Lezing William LaFleur

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'Evil in Human Beings in Buddhism'
door prof.dr. William LaFleur

een lezing gehouden op 1 november 2007 op de Vrije Universiteit te Amsterdam.

First, permit me to applaud the interest expressed here at the Free University in including Buddhism within the spectrum of religions with which many of you are engaged for dialogue and mutual understanding.  These things are of paramount importance in our time.   That you are interested in Japan’s Kyoto school of philosophy, one surely influenced deeply by Buddhism, pleases me in particular.  If there is such a thing as a small North American tributary of the river of the Kyoto school, I’d like to think of myself as trying to swim within it.  And my hope is that I will not sink—either today during this talk or anytime.  I treasure and honor the Japanese Buddhist teachers I have had.  As a graduate student in Japanese religions and philosophy at the University of Chicago I met Masao Abe when he visited to give a course there.  Later he and I taught classes together for two years at Princeton University and I had the privilege of editing the first of his books in English, Zen and Western Thought.  I saw him often in Japan and spent one unforgettable day with him on a visit to Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, his teacher, and a truly extraordinary human being. But because my interests back then were primarily in the medieval, largely Buddhist, literature in Japan, Abe introduced me to Masamichi Kitayama, his friend and a literary scholar who had also studied both Zen and philosophy with Hisamatsu. Often in those days there were lively disagreement among the Kyoto School people and Kitayama differed from Abe on some points—points that may show up in what I say today.  Although Kitayama most graciously met me weekly for long sessions in Kyoto over a period of two years, it was only during our last meeting and prior to his death that he mentioned that on his own back were large scars resulting from having been himself in Hiroshima on that day in 1945 when the bomb fell on that city.  He never had expressed any hint of bitterness about that horrendous experience. But his interest, like Abe’s, was directed towards mutual understanding among the world’s faiths as one key to facilitating world peace and preventing wars of the type he had seen…or worse.

Due to the kindness of Professor Henk Vroom I received in advance a copy of the book Probing the Depths of Evil and Good: Multireligious Views and Case Studies. It makes a large contribution and that is evidenced already in its opening pages where Professor Gort tells why this specific topic had been selected.  After noting how difficult it has been for persons engaged in the dialogue across the religions to locate even one theme they all share, on page 3 he writes: “…there does seem to be at least one fundamental thing they have in common: confrontation with evil.  In every place and time people have had to come to terms with what they experienced as evil.”

I agree fully—and, in truth, am surprised that no one seems to have noticed this before.  There surely is commonality in that experience but also that it, perhaps even uniquely, is something with which all religions have had to “come to terms.”  I also wish to commend the editors for their precise wording: evil as something all humans have experienced and with which they have had to come to terms.   Buddhists will be grateful for that language; they are skittish about not trotting out military metaphors too quickly and do not want to begin with reference to evil as that against which we must do battle. This is not to minimize evil’s profoundly negative impact within our lives and world.  But the metaphor of the battlefield automatically objectifies evil “out there” and locates us, the presumed warriors, in the position predefined as “good.”  Speaking instead of evil as that with which we need to “come to terms” admits we find it already in ourselves, in our personal deeds, and in some of the social structures that are in some sense “us.”  
Consider the alternative—namely, assuming the battle-stance.  Within recent years both Al-Qaeda and George Bush ironically have, by being so remarkable alike in their eagerness to project all evil away from themselves and then do battle against the perceived “other,”  reminded us that this approach is easily produces unanticipated and tragic results.    In public formums  George Bush will invariably blurt out something about “evil doers” out there and the need to fight them—assuming too that he leads the army against evil itself.  He seems tragically unaware of the psychological truth expressed by Saint Paul in Romans 7: 19 (“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not do is what I do.”)  But, of course, something of George Bush is in us all and that is why we need to study how and where his mentality shows up in us and in our world.

Allow me to build on this a bit.  I thank my hosts for assigning me my topic in the precise terms they gave it: “Evil in Human Beings in Buddhism.” That title already does a lot of  my work for me.  For, as I at least grasp the understanding within Buddhism, “in human beings” is the only place I am likely to find evil.  More pointedly, perhaps, I would claim the following:  Even if, hypothetically that were not the case—that is, even if evil were to be shown to exist outside our species, it is the evil within ourselves and our kind that can and should occupy all our time and energies.  It is the evil here, in homo sapiens, with which I as one within that group need to “come to terms.”   

What are the implications?
1. The first is quite straightforward. It is that evil is, from all we know, a strictly human problem.  Buddhists will tend to have little interest in trying to figure out an answer to questions about the ultimate origin of evil—if by that is meant some kind of theological and quasi-historical inquiry into how evil, originally outside us, somehow got into us humans and became part of us.  In contrast to a view of humans as having once been free from the need to deal with evil and again at some future time of perfection become that way again, most Buddhists will tend to regard the necessity of dealing with evil as constitutive of human nature.  It’s always been that way and will always remain so.  Maybe that’s a Buddhist correlate to “original sin” but without any story of how things got that way.
And this is not a position of despair.  Having evil close at hand and needing our constant attention is, however painful, one of the things that, as far as we can tell, makes us different from what happens to an exploding star, from the interaction between dry land and a tsunami wave, and from what goes on in the life of my dog when she chases a rabbit.  To be human is to have to deal with evil.  And evil is, as far as we know, a strictly human problem.

There is, I suggest, continuity between this and what in the earliest phase of Buddhism was Sakyamuni Buddha’s categorization of certain things as “questions that lead not to edification”—as recorded, for instance, in the Majjhima-Nikâya.  Some of you perhaps know the episode.  One man had come with a whole battery of questions—many of them ones we often think of a theological. And he said he wanted answers to them before he would consider pursuing the Buddha path.  Sakyamuni responded that this man was like a fellow just shot with a poisoned arrow and, although aware that he is fatally wounded, postpones removing the arrow because he first has a whole set of questions he wants answered.  In Sakyamuni’s parable the wounded man’s questions are—to an unsettling degree—a lot like ones we who are philosophers of religion or theologians tend to ask.   The point is, of course, that they, however interesting, do nothing to get the arrow out.  Death will come before they can be answered.  By extension, evil is like that too.

Please allow an illustration by way of something personal. Beginning already during my days at Calvin College, I started feeling intellectually and spiritually uncomfortable within what then in the United States was about to be described as “evangelical Christianity.” One reasons for this discomfort was the certainty so many evangelicals have that what they themselves are doing is a local skirmish that is part of  a cosmic battle, a fight-to-the-death between two fundamentally antithetical powers, one Good and the other Evil, in the universe.  I was aware that the universe is a very big place.  And humans have long shown a nasty tendency to put themselves at the very center of what is going on—species egotism.  I read all the books—apologetics as well as science fiction--of C.S. Lewis but he too projected the particular Heilsgeschichte for humankind as itself the basic “story” of the whole of the cosmos.  It did not finally convince me.  My problem with that—and probably why Buddhism fit into my spiritual life more comfortably--is that the more we know about our universe, its size, and its infinitely far off and multiple galaxies, the more difficult it becomes to insist that all that is part in a cosmos-sized battle with us at the center.  

Chris Hedges, a war correspondent who studied theology at Harvard, recently noted—rightly I think—that many people (and he has ordinary Americans engaged in our series of wars in mind) can be lured into a fanatical support for unjust and murderous wars because being at war, even if not personally, gives them meaning!  War helps today’s living-room warrior, even if only watching events or pseudo-events on television, think that he, his political party, his country, and maybe even his church are doing the work of the good and even of God.  Evil must be met and defeated!  Everything suddenly seems clear-cut, simple, and energizing—at least until, with the passage of time, this bubble of self-delusion breaks.  

2.  The second implication is that the only “origin of evil” that I am privileged to know is astoundingly near at hand.  In what might be a trademark Zen Buddhist  approach to things like this, the response to questions about the origin of evil will be:  Look!  See!  Evil is right in front of my face and your face.  It’s in the murderous impulses in my own mind!  It’s the automatic disgust I feel when seeing a person of an ethnicity or religion I have gotten accustomed to disliking. It’s my timidity in speaking out when my employer or university or investment portfolio is involved in activities that I know to be harmful to others, to our world right now, or to future generations.   

Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, as philosopher and surely one of the great Zen teachers of modern times, did something that philosophers are not usually inclined to do.  He twisted what we think of as the “depth dimension” into something like a double helix or a staircase in a painting by M.C. Escher.  Hisamatsu asked us to imagine what it would be like if, having reached the place we call “depth,” we ask what from that perspective is the dimension of depth.  Surely, it is none other than the surface we are not judging as merely superficial.  So the “deep” origin of evil may be no farther away than the hateful impulses that arise in my brain and, more corporately, the political party I support because it seems to fit my interests rather than those of others.  Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote that the best place to “hide depth is on the surface.”   

Buddhist texts, as you know, do not make much of sin.  They make a big issue, however, out of desire, particularly inordinate desire.  And when they analyze the evil that lies within ourselves, especially our self-centeredness, a close attention to desire comes into play.  It’s what in Japanese is called yokubô, the kind of desire that leaps over the basics needed for human life and becomes greedy, the compulsion to gather to ones self a vast variety of things and controlled  people.   Gandi put it succintly: The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.  This is also the kind of desire that is targeted within Buddhism as the root within ourselves of evil.  It’s the ultimate cause that at the same time is totally proximate.

In Mahayana Buddhism many laypersons as well as monks are asked to make the following statement their own:  “Delusive desires are numberless, but I vow to extinguish them.”  My hypothesis is that in Buddhism, rather than teachings about sin (such as in the Abrahamic traditions) it is a sustained analysis and critique of the role of desire  that is forefronted.  It may not be theological in the way that “sin” gets construed in the Abrahamic faiths but the attention to desire is psychological--and without capitulating to the kind of naturalism that undercuts spirituality.  

Greed or avaritia was, as you know, one of the so-called seven deadly sins of medieval Christianity. My impression is that in Buddhism a focus on greed, referred to as desire, is seen as more basic and is, for instance, not just alongside sexual lust but at its basis.  But in much of the West, over time, sexual sins got to be central and, correspondingly, the problem of greed/desire almost disappeared from view.  When that happens gay sex gets portrayed as what will ruin a civilization but being a vampire in international business is excused as being “enlightened self-interest” or more simply just how “the system” works.  Inordinate desire, yokubô, then gets enshrined as something of great value to our economies and their growth.  Greed that is legitimated, even encouraged,  is central to the philosophies of our era and, at least in America, routinely blessed by rich entrepreneurs, politicians, and Christian evangelists.  And in the churches of America this is nowhere more evident than in those called “evangelical.”  In 1956 Reinhold Niebuhr criticized a Christianity inclined “to invest the relative moral standards of a commercial age with ultimate sanctity by falsely casting the aura of the absolute and transcendent ethic of Jesus upon them.” (An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 19.)  In 1956 Niebuhr was targeting liberal Christianity; but today, ironically Niebuhr’s charge would be better aimed at much of evangelical Christianity—at least in America.

3. A third implication is that, since dealing with evil is an intra-human problem, we need to avoid too easy a  naturalizing of it.  
Here is where my viewpoint may differ from that of Masao Abe, my teacher.  I see this as a corollary to the above.  If we need to avoid a projection of our problem with evil on to the cosmos, so too, I suggest, we do well to avoid what could be called a “retro-jection” of the cosmos’s naturalness onto our human situation.  My hunch is that, although during its sojourn in China, Buddhism picked up valued insights from Chinese Daoism, on the question of evil we can notice a place where they diverge.  (And, it should be noted, the Daoism to which I refer is that of those two widely-read classic texts, the Dao De Jing and the Zhuang-zi, often--rightly or wrongly--packaged together and referred to as the sources of  so-called “philosophical Daoism.”  The Daoism described in the significant essay by John Lagerwey in Probing the Depths of Evil and Good is, I suggest, quite different, closer to what in an earlier terminology was called “religious Daoism.”)  
    One of the attractions of philosophical Daoism, I admit, is its provision of a very convenient structure of coordinated and complementary binaries.  The well-known symbol of Yin and Yang provides the envisioned basics: two commas, different in color but so comfortably nested and fitting in with one another that the whole presents an image of balanced and non-conflictive modalities.  Together they make a complete circle—the symbol of completion itself.  Carl Jung was very fond of this symbol.
    This core image reflects the perspective of some texts.  Maybe, however, we need to put a limit on its use.  In many contexts it is like a conceptual mannequin, one of those models of the human body onto which a variety of garments can be draped for show.   onto which a whole range of two-piece conceptual garments can be comfortably draped.  In most cases items placed on the yin/yang mannequin fit well—not only on the frame but in such a way that the contrasts within the garments are harmonized.  The result when we look at them there strikes us as eminently natural.
    First to be positioned there is the darkness of night and the light of day.  In our own experience we know that within every 24-hour cycle one yields to the other naturally and without perceptible conflict.  So too, cold seasons and hot seasons seem to do the same within our experience of the seasons.  Seas and dry land meet at the shoreline but form a unity. And, at least until contemporary sensitivities made this more complex, maleness and femaleness seemed for many societies to comprise a complementary pair.  
    And, I think that Buddhism goes along with Daoism in noting that even being born and dying are for all living things a wholly natural and necessary pair.  Henry Stob, a Christian philosopher at Calvin whose teaching I continue to treasure, hinted at this matter with a pithy, even humorous, formulation: “Even before the Fall big fish ate little fish.”  Buddhists will not feel any need to talk about a “Fall” and they will want to insist that the impermance of all things is, as the American Zen teacher Joko Beck says, the same as their perfection.  Therefore, the yin and the yang sequence applied too to our human existence, always has done so, and always should do so. Life and death are not, in any final analysis, enemies of one another.  Dôgen, the 13th century Zen master, translated and brilliantly analyzed by Masao Abe, is eminently clear on this point, especially in his essay “Shôji” or “Life/Death.”
Impermanence is Buddha-nature.

In our personal, one-on-one encounters in classrooms at Princeton, even after our students had gone off to dinner,  Masao Abe pushed me hard on this point.  And he won the argument; he kicked out from under me the intellectual struts I had been using to hang on to my old assumption that death was the result of something called sin and, therefore, inextricably linked to whatever is evil in this universe.  Abe took me to passages in Dôgen.  And to Sakyamuni who, before passing away in tranquility, taught that all composite entities come apart in time. The fact that we all die is not due to evil…in ourselves or anywhere. (This, by the way, has vast implications for how Buddhists view some of the key issues in bioethics today…but that’s a different lecture!)

Well, what about good and evil?  Although it would make tidy intellectual architectonics if we could hang the good/evil pair too on that same yin/yang mannequin, I think we need to refrain from doing so.   Here is where I have may differ from Abe and where I think practical necessity must outweigh philosophical tidiness.   My worry is that the yin/yang paradigm functions to naturalize things too quickly…and to play down or even eliminate tensions, even tensions that should be there and even remain in place. My worry about Abe’s formulation here is that the Nagarjunic recognition that there is no nirvana apart from samsara, when imported into the realm of good and evil, makes the tension, one necessary for us in our dealing with evil, too easily go away.  Buddhists, historically considered, did not get to Nagarjuna right away; his dates (150-250 CE) suggest that  5 centuries if Buddhist practice had been in place before he lived and taught.  
Humans differ from fish.  No one can blame a big fish from gobbling up a small one.   But having larger brains, the capacity to envision the consequences of actions, and an ability to differentiate human need from human greed disallows us from many kinds of personal and social acts.  People are not fish.  This means that, especially in our time, big corporations may not eat up small people (or homeowners); to do so is to be complicit with evil.  Big, imperial, nations may not gobble up smaller ones or even their natural resources without being evil. Our own generation of humans may not with impunity consume what will be needed as the basics for living by the next one…and the next ones after that. Our greed may not deprive them of what they will need.  of  Hans Jonas, appreciated deeply by Japan’s Buddhist philosophers, ethicists, and bio-ethicists, points to our desperate need to embrace an inter-generational ethic.   Without it, I think, the selfish “self” that often seems coterminous with our generation will be consorting with evil…even if it impoverishes life for our progeny and even threatens the extinction of our species.   

4. This leads directly to my fourth observation.  It is that the analysis of how inordinate desire is connected to the evil we experience—so important to Buddhists—may not stop with discussion of it in our personal lives.  We need to see how it functions in our social, political, economic, and international structures.  Possibly today focusing on desire rather than sin can yield more results in this area.  

Surely some of Japan’s Buddhists as individuals demonstrate great personal greed; “The Funeral”, a 1984 film by Juzo Itami graphically portrayed one  priest in totally in the grip of avaritia, yokubô.  Yet I detect among Japanese writers, especially those who know Buddhism well, much greater reluctance to give a religious blessing to an economic system depending upon greed or to say that what’s good for the economy must also be good for the human life, maybe even for the soul.

I will tell you a secret.  It will probably be more readily understood here in the Netherlands than in the United States, a place used to rejecting out of hand anything that can, in God’s name, be charged with being socialistic.  Japan’s senior Buddhist scholars do not make that assumption.  In fact, when they were gaining their education most were exposed to the analyses Marx and Engels. Now, of course, these Japanese did not buy into the Marxist vision of a utopian, classless society achievable through revolution. During the period of 1969-76 the obvious evils and horrors of  China’s Cultural Revolution did much to extinguish in Japan any expectation that Marxist utopias might work.  In fact, one of the features of modern Buddhism has been its skepticism towards utopias of all kinds; they too quickly turn into oppressive, even murderous systems.

But, although they would pursue the consequences quite differently, Buddhists keen on uncovering the mechanisms of desire will tend to agree with that part of  Marx’s analysis which showed that in our kind of market society the desires of individuals and whole communites are constantly being enflamed by business interests out to seduce people into believing that purchases of all kinds will bring satisfaction and happiness.  In such societies there will be not only production but the production of desire. People in this system are subtly trained to become habituated to ignoring what they really need and to focus entirely on what they have be led to to want, to desire.  One very sharp Japanese critic of this system, Naoki Morishita, follows a direction set within the Kyoto School, cites the writings of the zennist Hisamatsu and, at least to my mind, is one of the most important bioethicists writing today.  In a book Shi no sentaku, which, if translated would be “Choices in Death,”  faults us for being so enamored of the market system’s celebation “free choice” that we turn even the body into another product or another “resource”—like forests or oil.  Even the body and its parts become commodities, things those with wealth assume they may be allowed to purchase from the poor.  One prominent American evangelical Christian businessman, unfortunately a Dutch-American Calvinist,  publicly advocates: “Why not put organs on the market?  The free market made our nation great.  Let’s let the law of supply and demand rule! Why should organs be an exception?”  This, in my view, has become one of the evils with which we have “to deal” today.   The unlimited production of desire may feed economies but it dehumanizes the human being by commodification.  Nowhere is this more evident today than in the egregious but clandestine putting of price-tags on body parts taken from the dead or the brain dead.  Likewise the abhorrent practice of persons of in the first world being able to purchase the kidneys of impoverished persons elsewhere is one of the peculiar evils of our day.   And biotechnology is only one of many areas where we find this dangerous trend, one we may have to tag as the equivalent of what an earlier era called “demonic.”

5.  The fifth and final implication I wish to draw not from the lecture title given me but from the title of the book edited by Professors Gort, Jansen, and Vroom.  I ask you to note that it is Probing the Depths of Evil and Good.  So I need to say something about what resources Buddhists feel we have in our “dealing with evil.”   I wish to finish with something we may, I think, derive from Nagarjuna’s insistence that there is no nirvana apart from samsara.  I am among those who feel that Nagarjuna’s striking formulation is terribly valuable in the realm of practice…even if it can easily get out of control when applied to ontology.  
Nagarjuna, if I understand him correctly, is saying that in our necessary dealing with evil in the here and now we already have at our disposal the resources of the good—in the here and now.  We know that at times in the history of Buddhism the postulation of an evil-free nirvana seemed to ordinary folk and even to many monastics to be only possible many,  many lifetimes in the future.  Nagarjuna drove the Mahayana into saying No to that.  And core Mahayana texts such as The Awakening of Faith Attributed to Asvaghosa stated that the good is here not just as a potentiality but as a reality. The bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment, is already part of our minds from the outset.  And it is because it is here that it prompts us to a more full enlightenment.  YOU HAVE IT NOW.  Zen masters said: “Look, see.  The good is in you and around you.” Through Wang Yang-Ming they felt a kinship with Mencius who had noted that an adult seeing a child creeping toward the open pit of a well and likely to fall in side will immediately and spontaneously jump to rescue the child.  He or she will not first sit and ask: How will this benefit me?  Will the parents reward me?
It’s a topic I’ve explored in another context: how Japanese Buddhists, including Kitarô Nishida, tapped into the Mencian idea that the good too is innately in us as humans.  

Please allow me to say something about how I think this works out.  Part of my life has been spent as a student of comparative literatures.  And, although global comparisons are always a bit risky, I think it can be said the texts of Buddhism and literature spawned within that the Buddhist world cannot match those of what we call “the West”—that is the Judeo-Christian religious sensibility augmented by the thinking and literature of the Greeks—in terms of the depths of evil such works explore.  I don’t mean to say there was more evil in the West, but only that the dark side of human experience received more attention and sophisticated exploration in Job, Euripedes, Paul, Augustine, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, and Bataille, for instance.  The complete list would be a long one.  And we get Ingmar Bergman in cinema. These are replete with descriptions of he human mind and body traversing very dark paths.  We will not likely accuse this literature of being boring. Thus, the advent of Freudian analysis and what we call “depth” psychology in the West should not surprise us.  Freud and others had lots to work with.

Truthfully, the bulk of the texts of Buddhism and spawned within the Buddhists’ cultural ambit is, by comparison, much more likely to induce sleepiness—at least in persons of the West.  Buddhist sacred texts include seemingly endless and repeated descriptions of lucid-minded and altruistically inclined bodhisattvas.  I have never met even a devout Buddhist who pulls up a chair and expects to spend an entire evening fascinated by a reading of the text titled The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines. When I’ve tried doing so, I nod off very quickly.  The Lotus Sutra does a bit better because of its fine metaphors.   And a poet such as the medieval Japanese monk Saigyô, whose work I translated, is more gripping in part because his real life-story was turbulent and his observations of evil and warfare in society were sharp and up-close.

The literature of Buddhism and Buddhists, for the most part,  devotes vast amounts of time to evocations of  human beings who are morally good and spiritually enlightened, especially the latter.  And if they are not conducive to hours of fascinated private reading, this may be because they were never intended for such use.   Some of you will probably know that their primary use is in liturgical contexts, to be chanted and, as possible, memorized.  
When used in this way they appear to do something to the mind and body that differs from the provision of information.  When chanted these texts function psychologically to bring to the fore the fundamental goodness within the reader/chanter.  They work for fusion: the chanter is progressively transformed into that about which he or she is chanting!  It is assumed that, precisely because bodhicitta is already a constitutive part of the human mind, such liturgical acts transform even the beginning adept into the bodhisattva.  This is not introversion or introspection.  It is a unification of the person with the depths of the Good.  I suspect that Christians would experience something similar and call it an infusion of divine grace.  What may make Buddhists a bit different, however, is that they spend a lot of time, often in group meditation/chanting sessions, letting texts and rituals release towards the surface the “original enlightenment” that is already in them.  This is important because, if properly applied, it will help these same practitioners be more able to see better where in their society the evil must be dealt with—personally, institutionally, and socially.  And it’s a very good thing that in doing this they—or more precisely, we all—already have the resources of  the good within ourselves.  That’s the real meaning of nirvana…and it is not apart from samsara.