By Kat Liu
I have always loved houses of worship, even when I was “unchurched,” so when I learned that the fourth largest Christian church in the world—the Cathedral of St. John the Divine—was in New York City, of course I had to visit. The cathedral itself was grand, gothic, and a little too dark, but my most striking memory about the place was not the building itself. Just outside was a sign inviting visitors to the adjacent “Children’s Peace Garden.”
Ending a visit to a house of worship with a nice stroll in a garden seemed perfect—or so I thought. Smack dab in the center, dominating the small space, was a very large statue of the Archangel Michael, with brow creased, wings unfurled, sword drawn, standing over the prone and nearly decapitated body of Satan, his horned head hanging over the edge of the platform by a single bronze ligament. Recoiling in horror I wondered, “Who in their right minds would put something this violent in a place meant for children? How could they think this represented peace?”
Upon reading the inscription, I understood. For the creators of this garden, peace comes when good vanquishes evil. In their theology, there are good people and bad people. If you are a good person, then goodness is inherent in you and evil is external to you. And if you are a bad person, then evil is inherent in you. Thus, violent actions such as killing aren’t necessarily evil. Killing an evil person is a good act because it reduces the amount of evil in the world—and one could even argue that the more violently the better, to annihilate evil so that it never returns. The ends justify the means. According to that theology, Michael decapitating Satan is the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
This is the same thinking, regardless of religion, that motivates religious wars and attacks. It’s the thinking behind capital punishment. It’s the thinking behind most acts of violence, actually, when rightly or wrongly someone sees someone else as “evil” and vile enough that their existence cannot be tolerated, so they must be driven out or terminated.
It would be easy to write this off as a “conservative” way of thinking, to think that it has nothing to do with me. But if I am honest, this is the same thinking that I revert to when someone hurts me and my first reaction is to hurt them back, even if it’s just verbally. My desire is to overwhelm the person so that they do not mess with me again. The scale is smaller, but the impulse is the same.
In those moments, I have to stop and remember that from a Buddhist perspective overcoming evil doesn’t work that way. The Heart Sutra tells us that “All phenomena in their own-being are empty.” No thing, including each of us, is inherently anything. All things, including all of us, are conditional upon other things—that whole interdependent web of existence. So people are neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Whatever state each of us is in is the result of causes and conditions, past and present. Including those who hurt you.
Some people argue that good and evil are “Christian concepts” and thus have no place in Buddhism. I tend to think that the people who make such arguments are ex-Christians who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is still right and wrong—it isn’t “anything goes”—and thus the concepts of good and evil are still useful. When beings are harmed it is important to name that as evil. However, the evil is in the actions, not the people. Those actions that benefit beings are wholesome and can be considered good, and those that cause harm to beings are unwholesome and can be considered evil.
The focus is on actions, or karma. In common usage, karma is often interchangeable with punishment—sometimes, punishment and reward. In the original Sanskrit, however, the word “karma” literally means action. Karma is the consequences of our actions, of every action. We cannot take any action, good or bad, without it affecting both the wider world and ourselves.
From a Buddhist perspective, even an angel of God such as Michael cannot kill someone, even the Devil himself, without that act of violence tainting their own being, making them more inclined to violence in the future. Because of karma, the means are the ends. We cannot end evil through violence, because violence itself increases the evil in the world.
That doesn’t mean to passively accept the violence without resistance. The Jataka tells the story of when the Buddha was a sea captain in a previous life, and killed a bandit who otherwise would have killed everyone on the ship. Sometimes violence is the only way to prevent greater harm. But the Buddha-to-be sea captain did not take killing lightly. He recognized and accepted the consequences, taking on the negative karma to himself for the sake of others.
Ultimately, the only way to overcome evil is not through force but through love, resisting harmful acts but with compassion and understanding for the people who commit them, so that the cycle of violence is not perpetuated.
So much easier said than done. But then I remember that the good news is, if every action we take affects our being, then when we do kind things—even if we don’t feel particularly kind at the moment—it makes it easier for us to be kind in the future. Little by little, it makes us better people, who, if not overcoming evil, are at least pushing on the side of good.