If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

—Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Because it emphasizes mindfulness of our thought processes, Buddhism encourages us to be wary of antithetical concepts, not only good and evil, but success and failure, rich and poor, even the duality between enlightenment and delusion. We distinguish between the opposing terms because we want one rather than the other, yet the meaning of each depends upon the other. That may sound abstract, but such dualities are actually quite troublesome for us. If, for example, it is important to live a pure life (however I understand purity), then I need to be preoccupied with avoiding impurity. If wealth is important for me, then I am also worried about avoiding poverty. We cannot take one lens without the other, and such pairs of spectacles filter our experience of the world.

What does this mean for the duality of good versus evil? One way the interdependence of good and evil shows itself is this: we don’t feel we are good unless we are fighting against evil. We can feel comfortable and secure in our own goodness only by attacking and destroying the evil outside us. And, sad to say but true, this is why we like wars: they cut through the petty problems of daily life and unite us good guys here against the bad guys over there. There is fear in that, of course, but it is also exhilarating. The meaning of life becomes clearer.

We all love the struggle between good (us) and evil (them). It is, in its own way, deeply satisfying. Think of the plots of the James Bond films, the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films. In such movies, it’s quite obvious who the bad guys are. Caricatures of evil, they are ruthless, maniacal, without remorse, and so they must be stopped by any means necessary. We are meant to feel that it is okay—even, to tell the truth, pleasurable—to see violence inflicted upon them. Because the villains like to hurt people, it’s okay to hurt them. Because they like to kill people, it’s okay to kill them. After all, they are evil and evil must be destroyed.

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