Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil – Part 1

Steve Goodheart Essay

This is a first in a two-part discussion of the problem of evil in light of Buddhist teachings.  Of course, what I say here are my own views on this complex subject, but these views are shaped and informed by what I’ve learned for myself in my study of the Buddha’s teachings on good and evil.  I hope that what I share from my own struggles with the problem of evil are of help to others.

The idea for this post began to take shape after I did  a post here at Metta Refuge about this year’s Martin Luther King Memorial Day (post here).  As I always do at this time of the year in honor of Dr. King, I took a look at some of my favorite writings of his that I have collected over the years.

One that really caught my eye was an article he wrote while at Crozer Theological Seminary when he was about 22 years old.  The paper is entitled “Religion’s Answer to the Problem of Evil.” It’s a great essay, and with typical intellectual vigor, the young Dr. King manfully takes up and analyzes the main philosophical arguments and rationales for the existence of evil, finally rejecting them all:

“It is right and inevitable to attempt to come to an intellectual solution of this problem. Men of all ages and all religions have set out on this difficult venture. Yet some of the proposed solutions are no solutions at all. To deny the reality of evil is all but absurd.

To posit the existence of another cosmic power opposed to God is taking a speculative flight which can have no true philosophical grounding. To suggest a finite God as a solution to the problem is to fall in the pit of humanizing God.”

During my Christian years, this was probably the problem that I wrestled with as a practicing Christian. The problem is called theodicy—the problem of evil, how and why it exists, if God is all-good as well as omnipotent, all-powerful, and omniscient, all-knowing.

Throughout the ages, theologians have argued that evil is the result of a corrupted and fallen world, that true free will cannot exist without the possibility of choosing evil, and finally, that human simply cannot understand God’s “mysterious” ways, but it all works out in the end, at least, for those who are “saved.”

As the young Dr. King concludes his paper:

“The existence of evil in the world still stands as the great enigma wrapped in mystery, yet it has not caused Christians to live in total despair. The Christian religion has offered men a way for the overcoming of evil through insight and faith and a life in right relations with God and man…

Yet with all of the new light that has been shed on the old problem we still come to a point beyond which we cannot go. Any intellectual solution to the problem of evil will come to inevitable impasses. The ultimate solution is not intellectual but spiritual. After we have climbed to the top of the speculative ladder we must leap out into the darkness of faith. But this leap is not a leap of despair, for it eventually cries with St. Paul, “For now we see through a glass darkly; . . . but then shall I know even as I am known.” The Christian answer to the problem of evil is ultimately contained in what he does with evil, itself the result of what Christ did with evil on the cross…”

As a Buddhist ex-Christian, I can still appreciate the deep integrity of Dr. King’s radically Christian solution—when all intellectual wrestling fails, the only recourse for the Christian is a radical leap of faith, which, speaking from my own experience as a Christian, can indeed sometimes feel like a leap into the dark. (And which isn’t to say, the light is not also seen and felt there in that surrender to “unknowing”.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh

For me, as a Buddhist, this solution has significant problems, but this post isn’t meant to be a critique of Christianity. What I would rather point to, in the spirit of my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who was a dear friend and admirer of Dr. King’s, is where Buddhist and Christian might indeed agree and hold hands in service of a greater good.

I think Dr. King’s words point to this common ground, and that’s where he says, “Any intellectual solution to the problem of evil will come to inevitable impasses. The ultimate solution is not intellectual but spiritual” and “…the problem of evil is ultimately contained in what [one] does with evil itself…”

The Buddha’s solution to “the problem of evil”—which to him was the problem of suffering and the causes of suffering, (which, finally, is primal ignorance)—is also radically existential and practical. In Buddhism, what one does with evil—with suffering and all the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned being—is to look deeply into it to find the causes and conditions that bring about suffering. And then skillfully to let go of those causes and conditions as being “me” or “mine.”  By non-identification with that which has no intrinsic essence or permanence—no true identity—one experiences the blissful liberation of non-grasping, an opening up and spaciousness of the mind and heart.

With practice, and increasing mindfulness and loving-kindness, we find that what Buddhism calls the defilements”—craving, hatred, and delusion—fall away from us.  If we do not cling to them, they cannot cling to us!

When asked the metaphysical question of how world came to be, which would certainly include the problem of evil and suffering, the Buddha didn’t give a philosophical answer.  Instead, he turned the problem around on the questioner:

“You are like a man who has been shot with a poison arrow and who, when the doctor comes to remove it, says ‘Wait! Before the arrow is removed I want to know the name of the man who shot it, what clan he comes from, which village he was born in. I want to know what type of wood his bow is made from, what feathers are on the end of the arrow, how long the arrows are, etc., etc.’ That man would die before all these questions could be answered. My job is to help you to remove the arrow of suffering from yourself” (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No. 63).

How many of people are shot full of arrows, and yet spend endless hours trying to make sense of their suffering through intellectual arguments and theological rationales? How many of people try to justify their own or others’ suffering in terms of concepts like karma, fate, original sin, divine retribution, predestination, a near all-powerful devil, and all sort of other abstract ideas, instead of looking into their own hearts and minds for the causes of suffering? How many people fall into self-hate and self-condemnation because they believe if they suffer, it must be because they are inherently bad or sinful?

To such people I say, dear friends, you can drop all of that theological garbage! You don’t have to buy some metaphysical belief system or have blind faith in some theology or book or prophet or guru in order to be “saved.” Have more respect for yourself and your own innate ability to be and do good! No god or devil stands in the way of a heart that wants to awaken. No final judgment awaits you if you don’t adopt somebody else’s beliefs about the ultimate nature of good and evil.

Look and see for yourself what is true and what is not. See for yourself what thoughts and actions bring about an end to suffering and what thoughts and actions bring an increase in happiness.

As the Buddha said:

Believe nothing on the faith of traditions,
even though they have been held in honor
for many generations and in diverse places.
Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it.
Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past.
Do not believe what you yourself have imagined,
persuading yourself that a God inspires you.
Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests.
After examination, believe what you yourself have tested
and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.

If your deepest beliefs about, “life, the universe, and everything” have been tested in the crucible of your own life experience and have not proven themselves lacking, then more power to you! I rejoice in your progress. This blog makes no claim that Buddhism has a monopoly on truth or is the “one way.” Truth and light can be found in many religions. Look at Dr. King’s own life of Christian love and heroism. If anyone looked deeply into the problem of evil and answered it with his life and actions, it was this man!  Likewise, my own heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, put his life on the line for peace in his native Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and throughout his life has been a powerful advocate of social justice and what he calls “engaged Buddhism.”

Whatever one’s belief, my earnest wish is that  every honest, yearning heart find its way complete free and ultimate happiness, which is beyond all human concepts! But if your very own core beliefs have caused or even increased your suffering and have proved powerless to change your life for the better, then perhaps it is time for a new tack. Instead of endlessly trying to make your old beliefs work or justifying why they don’t seem to be working, maybe you could just set them down for a while, and try something new.

That “something new” can start as simply as learning how to sit quietly with ourselves and how to attend to our heart and its feelings with insight and compassion. It can start with learning how to drop warring, argumentative thoughts and ideas about the way things “should” or “ought” to be, and just being with what is. Without this surrender to immediate presence, we really can’t see deeply into the causes of our suffering and make the permanent changes for good we want to see in our lives.

As the Buddhist teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes so encouragingly:

“Don’t lose sight of what’s right here, because everything you need to know to attain true Awakening, to discover that happiness beyond change, is right here in your body and mind. The process of sitting right here with the mind on the breath, thinking about and evaluating the breath, perceiving and feeling the results: All the factors you’re going to need to know are right here, and yet we tend to look past them.

So try to keep your focus right here. The irony of it all is that the more “right here” you are in your focus, the longer-term the happiness that comes from your actions. As you get more and more skillful at this one point, it has ramifications that go out in all directions….The more “right here” you are, the longer the good results will last. You give up the guesswork and speculation, you focus on things you can really know right here, right now. That’s why the Buddha’s teachings are for everybody.”

See next:

The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil

The Buddha’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil-Part 2


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

5 Responses to “Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil – Part 1”

  1. What a great article. I’ve got answers for some of the problems that i have in my life at the moment. And hope to find more answers whenever i can.. Many thanks..

    • Thank you, and thank you for stopping by. I am so glad the post was helpful, and like you, I am so glad for the answers that show up i my life! May we both continue to find them, as we skillfully look!

      With warm metta,


  1. Is this skillful?-The Most Important Question in Buddhist Practice « Metta Refuge - 2010/01/21

    […] Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil-Part 1 […]

  2. Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil-Part 2 « Metta Refuge - 2010/01/21

    […] 2010/01/21 Steven Goodheart Leave a comment Go to comments In my previous post, Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil – Part 1, I focused on how the Buddha’s focus on answering this problem was not philosophical or […]

  3. The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil « Metta Refuge - 2010/01/20

    […] Sri Lankin monk of the Theravadan tradition Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil – Part 1Carrying forward Buddhism or fueling evil cults? 37.871593 -122.272747 Categories: Buddha, […]

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