Let's just right off the bat explain that you're not talking about the devil in terms of an actual incarnate being, correct?
Correct. I'm not talking about the devil as some kind of creature with horns and a forked tail.
So as a metaphor, what does it represent?
In Buddhism, the Mara, which is their term for the devil, literarily means, "the killer" and we can take that literally as that which actually brings our life to an end and thereby most effectively stops us from realizing whatever we were set out on doing in our lives. The Buddha, for example, speaks of being caught in Mara's trap, being caught by Mara's fishhooks-in a more metaphorical sense, in that we are caught or trapped in, let's say, a state of fear or paranoia. We are literally hemmed in and often feel ourselves incapable of actually moving out of that space.
In terms of the more popular images of the devil as a kind of a cruel, tyrannical tricksterish evil, demon, or goblin, we need to think less in terms of the outward form of that figure but in terms of what it would feel like to be under the grip of such figures. One would feel tied down, one would feel somehow tormented, and one would feel trapped and stuck. So to me, the demonic, or the devil, is a way of trying to articulate the existential feeling that we have when our life is somehow not moving anymore.
Is there something about the Buddhist view of evil that makes it distinct from the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim view?
Yes, because Buddhism does not operate within a theistic frame of reference. So clearly the aims of Buddhism, in some respects at least, are far more about finding a way in life or living a way of life that will optimize your sense of freedom, your sense of not being trapped or stuck. And this will be seen as something for which you have responsibility, and the practices of Buddhism are effectively strategies and tools whereby to learn to work with these forces.
Of course, you'll find meditations and so on, in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions as well, but I think Buddhism in a sense gives a far greater primacy to those kinds of exercises and gives relatively little importance to the notion of the demonic being overcome through a surrendering to God or an opening of oneself to the divine. So the language is very different.
Whether or not the actual personal experience is vastly different, I think that's a somewhat open question. My sense is that when I meet with Christians or people of other faith traditions I very often find an immediate affinity and we seem to be, despite our different languages, actually coming from very similar space.
The Buddha said, as you quote in your book, "When someone grasps, Mara stands beside him." What is the relationship between clinging, attachment, and this quality of evil?
The Buddhist would recognize the root of evil to lie in a particular closing down, which is actually deeply rooted in our fixation around sustaining our sense of ego, our sense of being a separate, disconnected cell of self that is alienated from the web of relations from which it has emerged. And so when the Buddha talks about grasping, what I think he's primarily getting at is this habit of mind that seems almost instinctive-I suspect it's actually neurobiological in origin-this craving for survival, for identity, for something that seems to feel apart from the fluid flux of life, that gives us an illusion of separateness and security. But in fact it's achieved at the cost of actually cutting us off from life itself.