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

Steve Goodheart Essay

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 metaphysical, but practical and existential. Indeed, philosophical and metaphysical beliefs can utterly sidetrack us from seeing the truth of things for ourselves.

I also posted a short “interlude” called The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil to give a broader context for understanding how, why, and when the Buddha answered or didn’t answer, questions.

In Part 2, I’d like to take a further look at some these ideas and show the incredible wisdom and skill the Buddha used in dealing with the problem of suffering and evil.

As has been explained, with few and rare exceptions, when the Buddha was asked speculative, philosophical questions, he remained silent. In his deep wisdom, he knew that intellectual and speculative answers would not—and 2500 years later—still do not lead to an end of suffering. Still at times, he did explain why some questions weren’t really answerable.

For example, one time he was asked how this whole involvement with suffering could have started in the first place. How is it that beings became caught up in the cycle of birth, suffering, and death, ad infinitum?

The Buddha did not offer a creation story or try to give some metaphysical explanation that would “justify” or rationalize evil’s existence. Instead, he answered, I would argue, in much the same spirit as Dr. King’s words (see Part 1)—that after all is said and done, “the existence of evil in the world still stands as the great enigma wrapped in mystery.”

What the Buddha said was this:

“Incalculable is the beginning, brethren, of this faring on [in samsara]. The earliest point is not revealed of the running-on, the faring-on, of beings cloaked in ignorance, tied to craving.

“Without cognizable end is this Samsara. A first beginning of beings, who, obstructed by ignorance and fettered by craving, wander and fare on, is not to be perceived.”

One doesn’t have to believe in rebirth to grasp how problematic the question of original causation is.  Even at the physical level, the question seems endless.  Just  consider all the interdependent causes that had to come together for life to appear on Earth, let alone the near endless chain of ancestors who had to survive in order for any one of us to be alive today.  Bring in the issue of the appearing of consciousness and identity, and the problem only gets more complex and puzzling.

Commenting on the Buddha’s answer to the insoluble, “incalculable” question of the beginning of ignorance and suffering, dharma teacher Andrew Olendzki writes:

“This passage sets the stage for us: No story is going to help us much in figuring out what we’re doing here. All we have is what is right in front of us, and that is obscured by the ignorance and craving we continue to manifest.

But this is by no means an insignificant starting point. The beginning and end of the process might be unknowable, but we can know what is present to our immediate experience. Since there is no point in wasting energy on speculation about origins or destinies, our attention is best placed on investigating the present and unpacking the forces that keep it all flowing onward.

This is really where Buddhism starts and where it thrives—in the present moment. We have no idea how many moments have gone before or how many will yet unfold—either cosmically or individually—but each moment that lies before our gaze is, potentially, infinitely deep.”

I find this pragmatic, here-and-now answer to the questions like “why are we here?” and “why is there evil?” to be tremendously hopeful, inspiring and liberating. Rather than getting tangled up in philosophical or theological speculation or dogma, we can just  drop of all of that.

The key to freedom is in the here and now.  Only in the here and now we can find  liberation from suffering. We can know with confidence what leads to freedom and what doesn’t because we have proved it for ourselves, experienced it for ourselves.

No one has to accept Buddhism on faith. Buddhism is pragmatic. It’s scientific, in the sense that it asks us to look deeply into cause and effect and to test what works and what doesn’t work in our search for happiness. Through skillful means of the Eightfold Noble Path, including meditation, insight, and loving-kindness, we find that the answers to the deepest questions of life come through our own spiritual growth.

We may not be able to explain evil or why bad things happen in the world, but we can begin to see what brings the end of suffering in our own lives. And, happily, through our own freedom from craving, hatred, and delusion, we are increasingly able to help other beings.

And it all begins with looking deeply and skillfully into what is going on right here, right now, in our own minds and hearts. In the microcosm of individual consciousness, we find the spiritual cosmos revealed. In the laboratory of our own lives, we can actually discover the way things really work, which is the most literal meaning of the word dharma.

No one who has a heart hasn’t agonized over the immense amount of suffering in the world. We all suffer tremendously from our own wrong actions and the wrong actions of others.  We all face the problems of disease, genetic defects, accidents, old age, and death, not to mention horrendous natural disasters like that in Haiti or the Christmas tsunami of 2004. The appearance of consciousness in the universe of matter has come at the price of countless deaths and immeasurable suffering over billions of years, as life has evolved from simple single-cell creatures to the explosion of life we see all around us.

It can all seem so overwhelming—if we leave the problem of evil at the level of mere thought, emotions, and intellectual concepts. Evil, as an abstraction, is impossible to defeat. But if we take on the problem of evil and suffering as a problem of action, then a doable path opens before us.  However rugged and challenging this path may be, we know we can walk it with ever-increasing confidence. Our doubts and fear begin to dissolve as gain confidence in our ability to transform our lives and the lives of others through wisdom and love.

As the great Thai Forest teacher Ajahn Chah says:

“Doubts will never vanish through thinking, nor through theorizing, nor through speculation, nor through discussion. Nor will doubts disappear by not doing anything! All defilements will vanish through developing the heart, through right practice only.

The way of developing the heart as taught by the Buddha is the exact opposite of the way of the world, because his teachings come from a pure heart. A pure heart, unattached to defilements, is the Way of the Buddha and his disciples.”


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


  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 2 […]

  2. The Buddha’s Silence-and the Problem of Evil « Metta Refuge - 2010/01/21

    […] The Buddha’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil-Part 2 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, Buddhism, Dharma Teachers, Theravada, dhamma, dharma, dharma-dhamma, meditation Tags: Buddha's-silence, courage, mindfulness, problem-of-evil, silence, skillful-questions, suffering, unskillful-questions, wisdom Comments (0) Trackbacks (1) Leave a comment Trackback […]

  3. Buddhism’s Practical Answer to the Problem of Evil – Part 1 « Metta Refuge - 2010/01/21

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

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: