Friday, September 23, 2016

Evil can only be as strong as we allow it to be

I heard a Native American proverb once that was intended to communicate an important point about the tug of war between good and evil. A young boy asked his grandfather about the nature of good and evil, and the grandfather told him that there are two wolves within each of us—one called Good, the other called Evil—and they are always fighting. The boy then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” 

The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.” 

This brief story illustrates our personal responsibility in the balance of good and evil in our own lives. It is an excellent admonition against developing both a personal morality based on spiritual laziness, and a disempowering paranoia about external evil, both of which actually increase the force of evil in our lives rather than minimize it. 

Some people expect God or a religious founder such as Jesus to manage their morals for them. I don’t mean here that believing in such a figure as a guide automatically equates with spiritual laziness; I am referring to the plentiful examples of this idea being warped into always blaming an outside entity for “tempting” us, and expecting God or the religion’s savior to free us from this entity and its influence, instead of us taking responsibility for our own actions. 

This idea of an external “devil” misses the point that we make our own moral decisions. The idea of seeing evil as originating from an outside force that seeks to invade us encourages us to give our power away, to see ourselves as perpetual victims. If bad or evil comes from outside us, then there’s no way for us to take that evil and use it as an opportunity to create something good—to turn “poison into medicine,” as Nichiren Buddhists say. 

This is why I’ve always liked the idea present in both Nichiren Buddhism and the Bahá’í Faith that the “devil” as a person is a metaphor: A metaphor for the darker side of human nature. Buddhist mythology refers to a “devil king of the sixth heaven,” which is not an actual person but a metaphor for what Nichiren Daishonin calls the “fundamental darkness” inherent in human life. The fundamental darkness is delusion or doubt that causes us not to see, or to do things that negate, our highest selves, the Buddha nature within every one of us. 

It’s common when we carry out a personal-growth practice—such as chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo—for us to encounter difficult and even frightening obstacles. Many people who now practice religions that believe in our personal responsibility for good and evil actually grew up in other religions that have the idea of an outside devil that seeks to manipulate us. When we’re in deep distress, that idea can creep back in and taint our understanding that our fundamental darkness can only be as strong as we make it. 

If our fundamental darkness increases the more earnestly we chant, for example, thinking about and talking about this opposition as a force as strong as our daimoku is actually a further manifestation of the very fundamental darkness we are trying to overcome.

That being said, it’s also important not to deny the fundamental darkness in our lives, to arrogantly assume we can just easily will it away because we chant or walk the Red Road or uphold the teachings of Jesus. We need to strike a balance between brushing it aside as unimportant and treating it like an opponent who is as strong as our prayers. 

This is why I don’t like the idea of romanticizing the tug of war between our Buddha nature and our fundamental darkness as an epic battle within us, because it’s ourselves we’d be fighting; and fighting ourselves only creates more resistance that keeps us stuck. An overuse of battle metaphors in personal growth creates an awful lot of resistance, which generates more negative energy that locks us further into this struggle rather than propels us through it. 

Image: “Underground Valley,” by Karla Joy Huber, 2014; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen, metallic gel pen, white gel pen 

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