On one of the discussion forums I frequent (freeratio.org), someone started an interesting topic on the meaning of evil and suffering based on a panel discussion and debate with Dr. William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Dr. Bernard Leikind and Dr. Jitendra Mohanty. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about a couple of the more general issues raised in the debate from a Buddhist perspective — the majority of which has been taken from previous posts of mine — especially Dr. Mohanty’s rejection of karma/kamma on the basis that “no causal explanation in terms of a law-like statement can be a good explanation of it” because when confronted with suffering, the inevitable question arises: Why me?
To begin with, I’d argue that kamma itself is naturalistic and arises out of more or less naturalistic (and predominately mental) causes. In the Suttas, the Buddha defines kamma as intentional actions of body, speech and mind (AN 6.63) that have the potential to produce certain results, which, in turn, have the potential to produce pleasant, painful or neutral feelings (AN 4.235). The word itself simply means ‘action.’
The basic premise behind kamma is that there’s a cause and effect relationship between our actions and how they’re experienced, and the teachings themselves deal specifically with the intentional action of individuals and how the results of those actions are then experienced by said individuals. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it, “It’s simply the fact of action—you do something unskillful, it’s going to come back in an unpleasant way.” In the same way, if you do something skillful, it’s going to come back and be experienced in a pleasant way. That’s why the Buddha advises his followers to frequently contemplate:
‘I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’
Pragmatically speaking, actions are deemed ‘unskillful’ (akusala) if they lead to to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both. Actions that don’t lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both are deemed ‘skillful’ (kusala) (MN 61). Therefore, the distinction between skillful and unskillful actions is based upon how their results are experienced—not only by ourselves, but by others as well. (This emphasis on the consequential aspect of actions is similar to Jeremy Bentham’s teleological utilitarianism, with John Stuart Mill’s idea of higher and lower happiness being similar to the Buddha’s distinction between long-term and short-term welfare and happiness.)
Psychologically speaking, however, the quality of the intentions behind the actions is what ultimately determines whether they’re unskillful or skillful. (This aspect is closer to Kant’s deontological categorical imperative when combined with the Buddhist principle of ahimsa or harmlessness.) Intentional actions rooted in greed, hatred or delusion produce painful mental feelings “like those of the beings in hell,” while intentional actions rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion produce the opposite (“like those of the Beautiful Black Devas”). Then there are acts rooted in both that bring mixed results “like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms” (AN 4.235). By bringing kamma to an end, however, the mind is said to become free and undisturbed.
Intention (cetana) is a product of the aggregate of mental formations (sankharakhandha). The cause by which kamma comes into play is sensory contact (phassa). Furthermore, according to Nyanatiloka’s Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, vipaka, ‘fruit’ or ‘result,’ is “any … mental phenomenon (e.g. bodily agreeable or painful feeling, sense-consciousness, etc.), which is the result of wholesome or unwholesome volitional action (karma, q.v.) through body, speech or mind, done either in this or some previous life.”
Essentially, intentional actions of body, speech and mind produce results that are said to have the potential to ripen during this lifetime, in the next birth or in later births. This can be taken literally (i.e., ripening in the form of a pleasant or unpleasant rebirth in an external realm of existence), or metaphorically (i.e., ripening in the form of various pleasant or unpleasant mental states). In the words of S. Dhammika:
According to the Buddha, every intentional action modifies our consciousness, thus building our character and thereby influencing our behaviour, our experience and consequently our destiny. Positive intentional actions (motivated by generosity, love and wisdom) tend towards consequences that are experienced as positive while intentional negative actions (motivated by greed, hatred and delusion) tend towards consequences that are experienced as negative.
Therefore, I think that in certain contexts, it would be appropriate to think of kamma as ‘habit energy’ in the sense that the potential effects of an action can be to condition and even strengthen certain physical and psychological reactions. This is especially true in regard to psychological reactions considering that vipaka is limited specifically to ‘mental phenomena.’
(And just for reference, here’s an interesting talk I watched recently dealing with the biological basis for morality: ‘Morality: From the Heavens or From Nature?’ I agree Dr. Thomas that morality is natural in the sense that it comes from the “evolved architecture” of our minds, which is why I believe that, psychologically speaking, the quality of the intentions behind our actions can determine how the results, whether positive or negative, are experienced.)
As for Buddhist ethics in general, they revolve around seeing our desires for happiness and freedom from pain in all living creatures. Essentially, if we don’t respect that in them, how can we ever expect the same? This is especially true regarding human beings. Here I agree with the Buddha that, besides some rare and special cases, there’s no one that’s as dear to us as ourselves, that all beings essentially want to be happy in their own way (according to their specific capacities), and that it’s a fairly decent and logical reason to desire their happiness as well as our own (SN 3.8).
The reason, I think, is simple. If our happiness comes at the expense of their happiness, they’ll do everything in their power to upset that happiness. Conversely, if they were to infringe upon ours, wouldn’t it follow that we’d do everything in our power to upset theirs? It seems like a vicious circle to me, and one of the ways to break this circle is an ethical framework that takes the happiness of others into consideration. Combine this with the Buddha’s teachings on kamma, and you have a logical and naturalistic morality based on the principle of ahimsa or harmelessness.
Concerning the issue of evil and whether it ‘exists’ in some objective sense as in Christian theology — which presents evil as an objectively existent entity or force, personified by the most infamous scapegoat the world has ever known, the Devil — Buddhism is, philosophically speaking, more or less empirical and pragmatic in nature. Things like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ aren’t really given any sort of ontological status in the suttas. As I’ve already mentioned, in regard to actions, bad actions are deemed ‘bad’ or ‘unskillful’ if they lead to to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both. Good actions, on the other hand, are deemed ‘good’ or ‘skillful’ if they don’t lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both (MN 61). In other words, these are descriptive labels that are limited to observable qualities and experiences (adjectives), not self-existent entities (nouns).
In the context of actions (kamma), the Pali term kusala, often translated as ‘skillful’ or ‘wholesome,’ basically means that which is not conducive to harm and pain, but to benefit and pleasure (AN 2.19). It denotes doing something well, such as in the case of playing a lute (see AN 6.55). The Pali term akusala (composed of the negative prefix a- + kusala), often translated as ‘unskillful’ or ‘unwholesome,’ basically means the opposite, or that which is not conducive to benefit and pleasure, but to harm and pain. The Pali word that’s usually translated as ‘evil’ is papa, which can also be translated as ‘bad,’ ‘demerit’ or ‘wrong action’ depending on the context. It seems to me that papa has a stronger, more negative connotation than akusala, but they’re more or less synonymous.
So when looking at the question of evil in Buddhism from this perspective, it can certainly be said to exist in a subjective sense, and I’d say it’s an appropriate descriptor for qualities that most people would agree to be extremely shocking and harmful. But as far as I can tell, Buddhism refrains from presenting evil as something which exists independently of us, something ‘out there’ as it were. And while Buddhism has its own scapegoat in the form of Mara, he’s generally used as a metaphor for the death, the psychological clinging to the aggregates that gives rise to suffering or to the mental defilements of greed, hatred and delusion.
This, then, brings me to dukkha or suffering. The first noble truth states that, in short, the five clinging-aggregate (panca-upadana-khandha) are dukkha (SN 56.11), i.e., it’s the clinging in reference to the aggregates that’s dukkha, not the aggregates themselves. What does this mean exactly? According to the commentaries, dukkha is defined as ‘that which is hard to bear.’ In MN 9, clinging is defined as:
“And what is clinging, what is the origin of clinging, what is the cessation of clinging, what is the way leading to the cessation of clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rituals and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. With the arising of craving, there is the arising of clinging. With the cessation of craving, there is the cessation of clinging. The way leading to the cessation of clinging is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view… right concentration.
In addition, the Buddha says that the five clinging-aggregates are not-self (anatta). He calls them a burden, the taking up of which is “the craving that makes for further becoming” and the casting off of which is “the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving” (SN 22.22). Becoming (bhava) is a mental process, which arises due to the presence of clinging in the mind with regard to the five-clinging aggregates, and acts as a condition for the birth (jati) of the conceit ‘I am,’ the self-identification that designates a being (satta).
Looking at it from another angle, there’s rarely a moment when the mind isn’t clinging to this or that in one or more of the four ways (MN 11). Our identity jumps from one thing to another, wherever the clinging is strongest. Our sense of self is something that’s always in flux, ever-changing from moment to moment in response to various internal and external stimuli, and yet at the same time, we tend to see it as a static thing. It’s as if our sense of self desires permanence, but its very nature causes it to change every second. As the Buddha warns in SN 12.61:
It would be better for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person to hold to the body composed of the four great elements, rather than the mind, as the self. Why is that? Because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for a year, two years, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years or more. But what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness’ by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another. Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way, what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness’ by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.
Change is, of course, a fact of nature. All things are in a perpetual state of change, but the problem is that our sense of self ignores this reality on a certain level. From birth to death, we have the tendency to think that this ‘I’ remains the same. Now, we might know that some things have changed (e.g., our likes and dislikes, our age, the amount of wrinkles we have, etc.), but we still feel as if we’re still ‘us.’ We have the illusion (for lack of a better word) that our identity is who we are, a static entity named [fill in the blank], and we tend to perceive this as being the same throughout our lives.
That said, the conventional use of personality is a function of survival, as well as convenience. However, clinging to our personalities as ‘me’ or ‘mine’ is seen as giving continued fuel for becoming, i.e., a mental process of taking on a particular kind of identity that arises out of clinging. Our sense of self — the ephemeral ‘I’ — is merely a mental imputation, and when we cling to our sense of self as being ‘me’ or ‘mine’ in some way, we’re clinging to an impermanent representation of something that we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking is fixed and stable. It becomes a sort of false refuge that’s none of these things.
These attachments, particularly our attachment to views and doctrines of self, keep us rooted in “perceptions and categories of objectification” that continually assail us and our mental well-being (MN 18). Thus, with the presence of clinging, the aggregates have the potential to become suffering (i.e., ‘difficult to bear’) when our sense of self encounters inconstancy. That’s why the Buddha taught that whatever is inconstant is stressful, and whatever is stressful is not-self:
“What do you think, monks — Is form [same with feeling, perception, fabrications and consciousnes] constant or inconstant?”
“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”
“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”
Thus, monks, any form [same with feeling, perception, fabrications and consciousness] whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’
Suffering isn’t inescapable, however. Like all conditional phenomena, it too has a cause. The second noble truth states that the origination of suffering is “the craving [tahna, literally 'thirst'] that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion &; delight, relishing now here &; now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming” (SN 56.11). As Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains in Wings to Awakening:
Craving for sensuality, here, means the desire for sensual objects. Craving for becoming means the desire for the formation of states or realms of being that are not currently happening, while craving for non-becoming means the desire for the destruction or halting of any that are. “Passion and delight,” here, is apparently a synonym for the “desire and passion” for the five aggregates that constitutes clinging/sustenance [III/H/ii].
Craving is a very subtle but powerful aspect of our psychology. It’s there, latent in the mind, waiting to exert its influence through mental fabrications by directing or at the very least encouraging the mind to feed upon sensory experiences via the five clinging-aggregates in an unhealthy way. Hence, in Buddhism, suffering is a psychological phenomena that can be transcended via the “remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving” (SN 56.11). This is why I tend to think of Buddhism as a type of ‘transcendent psychology.’ Regardless of how it’s been popularized, at its core, Buddhism deals exclusively with one subject, that of human mental suffering. The Buddha himself clearly states that:
“Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress.
That’s not to say there aren’t ‘supernatural’ concepts in Buddhism, or that local customs, deities and religious practices haven’t found their way into Buddhism wherever it’s been established. But rather than a pure system of thought or a strictly faith-based worship of the supernatural, a critical analysis of the earliest texts reveals a much more pragmatic and specialized method of mental training than most traditional Buddhists and Western converts realize—one that seeks to diminish and even eliminate suffering by radically changing the way the mind relates to experience. This includes our reaction to physical pain, which is made clear in the simile of the arrow found in SN 36.6:
“Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.
Whatever else this radical transformation may open one up to, I can’t say, but I suspect that Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s right when he says that we’re “not committing spiritual suicide.” The allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic immediately comes to mind here, where he uses the image of the philosopher turning the soul (mind) away from the darkness of the visible realm (samsara) towards the light of the form of the Good (nibbana).