By Nancy Thompson
Buddhism proposes that everyone and everything has buddhanature—that everything is inherently peaceful and joyous and without stress. Good and evil are a duality that arises from confusion. Nothing by nature is good or bad (although Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used the term “basic goodness” to describe buddhanature to Westerners).
On a personal level, Buddhism talks about evil as stemming from the illusion that we have a separate, permanent self that has to be defended. Often described as “demons,” evil is seen as a psychological state. “Without ego, there could be no demons,” says Lama Tsultrim Allione, who has modified a traditional Tibetan practice for non-Buddhists, which she calls “Feeding your demons.”
The Buddha sent his first followers off into the woods to meditate, and they came back frightened of the demons there who tormented them. The Buddha taught them lovingkindness meditation – to wish happiness to their demons – and the fears were quelled.
In a story from a later school of Buddhism, Milarepa was meditating in a cave and was bothered by demons. He tried everything he could think of to get rid of them, and each method would chase some off. Finally, he invited the remaining ones to tea; they were satisfied and left.
Even Mara, the demon that tormented the Buddha on the eve of his enlightenment, can be seen as psychological – Mara tempts the Buddha with food, drink, and dancing girls; has armies shoot arrows at him, and finally tries to instill doubt. The Buddha declines each of Mara’s offerings, saying, “I see you, Mara,” a recognition that the distractions and dangers are in his head.
People who don’t see the impermanence and insubstantiality of their demons might perceive them as a real threat and in their confusion act in unskillful ways that cause suffering for others in the world. Again, those actions are seen as the result of confusion and suffering and don’t stem from any inherent evil in the person. Hitler had buddhanature, but he didn’t act from that – he acted from fear. Buddhism teaches that everything that happens (all compounded phenomena) arise from causes and conditions.
What we do as a society creates the conditions for what arises. In the Lion’s Roar sutta, the Buddha uses a parable to say that poverty and the failure to care for poor is the root cause of much of what we consider evil:
Thus, from the not giving of property to the needy, poverty became rife,
from the growth of poverty, the taking of what was not given increased,
from the increase of theft, the use of weapons increased,
from the increase use of weapons, the taking of life increased, and
from the taking of life increased, lying increased,
from the increase in lying,
the speaking evil of others increased,
sexual misconduct increased,
harsh speech and idle chatter increased, and
from the increase of harsh speech and idle chatter, covetousness and hatred increased, and
from the increase in covetousness and hatred, false opinions increased, and
from the increase in false opinions, incest, excessive greed and deviant practices increased, and
from the increase of excessive greed and deviant practices,
lack of respect for mother and father,
for ascetics and Brahmins, and
for head of the clan increased,
and in consequence, people’s life-span decreased, their beauty decreased.