Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Journal of a Soul 62

Dealing with Evil 3

The crooked wood of humanity: Dublin Zoo
In my last several posts, I dealt with the problems of pain and suffering, both of which are graphic examples of evil.  On one level the problem of evil is just that a problem, a cerebral difficulty that presents itself as a philosophical conundrum that many erudite and astute minds attempted to solve intellectually over the years.  But  as I never cease to point out in these posts the cerebral or conceptual is just one (albeit great and important) aspect of the total reality that makes a human being.  Existentially, evil presents itself at a lived and experiential level in our lives as namely pain and suffering in all their various manifestations and incarnations.  

Outrage at Terrorism and Wanton Violence

As I sit here writing these words on this virtual page, one would want to have a heart of stone not to be moved at the outrage of all the various terrorist and and wanton acts of violence being perpetrated throughout the world.  The shooting out of the air of the Malaysian plane over eastern Ukraine, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the on-going civil war in Syria where thousands of innocent people have been murdered and continue to be.  One of the reasons that Israel is smarting at the world's hostile criticism of its violent acts against the Palestinian people is the instant delivery of visual reports of its violence through smart phones and so on.  This is not to deny that there is no terrorism by the Palestinians as there quite obviously is.  It is just to point out that State terrorism also exists, and many nations have been guilty of this for years and some continue to do so.

Simplistic Divisions of Good and Evil

Dublin Zoo
Somehow or other we instinctively or intuitively believe that Good and Evil are separate and inimical elements, unmixed and unmixable.  But sound thinking and good psychology teach us otherwise.  In wars, we are quick to demonize the enemy, because in that way it is so much easier to maim and kill them.  All soldiers are taught that the enemy is evil.  In fact, in all conflicts language which diminishes the humanity of the enemy is always used. A sophisticated and canny reader will always be aware and conscious of the uses and abuses of language by journalists.  On the one hand, we demonize our enemies and canonize our friends.  Indeed, that means that we put these frail human beings up on a pedestal, while we sentence others to hell.  That is why, like many other commentators, I have problems with the Roman Catholic Church's propensity to canonize certain people as Saints (very much a medieval preoccupation, pretty much redundant in modern society).   Again, these two extremes show us our instinctive and intuitive or unconscious pigeonholing of people.

Lessons from more Informed Film Directors

We can learn much from wonderful authors of novels and brilliant makers of films who see the human person in a more balanced and rounded a way than the media would want us to have them.  There are those among their number that do not deal with issues in a black and white, right and wrong or judgmental way.  The first film that comes to my mind is Downfall (Der Untergang) which is a 2004 German war film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, depicting the final ten days of Adolf Hitler reign over Nazi Germany in 1945. This film caused much controversy in Germany when it first came out because of its not depicting Hitler as an absolute monster.  In the film he does have some few redeeming features (very few), and no doubt Hitler did have some.  The second is a TV series made for HBO, namely The Sopranos, created by David Chase where the protagonist, Tony Soprano is a struggling father and husband who attends a psychiatrist on the one hand in an attempt to get a handle of the meaning of his life and on the other is a vicious murderer.  As a viewer of this wonderful series, I like many other fans, found myself becoming quite sympathetic to Tony as a human being.  It is my argument here that the directors set out to present their protagonists as somewhat more human and less demonic or demonized than the protagonists in the run of the mill films or novels.

All Too Human

In the early twentieth century, humankind really came of age in a most horrific way, that is, through the bloodbath of the Great War where countless millions of soldiers were killed, giving the lie to the simplistic belief of their Victorian and Edwardian forefathers in the onward positive direction of progress that would continually improve humankind's lot. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Freud was already unmasking humankind's deep dark unconscious motivations.  The god of rationality that had so painstakingly been enthroned on the plinth of our worldly devotion instead of the God of religion was now in turn being unceremoniously debunked.  The deep dark cesspit of humankind's unconscious motivations was now being revealed in all its seediness and filth.  Carl Jung was to call this the shadow aspect of our nature.

I remember many years ago an astute and wise English teacher telling us during our reading of the text of Shakespeare's Hamlet that anyone of us was capable of murdering another human being, that we humans were an amorphous mix of good and evil and that's why we needed to educate our conscience.  

The Buddhist Understanding of Evil

Imprint of Gorilla hand: Dublin Zoo

As we have seen, good and evil are often looked upon as diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. But in a reality, in a practical sense, such a simplistic way of thinking is unsatisfactory. Even the cruelest of criminals may possess a strong sense of love or compassion toward his parents and children as we have seen in case of Tony Soprano above. Is such a person fundamentally good or evil? Buddhism says that everyone is a mix of both. The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are innate, inseparable aspects of life. This view makes it impossible to label a particular individual or group as "good" or "evil." Every single human being is capable of acts of the most noble good, or the basest evil.  This is how one Buddhist site puts the Buddhist take on evil:

A Buddha is someone who has the courage to acknowledge these two fundamental aspects of life. As Nichiren states, "One who is thoroughly awakened to the nature of good and evil from their roots to their branches and leaves is called a Buddha." Buddhas accept their innate goodness without arrogance because they know all people share the same Buddha nature. Buddhas also recognize their innate evil without despair because they know they have the strength to overcome and control their negativity. (See HERE )
So, every human is a mix of good and evil motivations.  The Buddhist is called upon to be equally aware of them and to practice meditation and compassion to conquer our base motivations and urges. Some religions teach that evil is a force outside ourselves that seduces us into sin. This force is sometimes thought to be generated by Satan or various demons. The faithful are encouraged to seek strength outside themselves to fight evil, by looking to God. The Buddha's teaching could not be more different:
"By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another." (Dhammapada, chapter 12, verse 165)
Buddhism teaches us that evil is something we create, not something we are or some outside force that infects us. As I have pointed out so many times, intellectual problems are just that - intellectual; and the cognitive is just one of the many dimensions that go to make up the totality of humankind in all its complexity.  Hence, the most astute theodicies and the most learned ruminations of our best philosophers and scientists fall far short of the mark on a human level.  Those who accompany people during their final days and nights on this earth know that human companionship, just the presence of significant others with those making their final journey, the use of appropriate meditation and visualization techniques are all of the utmost importance and are most beneficial.
On the level of existential mystery the basic lessons of Buddhism can hardly be bettered.   Traditionally, it is believed that the Buddha stated his basic precepts called The Four Noble Truths immediately after his enlightenment. I shan't rehearse these four truths here, but you may hit the following link if you wish to read about them more fully: Four Noble Truths.  What I wish to discuss here are the second and third noble truths viz.,  The Second Noble Truth states that the origin of suffering or dukkha lies in our cravings that occur on three existential levels - (a) craving for sensual pleasures, (b) craving to be that certainly encompasses all we Westerns construe as ego and (c) craving not to be - somewhat like Freud's Thanatos instinct, that is the desire for extinction and death. These cravings are just that, cravings and are really self-delusions on our part. The Third Noble Truth is the truth of the cessation of dukkha. The term cessation (Pali: nirodha) refers to the cessation of suffering and the causes of suffering, by realising that our sufferings are caused by our obsessions and cravings, by our unwarranted and unrealistic attachments to the things of this world.  Such a cessation of suffering can only happen after much spiritual work on oneself through meditation and works of compassion. 

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