Rim Report No. 25, October 2002
The Nonduality of Good and Evil: Buddhist Reflections on the New
by David R. Loy, Ph.D.
David Loy is professor in the Faculty of Inter-national Studies
at Bunkyo University, Chigasaki, Japan. His work is in comparative
philosophy and religion, particularly comparing Buddhist with modern
Western thought. Loy has published extensively in the field of
Buddhist studies with particular attention to issues arising from
Buddhism in the modern world and Buddhist perspectives on uniquely
His books include Nonduality: A Study in Comparative
Philosophy (1988), Lack and Transcendence: The
Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism and
Buddhism (1996), A Buddhist
History of the West: Studies in Lack (2002), and The
Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (forthcoming in 2003).
A graduate of Carleton College in Minnesota, Loy earned his Master's
in philosophy from the University of Hawai'i and his doctorate
from the National University of Singapore.
Loy has practiced Zen Buddhism since 1971 and is a recognized
Zen sensei with the dharma name Tetsu-in.
Loy spoke at the University of San Francisco on September 16,
2002 at the invitation of USF associate professor of philosophy
Yoko Arisaka. His public talk was co-sponsored by the Center with
USF's departments of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies,
and Politics, and the Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and
Peace and Justice Studies programs, and the College of Arts and
Sciences, all at USF.
We gratefully acknowledge the Kiriyama Chair for Pacific Rim Studies
at the USF Center for the Pacific Rim for funding this issue of
Pacific Rim Report.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people
somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary
only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But
the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every
human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
-- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
In his autobiography Gandhi writes that "those who say that religion
has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means" [p.
370]. Perhaps this is more obvious to us after September 11th,
but it should always have been obvious--religion is about how we
should live, and politics is about deciding together how we want
to live. The main reason it has not been obvious is because most
modern societies have been careful to distinguish the secular public
sphere from the personal, private world of religious belief. This
has been essential for creating a multicultural climate of religious
tolerance, but at a price: such tolerance effectively "displaces
morality" by "asking you to inhabit your own moral convictions
loosely and be ready to withdraw from them whenever pursuing them
would impinge on the activities and choices of others" [Fish p.41].
Most of us would prefer that Osama bin Laden inhabited his moral
convictions more loosely, but the downside of loose convictions
has been an increasingly amoral public sphere.
In two other ways, however, Gandhi's comment seems especially
First, the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon were engaged in a political act that was religiously
inspired, however badly they may have misunderstood their religion.
In fact, it is difficult to think of any other motivation that
can inspire people to sacrifice themselves, and others, so willingly.
(The kamikaze pilots of World War II were not an exception, for
at that time the Japanese emperor was a god, so he was a religious
leader as much as a political one.) Al-though they left no suicide
notes, the September hijackers seem to have understood themselves
as engaged in a jihad defending Islam against the globalizing West.
And that brings us to a third aspect of Gandhi's statement, the
one that I wish to focus on: the intersection of religion and politics
in the way we perceive good and evil. Our understanding of good
and evil cannot be simply identified with any religious worldview,
but the two are intimately related. The new war against terrorism,
like the longstanding tension between Israel and the Palestinians,
and like many earlier conflicts among Jews, Christians and Muslims,
can be viewed as an Abrahamic civil war. These encounters are so
violent and so difficult to resolve not only because they draw
on old historical tensions, but because the opponents seem to share
some very similar views about the struggle between good and evil.
This essay originates in the curious fact that the al-Qaeda under-standing
of good and evil--the need for a holy war against evil--is also emphasized
by the administration of George W. Bush.
Three days after the September attacks, President Bush declared
that the United States has been called to a new worldwide mission "to
rid the world of evil," and two days later he said that the U.S.
government is determined to "rid the world of evil-doers." America,
the defender of freedom, now has a responsibility to rid the world
of its evil. We may no longer have an "evil empire" to defeat,
but we have found a more sinister evil that will require a protracted,
all-out war to destroy. Later Bush un-wisely referred to this war
as a "crusade," and in his 2002 State of the Union address he identified
a new "axis of evil," especially Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
If anything is evil, the terrorist attacks on September 11th were
evil. That must not be forgotten in what follows. At the same time,
however, we need to take a close look at such rhetoric. When Bush
said he wants to rid the world of evil, alarm bells went off in
my mind, because that is also what Hitler and Stalin wanted to
What was the problem with Jews that required a "final solution"?
The earth could be made pure for the Aryan race only by exterminating
the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally-defective, etc.--all the
impure vermin who contaminate it. Stalin needed to exterminate
well-to-do Russian peasants in order to establish his ideal society
of collective farmers. Both of these great villains were trying
to perfect the world by eliminating its impurities. The world can
be made good only by destroying its evil elements.
In other words, one of the main causes of evil in this world has
been human attempts to eradicate evil, or what has been viewed
as evil. In more Buddhist terms, much of the world's suffering
has been a result of our way of thinking about good and evil.
On the same day that Bush made his first pronouncement about ridding
the world of evil, the Washington Post quoted Joshua Teitelbaum,
a scholar who has studied the al-Qaeda movement: "Osama bin Laden
looks at the world in very stark, black-and-white terms. For him,
the U.S. represents the forces of evil that are bringing corruption
and domination into the Islamic world."
What is the difference between bin Laden's view and Bush's? They
are opposites, of course--in fact, mirror opposites. Let's look
at that Teitelbaum quote again, changing only a few names: "George
W. Bush looks at the world in very stark, black-and-white terms.
For him, al-Qaeda represents the forces of evil that are bringing
corruption and domination into the Western world." You're either
with us or against us.
What bin Laden sees as good--an Islamic jihad against an impious
imperialism--Bush sees as evil. What Bush sees as good--America the
defender of freedom and democracy--bin Laden sees as evil. That
makes them two different versions of the same holy-war-between-good-and-evil.
This is not to equate Bush's actions with those of bin Laden (although
I can appreciate why such an argument might be attempted, because
of the large number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan). Rather,
I am making a point about our ways of looking at the world, at
the spectacles bin Laden and Bush--and we--use to understand what
happens in it. From a Buddhist perspective, there is something
delusive about both sides of this mirror-image, and it is important
to understand how this black-and-white way of thinking brings more
suffering, more evil, into the world.
This dualism of good-versus-evil is attractive because it is a
simple way of looking at the world, and there will be more to say
about that later. Although it is certainly not unique to the Abrahamic
religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) I think this dualism
is one of the reasons why the conflicts among them have been so
difficult to resolve peacefully: believers tend to identify their
own religion as good and demonize the other faith or its adherents.
It is difficult to turn the other cheek when the world is viewed
through these spectacles, because this rationalizes the opposite
principle: an eye for an eye. If the world is a battleground of
good and evil forces, the evil that is in the world must be fought
and defeated by any means necessary.
I am not saying that this attitude represents the best of the
Abrahamic religions. There is another way to understand the war
between good and evil: to internalize it and psychologize it, as
the struggle that occurs within each of us when we try to live
up to the ideals of our own religion. This is the "greater jihad" or "internal
jihad" that most Muslims emphasize more than any externalized one.
Nevertheless, it is a tragic fact that many religious people--or
many people who believe themselves to be religious--have objectified
and projected this struggle as a struggle in the external world
between the good (most of all, their own religion) and evil (other
The secularization of the modern West has not eliminated this
tendency. In some ways it has intensified it, because we can no
longer rely on a supernatural resolution. We have to depend upon
ourselves to bring about the final victory of good over evil, as
Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong tried to do. It is unclear how much
help bin Laden and Bush have expected from God.
Perhaps the basic problem with this simplistic good-vs.-evil way
of understanding conflict is that, since it tends to preclude further
thought, it keeps us from looking deeper, from trying to discover
causes. Once something has been identified as evil, there is no
more need to explain it; it is time to focus on fighting against
it. Bin Laden and Bush seem to share this tendency. This is where
we can benefit from the different perspective of a non-Abrahamic
For Buddhism, evil, like everything else, has no essence or substance
of its own; it is a product of impermanent causes and conditions.
Buddhism emphasizes the concept of evil less than what it calls
the three roots of evil, or the three causes of evil, also known
as the three poisons: greed, ill will and delusion. Let me offer
what may be a controversial distinction: the Abrahamic religions
emphasize the struggle between good and evil because the basic
issue is usually understood to be our will: which side are we on?
In contrast, Buddhism emphasizes ignorance and enlightenment because
the basic issue depends on our self-knowledge: do we really understand
what motivates us?
One way to summarize the basic Buddhist teaching is that we suffer,
and cause others to suffer, because of greed, ill will and delusion.
Karma implies that when our actions are motivated by these roots
of evil, their negative consequences tend to rebound upon us. That
is true for everyone. However, the Buddhist solution to suffering
does not involve requiting violence with violence, any more than
it involves responding to greed with greed, or responding to delusion
with delusion. From a Buddhist perspective, one cannot find justice
for the deaths of some three thousand innocent people in New York
and Washington with a bombing campaign that leads to the death
of an even larger number of innocent Afghanis. Rather, the Buddhist
solution involves breaking that cycle by transforming greed into
generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, and delusions into wisdom.
What do these teachings imply now, in the aftermath of the September
To begin with, we cannot focus only on the second root of evil,
the hatred and violence that were directed against the United States.
The three roots are intertwined. Ill will cannot be separated from
greed and delusion; another's ill will toward us may be due to
their greed, but it may also be a result of our greed. This points
us toward the essential question that many of us have been wanting
to ask, but that others prefer to brush away or evade: why do so
many people in the Middle East, in particular, hate the United
States so much? What have we done to encourage that hatred? This
is a crucial question that all the simpleminded rhetoric about "evil" has
tended to ignore or downplay. Undoubtedly, some fundamentalist
versions of Islam are also important factors; yet they are not
the only ones. We Americans usually think of America as the most
ardent defender of freedom and justice, but obviously that is not
the way many Muslims in the Middle East perceive us. Are they misinformed?
Are we? Or are both of us?
Does anybody think that we can send the USS New
Jersey to lob
Volkswagen-sized shells into Lebanese villages--Reagan, 1983--or
loose 'smart bombs' on civilians seeking shelter in a Baghdad bunker--Bush,
1991--or fire cruise missiles on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory--Clinton,
1999--and not receive, someday, our share in kind? [Micah Sifry]
More precisely, how much of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle
East has been motivated by our love of freedom and democracy, and
how much by our need--our greed--for its oil? (How did "our" oil
get into "their" wells?) If the main priority has been securing
oil supplies, and if we have sacrificed other, more democratic
concerns for access to that resource, does it mean that our petroleum-based
economy is one of the causes of the September attacks?
Buddhist teachings imply that we should focus especially on the
role of delusion in creating this situation. Delusion has a special
meaning in Buddhism. The fundamental delusion is our sense of separation
from the world we are "in," including our separation from other
people. Insofar as we feel separate from others, we are more inclined
to manipulate them to get what we want. This naturally breeds resentment:
both from others, who do not like to be used, and within ourselves,
when we do not get what we want. . . . Isn't this also true collectively?
The delusion of separation becomes wisdom when we realize that "no
one is an island." We are interdependent because we are all part
of each other, different facets of the same jewel we call the earth.
This world is a not a collection of objects but a community of
subjects, a web of interacting processes. Our "interpermeation" means
we cannot avoid responsibility for each other. This is true not
only for the residents of lower Manhattan, many of whom worked
together in response to the WTC catastrophe, but for all people
in the world, how-ever hate-filled and deluded they may be . .
. including even the terrorists who did these horrific acts, and
all those who support them.
Christians are urged to distinguish the sinner from the sin. This
attitude is also quite Buddhist. I do not know how greedy bin Laden
and the other al-Qaeda leaders are, but they certainly seem to
be extreme examples of how ill will and delusion can overwhelm
the mind. Nevertheless, from a Buddhist perspective they still
have Buddha-nature, which means that they still have the capacity
to under-stand how evil their actions have been, and to try to
atone for them. We know that such an awakening is unlikely to occur,
and in fact bin Laden and most of the other al-Qaeda leaders may
well be dead by the time you read these words. That fate, however,
is not something for Buddhists to celebrate, but will be yet another
occasion to mourn, in that case for the karmic consequences for
them-selves, too, of their ignorance and deadly hatred.
Do not misunderstand me here. Of course those responsible for
the attacks must be caught and brought to justice. That is part
of our responsibility to those who have suffered. We also have
a duty to stop all other deluded and hate-filled terrorists. If,
however, we want to stop this cycle of hatred and violence, we
must realize that our responsibility is much broader than that.
Realizing our interdependence and mutual responsibility for each
other implies something more than just an insight or intellectual
awareness. When we try to live the way this interdependence implies,
it is called love. Such love is much more than a feeling; perhaps
it is best understood as a mode of being in the world. Buddhist
texts emphasize compassion, generosity, and loving-kindness, and
they all reflect this mode, being different aspects of love. Such
love is sometimes mocked as weak and ineffectual, yet it can be
very powerful, as Gandhi showed. It embodies a deep wisdom about
how the cycle of hatred and violence works, and about how that
cycle can be ended. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,
but there is an alternative. Twenty-five hundred years ago Shakyamuni
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed
me"--for those who harbour such thoughts ill-will will never
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me"--for
those who do not harbour such thoughts ill-will will cease.
In this world hatred is never appeased by ill-will; ill-will is
always appeased by love. This is an ancient law. [Dhammapada, vv.
3-5, trans. altered]
The present Dalai Lama emphasizes the necessity for 'internal
disarmament' (in Chappell, 190). For genuine peace--which is much
more than the absence of overt violence--such internal disarmament
is as important as external disarmament, and this involves taming
the greed, ill will and delusion in the minds of all those involved,
starting with ourselves. It is not possible to work toward peace
in a confrontational, antagonistic way.
Certainly, this insight is not unique to Buddhism. It was not
the Buddha who gave us the powerful image of turning the other
cheek when we have been struck. In all the Abrahamic religions
the tradition of a holy war between good and evil co-exists with
this "ancient law" about the power of love. That does not mean
all the world's religions have emphasized this law to the same
extent. May-be this is one way to measure the maturity of a religion,
or at least its continuing relevance for us now by how much the
truth of this transformative law about love is acknowledged and
encouraged. Given our much greater technological powers today,
our much greater ability to destroy each other, we need this truth
more than ever.
What does all this imply about the new situation created by the
terrorist attacks? We are at an historic turning point. A desire
for vengeance and violent retaliation has arisen, fanned by a leader
caught up in his own rhetoric of a holy war to purify the world
of evil... Now, please consider: does the previous sentence describe
bin Laden, or President Bush? The al-Qaeda network, or the response
of the U.S. government?
Many people wanted retaliation and vengeance --well, that seems
to be what the terrorists also wanted. If we continue along the
path of large-scale violence, bin Laden's war and Bush's war will
become two sides of the same escalating holy war.
No one can foresee all the consequences of such a war. They are
likely to spin out of control and take on a life of their own.
However, one sobering effect is clearly implied by the Buddha's "ancient
law": it is already apparent that massive retaliation by the United
States is spawning a new generation of suicidal terrorists, who
will be eager to do their part in this holy war.
Yet widespread violence is not the only possibility. If this time
of crisis encourages us to see through the rhetoric of a war to
exterminate evil, and if we seek to understand the intertwined
roots of this evil, including our own responsibilities, then perhaps
something good may yet come out of this horrible tragedy.
Good vs. Evil
More or less everything above is from a "Buddhist response" emailed
to many people a week after the September 11th attacks. Afterwards
I found myself reflecting more generally on the problematic duality
between good and evil: first considering how that way of thinking
deludes us, and then asking what alternative perspective might
give us better insight into the cycle of suffering, ill will and
Because enlightenment or "awakening" requires mindfulness of our
ways of thinking, Buddhism encourages us to be wary of antithetical
concepts: not only good and evil, but success and failure, rich
and poor, and even the Buddhist duality between enlightenment and
delusion. We distinguish between such opposing terms because we
want one rather than the other, yet psychologically as well as
logically we cannot have one without the other since the meaning
of each depends upon the other. That sounds abstract, but such
dualities are actually quite troublesome for us. For example, if
it is important for me to live a pure life (however purity is understood),
then my life will be preoccupied with (avoiding) impurity. If becoming
wealthy is the most important thing for me, then I am equally worried
by the prospect of poverty. We cannot take one lens without the
other, and such pairs of spectacles filter and distort our experience
of the world: because we focus too much on some aspects we are
unable to perceive and appreciate others. If "wealth/poverty" becomes
the most important category I use to understand and react to the
world, I tend to see all situations in those terms.
What does this mean for the duality of good versus evil? Perhaps
the most important way the interdependence of good and evil shows
itself is that we don't know what is good until we know what is
evil, and we don't feel we are good unless we are fighting against
that evil. We can feel comfortable and secure in our own goodness
only by attacking and destroying the evil outside us. St. George
needed that dragon in order to be St. George. His heroic identity
required it. And, sad to say but true, this is why so many of us
like wars: they cut through the petty problems of daily life, and
unite us good guys here against the bad guys over there. There
is fear in that, of course, but it is also exhilarating. The meaning
of life becomes clearer. The problems with my life, and yours,
are now over there.
That is one of the main reasons why the end of the Cold War created
a big problem in the United States, and not only in the military:
once Reagan's "evil empire" was history, people whose "goodness" depended
on its "badness" felt adrift. A new enemy was needed, but Grenada,
Panama and the war on drugs didn't really fill the shoes. This
new holy war on worldwide terrorism is much more promising, especially
since it seems that we won't ever be able to tell when or if we've
In mid-October 2001 the U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
said that the fight against terror will undoubtedly prove to be
a lot more like a cold war than a hot war. If you think about it,
the Cold War it took 50 years, plus or minus. It did not involve
major battles. It involved continuous pressure. It involved cooperation
by a host of nations. It involved the willingness of populations
in many countries to invest in it and sustain it. It took leadership
at the top from a number of countries that were willing to be principled
and to be courageous and to put things at risk; and when it ended,
it ended not with a bang, but through internal collapse [Time,
October 15, 2001, p.17].
Am I the only one who detects some nostalgia in this comparison?
Despite all the problems involved, it is reassuring to return to
the good old days. Now we know what needs to be done: to be courageous
and aggressive attacking the evil that is outside threatening us.
Everyone loves this struggle between good (us) and evil (them),
because it is, in its own fashion, quite satisfying. It makes sense
of the world. Think of the plot of every James Bond film, every
Star Wars film, every Indiana Jones film, etc. The bad guys are
caricatures: they're ruthless, maniacal, without remorse, so they
must be stopped by any means necessary. We are meant to feel that
it is okay--to tell the truth, it's pleasurable--to see violence
inflicted upon them. Because the villains like to hurt people,
it's okay to hurt them. Because they like to kill people, it is
okay to kill them. After all, they are evil and evil must be destroyed.
What is this kind of story really teaching us? That if you want
to hurt someone, it is important to demonize them first: in other
words, to fit them into your good-vs.-evil script. Even school
bullies usually begin by looking for some petty offense (often
a perceived insult) that they can use to justify their own violence.
That is why the first casualty of all wars is truth: the media
must "sell" this script to the people.
As this suggests, such stories are much more than entertainment.
In order to live, we need air, water, food, clothes, shelter, friends--and
we need these stories, because they teach us what is important
in life. They are our myths. They give us models of how to live
in a complicated and confusing world. Until the last hundred years
or so, the most important stories for most people have been religious:
the life of Jesus or Mohammed or the Buddha, and the lives of their
followers, etc. Theologians and philosophers may like arguing over
concepts and dogmas, but for most people it is the stories that
are important: the Easter passion, the Prophet in exile, the future
Buddha deciding to leave home...
Today, however, the issue is not usually whether a story is an
ennobling one, a good myth to live by, but the bottom line: will
it sell? You don't need to be religious to wonder how much of an
improvement that is.
Disney's very successful--that is, very profitable --Lion King film
contrasts the noble ruler of the animals, his loving wife and their
innocent cub Simba, all on the good side, with Simba's evil uncle.
The uncle hatches a plot to kill the king and eliminate Simba,
who escapes but eventually returns to fight the uncle, etc. All
very predictable and boring, although often beautiful visually.
In Japan Lion King was featured in cinemas at the same time as
Princess Mononoke, an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess
Mononoke, turned out to be more popular, breaking all attendance
records. One of the striking things about this film--in fact about
many of Miyazaki's wonderful films--is the way it avoids any simple
duality between good and evil. In Princess Mononoke, for example,
people do bad things, not because their nature is evil, but because
they are complicated: sometimes selfish and greedy, and sometimes
just so narrowly focused on what they are doing that they do not
see the wider implications of their actions.
I do not know if Miyazaki considers himself a Buddhist, but his
films seem to be so. Compare the following passage from the Sutta
Nipata, an early Buddhist sutra, where Ajita asks of the Buddha, "What
is it that smothers the world? What makes the world so hard to
see? What would you say pollutes the world and threatens it most?" Notice
that his response makes no reference to evil:
"It is ignorance which smothers," the Buddha replies, "and it
is heedlessness and greed which make the world invisible. The hunger
of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the
pain of suffering."
"In every direction," said Ajita , "the rivers of desire
are running. How can we dam them, and what will hold them back?
What can we use to close the flood-gates?"
"Any such river can be halted with the dam of mindful awareness," said
the Buddha. "I call it the flood-stopper. And with wisdom you can
close the flood-gates." [Sutta Nipata, vv. 1032-1036]
A Better Duality?
What alternative is there, if we try to avoid the simplistic duality
between good and evil as our way of understanding and evaluating
the world? Is it enough to talk about the three roots of evil,
or can we say something more about their origins? If greed, ill-will
and delusion can be transformed into generosity, loving kindness
and wisdom, it seems to suggest that these two ways of living are
different angles on the same thing, divergent responses to the
same situation. What is that situation?
I think we do better to distinguish between two basic modes of
being in the world, two different ways of responding to the uncertainty--the
death-haunted insecurity--of our life in the world. This insecurity
involves not only the impermanence of our circumstances (the fact
that everything is changing all the time) but the fragility of
our own constructed identities (that "everything changing all the
time" includes our sense-of-self).
One mode of being in the world involves trying to stabilize ourselves
by controlling and fixating the world we are in, so that it becomes
less threatening and more amenable to our will. The other mode
involves a very different strategy, giving priority to opening
ourselves up to the world and a greater acceptance of the open-ended
impermanence of our existence. That means not allowing our concern
for controlling the world to dominate the way we respond to the
Both of these involve a quest for security, but they seek that
security in very different ways, be-cause they understand the nature
and source of security differently. Security is from the combination
of the Latin words se and cura, literally "without care"--that is,
the condition where I can live without care, where my life is not
preoccupied with worrying about my life. We can try to achieve
such a condition by completely controlling our world, yet there
are other ways to be "without care," which involve a greater trust
or faith in the world itself. The first way is more dualistic:
I try to manipulate the world in order to fixate my situation,
including my own sense of who I am. The second way is more nondual:
greater openness to the world is possible because that world is
perceived as less threatening and more welcoming, so my own boundaries
can be more permeable.
The best terms that I can think of for these two modes of being
are fear and love. Notice that, despite the tension between them
in our lives, they are not antitheses in the way that good/evil,
rich/poor, high/low, etc., are; the meaning of each is not the
opposite of the other. Fear and love are not a pair of spectacles
to be put on or taken off. If I am right that these are the two
most basic modes of being in the world, the choice between them,
or proportion between them, is the basic challenge that confronts
each of us as we mature. This choice is nothing new to psychologists,
of course, and a contemporary psychotherapist, Mel Schwartz, has
expressed it better than I can:
Contrary to what we may believe there are only two authentic core
emotions; they are love and fear. Other emotions are secondary
and are typically masks for fear. Of these, anger is very common.
Although we may have come to regard anger as a source emotion,
it is really a smokescreen for fear. When we look at our anger,
we can always find fear buried beneath it. In our culture we are
trained to believe that it's unwise to show fear. We erroneously
believe that expressing such vulnerability will permit others to
take advantage of us. Yet the fear is there nonetheless.
In the film Princess Mononoke the main protagonists display plenty
of greed, ill-will and delusion, but it is not difficult to detect
the fear that underlies them. The major conflict is between two
powerful women, both attractively presented, who want to kill each
other. Lady Eboshi, the benevolent ruler of Irontown, is destroying
the forest to mine the iron ore she needs for making muskets and
bullets; these weapons are both Irontown's source of income and
its means of defense against predatory warlords. Young Mononoke,
raised by an enormous white wolf god, wants to kill Eboshi to defend
against the rape of the forest. Each side fears what the other
side is trying to do to them. Like Bush and bin Laden, the hatred
and aggression of each is a mirror-image of the other. During the
climax, an extraordinarily violent battle between them, another
warlord also attacks Irontown, encouraged by the Emperor, who craves
the head of the Great Forest Spirit, because a legend says that
head can confer immortality on whoever gets it. This last motivation
is not much developed in the film, but it reminds us of perhaps
our greatest fear, and perhaps the one that interferes most with
our ability to be open to the world.
How much better it would be, for example, if the Israel-Palestine
conflict were understood in these terms! Not as a holy war between
good and evil, but as a tragic cycle of reciprocal violence and
hatred fuelled by a vicious cycle of escalating fear on both sides.
Israelis fear that they will never be able to live at peace, believing
that Palestinians are determined to destroy them. Palestinians,
impoverished by Israeli control over their own communities and
dominated by its U.S.-supplied military, strike back in the only
way they can.
Needless to say, Schwartz's point about anger as a smokescreen
for fear is also very pertinent for understanding the after-math
of September 11th. The United States is not used to being attacked,
and the disempowering fear that ensued was not something most people
were prepared to cope with. In such a case, the collective conversion
into national anger, and a reciprocal act of aggression against
Afghanistan or some such country, was inevitable. We knew somebody
was going to get bombed.
And what is al-Qaeda's anger a smokescreen for? What fear cowers
behind their horrific desire for violence and mass destruction?
It has been widely reported that bin Laden is offended by the U.S.
military presence in Saudi Arabia, Islam's holy land, yet that
is only the tip of a much more problematical iceberg. Al-Qaeda
has widespread support among poor Muslims--now more than ever --because
it is seen as defending Islam against the globalizing West.
Although the relationship between Islam and Western-led modernity
is a complicated issue, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion
that Islam needs to reform in order to become more compatible with
the modern world. That is not the only conclusion to be drawn,
however. Of all the major religions, Islam is probably the most
concerned with social justice, and therefore the most sensitive
to the great social injustices of Western colonialism and domination.
Allah is a merciful God but He is also a God of justice and will
judge us harshly if we do not accept personal and collective responsibility
for the less fortunate. Islam believes that everything really belongs
to God, and material things should be used as God wishes them to
be used. This means not hoarding but sharing with others who need
them. That is why the capitalist idea of using capital to gain
ever more capital--you can never have too much!--is foreign, even
reprehensible, to many devout Muslims. For example, the often-quoted
Surah 102:1 of the Qur'an declares that "The mutual rivalry for
piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the
more serious things)" and Surah 92:18 praises "Those who spend
their wealth for increase in self-purification."
By adapting so well to the modern world of secular nationalism,
capitalism and consumerism, the West has learned to finesse such
concerns. Islam is less willing to accept such equivocations, because
it recognizes no God above Allah. And recent controversies over
the World Trade Organization and other institutions of economic
globalisation remind us that the era of colonialism is far from
over. Bin Laden's own Saudi Arabia is a good example: created by
the British after the first world war, now in the U.S. "sphere
of interest," it has one of the most oppressive, undemocratic and
hypo-critical governments in the world--but we in the U.S. hear
almost nothing about that reality, and we never will, until the
day the U.S. government decides it is necessary to replace that
government to keep the oil flowing.
So do poor Muslims around the world have reason to fear and hate
the U.S.? Of course they do, and all the more after the aggression
in Afghanistan. That military reaction to September 11th invites
the same response as in the Middle East, where every Israeli assassination
invites a Palestinian suicide attack, and vice-versa.
Needless to say, viewing the conflict in these terms--not good
vs. evil but reciprocal cycles of escalating fear and aggression--does
not offer us any simple solution. Mutual fear and hatred between
Israelis and Palestinians has been brewing for generations and
will not easily be defused. Yet this perspective offers us the
hope for a solution, which present policies of mutual retaliation
obviously do not. What has been created can be undone, if each
side makes efforts for "internal disarmament" and also accepts
responsibility for addressing the fear in the heart of the other
The same is true for the new holy war between aggrieved Muslims
and the United States. In this case, I think it will become necessary
to address the even larger issue of social justice around the world,
and whether the United States is going to be part of the solution
rather than part of the problem.
We may wonder if this is a realistic possibility in the foreseeable
future, especially given the quality of leadership on most sides.
From a Buddhist perspective, then, the first issue becomes whether
the duality of good vs. evil can be more widely perceived as delusive,
and whether the more insightful duality between fear and love can
become more widely acknowledged.
Does this choice between fear and love provide us with a modern
vocabulary to express the basic message of both Christianity and
The sangha community of monks and nuns founded by Shakyamuni Buddha
eventually be-came settled and wealthy, but originally they were
a motley crew of wandering mendicants, with almost no possessions
except robes and begging bowl. The Buddha sent them out one by
one in all directions to preach the Dharma, in a manner strikingly
reminiscent of the way Jesus charged his apostles to go out and
preach that "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand": "Take nothing for
your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, and do not
have two tunics" [Matthew 9:3]. What were both teachers saying?
Don't worry about yourself, about how you will live, what you will
eat; just do the best you can spreading the word and have faith
that you will be taken care of. In other words, let go of your
fears about yourself. Instead, open up to the world and live a
life of love focused on giving to the world rather than taking
from it, trusting in the world rather than always trying to protect
yourself from it.
There are many such passages in the gospels, especially in the
Sermon on the Mount. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on
earth" [Matt. 6:19]; "Do not be anxious about your life, what you
shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you
shall put on. . . . Look at the birds of the air: they neither
sow nor reap nor gather into barns . . . Consider the lilies of
the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, and yet your
heavenly Father takes care of them" [Matt. 6:25-29]. And what did
Jesus tell the rich young man? "'If you would be perfect, go, sell
what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure
in heaven; and come, follow me.' But the young man went away sorrowful,
for he was very rich" [Matt. 19:16-22].
Perhaps the most remarkable Gospel passage of all, from a Buddhist
perspective, elaborates upon this teaching of salvation through
insecurity. Jesus declares that any disciple who loves his father
or mother or son or daughter more than him is not worthy of him;
even family attachments should not keep us from following the path.
(Becoming a monk in Buddhism is also known as "leaving home.")
This apparently cruel verse is immediately followed by one of the
most wonderful verses of all: "He who finds his life will lose
it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt.
10:37-39). This encourages us to follow the personal example of
Jesus, who "emptied himself" (kenosis) [Phil.2:5-11].
There are different ways to understand that emptying, but as a
Zen Buddhist I am reminded of the 13th century Japanese Zen master
Dogen, who wrote something that resonates in much the same way: "To
study Buddhism is to study yourself; to study yourself is to forget
yourself; to forget yourself is to be awakened and realize your
intimacy with all things." The fruit of the Buddhist path, the
end of a life organized around fear, is to lose and empty yourself
by forgetting yourself, which is also to find your true self: not
an alienated self threatened by the world and trying to secure
itself in defense against those anxieties, but a nondual self that
knows itself to be an expression or a manifestation of the world.
Both religious traditions encourage us to live in this way, and
not necessarily because of what will happen to us after we die.
This encouragement is often understood in terms of some heavenly
reward that we can get in an afterlife (better karma in a future
rebirth, or an eternity with God in heaven), which caters to our
fear of mortality. But there is another way to understand both
nirvana and the kingdom of heaven if, as Augustine put it, God
is closer to me than I am to myself. Then forgetting/ losing myself
is a way to realize the Buddha-nature or divinity at the core of
my being right now, so that "not I but Christ lives in me" (Gal.
2:20). From the usual perspective obsessed with securing ourselves,
forgetting myself or losing myself seems the supreme foolishness;
but from a more spiritual view-point it can lead to the greatest
security, a life without care" because if we have truly emptied
ourselves and died to ourselves then there is no longer anyone
left to die, no longer any alienated self to worry about death.
Then we should live a life of love, not because of hope for some
afterlife reward (though I do not mean to deny the possibility
of survival in some form), but because (as Spinoza would put it)
a way of life oriented on love is its own reward. Both modes of
living--fear and love--involve reinforcing feedback systems that
tend to incorporate other people. The more I manipulate the world
to get what I want from it, the more separate and alienated I feel
from it, and the more separate others feel from me, when they recognize
that they have been manipulated. This mutual distrust encourages
both sides to manipulate more. On the other hand, the more I can
relax and open up to the world, trusting it and accepting the responsibility
that involves responding to its needs--which is what loving it means--the
more I feel a part of it, at one with other people; and consequently,
others become more inclined to trust and open up to me.
The final word I have to offer on this choice is neither Christian
nor Buddhist, reminding us that no religious traditions have a
monopoly on this wisdom. It is an uncredited story (I could not
trace its source) that was included in an email I received after
A Native American grandfather was talking to his grandson about
how he felt about the tragedy on September 11th.
He said, "I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my
heart. One wolf is vengeful, angry, violent. The other wolf is
loving, forgiving, compassionate."
The grandson asked him, "Which wolf will win the fight
in your heart?"
The grandfather answered, "The one I feed."
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, trans., The Meaning
of the Holy Qur'an, 5th
ed. (Brentwood, Maryland: Amana Corporation, 1993).
Chappell, David W., Buddhist Peacework:
Creating Cultures of Peace.
(Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1999).
The Dhammapada, (Bombay: Theosophy Company, 1976).
Fish, Stanley, The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1999).
Gandhi, Mohandas K., An Autobiography (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).
Gyatso, Tenzin, the 14th Dalai Lama, "Dialogue on Religion and
Peace" in Chappell, pp. 189-197.
Nipata, V. 1, Ajita-manava-puccha "Ajita's Questions," vv.