A dharmic understanding of evil

The mythical figure of Mara in the Pali canon provides us with an obvious starting point for understanding evil. He appears again and again to the Buddha and his advanced disciples, preferably when they’re meditating. He’s disguised as a well-meaning stranger offering friendly, banal advice, the import of which would throw the hearer right off course if s/he heeded him.

Perhaps the most famous of these instances occurs when the Buddha is sick and old, but still practising like the clappers. Mara gently reminds him that he has achieved so much, and now that he’s old and sick it’s time for him to kick back and slacken off. In the canon, such occasions invariably end badly for Mara. The practitioner in question immediately sees through the disguise and calls him out: ‘I know you, Mara!’ Whereupon Mara has no option but to slink off defeated. He can’t land a punch. Sometimes he says something sad as he exits left, as he did on the occasion just mentioned: ‘I feel like a crow that’s pecked a stone, mistaking it for a piece of meat.’

Three aspects of Mara should catch our eye:

(a) At first sight, he’s not nearly as scary as the devil of the Christian tradition, with his horns, pointed tail, pitchfork, and reek of sulphur;
(b) Mara never gives up – like greed, hatred and delusion, he just keeps returning; and
(c) his shtick is derailing dharma practice.

As Stephen Batchelor shows in his 2004 book Living with the devil, Mara personifies stuckness. Spiritual paralysis. And thus profound ethical stupidity. In the canon, he often attracts terms that link him to death, even being anointed as ‘the lord of death’. To fall under his thrall is to die as a moral agent, and join the walking dead.

We need to keep our Mara-detectors in good repair. As meditators. Because our meditation practice rests on an ethical foundation, and ethical practice enriches our meditative experience. But we also need to do so as dharma practitioners in the world – as workers, citizens, lovers, and family and community members.

 

Mara and the banality of evil

In 1963 the great German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt unleashed endless controversy by implicitly rethinking modern evil in Mara-like terms. New Yorker magazine had engaged her to sit through the long trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and send back successive articles. They ended up in what is now a Penguin paperback, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a study in the banality of evil.

Eichmann had organised the murder of several million Jews during the Holocaust: he was by common consent an all-time leading evil-doer. But having watched him closely throughout his trial, and heard him respond to questions in cross-examination, Arendt characterised him as banal. He was ‘thoughtless’, she writes.

He had no inner life. He had no inner vocabulary with which to reflect. His only language was Fachsprache – officialese. In Arendt’s account, as a dull bureaucrat embedded in a chain of command, he acted like a mindless cog in the genocidal machinery.

Many of her readers were incredulous. Could banality unleash so much deliberate destruction? Much later another German philosopher, Bettina Stangneth – with access to a lot more archival material – proved Arendt wrong about Eichmann. In her 2014 book Eichmann before Jerusalem: the unexamined life of a mass murderer, she showed that he was in fact a devilish homicidal and antisemitic maniac behind the mask of banality he wore at his trial. At the same time, Stangneth affirmed the banality of evil as an important concept, even if it didn’t fully account for Eichmann.

In our highly institutionalised world, Maras abound in large organisations. For instance, here in Australia in the Department for Home Affairs (the former department for immigration), bureaucrats mindlessly overrule the recommendations of medical staff on the ground to evacuate desperately ill prisoners from the concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru. They issue orders for the predawn arrest of whole families with a view to deporting them back to their countries of origin, where they face torture or death or both. And so on. These Maras are simply complying with operational directives couched in officialise, without a thought to their human consequences.

 

Institutional breakdown and systemic evil

One problem we might note at this point: does the word ‘evil’ attach to individuals, or to systems, or to the unintended effects of institutional workings? For many people, Adolf Hitler personifies quintessential evil – sometimes referred to as ‘radical evil’. After all, he started a war that killed 60 million people, not to mention the suffering and misery of untold millions of survivors of world war 2.

But what if – as seems likely – he was simply deranged, a cocktail of personality disorders whom a functioning society would simply lock up or medicate, and never let come within cooee of the levers of power? Might there not be thousands of such individuals living harmlessly among us right now?

So I’m making the uncomfortable suggestion that all the evil of world war 2 can’t be explained by Hitler’s being a very wicked man, but by the many obvious dysfunctions of German institutions between the wars. The usual filters and hurdles, whereby a developed polity deflects such people from power, had stopped working.

In a healthy western democracy the road to the top job usually runs through endless tough party meetings and debates, winning and holding seats in legislatures, and the discipline of collective, deliberative decision-making. You have to be pretty glued together to survive all these filters. But Hitler was allowed to leapfrog all that, on the basis of his talent as a beer-hall ranter.

As dharmic citizens – an idea I tried to develop last time I spoke here – we need to think about this. In Australia, like most of the others in the Anglosphere, we still dutifully go through the electoral motions, but (New Zealand and Canada excepted) our democracies and political cultures are in parlous shape. In his 2004 book Post-democracy, Colin Crouch suggests that the heyday of western democracy arrived in the mid-20th century, and since the 1980s we’ve been in decline, to arrive at today’s ritualistic, smoke-and-mirrors ‘post-democracy’.

Trump’s election illustrates the problem. A sexual predator and probable psychopath, with no experience whatever of public office, he leapfrogs into the presidency on the basis of his reality-TV stardom. Whereupon he sets about reversing decades of progress in social justice, and human rights and environmental protection – in his own country and globally. And those who do his bidding and enforce his diktats receive their orders in an officialese confected to suppress the human and planetary consequences of their actions.

 

The banality of climate change

Today a manifestation of terrible banal evil presents us all with an existential threat: climate change. And as a whole, we in the west are simply not paying attention. The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh has brilliantly accounted for this deadly insouciance as ‘the great derangement’. He might be a lone voice crying in the wilderness were it not for the fact that no less a personage than Pope Francis had already published his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. All Buddhists should read this text – it’s a magnificent no-punches-pulled description of the state we’re in, and the future we face. It names the Mara-like influences that maintain our stupor and defend the destructive and unjust global socio-economic order that feeds climate change.

As dharmic citizens we have been warned. The Mara that tirelessly tries to enervate our individual ethical and meditative practice is having a global field day outside our front doors. We need to get out there and call him out.

• This talk was given to Kookaburra Sangha, Sydney, in June 2018. A member of The Tuwhiri Project editorial board, Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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