Thursday, October 19, 2017

Buddhism's View That Evil Is an Illusion

I took this picture of the massive "Reclining Buddha" in Bangkok.

For my MCCC Philosophy of Religion students.

Today I introduced my Philosophy of Religion students to the Buddhist idea of evil as an illusion.

J.L. Mackie, in his logical argument from evil against the existence of God, states that one adequate solution to the problem of evil would be that the third statement in his famous "triad," "evil exists," is false. Mackie doesn't think it is false (neither do I), but some do. He probably is referring to Buddhism in its pure form, untainted by cultural influences.


BUDDHISM & the PROBLEM OF EVIL (Evil = “Gratuitous/Pointless Suffering”)

1. The Story pf Siddhartha

The time: 6th century BCE.


A prince, Siddhartha Gautama, has lived in a wealthy household and has been sheltered from all forms of suffering. One day he tells his father he wants to see the outside world. Reluctantly, his father lets him go.

He sees suffering in the form of sickness, old age, and death. Plus, he sees a wandering ascetic who has left behind wife and family and job in search of spiritual liberation. These four sights cause a crisis in Siddhartha. He decides that there must be more to human existence than profit, power, pleasure, and prestige.

The result is: Siddhartha leaves his wife and children and father, rides to the border of what would have been his vast inheritance, shaves his head, takes off his expensive clothes, and becomes a wandering holy man in search of the meaning of life. He wanders around North India, studies with various holy men, and his body becomes skin and bones.

One day he is sitting under a tree in North India. He vows to stay there until he is given the secret of our meaningless wandering from rebirth to rebirth. After 49 days he is “awakened.” He is “buddhaed” (“Buddha” means: awakening, enlightened.) What did he see?



2. Siddhartha's Enlightenment

The Four Noble Truths
  1. All of life is suffering.
  2. The cause of suffering is craving.
  3. The end of suffering is getting rid of craving and grasping.
  4. The method to use in overcoming suffering is the Eightfold Path.
 “Buddhism is about removing the arrow of suffering.”[1]


The Eightfold Path[2] (Steps 1-6 are basic moral commands common to most religions. Steps 7-8 are when desire is extinguished.)
  1. Right view. The disciple gains proper knowledge about illness – how he or she becomes ill, endures illness, and is released from illness.
  2. Right aim. The disciple must be prepared to renounce attachment to the world and give benevolence and kindness.
  3. Right speech. The disciple must not lie, slander, or use abusive or idle talk.
  4. Right action. The disciple must abstain from taking life, from taking what is not given, and from carnal indulgence.
  5. Right living. The disciple must put away wrong livelihood, acts that are condemned in the fourth step, and seek to support him – or herself by right livelihood.
  6. Right effort. The disciple applies the force of his or her mind to preventing potential evil from arising in him – or herself, to getting rid of evil that has arisen in him – or herself, and to awakening and sustaining good potentials within him- or herself.
  7. Right mindfulness. The disciple looks on the body so as to remain ardent, self-possessed, and mindful. The disciple has overcome the craving and dejection common in the world. The disciple also looks on each idea, avoiding craving and  dejection common in the world.
  8. Right concentration. Aloof from sensuous appetites and evil desires, the disciple enters the first jhana (meditative state), where there is cognition and deliberation born of solitude, joy, and ease. The disciple moves a step toward the fourth jhana – purity of mind and equanimity where neither ease nor ill is felt.

He then began to teach others what he had learned. In a deer park in North India he found five travelers. To them, he gave his first sermon. It was on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

3. Two Additional Insights.

All things are impermanent and every-changing.

The search for permanence in any experience leads to suffering (dukkha[3]). This is because “there is no permanence either in the world or in the one who experiences it.”[4] Everything is characterized by transiency.[5] Everything that is born must decay and die.

Suffering is a result of trying to grasp and hold on to this world and the things of this world. On Buddhism suffering comes from “ignorant craving.” It comes from mistaking things as unchanging and then clinging to these so-thought unchanging forms. Or, as one Zen Buddhist teacher has said, “Suffering arises from wanting something other than what is.”[6]

“Mahayanists emphasized that the world of experience is only appearances; the real world is one revealed in the enlightenment experience.”[7] (Mahayana Buddhism)

There is no “self.”

In Buddhism “the ‘self’ is a figment of the imagination.”[8] “You” are not. There is no permanent self to experience anything. So what’s going on then?! What you think is a self is really the aggregation of five basic groups, or skandhas[9], of experience that generate the appearance of a “self.”

Here Buddhism departs from Hinduism, claims there is an eternal self that continues on through a series of bodies. Buddhism disagrees with this. Consciousness is not the “self.” “A person is an aggregation of psychological activities, all temporary. In death, the aggregation comes apart. These five skandhas make up what we refer to as a person. Those who seek permanence of the self suffer, for no self exists.”[10]

There is no ego, no soul, only a temporary gathering of skandhas. Since objects, persons, and processes are impermanent, trying to keep them produces suffering.


4. The End of Suffering

Knowledge, or “enlightenment,” brings an end to suffering.
  • We see there is no objective, permanent world to be grasped.
  • We see there is no permanent self.
So, suffering (evil) is rooted in an illusion.

1. Suffering (evil) is caused by desire.
2. There is neither a self to desire nor a permanent world to be grasped.
3. Therefore suffering (evil) is an illusion.

“Seeing clearly the nature of a person – that there is no permanent self – helps bring an end to craving. Realizing that everything is only part of impermanent psychological processes makes grasping foolish. There is nothing to have and nothing to be had… Letting go is the end of suffering.”[11]

Nirvana – to “puff out” or “extinguish” or “be released from” desire and craving.

“In Buddhism, the state of being free from egocentrism and the suffering that it causes. Positively, it is joy and peace.”[12]





[1] Stephen Prothero, God is Not One, Chapter 5.
[2] Matthews, World Religions, 6th edition, 112
[3] Dukkha means: “suffering.”
[4] Matthews, 112.
[5] Prothero, Ch. 5.
[6] In Prothero, Ch. 5.
[7] Ib., 133
[8] Prothero, Ch. 5.
[9] the five elements that sum up the whole of an individual’s mental and physical existence. The self (or soul) cannot be identified with any one of the parts, nor is it the total of the parts. They are: (1) matter, or body, the manifest form of the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water; (2) sensations, or feelings; (3) perceptions of sense objects; (4) mental formations ; and (5) awareness, or consciousness, of the other three mental aggregates
[10] Ib.
[11] Ib., 113-114
[12] Ib., 115