The simple answer is that they don’t. For Buddhism, it’s the problem of desire. Christianity has the problem, not Buddhism. Why is this? Buddhism starts with the problem of evil, suffering or “dukkha,” as its first statement of faith in the four noble truths. However, it is not the problem we think. Buddhism concedes that suffering or evil is what life is made of. It does not begin with an all powerful and good God, and the ensuing moral and logical entailments. In fact, in Buddhism, the question of God’s existence is not raise. Buddhism begins from a different starting point, suffering, not God’s existence.
So how is suffering, inflicted by both man and nature, understood by a Buddhist?
It starts by what cannot be said. The Buddha, the one who is awake and attained Nirvana, the extinguishing of desires, had an experience that does not fit the categories of language. So even the Buddha’s own attempts, and especially mine, to describe the unexplainable will come short of the real thing. That said, language can lead us to an understanding of Buddhism, however imperfect.
Understanding Buddhism begins with its historical context. Buddhism developed as a response to the social evils of Buddha’s day against the prevailing corruptions of Hinduism, a kind of protestant reformation in response to 16th century Catholicism. For Buddha, it was the corruption and abuse of the Brahmins hold on religious teachings, and a challenge to the individual to think clearly about his own religious values. Buddha‘s enlightenment and message was aimed in part at the power structures of his day. He argues logically for a belief without authority, ritual, speculation, and tradition as a response to the religious and social cast. Instead, he preaches a religion of self effort, lacking grace which calls the individual to action. As self effort, Buddhism is a religion of discipline that diminishes personal ego. This leads to an awakening, a state of Nirvana or the extinguishing of desire, and shapes the Buddha preaching to transform the social evils of his time.
So, how does one extinguishing desire?
It begins with the four noble truths. These truths are Buddha’s insights aimed at life’s most troubling problem, suffering. The first truth is that life is suffering, or “dukkha.” This is not philosophical skepticism by the Buddha, but a simple observation or assessment of life. For most us who have lived long enough, it’s intuitive, as we’ve seen too much in our own lives and the plight of others to know that life is a struggle of varying degrees. The Buddha describes suffering as dislocation and outlines six points of common dislocation (suffering or evil) that all men and women share:
1. The pain at birth
2. The pathology of sickness
3. The morbidity of decay
4. The fear of death
5. Being bond to what one dislikes (ie disease or defects)
6. Being separated from what one loves
The second noble truth identifies the cause of suffering or dislocation, desire or “tanha.” This is best described as egotistical desires, because not all desire is bad, like the desire for happiness or liberation of others. Desire as the personal fulfillment for the ego is a kind of bondage that we live in. The Buddha’s teaching is very foreign to the Western mind. It is at the opposite spectrum of our more current popular Darwinian values, nor is exactly the kind of philosophical thinking that would produce the US Declaration of Independence. But, it is a very powerful insight into the human condition. “Tanha” is more than just desire, it is also a force that ruptures our desires and helps us pull back from our egotistical pursuits. For those philosophers in the audience, Tanha may have been the Buddha’s response to Descartes problem of the ego. Even the Book of Geneses links the problem of ego in the garden to sin and evil in this world.
For Buddha, suffering describes a failure to link ourselves to the destiny of the whole. When we look at a group picture, who do we see first? Ourselves, of course! Herein lies the problem, individualism, or the simple inclination to focus on ourselves imprisons us to a life of suffering. We don’t think about the whole group first, but me first. So, the third noble truth follows from the second, the cure, the overcoming of life as desire. The forth noble prescribes the path to overcoming, the Eightfold path, a series of disciplines or working out of one’s awakening or salvation from desire to Nirvana.
To bring our thoughts full circle, the problem for Buddhism is not evil, but desire. The Buddha concedes evil or suffering as an observation of the world. Buddha’s next logical step describes the cause or source of the problem. Suffering exists and has its roots in desire or dislocation. Life’s pains are tied to our own egotistical perceptions of ourselves. This may sound simplest, but not so in Buddhism.
So how does a Buddhist interpert and engage the sufferings or evils of this world?
How does a Buddhist see a holocaust or a Hitler? What about The Peoples Revolution and Chairman Mau, or even natural disasters? Simply put, he sees suffering as the corruption of desires. Not an easy thing to say to a holocaust victim. The remedy lies in the method to extinguish desire and the Eightfold Path. It’s a mindset change, and allot of personal and physical discipline to get there. The Eightfold path is how a Buddhist monk works outs his path to Nirvana. It has bread a variety of worldwide monastic movements from Zen to the Dalai Lama. For these reasons, a Buddhist lives a simple life, a prescription for evil but not a prescription for the fuel of capitalism that Adam Smith could depend on to build a free market economy (ego is good in Capitalism). Part of the attraction of Buddhism in the West is its confrontation of materialism as a root problem for suffering or empty lives.
So how does one evaluate Buddhism from the Western world?
From a secularist point of view, you can’t. The Secularist version of tolerance, generally speaking, states that you can’t adjudicate or judge between religious faiths. Not only is this uninteresting, but very problematic, as it presupposes no criteria for evil, so societies like Hitler’s Fascist state, Stalin’s Communism, or Mao’s People’s Revolution, or any other societies that violate our Western perceptions of human rights cannot be judged apart from the value that “might is right.” That’s another story. However, for the Western Christian mind, there are elements in Buddhism to learn from, respected, and discern in our application of faith.
In many respects, Christians and Buddhists share the common diagnosis for evil, ego. Ego made its day beau in the Garden of Eden, and in the first crime of man against man, Cain and Able. And, in its history, Christianity has recognized the Buddhist solution, the overcoming of desire. Christianity own rich traditions in Monastic and lay movements have sought the betterment of societies through reflection and values as well as education and health. Much can be learnt from the Buddhist insight into ego, the Eightfold Path, against our own narcissistic western cultural behaviors of consumption. Unfortunately, the western Christian has lost is dialogue with its own monasticism, its understanding of vice and virtue as root causes for evil as found in the Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps, in the Buddhist tradition, Western Christianity has become tainted with evil (our egotistical inclinations), although I believe they would be too polite to say so. The height of our narcissism is heard in the 9/11 tragedy. We confront suffering and evil with shopping. I don’t recall shopping in either the Eightfold Path or the Sermon on the Mount!
There is a discerning point that differentiates Christianity from Buddhism in the on the ground engagement with evil and suffering. Buddhism is essentially a monastic movement whose call, with sectarian variety, is based on the Eightfold Path. And although it softens the ego in man, and makes for some extremely nice people (Larry Ellison of Oracle excluded), it does not return them back into society with same aggressive social reforms that Christianity has done. Not that Buddhist aren’t people of social reform, as recently seen in Nepal, but their primary occupation is with the Eightfold Path, attainment of Nivarna, and other factors like Karma. Part of the extinguishing of desire can be to engage in acts of compassion and care for the other. But it does not return its devotees back into the world with the same force as a Christian to address the immediate needs of the individual. This is generalization, which means there are exceptions, but it is a true one.
Now, it could be argued the Christians occupation is with heaven, and that its global missionary movement and good works could be reduced to hegemony and imperialism. These popular, but statistically untrue statements are the superficial understandings and conjecture of Secularism in the Western academy as debunked by such scholars as the Yale historian, Sanneh Lamin . Although in Christianity, heaven is a goal, it is not the primary goal. Heaven is the destination, but not the journey. For the Hebrew God, Yahweh, the primary concern has always been for the under belly of society. All men, who share the imago dei, the image of God in man, have inalienable human rights anchored in this common identity, that within us, God exist and we affront Him with social and economic injustices. The encounter with God returns the Christian back into this world with a passion for human rights and the forgiveness he or she has been given by God (i.e. John Newton, Amazing Grace and the abolition of the slave trade). The climax of this encounter is God becoming man, in this world, in Jesus Christ demonstrating the supremacy of all human life. However, such an event does raises the questions of evil and God’s goodness and power. Better to have this problem than not (can you say Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals).
Christians can learn much about the Buddha’s insight into ego and suffering. Unfortunately, the Christian record has its virtues linked to its vices (i.e. humility that is political pretense) whereas Buddhism history is not so checker by vice, its value as a monastic movement. Perhaps there is a middle ground between the two. Where the Buddhist can learn from social engagement and the liberating power of Christ in society, and, the Christian, from Buddhism about insight into egos, motives and manners.
Here are some closing thoughts on evil and world views:
For the Buddhist, it’s the problem of desire.
For the Secularist, it’s not a problem (especially a Darwinian Secularist).
For the Muslim, it is the will of God.
For the Hindu, it’s an illusion.
For the Jew/Christian, it’s their problem.