The Navy Yard Shooting: A Look at Good and Evil, and Mental Afflictions

The horrific Navy Yard shooting a week ago has produced some discussion about the gunman’s involvement with Buddhism. The picture is yet unclear. Some friends of his say he was a devout Buddhist, while others suggest he only went to the temple in Ft. Worth to meet Thai women. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle.

A few of the television commentators I watched the day after the incident seemed positively aghast at the thought that a Buddhist could commit such evil. One anchor on CNN questioned if the gunman was a legitimate Buddhist since Buddhism is a spiritual philosophy that advocates nonviolence. A Washington Post blog claimed that the gunman “was no Buddhist” because a “Buddhist is who Buddhism does,” which I’m not sure even makes sense.

Buddhism is not the only philosophy that preaches non-violence, and while a history of violence in Buddhism is not as extensive as in some other religions, it is there nonetheless. Still, the peaceful image Buddhism has managed to project is so pervasive that it is difficult for some to imagine that Buddhists, like anyone else, can kill.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, violence is “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” When sanctioned by law, violence can be perceived as good. When unsanctioned, it is a form of evil. Yet, the behavior itself is essentially identical.

Robert Mitchum’s tattooed hands in the 1955 film, “The Night of the Hunter.”

In Western religious traditions, 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. Buddhism, however, teaches that good and evil are not separate; they are entwined aspects of life.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i, in the Mo-ho Chih-kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), says, “Good and evil have no self-nature.” In Buddhism, when we talk about self-nature (svabhava), we are referring to the ability of anything to exist on its own, separate from other things. Neither good nor evil exist from their own side as independent functions of human nature.

Further, Chih-i notes that “If one realizes that evil is not evil, that everything is One Reality, then the Way of the Buddha is realized . . .” Simply put, he means that life is not black and white. Nothing exists as either completely good or totally evil. As Neal Donner explains an essay on “Chih-i’s Meditation on Evil,” there is no real contradiction between good and evil: “Even if evil is presently in one’s mind, good will always be found somewhere within it, for every element of existence is present in every other.” Just as good and evil do not function independently, neither is subordinate to the other, they are both equally part of the whole of reality.

This is the view from the ultimate truth, which differs from that of the relative or conventional truth. In the reality of conventional human life, evil is a destructive force that must be avoided in favor of producing goodness. Yet, it is not rational to think that evil can be completely eradicated. Indeed, evil is necessary. How would we recognize what is good if evil did not exist?

The fundamental, primary aim of all beings throughout the world 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. Evil is the result of false beliefs on the part of an individual who mistakenly thinks that negative actions will result in the fulfillment of the primary aim. Evil is merely a result of ignorance and the wrong belief that something is a means to happiness when it is not.

The man who killed 12 people at the Navy Yard last Monday carved two cryptic messages into the wooden stock of the shotgun he bought two days before the shooting. One of the messages read, “Better Off This Way.” This suggests that with both good and evil coexisting in his mind, mental illness, and the extreme delusion it produced, actualized his potential for evil. The gunman,  impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder as a 9/11 responder, who heard “voices,” drank alcohol and played violent video games excessively, and frequently displayed angry and aggressive tendencies, became convinced that only through committing a desperate act could he find happiness. His primary aim was to liberate himself from suffering, an aim the suffering itself twisted into the act of inflicting suffering on others.

Two days following the Navy Yard shooting, Stephen Prothero, a professor in Boston University’s religion department, authored an editorial in USA Today. After citing some examples of violence in Buddhism’s past (two of which are myths), he wrote, “But it is simply not the case that Buddhism is a ‘religion of peace.’”

Prothero, who a number of times in the past has demonstrated he has little understanding of Buddhist teachings, once again fails. In my opinion, no other spiritual philosophy than Buddhism deals as systematically and comprehensively with the underlying causes and conditions that lead to violence – the mental afflictions that delude the mind and pervert behavior.

At the end of the day, it’s not about religion, good or evil, violence or non-violence. It’s about the mind and the afflictions that disturb it. In terms of the shooting itself and how to prevent incidents from this from being repeated, there are numerous discussions we should be having, not the least of which is how can we deal more effectively with mental illness.

For the longevity of all other enemies is not so enduring, beginningless, and endless as that of my enemies, the mental afflictions.

Everyone becomes favorably disposed when tended with kindness, but when these mental afflictions are honored, they bring about suffering all the more.

Shantideva, Bodhicaryavatara (“A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) *

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* Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications, 1997


What Evil Lurks In the Heart

Cat Ballou was mean and evil through and through.

I’ve been beating the drum for non-duality a lot lately. I hope I am not overdoing it, but it’s an important subject and deserves a certain amount of attention. In light of recent events, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit the non-duality of good and evil.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i maintained that the mind, although intrinsically enlightened, contains all the potentials for both good and evil, that it is both pure and stained, and that even Buddhas possess evil natures. He developed a meditation in which one “entered” evil in order to cultivate mindfulness of it. This supposedly allowed the practitioner to exercise control over evil.

The focus here is on the negative side of the coin, but there is also the positive side. Neal Donner, in his essay, Chih-i’s Meditation on Evil, writes,

[Chih-i shows] that there is no contradiction between evil and the Way. Even if evil is constantly present in one’s mind, good will always be found somewhere within it, for every element of existence is present in every other . . .”

This notion of the interpenetration of various qualities within the mind is one of the core principles found in T’ien-t’ai philosophy. The other day I mentioned how suffering never actually ceases, it just becomes dormant as we active more positive qualities. Chih-i put it this way:

Although the Buddha does not remove inherent evil (Ch. hsing-er), he fully understands the nature of evil. As a result, he is not defiled by it and can be the master over evil. Additionally, owing to his observation, evil never arises, and the Buddha does not create evil again.

The Profound Meaning of the Kuan-Yin Sutra (Kuan-yin Hsuan-i)

“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”

Because of my pop (and pulp) culture inclinations, I can’t help but think of The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” The Shadow was a crime-fighter who used hypnotism to “cloud men’s mind” so they would think he was invisible. He also had to rely on physic powers to see in men’s hearts. You and I as ordinary beings don’t need physic powers or hypnotism, nor do we really need to enter into esoteric meditations to see inherent evil. As with emptiness, the power of understanding, in this case, understanding of the non-duality of good and evil, combined with self-reflection, will suffice.

However, there is still the question of how make sure that inherent evil remains in a dormant state. One point that seems clear in regards to the recent shooting in Aurora is that it is not just an issue of guns or violence, it’s also an issue of mental health. Most of us will never perpetrate that kind of evil, but we are perfectly capable of committing small wrongdoings, what you might call “little evils.” So, the short answer to the question would be that we should insure that our minds stay healthy. Naturally, I recommend the practice of Buddhist meditation as an excellent way to accomplish that.

Again, it doesn’t seem necessary to engage in esoteric meditations to maintain a healthy mind. Nor, as a rule, do we need to become knee-deep in psychotherapy. Simple, basic meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, is good enough. Along with calming the mind and developing a greater awareness of the present moment, meditation also helps us suppress the negative states of mind that create non-virtuous emotions and actions. When we get up from the meditation mat, our calmness and inner health will serve us well when we face situations in daily life charged with potential negativity.


Good and Evil are indentical

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”