Although it is certainly not unique to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) I think this dualism is one of the reasons why the conflicts among them have been so difficult to resolve peacefully believers tend to identify their own religion as good and demonize the other faith or its adherents.
It is difficult to turn the other cheek when the world is viewed through these spectacles, because this rationalizes the opposite principle an eye for an eye. If the world is a battleground of good and evil forces, the evil that is seen in the world must be fought and defeated by any means necessary.
I am not saying that this attitude represents the best of the Abrahamic religions. There is another way to understand the war between good and evil: to internalize it and psychologize it, as the struggle that occurs within each of us when we try to live up to the ideals of our own religion. This is the "greater jihad" or "internal jihad" that most Muslims emphasize more than any externalized one. Nevertheless, it is a tragic fact is that many religious people or many people who believe themselves to be religious have objectified and projected this struggle as a struggle in the external world between the good (most of all, their own religion) and evil (other religions and atheism).
The secularization of the modern West has not eliminated this tendency. In some ways it has intensified it, because we can no longer rely on a supernatural resolution. We have to depend upon ourselves to bring about the final victory of good over evil, as Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong tried to do. It is unclear how much help bin Laden and Bush have expected from God.
Perhaps the basic problem with this simplistic good-vs.-evil way of understanding conflict is that, since it tends to preclude further thought, it keeps us from looking deeper, from trying to discover causes. Once something has been identified as evil, there is no more need to explain it; it is time to focus on fighting against it. Bin Laden and Bush seem to share this tendency. This is where we can benefit from the different perspective of a non-Abrahamic religious tradition.
For Buddhism, evil, like everything else, has no essence or substance of its own; it is a product of impermanent causes and conditions. Buddhism emphasizes the concept of evil less than what it calls the three roots of evil, or the three causes of evil, also known as the three poisons greed, ill will and delusion. Let me offer what may be a controversial distinction: the Abrahamic religions emphasize the struggle between good and evil because the basic issue is usually understood to be our will: which side are we on? In contrast, Buddhism emphasizes ignorance and enlightenment because the basic issue depends on our self-knowledge: do we really understand what motivates us?
One way to summarize the basic Buddhist teaching is that we suffer, and cause others to suffer, because of greed, ill will and delusion. Karma implies that when our actions are motivated by these roots of evil, their negative consequences tend to rebound upon us. That is true for everyone. However, the Buddhist solution to suffering does not involve requiting violence with violence, any more than it involves responding to greed with greed, or responding to delusion with delusion. From a Buddhist perspective, one cannot find justice for the deaths of some three thousand innocent people in New York and Washington with a bombing campaign that leads to the death of an even larger number of innocent Afghanis. Rather, the Buddhist approach involves breaking that cycle by transforming greed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, and delusions into wisdom.
What do these teachings imply now, in the aftermath of the September attacks?
To begin with, we cannot focus only on the second root of evil, the hatred and violence that were directed against the United States. The three roots are intertwined. Ill will cannot be separated from greed and delusion; another's ill will toward us may be due to their greed, but it may also be a result of our greed. This points us toward the essential question that many of us have been wanting to ask, but that others prefer to brush away or evade: why do so many people in the Middle East, in particular, hate the United States so much? What has the U.S. done to encourage that hatred? This is a crucial question that all the simpleminded rhetoric about "evil" has tended to ignore or downplay. Undoubtedly, some fundamentalist versions of Islam are also important factors; yet they are not the only ones. We Americans usually think of America as the most ardent defender of freedom and justice, but obviously that is not the way many Muslims in the Middle East perceive us. Are they misinformed? Are we? Or are both of us?
"Does anybody think that we can send the USS New Jersey to lob Volkswagen-sized shells into Lebanese villages (Reagan, 1983) or loose 'smart bombs' on civilians seeking shelter in a Baghdad bunker (Bush, 1991) or fire cruise missiles on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory (Clinton, 1999) and not receive, someday, our share in kind?"5
More precisely, how much of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been motivated by love of freedom and democracy, and how much by need or greed for its oil? (How did "our" oil get into "their" wells?) If the main priority has been securing oil supplies, and if the U.S. has sacrificed other, more democratic concerns for access to that resource, does it mean that our petroleum-based economy is one of the causes of the September attacks?
Buddhist teachings imply that we should focus especially on the role of delusion in creating this situation. Delusion has a special meaning in Buddhism. The fundamental delusion is our sense of separation from the world we are "in," including our separation from other people. Insofar as we feel separate from others, we are more inclined to manipulate them to get what we want. This naturally breeds resentment: both from others, who do not like to be used, and within ourselves, when we do not get what we want... Isn't this also true collectively?
The delusion of separation becomes wisdom when we realize that "no one is an island." We are interdependent because we are all part of each other, different facets of the same jewel we call the earth.This world is a not a collection of objects but a community of subjects, a web of interacting processes. Our "interpermeation" means we cannot avoid responsibility for each other. This is true not only for the residents of lower Manhattan, many of whom worked together in response to the WTC catastrophe, but for all people in the world, however hate-filled and deluded they may be... including even the terrorists who did these horrific acts, and all those who support them.
Christians are urged to distinguish the sinner from the sin. This attitude is also quite Buddhist. I do not know how greedy bin Laden and the other al-Qaeda leaders are, but they certainly seem to be extreme examples of how ill will and delusion can overwhelm the mind. Nevertheless, from a Buddhist perspective they still have Buddha-nature, which means that they still have the capacity to understand how evil their actions have been, and to try to atone for them. We know that such an awakening is unlikely to occur, and in fact bin Laden and most of the other al-Qaeda leaders may well be dead by the time you read these words. That fate, however, is not something for Buddhists to celebrate, but will be yet another occasion to mourn, in that case for the karmic consequences for themselves, too, of their ignorance and deadly hatred.
Do not misunderstand me here. Of course those responsible for the attacks should, indeed must be caught and brought to justice. That is part of our responsibility to those who have suffered, and we (not only U.S. citizens, but the global community) also have a duty to stop all other deluded and hate-filled terrorists. If, however, we want to stop this cycle of hatred and violence, we must realize that our responsibility is much broader than that.
Realizing our interdependence and mutual responsibility for each other implies something more than just an insight or intellectual awareness. When we try to live the way this interdependence implies, it is called love. Such love is much more than a feeling; perhaps it is best understood as a mode of being in the world. Buddhist texts emphasize compassion, generosity, and loving-kindness, and they all reflect this mode, being different aspects of love. Such love is sometimes mocked as weak and ineffectual, yet it can be very powerful, as Gandhi showed. It embodies a deep wisdom about how the cycle of hatred and violence works, and about how that cycle can be ended. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, but there is an alternative. Twenty-five hundred years ago Shakyamuni Buddha said, as quoted in the Dhammapada:
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" for those who harbour such thoughts ill-will will never cease.
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" for those who do not harbour such thoughts ill-will will cease.
In this world hatred is never appeased by ill-will; ill-will is always appeased by love. This is an ancient law.6
The present Dalai Lama emphasizes the necessity for "internal disarmament."7 For genuine peace which is much more than the absence of overt violence such internal disarmament is as important as external disarmament, and this involves taming the greed, ill will and delusion in the minds of all those involved, starting with ourselves. It is not possible to work toward peace in a confrontational, antagonistic way.
Certainly, this insight is not unique to Buddhism. It was not the Buddha who gave us the powerful image of turning the other cheek when we have been struck. In all the Abrahamic religions the tradition of a holy war between good and evil coexists with this "ancient law" about the power of love. That does not mean all the world's religions have emphasized this law to the same extent. Maybe this is one way to measure the maturity of a religion, or at least its continuing relevance for us by how much the truth of this transformative law about love is acknowledged and encouraged. Given our much greater technological powers today, our much greater ability to destroy each other, we need this truth more than ever.
What does all this imply about the new situation created by the terrorist attacks? We are at an historical turning point. A desire for vengeance and violent retaliation has arisen, fanned by a leader caught up in his own rhetoric of a holy war to purify the world of evil... Now, please consider does the previous sentence describe bin Laden, or President Bush? The Al-Qaeda network, or the response of the U.S. government?
Many people wanted retaliation and vengeance well, that seems to be what the terrorists also wanted. If we continue along the path of large-scale violence, bin Laden's war and Bush's war will become two sides of the same escalating holy war.
No one can foresee all the consequences of such a war. They are likely to spin out of control and take on a life of their own. However, one sobering effect is clearly implied by the Buddha's "ancient law": it is already apparent that massive retaliation by the United States is spawning a new generation of suicidal terrorists, who will be eager to do their part in this holy war.
Yet widespread violence is not the only possibility. If this time of crisis encourages us to see through the rhetoric of a war to exterminate evil, and if we seek to understand the intertwined roots of this evil, including our own responsibilities, then perhaps something good may yet come out of this horrible tragedy.
Good vs. Evil
More or less everything above is from a "Buddhist response" I emailed to many people a week after the September 11th attacks. Afterwards I found myself reflecting more generally on the problematic duality between good and evil: first considering how that way of thinking deludes us, and then asking what alterative perspective might give us better insight into the cycle of suffering, ill will and ignorance.
Because Buddhist enlightenment or "awakening" requires mindfulness of our ways of thinking, Buddhism encourages us to be wary of antithetical concepts: not only good and evil, but success and failure, rich and poor, and even the Buddhist duality between enlightenment and delusion. We distinguish between such opposing terms because we want one rather than the other, yet psychologically as well as logically we cannot have one without the other because the meaning of each depends upon the other. That sounds abstract, but such dualities are actually quite troublesome. For example, if it is important for me to live a pure life (however purity is understood), then my life will be preoccupied with (avoiding) impurity. If becoming wealthy is the most important thing for me, then I am equally worried by the prospect of poverty. We cannot take one lens without the other, and such pairs of spectacles filter and distort our experience of the world: since we focus too much on some aspects, we are unable to perceive and appreciate others. If "wealth/poverty" becomes the most important category I use to understand and react to the world, I tend to see all situations in those terms.
What does this mean for the duality of good versus evil? Perhaps the most important way the interdependence of good and evil shows itself is that we don't know what is good until we know what is evil, and we don't feel we are good unless we are fighting against that evil. We can feel comfortable and secure in our own goodness only by attacking and destroying the evil outside us. St. George needed that dragon in order to be St. George. His heroic identity required it. And, sad to say but true, this is why so many of us like wars: they cut through the petty problems of daily life, and unite us good guys here against the bad guys over there. There is fear in that, of course, but it is also exhilarating. The meaning of life becomes clearer. The problems with my life, and yours, are now over there.
That is one of the main reasons why the end of the Cold War created a big problem in the United States, and not only in the military once Reagan's "evil empire" was history, people whose "goodness" depended on its "badness" felt adrift. A new enemy was needed, but Grenada, Panama and the Gulf War didn't really fill the shoes. This new holy war on worldwide terrorism is much more promising, especially since it seems that we won't ever be able to tell when or if weÕve won.
In mid-October 2001 the U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said that the fight against terror:
"...undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war. If you think about it, in the cold war it took 50 years, plus or minus. It did not involve major battles. It involved continuous pressure. It involved cooperation by a host of nations. It involved the willingness of populations in many countries to invest in it and sustain it. It took leadership at the top from a number of countries that were willing to be principled and to be courageous and to put things at risk; and when it ended, it ended not with a bang, but through internal collapse."8
Am I the only one who detects some nostalgia in this comparison? Despite all the problems involved, it is reassuring to return to the good old days. Now we know what needs to be done to be courageous and aggressive attacking the evil that is outside and threatens us.
Everyone loves this struggle between good (us) and evil (them), because it is, in its own fashion, quite satisfying. It makes sense of the world. Think of the plot of every James Bond film, every Star Wars film,every Indiana Jones film, etc. The bad guys are caricatures: they're ruthless, maniacal, without remorse, so they must be stopped by any means necessary. We are meant to feel that it is okay to tell the truth, it's pleasurable to see violence inflicted upon them. Because the villains like to hurt people, it's okay to hurt them. Because they like to kill people, it is okay to kill them. After all, they are evil and evil must be destroyed.
What is this kind of story really teaching us? That if you want to hurt someone, it is important to demonize them first: in other words, to fit them into your good-vs.-evil script. Even school bullies usually begin by looking for some petty offense (often a perceived insult) that they can use to justify their own violence. That is why the first casualty of all wars is truth: the media must "sell" this script to the people.
As this suggests, such stories are much more than entertainment. In order to live, we need air, water, food, clothes, shelter, friends and we need stories, because they teach us what is important in life. They are our myths. They give us models of how to live in a complicated and confusing world. Until the last hundred years or so, the most important stories for most people have been religious: the life of Jesus or the Prophet or the Buddha, and the lives of their followers, etc. Theologians and philosophers may like arguing over concepts and dogmas, but for most people it is the stories that are important: the Easter passion, the Prophet in exile, the future Buddha deciding to leave home...
Today, however, the issue is not usually whether a story is an ennobling one, a good myth to live by, but the bottom line: will it sell? You don't need to be religious to wonder how much of an improvement that is.
Disney's very successful that is, very profitable Lion King film contrasts the noble ruler of the animals, his loving wife and their innocent cub Simba, all on the good side, with Simba's evil uncle. The uncle hatches a plot to kill the king and eliminate Simba, who escapes but eventually returns to fight the uncle, etc. All very predictable and boring, although often beautiful visually.
In Japan Lion King was featured in cinemas at the same time as Princess Mononoke, an animated film by Miyazaki Hayao. (Princess Mononoke turned out to be more popular, breaking all attendance records.) One of the striking things about this film in fact, about many of Miyazaki's wonderful films is the way it avoids any simple duality between good and evil. In Princess Mononoke, for example, people do bad things, not because their nature is evil, but because they are complicated: sometimes selfish and greedy, and sometimes just so narrowly focused on what they are doing that they do not see the wider implications of their actions.
I do not know if Miyazaki considers himself a Buddhist, but his films seem to be so. Compare the following passage from the Sutta Nipata, an early Buddhist sutra, where Ajita asks of the Buddha, "What is it that smothers the world? What makes the world so hard to see? What would you say pollutes the world and threatens it most?" Notice that his response makes no reference to evil:
"It is ignorance which smothers," the Buddha replies, "and it is heedlessness and greed which make the world invisible. The hunger of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the pain of suffering."
"In every direction," said Ajita, "the rivers of desire are running. How can we dam them, and what will hold them back? What can we use to close the flood-gates?"
"Any such river can be halted with the dam of mindful awareness," said the Buddha. "I call it the flood-stopper. And with wisdom you can close the flood-gates."9
A Better Duality?
[Article cut for length. The rest is here.]
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