On Sunday, we used a quote from David R. Loy’s piece, “The Nonduality of Good and Evil” as the day’s Daily Dharma. I then posted this excerpt to our Facebook page,
If you want to hurt someone, it is important to demonize them first—in other words, fit them into your good-versus-evil story. That is why the first casualty of all wars is truth.
In response, one woman on Facebook wrote,
How do I overcome that tendency toward Sarah Palin when everytime I see her she is demonizing everyone that doesn’t fit her mold. She offends me deeply and I cannot see her as anything but evil. A strong sense of hatred rushes thru my body… and I don’t know how to let that go. I get nonduality otherwise, and have no issue with anyone else, but that woman, I don’t know how to let the strong feelings of hatred that over take me when I think of her. I have tried not thinking about her, turning the tv and radio off, meditating on it, but even in my most peaceful, blissful day, when she comes up (and she is everywhere), I want to kick her in the face. Advise please.
to which one person responded,
Honey, I suffer the same affliction. If you do metta practice though, I’d try putting her in there. Think of her as a teacher; recommit to your own values (as many of us who are not on the far right need to now more than ever.)
What helps me is to start by considering what I have in common with someone like that: We are both subject to sickness, suffering, and death. We both want to be happy. We have both experienced yearning and disappointment. And probably we both want to make the world a better place – even if we have very different notions of what that means and how to accomplish it. By connecting at this fundamental level, it is much easier to cultivate compassion. It is also helpful to consider that the unskillful things that others do are most likely rooted in their own ignorance and suffering, and we can have compassion for that and wish that they be free from it.
I think these responses are great.
I began to contemplate this woman’s statement and found that there was something from my own experience that I wanted to add. Growing up as a second-generation Western Buddhist, I recall the word “kleśa” being thrown around a lot, so much so in fact, that it was one of the Buddhist terms that I didn’t realize wasn’t English until I was grown.
As defined by Wikipedia,
The Buddhist term kilesa (Pali; Sanskrit: kleśa or klesha) is typically translated as “defilement,” “affliction” or “poison.” In Japanese the term Bonno can be translated as worldly desires. In early Buddhist texts the kilesas generally referred to mental states which temporarily cloud the mind and manifest in unskillful actions. Over time the kilesas, and in particular the “Three Poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion, came to be seen as the very roots of samsaric existence.
I’ve also heard it defined as “obstruction” which I believe is a more common definition within yogic contexts.
In my family, the definition used was “poison.” I was taught that when neurosis takes root deep enough in one’s psyche and habitual patterns, it can literally solidify into a toxic poison. This is not some kind of teaching metaphor. Just as the physical sickness one feels after ingesting arsenic or cyanide is real, the samsaric sickness that is a result of greed, hatred, and delusion is real.
So, while as a Buddhist I have sometimes been frustrated with the idea of “evil” that is prevalent in cultures where Abrahamic religions are dominant, I do very much believe in kleśas. In fact, in many cases I believe the two words are perfectly interchangeable.
However, there are some differences.
While the Western conception of evil is often eternalistic and dualistic (us “the pure” vs. them “the wicked”), the Buddhist concept of kleśa encompasses truths such as dependent origination and impermanence. Dark malicious energy does exist, but it arises from causes and conditions just like everything else and can always be conquered by wisdom and compassion. Mental poison has no central source at the fiery center of the earth.
Buddhist history abounds with great figures who were able to transmute unfathomable amounts of kleśa poisoning. There’s Angulimala, a prolific serial killer who became a student of the Buddha and rapidly attained complete liberation. There’s King Ashoka, a ruthless warlord who found the dharma and went on to become one of the greatest forces of peace and philanthropy the world had ever seen. And let’s not forget Milarepa, the yogi who is said to have used black magic to crush his entire village yet still became one of Tibet’s greatest enlightened saints. When you look at the stories of these figures you won’t find action movie demon-slayers. You find examples of people who, with tremendous diligence and exemplary guidance, were able to conquer the dark forces within their own being.
It is very important to note that, as unenlightened beings, each and every one of us has kleśa poison within us. This is the nature of the samsaric condition and should never be forgotten. That said, the amount of poison in people DOES vary. Just as we need to be humble enough to accept that certain people like great teachers and Bodhisattvas have less poison in them than ourselves, it is also possible that we will come across those who are far more “infected” than we are. Sociopaths, violent fundamentalists, and blood-thirsty dictators DO exist.
This relates to the original dilemma posed by the woman on Facebook about the disgust she feels towards a certain public servant. I very much agree with the advice she was given regarding seeing the person as a teacher, recommitting to her values, examining the commonalities between her and the person, having compassion for her and so on. However, I found myself also wanting to add that there is in fact a place for such feelings. Buddhism is not about repression.
There is a very old Kagyu saying, “Revulsion is the foot of meditation.”
This line is about how revulsion is an incredibly important motivator in practice. We shouldn’t be complacent or accommodating when it comes to being poisoned. The thought of being poisoned should disgust us. It should enrage us. It should motivate us to get off our asses and do something about it, to be Buddhists.
So when we are confronted with someone else’s poison, it is perfectly plausible that we will be repulsed by it. We just need to know what it is that is disgusting us. It’s the poison, not the person.
This is why certain enlightened beings are depicted as wrathful monsters. The rage of a wrathful deity is like that of a mother who sees that her baby is being hurt, except in this case, the mother is the enlightened mind and the baby is all sentient beings.
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