Superficially most people tend to think of good and evil as two fundamentally and diametrically opposed principles or forces in the universe. Two primary wills directed towards opposite ends. However, if we analyze the situation objectively, we discover that the fundamental, primary will of all beings throughout the universe is toward the same end, happiness. Thieves, murderers, even terrorists, want to be happy, although their notion of happiness may differ greatly from our own.
We also discover that evil is merely a result of ignorance and false beliefs that something is a means to happiness when it is not. Evil can also be a result of conflict between certain individuals, all of whom desire the same end, but get in the way of each other, and as a result, take actions that are destructive to the common good.
We often hear talk about riding the world of evil. This is a common aim and most people believe it is necessary in order to establish a state of happiness for all. However noble it may be, it is not practical in either the ultimate or relative sense, because evil, being that designated the opposite of the common good, must exist, for without it how would we know what is good?
Chih-i, the great Chinese Buddhist philosopher, once said:
“In evil there is good; apart from evil there is no good. It is the overturning of various evils upon which the tenability of good is based. The situation is like the bamboo in possession of the potency of fire. This potency is not actual fire, therefore the bamboo does not burn. But when the potency meets subsidiary causes and is actualized, the bamboo can burn things. In the same way, evil is the potency of good, though it has not actually become good. When it meets subsidiary causes and is actualized, it can overturn evil. Similar to the potency of fire in the bamboo, which burns the bamboo when actualized, the potency of good in evil will overturn the evil when actualized. Therefore the aspect of evil potency is identical to the aspect of good potency. “
Seen in this light, good and evil are not two antithetical forces, but the same forces. In Chih-i’s philosophy, the universe as a whole is good, and while he asserts the non-duality of good and evil, to say that a bad act is good if viewed from a perfect understanding does not excuse the act nor prevent the suffering that follows from it. Additionally, if there was no such understanding there would be no act, since the act only occurs because of a lack of understanding. Suffering is necessary because it is through suffering that understanding is improved which makes the act no longer desirable.
This is why Chih-i also says,
“If amid evils there were nothing but evil, the practice of the Way would be impossible and people would remain forever unenlightened, but because the Way is present even amid evil it is possible to attain sageliness even though one may engage in negative actions, for example, even Buddhist monks can be angry.”
Evil is the result of false beliefs on the part of an individual who thinks his or her subsidiary aims are in accord with his or her primary aim, when they are not. When an individual realizes this, then the evil can be overturned because the new understanding acquired will prevent the actualization of the evil. The potency will still remain.
It will require more growth, more spiritual evolution, and perhaps innumerable generations before all individuals collectively have sufficient understanding to overcome many of the specific evils that exist in the world. A single individual, developing this understanding, can contribute toward it.
The question then is not why does evil and suffering exist in the world; rather the question should be how an individual should confront his or her own evil and how one overturns sufferings.
That, however, will have to be discussed some other time. For now, a good first step in that direction is to follow the Buddha’s guidance:
“Do not commit any evil deeds
Try always to perform virtuous acts
Subdue your own mind
This is my teaching”