Philosophy of Religion Series: Buddhism and The Problem of Evil

By R.N. Carmona

The Problem of Evil, as normally construed, needs to be reframed in order to be discussed more generally in the philosophy of religion. When one thinks of the problem, one thinks about the incongruity between the evil and suffering we observe in the world and the idea of a perfectly benevolent deity. In issues of dissonance, the simplest solution is to identify which one of your beliefs is causing the issue. While it is possible that both conflicting beliefs can be wrong, sometimes it is that one is the case while the other is not. Christians might not allow for the radical solution I am going to offer by way of Buddhism, but it is a viable solution nonetheless. Buddhism is a godless religion and as such, one accomplishes reframing the problem by removing one of the elements causing tension. In this particular case, we simply remove the belief in a perfectly good god. What we are then left with is the fact that evil and suffering abound in our world, which is a problem all its own.

What does Buddhism have to say about evil and suffering? What answers might it give us to start mitigating an issue that affects us all? I think that Buddhism will accomplish something in the philosophy of religion that Christianity has not. Not only will it solve the Problem of Evil, but it will redistribute it, as it were, into the real world where it belongs. This is not to say that Christians do nothing to address evil and suffering, but every hour spent on batting around the tired literature surrounding the Problem of Evil is time not spent addressing the actual problem. As we will see later in this series, beliefs about a god serving as deus ex machina and renewing this degenerated existence predate Christianity and Islam. In other words, people have had similar beliefs for thousands of years, convinced that the restoration of the Earth and humankind to a state without blemish would certainly happen within their lifetimes. Thousands of years have gone by and we are still plagued by many of the same issues that they encountered. The solutions that Buddhism will offer will place the responsibility of solving the problem of evil and suffering squarely on our shoulders. There is no god out there waiting for the opportune time to regenerate all of existence. Buddhism makes the problem our problem and takes it out of the hands of philosophers that prefer argument to action.

Buddhism’s Definition of Evil and Suffering

In Buddhism, suffering is the subject of the Four Noble Truths:

  • Dukha: There is suffering because we experience a great deal of disappointment in life. Illness and injury are obvious causes of suffering, but even when we do not find our leg in a cast or have to deal with the death of a loved one, we still lack fulfillment and desire more than we currently have. In the Western sense of thinking, we seldom stop to count our blessings.
  • Samudāya: Suffering is rooted in craving (tanhā). Greed, ignorance, and hatred, generally speaking, define our addictions.
  • Nirodha: To cease suffering, one need only detach oneself from addictions. Detachment is a concept ripe for philosophical exploration, aside from the subject matter currently in focus.
  • Magga: The way through which we can end both our own suffering and the suffering of others. This is inhered in the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path to end suffering is as follows:

  1. Right Understanding – Sammā ditthi: To live by the Buddha’s teachings, not in the Western, submissive sense, but approaching even his teachings with skepticism and discretion
  2. Right Intention – Sammā san̄kappa: To learn to assess one’s motives and intentions and being sure to see things clearly, without prejudices and assumptions
  3. Right Speech – Sammā vācā: To speak the truth and to shun destructive lying. This would also require one to avoid gossiping, slandering, and insulting others
  4. Right Action – Sammā kammanta: To live in harmony with all living things; this entails a commitment to not cause harm, especially killing
  5. Right Livelihood – Sammā ājīva: To earn a living without exploiting other people or causing harm. This would entail not selling potentially harmful paraphernalia or products
  6. Right Effort – Sammā vāyāma: To maintain positive states of mind. This involves keeping oneself from thinking in terms of violence, revenge, and so on
  7. Right Mindfulness – Sammā sati: To be keenly aware of your thoughts, emotions, and any of the body’s corresponding sensations as it pertains to destructive emotions like anger but also positive feelings like pleasure
  8. Right Concentration – Sammā samādhi: To cultivate the focus necessary to make this deeper awareness of oneself possible

Of interest is Buddhism’s non-duality; Buddhists do not think of evil and suffering the way most of us do in the West. For us, when we think of evil, we think of the psychopathic serial killer. When we think of suffering, we imagine perhaps a homeless person or someone who is terminally ill laying in a hospital bed. We do not realize that the same sources give rise to both evil and suffering. This is not to merely state that an evil person causes the suffering of another person. That is stating the obvious. Rather, it is to say that greed (the rooster), ignorance (the pig), and hatred (the snake) give rise to evil and suffering within the same individual. The same reasons leading a person to be characterized as evil also result in his own suffering. As Kyokai states: “Greed rises from wrong ideas of satisfaction; anger rises from wrong ideas concerning the state of one’s affairs and surroundings; foolishness rises from the inability to judge what correct conduct is” (Kyokai, Bukkyo Dendo. The Teaching of Buddha. 162. Print). Mark Epstein elaborates:

When we refuse to acknowledge the presence of unwanted feelings, we are as bound to them as when we give ourselves over to them indignantly and self-righteously. Religion has traditionally counseled believers to withdraw from aggressive, erotic, or egotistical states of mind, replacing them with the “purer” states of devotion, humility, and piety. Psychoanalysis has encouraged its adherents to be less fearful of these emotions, to understand their roots and recover the energy that has been lost through the failure to accept primitive urges or longings. Buddhism, alone among the world’s religions, has taken a characteristically middle path, recognizing the need to be free from destructive emotions while at the same time seeing that such freedom comes through nonjudgmental awareness of just those emotions we seek freedom from.

Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy From A Buddhist Perspective. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995. 24. Print

Buddhism, therefore, does not relocate evil in others. Unlike other religions, it does not paint the worst of men as monsters or as influenced or even possessed by evil entities. Buddhism, first and foremost, identifies a propensity for evil in you. It also identifies the source of suffering in you. This is a good start because it allows us, in the main, to keep ourselves from slipping into behavioral patterns that result in suffering or evil. Of course, the larger issues are still unanswered. There is a great deal of suffering to address, not only in humans, but in animals as well. Buddhism should offer a way to address the wider evil and suffering in the world: political corruption, poverty, genocide, war, and so on. This is, after all, what people have looked to gods to address, so we are left with a staggeringly massive problem once we remove a perfectly good god from equation; evil and suffering are suddenly the literal weight of the world on our shoulders. It is likely that because these issues are so intimidating and have a way of making us feel insignificant and small, we find solace in the idea that something greater and more powerful than ourselves will eventually rescue us. Like children, who make a mess of their rooms knowing their parents will clean up after them, we have made a mess of our planet and look to a celestial father figure to bail us out. It is time now to reckon with the fact that we are adults; we are on our own and this is entirely our problem to fix.

Predictably, then, if Buddhism identifies evil and suffering in us, then it also identifies the solution in us. This is Buddhism’s greatest insight with respect to evil and suffering. Epstein states:

Yet, one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion, inherent in the Wheel of Life image, that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage. Conditioned by the forces of attachment, aversion, and delusion, our faulty perceptions of the realms—not the realms themselves—cause suffering.

Ibid., 16

Briefly, the Wheel of Life is comprised of the Six Realms of Saṃsāra. Below is an image to help visualize what is inhered in each realm:

Image result for six realms of samsara
Credit: Fractal Enlightenment

Prior to assuming a panoramic view, Buddhism’s view on animals is crucial. Recall stages three thru five of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. These stages concern Buddhist ethical conduct (śīla). One of Buddhism’s precepts is ahiṃsā (non-violence). Bronwyn Finnigan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University, outlines several arguments that extends ahiṃsā to animals. He states: “Since killing and harming animals causes suffering, and since suffering is intrinsically bad and should be prevented, it follows that one should not kill or harm animals” (Finnigan, Bronwyn. Buddhism and the moral status of animals. ABC Religions and Ethics. 21 Nov 2018. Web.). He also remarks: “I do not desire to suffer. If I were killed that would cause me to suffer. Animals are like me in not desiring to suffer. Killing animals causes them to suffer. So, I should not kill animals“; “Psychological states exist but no selves who own those states. If suffering should be removed, given some interest, then all sufferings should be removed, given some interest. Killing and harming animals causes them to suffer. Animals have an interest not to suffer. So, we should not kill or harm animals“; “Not killing or harming animals is a way to cultivate compassion. One should be compassionate. So, one should not kill or harm animals” (Ibid.). One of Finnigan’s four arguments must resonate with everyone. As a neo-Kantian, his second argument is the most compelling. In other words, since animals are like me, in that there is nothing that makes me special or superior to them as Western religions posit, they do not desire to suffer. It follows, therefore, that I should not harm or kill animals. Pursuing animal rights is too tangential for our current purposes, but Christine Korsgaard has an excellent take on this issue (Korsgaard, Christine M. 2011. “Interacting with Animals: A Kantian Account.” In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey, 91-118. Oxford: Oxford University Press.).

Now, to assume a bird’s-eye view. What are we to do about all the suffering and evil in the world? If we set aside the historical missteps some Buddhists have taken, e.g. the manner in which some have embraced violence, and try to imagine, instead of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic world, a Buddhist world, would the Eightfold Path solve the real problem of suffering and evil? If we all acquired a deep awareness of our cravings and subsequent addictions; if we all agreed to stop harming and killing others; if we all agreed to stop insulting one another and gossiping; if we all designed to meditate and unravel latent traumas; if we all studied the teachings of Buddha, building upon his initial ideas, do we now find ourselves in a better world? The greatest conceivable human being can be anyone of us, but, to my mind, there is no greater modern exemplary than the Dalai Lama. Boris-Dunchunstang recalls his story:

It was during the early morning hours of February 4, 1997, when three monks who were sleeping a few hundred yards from my living quarters were stabbed to death. They were cut up in a fashion that resembled an exorcism. One of the monks was my dearest friend and confidant, seventy-year-old Lobsang Gyatso. He was found dead in bed. Two younger monks, Ngawang Lodoe and my Chinese-language interpreter, Lobsang Ngawan, had been stabbed fifteen to twenty times, leaving the walls of the small monks’ chamber splattered with blood. I suspect there could have been five to eight attackers. The murderers were sending a very clear message to me.

Boris-Dunchunstang, Eileen R. Finding Forgiveness. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 60-61. Print.

The Dalai Lama’s response to this tragedy is not what one would expect. He did not seek retribution or vengeance. He analyzed his initial shock and ensuing anger, and ultimately resolved to forgive the assailants. “Forgiveness is about healing suffering for ourselves and others. Until we develop compassion within ourselves and a concern about the welfare of others, we cannot truly forgive” (Ibid., 63). Massive problems like evil and suffering, and everything they entail, require an even greater solution. This, for much of Western civilization, we have imagined to be God. The solution, however, stares back at us every time we look in the mirror.

Buddhism’s solution to the Problem of Evil is to remove gods from the equation and reestablish humanity as both the cause and end of its own suffering. Mbembe, speaking of larger structural forces, invokes the ancient Greek idea that is inherent in the Buddhist definition of suffering:

The vast movement of repopulation of the world inaugurated at the edge of modern times ended in a massive “taking of lands” (colonization) on a scale and using technologies never before seen in the history of humanity. Far from leading democracy’s spread across the planet, the race for new lands opened onto a new law (nomos) of the Earth, the main characteristics of which was to establish war and race as history’s two privileged sacraments. The sacramentalization of war and race in the blast furnace of colonialism made it at once modernity’s antidote and poison, its twofold pharmakon.

Mbembe, Achille. Necro-Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2019. 6 Print.

Humanity’s overall addiction can be summed up in the idea of pharmakon. Freud recognized that inherent in desire is dissatisfaction. This is most obvious in destructive addictions like drug and alcohol addiction. When a person gets their fix, they are on cloud nine, immensely satisfied, but the use of narcotics already implies abuse. The fix results in withdrawal and then withdrawal leads to further craving. This applies to money, the things money can buy, sex, power, influence, and so on. Not content with a few thousand followers, the social media influencer desires hundreds of thousands and then millions. There is always this idea in us that there are more steps on the ladder, higher plateaus to reach. Our suffering is already entailed in the deep disappointment we will feel when we fail to reach a goal. When you add layers to one’s ambition involving exploitation, violence, greed, corruption, hatred, and so on, one starts to see how most of the world’s suffering is due to craving becoming addiction and addiction becoming a disregard for the people one knowingly harms and an ignorance of anyone who suffers collateral damage. The Western addiction of colonialism, in America, followed by the institution of its twisted idea of Democracy, is the pharmakon at the root of suffering the world over. America is precisely like The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, difference being that the suffering of one chid is compounded as the suffering of many children.

It is more probable that the suffering and evil we see in the world is because half of the world population persists under the delusion that the world is supposed to be degenerate. This is par for the course, all a prelude for the second advent of Christ, for instance. While that has not stopped Christians in the West from taking action against suffering and evil in the world, they all believe that there is no ultimate solution that humans, on their own, can implement. They continue to believe that the world will remain in a degenerate state despite our collective efforts. Buddhism does better in this respect, returning all power to humanity, and imbuing us, once again, with the god-like power we continue to identify in our own species. We are the source of our own suffering. Specifically, our lack of self-awareness and our lack of compassion for other people has us in this predicament. What’s worse is that now there are forces much larger than any one person at play and it is required for us to topple these idols before we can renew human civilization: American Democracy, racism, colonialism, Capitalism, and all the greed, corruption, and human rights abuses that flow from them. These are evils that we ourselves have cultivated and evils that perpetuate a bulk of the world’s suffering.

What that leaves, then, is disease, natural disasters, and all manner of suffering that is outside of our control. Inherent in Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama identified, is that these things will happen and they will pass. People we love will die of disease or in a natural disaster. There is no finger to point in this case, no one we can blame. But as it is with anger, jealousy, pleasure, and so on, we have to develop a deeper awareness of our mourning and find a way to work through it. Buddhism has a larger, less naturalistic framework, that is capable of addressing existential crises like the loss of a loved one, e.g. the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra).

Ultimately, Buddhism offers much in the way of a solution for the Problem of Evil. To reiterate, it relieves the cause of tension, namely the belief in a perfectly good deus ex machina that will eventually restore the Earth from its current degeneracy. Buddhism then identifies the true source of evil and suffering, which also happens to be the solution to our suffering; humankind, in other words, is like the notion of pharmakon, both its own poison and antidote. In recognition of this truth, Buddhism then offers us a path to release our cravings and end our own suffering: wisdom (pāli), ethics (śīla), and meditation (bhāvanā). Most importantly, Buddhism gives us the potential to finally stop arguing about the Problem of Evil in the philosophy of religion and turn our attention to the actual problem of evil and suffering in our world. The restoration of our degenerate world rests on our shoulders. Aside from solving a longstanding problem in the philosophy of religion, Buddhism provides a prescription to solve the problem at large. This is the kind of solution we should all get behind.

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