QUERY> Buddhist Versions of the Problem of Evil

John Powers's picture

Dear Colleagues,

I'm looking for Buddhist discussions of the problem of evil. I'm aware of the discussion in the Saṃdhinirmocana sūtra and its commentaries, and I'm wondering if there are other sources.

John Powers


Categories: Query
Keywords: evil, Theodicy, buddhism

Hello John (and colleagues)

There's a brief presentation of the problem of evil in Vasubandhu's Abhidharma-kośa-bhāṣyam; it forms part of the commentary on II.64d. Here's an English translation of this short passage that I made years ago and use in one of my classes:

Now, what 's the purpose of the Lord's effort in creating the world? If you say it's His own enjoyment, which He could not achieve by any other means, then if He is not the Lord of his own enjoyment, how can He be the Lord of anything else? And if the Lord, having created His children, is pleased when they are afflicted by many calamities in the hells and other realms of suffering, let us worship that kind of Lord! This verse, [said to have been] composed by Him, is apt:

He burns; He is harsh; He is cruel; He glows with heat.

He eats flesh, blood, and bone marrow. Therefore He is called Rudra.

Hope this helps,
Charles Goodman

Charles Hallisey has a nice essay that gives an overview of various sources that treat the problem of evil in
"Buddhism," Evil and Suffering, edited by Jacob Neusner (Pilgrim Library of World Religions; Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1999), 36-66.

Anne Hansen

I include some discussion of this in my 2019, ‘Buddhism’, in The History of Evil in Antiquity: 2000 BCE – 450CE, The History of Evil Volume I, edited by Tom P. S. Angier, Chad Meister and Charles Taliaferro, 256–72. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Also my Introduction to Buddhism, 2nd edition, pp.141-42

Peter Harvey

Thanks for the excellent suggestions! Greatly appreciated.

A follow-up question: Does anyone know of Indic sources that attempt to dismiss the reality of suffering by recourse to nonduality or emptiness? This is a common tactic among Western academics who discuss Buddhist theodicy, but I haven't been able to find any texts that make this claim. I think that such a move would have to involve denial of the First Noble Truth, and it's hard to imagine a Buddhist source taking this route.

John Powers

Dear Dr. Powers,

I would assume Vimalakīrti uses non-duality and emptiness to question the reality of suffering when he claims,

mā bhadanta kātyāyana sapracāram utpādabhaṅghayuktāṃ dharmatāṃ nirdiśa | yo bhadanta kātyāyanātyantatayā na jāto na janiṣyati notpanno na niruddho na nirotsyate yam anityārthaḥ | yaḥ pañcānāṃ skandhānāṃ śūnyatānugamānutpādanirodhārtho yaṃ duḥkhārthaḥ | yad ātmānātmayor advayatvam ayaṃ anātmārthaḥ | yo svabhāvo parabhāvas tad anujjvalitam, yad anujjvallitaṃ na tac chāmyati, yo atyantopaśamo yaṃ śāntārthaḥ |

Also, the Duḥkhaparīkṣā in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā might be considered something similar?

BTW: In terms of the problem of evil in Chinese Buddhism, Dr Ziporyn’s monograph (Evil and/or/as the Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought) should be useful, perhaps together with the debate with Dr Loy.

Best wishes,
Allan Ding
DePaul University

Dear Prof Powers,
While benefiting so much from previous discussions, I also want to make some (though quite limited) contribution to the discussion of this topic. With regard to the issue of evil in Buddhism, I think my discussion of Devadatta in my Ph.D. dissertation (“Challenging the Buddha's authority”) is relevant. Basically, I argue that Devadatta, the figure closest to the incarnation of evil in Buddhist literature, was initially created not for discussing evil, but in the Vinaya context to address schismatic issues. Later, Buddhists found him a really powerful rhetorical devise against various bad qualities substantialized by Devadatta’s evildoings, so more and more lurid stories were created to impute various crimes to him. However, since Devadatta's central image was not to serve as the embodiment of evil, his image as the first schismatic and his image as the evildoer became innately conflictory. Moreover, in the process of creating a powerful, troublesome evildoer, the absolute power and capability of the Buddha are simultaneously compromised and even challenged; and the ongoing degradation of Devadatta became increasingly incompatible with the Buddhist karmic theory. In order to accommodate the evilness of Devadatta within the karmic system, Buddhists had tried different ways of theodicy: They either admitted that Śākyamuni also had bad karmas in his past lives (and therefore not a continuously perfect being), or abandon the notion of Devadatta’s stereotypical evilness in his past lives; Some Mahāyāna monks, perhaps realizing the theological problems posed by Devadatta’s ever-increasing evilness, show no further interest in deepening Devadatta’s depravity, but viewed him in a favorable light and used the skillful means to explain Devadatta's evil doings.

To return to the topic of evil, the case of Devadatta suggests that the Buddhist discussion of evil was not a very systematic one (nor a central concern), and the setting of an "innate, changeless evildoer" readily created tensions with other Buddhist doctrines. In other words, evil must be dissolved finally in the Buddhist soteriological system.

Best regards
Channa Li

Dear John,

Your question hinges on what you mean by "dismiss the reality of suffering by recourse to nonduality or emptiness," and "denial of the First Noble Truth." At Yuktiṣaṣṭikāvṛtti [Scherrer-Schaub ed.] pp. 35–36 [ad YṢ 5cd] Candrakīrti says that three of the four ārya satyas [i.e., suffering, origin, and path] are set forth as saṃvṛtisatya because—being saṃskṛta—they appear deceptively to spiritually immature persons, whereas nirvana is called "paramārthasatya" in accordance with lokavyavahāra because it does not appear in that deceptive manner. But an immediately preceding quotation from the Perfection of Wisdom notes that even nirvana is like a magical illusion, and of course in general the Perfection of Wisdom is full of statements to the effect that nothing can be found ultimately (paramārthena / paramārthathas), and that the Buddha designates suffering and the rest contingent upon the conventional usage of people, not from some absolute perspective (tathāgato lokavyavahāreṇa vyavaharati na punaḥ paramārthena; Pañcaviṃśati GRETIL E-Text PSP_6-8:176).

            So from one point of view the answer to your question seems to depend upon one's interpretation of Madhyamaka. Some modern interpreters assert that Nāgārjuna believes that "nothing exists," or advocates "metaphysical illusionism," or says that everything—including suffering—is "mere fiction." Other interpreters read Nāgārjuna as accepting the contingent, phenomenal, conventional reality of suffering in accordance with the way people engage with it (lokapracāratas), while simultaneously denying that it exists in the way ordinary people perceive it, i.e., as if it possesses some sort of real, intrinsic nature. But to answer your question directly, I am not aware of any Indic source that baldly denies the existence of suffering without some kind of explicit or implicit epistemological / ontological qualification. And as your question notes, "it's hard to imagine a Buddhist...taking this route."

With best wishes,

John Newman