Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I have been asked how Zen handles absolute evil. That was an excellent question, but at that time I didn’t have a ready answer. Ever since then the issue has been nagging the back of my mind.

Let’s see if an answer has popped up.

As a start, let’s agree on defining evil as something that causes harm, something that is immoral and cruel.

So, how does Zen handle absolute evil?

Even now, I’m not sure there is a clear-cut response.

In Zen nothing is absolute. Absolute implies unconditional, unqualified, limited.

But no sooner is a limit established than it will be extended. A new limit will be imposed, only to be replaced by something more.

Running a four-minute mile was once thought impossible. The self-appointed authorities claimed no human could ever do that. Then in 1954 a British medical student, Roger Bannister, ran a mile in 3 minutes, 59 seconds. Two months later, an Australian, John Landy, ran a mile in one second less.

A few years ago it was believed that the top operating speed of home computers was in the megabyte range. Today home computers run in the gigabyte range, and that envelope is being ever pushed outward.

Nothing lasts forever. Our only limits are those we set for ourselves.

Zen says there is no final point. There is no beginning. There is no ending.

So, what is the worst conceivable evil? Is it genocide? Is it human cannibalism? Is it torture?

Is there a limit to depravity? Did Heinrich Himmler reach it during the World War II holocaust? Did Pol Pot reach it in being responsible for some three-million deaths in Cambodia?

When or where does man’s inhumanity to man end?

Or does it ever end?

I still don’t have a black-or-white answer to the question of how Zen manages absolute evil. As I said before, I don’t think there is a definite answer.

However, if we think in Western terms of evil—that is, immorality, depravity, and wrong—as being the opposite of good—that is, moral, decent, and right—we may find some clues.

Humans delight in dividing things into pairs. For some reason we seem unable to accept that things simply are. We have to label everything and then weigh the labels against each other. We evaluate good against bad, big against small, happy against sad.

Zen has roots in Taoism, and Taoism says that things contain, rather than exclude, some part of their opposites. This concept is embodied in the familiar yin-yang symbol, a circle that encloses intermingled and equal parts of black and white.

Yin-yang signifies a balance of opposites.

No thing, or idea, or action is exclusive. Everything is relative and complementary. Existence is neither all white nor all black. Existence is a combination of all things.

In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism the authors say that names for things “… not only train us in making distinctions, but shape and govern our desires and actions.”

In other words, words are necessary for human communication, but we should beware of taking words at their face value.

The Tao Te Ching says:

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

“The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

. . .

“Having and not-having arise together.

“Difficult and easy complement each other.

. . .

“Therefore the sage goes about . . . teaching no-talking.”

In 1974 Masao Abe, Professor of Nara University, lectured at a seminar on Zen for Christian missionaries. In his talk Abe said that enlightenment is not something good in the relative sense, as distinguished from evil. Enlightenment is the realization of one’s being before one is trained to the duality of good and evil.

Abe cautions against taking a dualistic view of good and evil. Observing the priority of good over evil may be ethically prudent, but it isn’t necessarily an actual human situation. Dumb animals may not distinguish good from evil, but good and evil are equal in humans.

Abe said something remarkable, “It is not that I have a dilemma between good and evil, but that I am that dilemma.”

In other words, we humans aren’t simply good or simply bad. We are neither good nor bad.

We are nothing.

“In the full realization of Nothingness,” Abe said, “we are liberated from the dichotomy of good and evil.”

It is then that we awaken to our true nature, which is that point before we’ve learned to distinguish between good and evil.

That point is seeing one’s original face.

It is awakening.

* * * * *

To change the subject of good and evil, but to stay with Abe for little longer, he brought up the subject of whether Zen is a form of Buddhism or not. In Zen fashion his response was yes and no.

Zen is a form of Buddhism that was established in China. That form of Buddhism is commonly called Zen Buddhism, and it has its rituals and scriptures. But, Abe says, Zen is beyond Buddhism in that it isn’t based on any so-called sacred writings or established routines. Instead Zen . . . returns to the root and source of all forms of Buddhism.

And that origin is awakening.


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