2016-06-30
Stephen Batchelor, a former monk in the Tibetan and Zen traditions, is a contributing editor for Tricycle magazine, and the author of the national bestseller "Buddhism Without Beliefs." He shares with us his interpretation of evil, and talks about how practitioners can overcome it by following the example of the Buddha. His latest book is "Living With the Devil."

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.

One of the images I like very much in the Buddhist tradition is when Mara, the demonic, is identified with the Indian god Namuci who is the Vedic god of the drought. Mara is literally that which prevents the waters of life from flowing freely. I think that's a very, very telling image. So evil is basically what we are prone to in terms of selfishness, in terms of projecting negativity onto the Other that stems from a particular clinging or grasping that we have in wanting to secure my identity as "me."

Of course we can extend that also to say, our identity as a nation. That can be just as much a form of clinging in which we likewise feel that our collective identity as Americans or British people or Iranians or whatever is somehow intrinsically other and alien from that which is not American or English or Iranian. And in doing so we then split the world into harshly polarized opposites in which all that we think of as bad is projected away from us and all that is good is somehow identified with what we consider "mine".

If this grasping is built into us, how do we overcome it?

The way in which Buddhism seeks to come to terms with evil would be through a process of actually loosening such a grip such that we increasingly come to see that the very notion of evil is inseparable from the notion of good, that they operate really as two poles within a continuum rather than two separate irreconcilable things.

Buddha overcomes Mara-not by deleting, or eliminating Mara, but by a kind of profound understanding of the nature of the condition in which he finds himself. And the freedom comes from seeing these processes at work-not just theologically, or conceptually, but in a deep kind of intuitive way in which our relationship to this grasping becomes radically transformed.

[The way to do this is by] training oneself through meditation, through reflection, through prayer, whatever means one might use, in such a way that you begin to open up the possibility of not clinging, of not grasping. You discipline yourself to see the world, as a Buddhist would say, as impermanent, as unreliable, as impersonal, as selfless.

In changing your perception you are actually also transforming your emotional relationship to yourself and your life. When the Buddha interacts with Mara, almost invariably at the end of the dialogue, he will say something like, "I know you Mara." In other words, it's the knowledge, it's the understanding; that is where the freedom comes from.

How does this idea of evil manifest itself in the world in terms of, for example, terrorism? You say that Mara's most effective weapon is sustaining a climate of fear.

When a conflict reaches a certain level, then we almost invariably revert to the demonization of the Other. So whether we're George Bush or we're Osama bin Laden, we're both projecting the emotion of evil on the other, and by implication, of good onto ourselves alone.

To me, the deeper problem is the fact that we seek to almost instinctively divide the world up into these irreconcilable poles and opposites rather than recognizing, really, that these are just different points of view, different perspectives within a continuum.

I feel also for example, that someone like Michael Moore, I think he actually buys into this as well, he demonizes Bush, and although I kind of agree with a lot of what he says, I find his rhetoric likewise plays into this "us and them" dichotomy. He too wants to exacerbate this sense of difference and polarity.

The more absolute you make the evil of the other, the more you live in a kind of visceral fear of what can happen to you. You empower the other, the terrorist for example, by allowing them to give rise within you to a level of fear that is simply not necessary and certainly not helpful. Because if you live from fear, you're living in a state of closure, you're shutting down, you're closing yourself off, and thereby reinforcing this dualistic cycle of projecting bad out there; good, you cling on to for yourself. And the possibility of reconciliation, the possibility of mutual understanding, and the possibility of acknowledging how we share an interdependent world together, all of that becomes increasingly remote. That I feel, is where the danger lies, in this splitting the world up in that way, into "us" and "them."

At the level of the individual, for example, in the case of terrorism, how should one react or feel? What could a person do so that they don't close down and that they don't demonize?

I think a very important thing is try to be more open to the humanity of the other and to recognize an affinity to the people who launched these attacks who are probably likewise thinking that they're doing good, you see. Very few people actually think that they're doing evil. Even Hitler thought he was doing the world a favor.

So an important thing in this situation is to try to acknowledge and recognize the humanity in the other, without condoning what they do, but seeing and trying to be clear as to why it is that they act in that way, what are the conditions that they live in, and to what extent we may even be contributing to those negative conditions in their cultures.

I think we do need to open ourselves up to seeing how our individual behavior, the behavior of societies and religious groups arises out of perceived needs, is driven by fears, is driven by concerns for one's culture, one's religion, one's family, one's nation. So that would be what I would suggest, whether one does that through meditative reflection or through actually making a point of encountering and dialoguing with people of a different religious persuasion than oneself. All of those things I would hope would help to break down this sense of dichotomy, to break down this ghastly division the world seems to now be absolutely caught and stuck within.

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