The Source of Evil Is Not a Person or a Nation
A conversation with a Buddhist teacher from India turned to the Buddha’s illumination. “The Buddha,” he said authoritatively, “was attacked by Mara, but he came to see that the evil was within him.” “Do you mean to say that evil is only within the individual?” The Buddhist teacher was puzzled, but instead of questioning, he cleverly said, “There is no duality.” The problem of evil is a very hard philosophical nut, one that no philosopher, East or West, has cracked. Illuminating the nature and operation of evil has now become a matter of inward survival, and even the physical survival of humanity. An encounter I had with evil over 30 years ago in Russia taught me this in a way that nearly undid me. Invited to the Soviet Union two years before it fell, in January 1990, I’d flown to Moscow on business in mid-winter. Diplomatic relations were warming, though US citizens had only been allowed by the American government to stay with our Cold War enemies in their homes some months previous to my visit. Few of the many Russians I met had any previous contact with Americans before, but I was greeted with tremendous goodwill wherever I went. For two weeks I found the Russian people in the capital, and in what was still Leningrad, warm and hospitable. It was as though what my staunchly anti-communist mother often said when I was young had gone from her mouth to Russian ears: “When the Russians finally throw off the chains of communism, we Americans will be there to help them build a democracy and market.” My Russian partner and host had been touted as a leading businessman under Gorbachev’s perestroika. After a few nights in the bosom of Andrei’s family, I felt very at home in their spacious Moscow apartment, and was beginning to learn Russian. Even so, after we went out a few nights to the best restaurants that the average Russian never entered, I began to suspect that this fellow was a little too powerful. The dark-paneled places positively reeked of nomenklatura. One evening, after nearly two weeks in Russia staying with Andrei and his family, Andrei announced a special occasion — the 13th birthday of his eldest son. I was informed that marks the point of entry of a boy into manhood into Russian culture, which I found to be brutally male-dominated. We had an excellent dinner and enjoyable evening, which included a couple of drinks. (A drink in Russia is half a glass of vodka, followed by ritual toasting. Russians claim that the long toasts — little speeches really — keep them from becoming too inebriated.) On the way back I sat in the front with the driver, while Andrei, his wife Vera and their two boys sat in the backseat of the roomy car. Vera, who had very little English, incongruously said something about evil. Off the top of my inebriated head (a big mistake), I insouciantly said, “Evil can’t touch you if you remain with your fear.” Up to that moment, I had not felt a single pang of homesickness or fear in the culturally and metaphysically strange land of Soviet Russia. My feelings of warmth and fellowship were shattered the next moment. I heard a metallic voice, which seemed to emanate from a quarter-mile behind the car. It came through Andrei, and simply said, with a tone more malevolent than can be described, “Is that so?” I’d known strong fear before, but the instantaneous terror I felt was far greater than anything I’d ever experienced. Suddenly the bubble in which I had been floating burst. Before my eyes flashed scenes of incalculable suffering and death — scenes of gulags, of mass torture and executions. I felt like I’d been instantly transported to the backside of the moon, and was sure I would never get home. The grimy snow that lined Moscow’s grim streets brought up my darkest childhood memories growing up in the Midwest. Even the Stalinesque architecture, which appeared just ugly and remote to me before, seemed to speak of evil. Without thinking that I had better do what I said, I held fast to the fear, and rode it like a rollercoaster for the next half hour, unable to speak. The terror slowly passed, and I was changed. Shortly after I returned to California, a friend I attended philosophy grad school with asked what would have happened if I hadn’t done what I nonchalantly said to Vera. One of two things, I replied. Either I would have been shattered into a million pieces, or evil would have taken possession of me completely. It’s no longer possible to avoid collective darkness and evil. The accretion of darkness in human consciousness is leaving no space, destroying the earth and the human spirit. The source of evil can’t be placed in the individual, no matter how malevolent his actions, no matter how much death and suffering he initiates. Even people like Putin, and Bush (they have a moral equivalency with their unprovoked wars), as well as the deranged, derived malignancy of Trump, with his white Christian nationalist base waging war on blacks, Jews and women in America, are extreme conduits of evil, not the sources of it. We all have our own share of darkness, inherited from the generations before us, plus what we’ve absorbed from the culture and accumulated in our own lives — what we blithely call “baggage” or karma. The content of that dark matter, comprised of all the unresolved hurts and hatreds within us, has built up generation after generation. The totality of it in human consciousness is the collective darkness of humankind. The most impacted portion of man’s darkness has intentionality, which flows into and through depraved and inwardly weak individuals. Evil is not a cosmic phenomenon but a man-made reality. For our part, Americans either individualize evil or project it onto an enemy. That’s allowed collective darkness to grow in us as a people, has killed hundreds of thousands of people since the ostensible end of the Cold War, and helped bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. By acknowledging, questioning and remaining with the darkness within, one is constantly learning. That turns the tables on evil, since darkness dissolves in the light of insight.When even a small minority of people begins to live that way, evil will no longer rule the world.
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
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