“What is evil? Killing is evil, lying is evil, slandering is evil, abuse is evil, gossip is evil, envy is evil, hatred is evil, to cling to false doctrine is evil; all these things are evil. And what is the root of evil? Desire is the root of evil; illusion is the root of evil.” – Gautama Buddha
“The healthy person does not torture others, generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.” – Carl Jung
As this is being written, great malevolent evil is unleashed in Ukraine. The werewolf of madness runs amok. It is not the only incidence of great evil in the world right now, but it is the worst and with the terrible potential to spread into a planetary catastrophe. This military onslaught with weapons of terrible destruction and individual actions of unspeakable cruelty are wantonly assaulting a people for the purpose of terror, done with intention, and it is its intentionality that separates this true malevolent evil from the ordinary evil of mere thoughtless violence.
I see violence as a uniquely human phenomenon. In Nature, there is the dynamic and balance of birth and death, creation and destruction. It is the energy and circle of life giving way to sustain and create life. I reserve the use of the idea of violence to humans, for there is a kind of destructive and harmful action generated by humans that does not occur elsewhere in Nature. Humans become violent for purposes and deficiencies of their specifically human egos, and violence is about the imposition of some ego-agenda that results in injury in some way, including to ourselves. This may be intended; it may be reflexive. It may be physical; it may be psychological. It is when physical or psychological violence is done with intention and callousness that it begins to be evil. When it is done on a great scale and with truly malevolent intention and terrible, widespread harm, it is morphing into terrible great evil.
Evil is a particularly poisonous expression of the human ego’s insatiable need to compete, possess, dominate, control, use, and consume for its own aggrandizement. In Ukraine this evil has exploded as the expression of Russian dictator Putin’s psychopathy against a neighboring state that at various times in history has shared nationhood with Russia. Putin, like a violent shunned spouse, seems to believe that if he cannot own this former partner, he will see her dead, or at the very least, horribly punished and terrorized for the offense of her rejection. This is evil, whether expressed through an international criminal despot against another nation or a single hateful individual against another.
This magnitude of evil is certainly not new. One of Putin’s predecessors, Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, was responsible for the deaths of at least four million Ukrainians by starvation in response to their urge toward independence in the 1930’s. Stalin likewise is held guilty of the deaths of upwards of twenty million Soviet citizens during his bloody, paranoid reign. Adolph Hitler and Pol Pot stand among the mega-murderers of the 20th century in a litany of mass murderers and genocidalists throughout human history scarred with the slaughter of innocents for greed, for power, for religion, and for perverted ideas of glory. Even we in the United States are not innocent, being guilty of the genocide of one race of people and the enslavement and subsequent prejudicial ill-treatment of another. Evil on the mass scale haunts human history. Genghis Khan’s hordes murdered of over 40 million people, roughly 10% of the world’s population at the time. Rome enslaved and murdered tens of millions during its reign. Putin is now joining history’s parade of monsters.
Yes, evil is in the world, from these vast scales down dimension through dimension of degree, into small scale, ubiquitous acts of violence – as local and individual as the spouse or child abuser living down the street, as subtle as a parent or teacher shaming a child or teaching bigotry. Evil is with us and always has been.
And there is another level of evil, which is not conscious or deliberate, and it infects all of human society. It can be found in the tendency to bigotry and the insatiable greed and callousness of modern commerce that is leading to global warming threatening to upend human civilization while bringing extinction to species after species. It goes on unnoticed as the industrial farming and slaughter of animals in conditions of terrible cruelty and the poison runoff of our megafarms and industries. It exists in an economy based in exploitation, of a wealthy class built upon the poverty of others, on deceit at the basis of marketing and politics. Wherever egos are scheming to gain some advantage over others, some manipulative control, some profit, or some elevation of itself at the expense of others, this is violence, and it is evil.
Some level of violence and evil could be said to be behind a great deal of human expression and action. It is certainly in shaming and in bigotry of any kind. It is in stealing and cheating, lying, and manipulating. It is in physical and psychological violence; it is in sexual assault, abuse, predation, and exploitation. Importantly, we are so acclimated to violence and evil that it is imperative that we look ever more closely at our interactions and commerce to see the everyday violence to which we have become desensitized. Just where does that meat on our plate come from and what experience did a conscious being suffer for it to get there? Where does the plastic we throw away go and to what consequence? What do you think is the effect of a busy parent ignoring their child until the child does something the parent considers wrong and then punishing and belittling the child? What consequence will there be to politicians inventing cultural wedge issues to gain power while the serious issues concerning how to build a fair and enduring society go ignored or even ridiculed? There is subtle violence in just the everyday common put-downs, dismissals, judging, prejudices, and ego competition amongst people. On and on, cruelty, insensitivity, exploitation. You see?
Our human society is filled with small and great evils. History and literature are filled with the drama of evil….. And it is likewise filled with human goodness confronting and overcoming evil. This interplay of good and evil could be said to be the hallmark of human social evolution. As I said, a great deal of human expression can be viewed as motivated by violence and evil, but so much more of human motivation and expression is based in goodness, in the intention to do good, and herein is the driving dynamic of human social, intellectual and spiritual evolution and the promise of salvation. As Jung said, torturers are but passing on their tortured selves. To recognize this and work to bring about an end to torture, to violence, every place and in every way that we can brings about a lessening of the propensity to violence and evil, to torture, in the world. Evil in the world is not a reason for despair. Rather, it is a call for goodness to rise.
Buddhism teaches us that greed, anger, and ignorance are the origin of evil, and so, it teaches that generosity, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, and the wisdom of karma are needed to counteract and displace evil with goodness. Karma is the cosmic law telling us that everything happens because of conditions bringing forth what happens. After WWI, the victorious Allies imposed draconian punishment upon a defeated Germany, further traumatizing a nation that had already been traumatized by the war. Historians generally agree that the conditions for the rise of fascism, Hitler and WWII were contained in the terms of Germany’s surrender written into the Treaty of Versailles. After WWII, the only great nation to escape horrible destruction was the United States, which through the wisdom and compassion of the Marshall Plan, rebuilt not only our allies, but Germany and Japan, welcoming them into the community of democracies. The shift from despotic nationalistic militarism and racial intolerance that marked Germany and Japan before the war into the models for democracy and tolerance that they became is an example of wisdom and goodness transforming ignorance and evil.
The one country that shifted from ally to enemy immediately after WWII was Soviet Russia, and none of the benevolence of the Marshall plan was extended to it – rather, the Marshall Plan, along with the creation of NATO, had as one of its goals the isolation of Russia from the world community. And so, the world moved into a new polarization of authoritarian communist nations in conflict with democratic capitalist nations. The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was hailed as a great victory for democracy and the West, but virtually no attention was given as to how to bring Russia into the modern democratic world. This huge nuclear armed country was largely left on its own to create a functioning capitalist democracy, and few countries exceed the experience of Russia and the Russian people as both victims and perpetrators of great evil. Now, Buddhism warns that karma would indicate that if the conditioning of a people for despotism and cruelty is strong, and there is no history of functioning democracy, wise and compassionate new conditions would need to be fostered for democracy to take hold. No such attention was given to Russia and in result Russia seems to have reverted to despotism, imperiling today not only its immediate neighbor, Ukraine, but possibly beyond. Certainly, for the people of Russia, a new era of abusive despotism seems at hand. The Western nations would do well to recognize the greed, anger, and ignorance of our own social, political, and economic systems which fail to see the world’s dangers and suffering for what and why they are. Evil is in the world, and it will require deliberate application of intentional wisdom, generosity, and compassion to counter it if we are to successfully navigate through and beyond the threats our modern world presents. Good and evil are in their ageless interplay, and when Buddhism calls upon us to awaken, it is goodness, compassion and wisdom that is being called upon to step up. Not only Ukraine’s future is at stake, but so is Russia’s, ours, and all the world.