The Light of Insight

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    Featured Columnist – Meditations
    Martin LeFerve

    A recent conversation with a Buddhist teacher from India turned to the Buddha’s illumination. “The
    Buddha,” he said, “was attacked by Mara, but the Buddha came to see that the evil was within him.” That’s going a devil too far.

    “Do you mean to say that evil is only within the individual?” The Buddhist became rather stumped, but instead of questioning, he tried to have it both ways by saying, “there is no duality.”

    The problem evil is a hard nut, to be sure, one that no philosopher, East or West, has cracked. However I’m not sure people want the nature and operation of evil illuminated, because that may mean no more evasions and procrastinations. And then where would we be?

    Right where we are, drowning in our own self-made darkness. But we can’t place the locus of evil in the individual. An experience I had with unvarnished evil taught me that.

    It came during a trip to the Soviet Union a year before it fell. I’d flown to Moscow on business in mid-winter, and for the first two weeks I found the Russian people in the capital, and in what was still Leningrad, very warm and hospitable.

    Americans had only been allowed to stay with Russians in their homes a few months previous to my visit, and few of the many Russians I met had had any direct contact with Americans before.

    My Russian partner and host had been touted as the leading businessman under Gorbachev’s perestroika. After a few nights in the bosom of Andrei’s family, I felt very at home in their spacious Moscow apartment.  But I began to suspect that this fellow was way too powerful after we went out night after night to the best restaurants the average Russian never entered. The places positively reeked of nomenklatura.

    One evening Andrei announced that this was a special occasion, the 13th birthday of his eldest son–the point entry of a boy into manhood in the machismo Russian culture. We had an excellent dinner and enjoyable evening, which included a couple of drinks (and a drink in Russia is half a glass of vodka, following ritual toast-making).

    On the way back, as I sat in the front with the driver, with Andrei, his wife Vera, and their two boys in the backseat of the roomy car, Vera, who had very little English incongruously said something about evil.

    Off the top of my head (a big mistake in responding to that subject), I said, “Evil can’t touch you if you remain with your fear.”

    Until that point, I had not felt a single moment of homesickness or fear in the strange land of Russia. But my false fellowship was shattered the next moment.

    I heard a metallic voice, which seemed to emanate from well behind the car. It came through Andrei, and simply said, but with a tone more malevolent than can be described, “Is that so?”

    I’d known strong fear before, but the instantaneous terror I felt was far greater than anything I’d ever experienced. Suddenly the lovely red curtains that had encircled me were ripped open. Before my eyes flashed scenes of incalculable suffering and death.

    I felt like I’d been instantly transported to the backside of the moon, and would never get home. Even the Stalinesque architecture, which appeared ugly and remote to me before, seemed to speak of evil, and the grimy snow that lined Moscow’s grim streets mocked my childhood memories growing up in the Midwest.

    Without thinking it first, without thinking it at all, I held fast to the fear, and rode it like a rollercoaster for the next half hour, unable to speak.

    Shortly after I returned to the West Coast, a philosopher friend asked what would have happened if I hadn’t done what I said. One of two things, I replied. Either I would have been shattered into a million pieces, or evil would have taken possession of me instantly.

    This experience, seared into my soul, came up yesterday after talking with a Burmese friend living in Japan, a key activist in his long-suffering people’s struggle for freedom.

    We spoke of their underestimation of the brutality of the military junta, which bloodily suppressed the mass protests led by Buddhist monks over two years ago, killing about a thousand people and imprisoning thousands more. We spoke of the necessity of understanding the nature and operation of evil.

    It’s no longer possible to avoid collective darkness and evil. The accretion of darkness in consciousness (which is consciousness as we usually know it) is destroying all space, inwardly and outwardly.

    We all have our own share of darkness, inherited from the generations before us and accumulated in our own lives—what we blithely call “baggage,” ignoring the deeper lineage; and what Buddhists call karma, accentuating it.

    Clearly, the content of that dark matter, comprised of all the unresolved hurts and hatreds within us, has built up generation after generation. And the totality of it in human consciousness is the collective darkness of humankind, some of which has intentionality. That is the source and meaning of evil.

    By not denying and avoiding, but rather observing, questioning, and remaining with the darkness within oneself, one turns the tables on evil. Darkness dissolves in the light of insight.

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