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A Buddhist Response To The Boston Tragedy: No Such Thing As "Inherent Evil"

On a day of insanity and horror, one of the most heartwarming things for me was reading this passage in comedian Patton Oswalt's Facebook post about the Boston Marathon tragedy, which went viral on the social network: 

"This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago." 

We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. That line says it all. And a non-cynical comedian is a gift to the human race. :)


Anytime a terrorist strikes (as was the case in Boston and also in Iraq yesterday), it calls upon us to question what we truly believe about human nature. As a Buddhist, and especially as a Shambhala Buddhist, it is in times of difficulty when we want to  cast off beings as coming from some inherently screwed-up pit of darkness, we call upon our trust and experience (not blind faith, never blind faith) in Buddha Nature and Basic Goodness, the foundation of all sentient beings' hearts and minds.

Let me be clear: just because we don't believe in evil, doesn't mean we don't believe in confusion and insanity. Confusion is incredibly real. We live in a violent world, and we need to transform it. Proclaiming that even a terrorist has Buddha-Nature is not an excuse for behavior, ever. Basic Goodness has absolutely nothing to do with some shrugging naive tsatement like "it's all good." It's all good doesn't really explain the things that people do, at all. But calling someone evil and casting them off forever is a recipe for never understanding the causes and conditions that brought insane behavior into existence in the first place. Calling something evil ends all discussion, and ensures that the insanity will occur again. This is the cyclically destructive nature of samsara. If we want to live in a world without violence and avoidable tragedy, we have to get to the root of the  difficult and ongoing work of understanding why tragedy happens, why our world is so violent. The only way to understand is to begin with the attitude that there is something worthy of understanding, someone worthy of understanding. There is no enabling in wanting to understand. Actually, understanding is always the necessary first step to changing the way the world functions. Without understanding, there can be no peace. The word "evil" understands and explains precisely nothing. It only enables more insanity.

Let's please not use it here.

We live in an incredibly violent world, and unnecessarily so. But as Patton points out it could be much worse if we were inherently selfish or evil.

May all affected by the Boston tragedy and all affected by violence in this world, know peace.

(follow Ethan on Facebook or Twitter or visit his website)

(photo via hollywoodreporter.com)

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Thank You

Hi Ethan,

thanks for this response and clarification regarding the buddhist view of "evil" deeds. In fact that is one area where I have been struggling with the buddhist viewpoint for a while now since I usually react rather strongly emotionally when confronted with deeds like this and feel like the perpetrators surely deserve whatever punishment is coming their way.
In fact, did you read Brad Warner's piece on this on http://hardcorezen.info/buddhism-and-blowing-up-the-boston-marathon/1825 (just the lower part under "* * *")? On the one hand this seems to contradict your piece somewhat. On the other hand I kind of agree with both views, if that makes sense.

Cheers and a peaceful day for all,

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