“The Story of God” – A Buddhist Perspective on Evil

“The Story of God” – A Buddhist Perspective on Evil April 26, 2016

In this week’s episode of “The Story of God” (airing May 1), Morgan Freeman explores the concept of evil. As with previous topics, apocalypse and creation, their is no perfect word for evil in the Asian languages of Buddhism. However, as with those concepts, when we tease them out, exploring their etymological and historical roots, we see that even in English and associated languages, these words can mean much more than we commonly take them to mean.

Getting beyond the superficial, we find that religions around the world – people around the world – faced similar problems and often came up with similar solutions in terms of myths or ideas about the nature of the person and the world. This isn’t to overlook the differences. In fact it was the differences and the unique insights of both Kant and early Buddhism that drew me to my line of study. But their is a danger, often couched in Orientalism, of overstating the differences and potential incommensurability of religious/philosophical systems.

For instance, can a Christian talk about original sin in terms of “primal desire that we all have?”

Tune in Sunday to see for yourself.

Moving on to India, Freeman asks his Hindu guide, “In Christianity you’ve got the Devil and you’ve got God, you’ve got good, you’ve got evil. You don’t seem to have that going on in Hinduism.” She responds, “In Hinduism there’s no dichotomy between good and evil. The same person can become good and evil… There is always, in the end, a hope; the hope that even the evil can be liberated.”

Freeman’s reaction: “… evil is just a spirit that needs to find peace. Cool.”

He then takes us to one of my favorite religions to teach: Zoroastrianism. Freeman gives an origin date of 3500 years ago, though the exact origins are murky; some traditionalists dating the founder, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster in Greek), to 7500 B.C.E. Others think his life was somewhere between 1400 and 900 B.C.E. and today the most common date given by historians is around 630 B.C.E. (see Van Voorst, World RELG for a wonderful chapter on the religion).

Central to Zoroastrian belief is a dualism, two competing forces personified in a good God, Ahura Mazda, and a devil-like figure, Angra Mainyu. It could be that these are simply common human ideas, perhaps existing well before Zoroaster ever lived. Van Voorst notes that they exist in Hindu sources, and Biblical scholars will point to early Jewish ideas along the same lines. Or it could be that Zoroaster coined these ideas and that they were then borrowed by other religions, East and West. Author Mary Boyce takes this latter view, suggesting that, “Zoroastrianism has probably had more influence on human life, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith.”

On the side of a Zoroastrian influence on the East, particularly Buddhism, a major proponent is Jayarava Attwood, a scholar and blogger in England. You can read a blog post of his (Who Were the Artharvans?) and a journal article on the topic: Possible Iranian Origins for the Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism.


In Zoroastrianism as we know it today out of this dualism arises the motto: “Good thoughts, Good words, Good deeds.” The idea being that in order to defeat evil, one must guard one’s mind first and foremost, but then also one’s speech and action. I think most Buddhists will smile in recognition of that idea.

Freeman then takes us to New Zealand, where a researcher shows us that children, when convinced that there is an invisible princess watching them, act significantly more ethically (in this case not cheating in a game) than children who believe they are alone. It’s good enough research, I think. And it shows that children around the age of 5 can benefit from being lied to in the short run. However, I’m not so sure how it relates to the rest of us.

Finally we travel again to Sarnath, India, home of a large Tibetan Buddhist population and the Vajravidya Monastery. But the “Buddhism” segment in this episode is over before it even starts, all 2 minutes of it. Freeman tells us, “Buddhist believe that the urge to do evil stems from ignorance about how our minds work.”

Tibetan Nuns await the arrival of the 17th Karmapa at Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya India (2010)
Tibetan Nuns await the arrival of the 17th Karmapa at Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya India (Photo (C) the author, 2010)

What more can we say about the concept of evil in Buddhism? It’s fair to repeat the old wisdom that “there is no word for evil in Buddhism.” But then we might explore a bit further. In a wonderful book, the popular secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor does just this: Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil. In it he writes:

The devil is a way of talking about that which blocks ones path in life, frus­trates one’s aspirations, makes one feel stuck, hemmed in, obstructed. While the Hebrew Satan means “adversary,” the Greek diabolos means “one who throws something across the path.” In India, Buddha called the devil Mara, which in Pali and Sanskrit means “the killer.”

He continues:

Only when Buddha was able to experience the desires and fears that threatened to overwhelm him as nothing but impersonal and ephemeral conditions of mind and body, did they lose their power to mesmerize him. Instead of perceiving them as forces of an avenging army intent on his destruction, he recognized that they were no more solid than brittle, unfired pots that crumble on being struck by a well-aimed stone. As soon as Buddha stopped compulsively identifying the thoughts, feel­ings, and sensations that arose within him as “me” or “mine,” Mara could no longer influence him.

In Pali, the closest word to evil we find is pāpa, which is often used in conjunction with puñña, meaning good or meritorious. As in the Hinduism discussed above, these were/are not absolute categories. A mostly good person could do evil/pāpa, deeds and vice versa. The point is to recognize the two propensities in oneself and eliminate the evil. Combined with the doctrine of karma (kamma in Pali), you also must recognize that your good and evil deeds will have an effect on your future. Some Buddhists have been known to keep literal accounting books, measuring up good and bad deeds for the day or year. Others, mostly those influenced by modernism, see both in mostly or strictly psychological terms.

And, quite interestingly, in Buddhism one is taught not only to give up evil deeds, but also good ones in the sense of those that could or would go in your accounting diary. The goal, we find out, is simply spontaneous goodness. In discussing the notion a perfected being, or arahant, in early Buddhism, Bhikkhu Analayo writes:

What arahants have “gone beyond” is the accumulation of karma. They have transcended the generation of “good” (puñña) and of its opposite “evil” (pāpa). But the same cannot be said of wholesomeness (kusala). In fact, by eradicating all unwholesome (akusala) states of mind, arahants become the highest embodiment of wholesomeness (kusala). So much is this the case that, as indicated in the Samanamandikā Sutta, they are spontaneously virtuous and do not even identify with their virtue.

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