Most of our suffering is trivial and insignificant compared to the horrors of starvation, torture, slavery, rape, murder, and various other forms of extreme affliction to which many beings have been, and still are, subjected. These terrors are most tragic when they cripple, traumatize, and sometimes destroy the innocent and the weak. Such violations of integrity are even more tragic when they are inflicted not by the blind forces of nature but by evil beings. (By 'evil' beings here I simply mean those beings whose aversion to experiencing their own suffering is so great that they are compelled to inflict it onto others.) The power of this evil can be so great in some cases that it overwhelms and traumatizes even those who are not so weak.
There are, however, extraordinary beings who intentionally cultivate the supernatural capacity to experience extreme affliction without being traumatized, who willingly face the forces of evil in order to liberate all sentient beings—both good and bad alike. These remarkable beings place themselves at personal risk for the benefit of others. In the Buddhist tradition these beings are called Bodhisattvas, but such beings exist in all traditions. Moreover, advanced Bodhisattvas have developed special capacities to transform and subdue even the most extreme forms of evil and affliction.
These beings who willingly engage the most extreme terrors have something in common with the victims of evil—both are exposed to extreme suffering. What distinguishes these Bodhisattvas from the victims, and from the evil beings they confront? What mysterious Force gives them their power? What allows them to confidently face evil? Here we inquire into the mysteries of terror, extreme affliction, evil, goodness, grace, and supernatural love.
Many unfortunate beings have been forced to experience the horrors of extreme affliction which brings terrific darkness and trauma, especially to someone who is spiritually unprepared for it. Aside from any physical harm involved, if the affliction is psychologically overwhelming, it cannot be integrated into consciousness, and is pushed into unconsciousness, psychologically traumatizing the afflicted person. Simone Weil gives the following insightful description of the effect of affliction on the unprepared:
Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time. ... What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final. ... If the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell. That is why those who plunge men into affliction before they are prepared to receive it kill their souls. ... Help given to souls is effective only if it goes far enough really to prepare them for affliction. That is no small thing. (Weil, 1951, p. 120-121)
In contrast with the good beings who help to prepare others for experiencing affliction, evil beings harm these same unprepared souls by plunging them into affliction. Rather than experiencing their own suffering, they unload it on others who are then afflicted by it. More specifically, evil is characterized by the unwillingness to acknowledge or tolerate one’s own imperfections. It is also characterized by a denial of, and frantic attempt to escape from, seeing one’s own darker side. M. Scott Peck defines evil as follows:
The central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it. Jung correctly ascribed evil to the failure to “meet” the Shadow. (Peck, 1983, p. 69).
The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense. ...Evil originates not in the absence of guilt but in the effort to escape it (Peck, 1983, p. 76).
The denial of imperfection within oneself, and the adamant refusal to face it, inevitably results in the projection of this hatred of sin and imperfection outward upon others, accompanied by the compulsion to eliminate it. Consequently, rather than experiencing their own suffering, the evil forcibly impose their suffering upon others to experience. Moreover, their own self-denial is projected onto others as well, taking the form of a deluded justification for this imposition of suffering upon others: “They deserve it because they are imperfect sinners, and need to learn a lesson, to be punished.” Lies and denial are thus at the root of evil. In particular, lies that cover up one’s very ignorance, and denial that refuses to face the shadow. Evil is thus a turning away from truth and love, which are open to suffering, willing to face the shadow, and accepting of imperfection and ignorance. What, then is the hope for healing evil?
What power could possibly overcome evil? At the level of natural law, energies are conserved. Thus, the battle cannot be won on that level, by the mere increase in energy on one side. At first, it seems there is no hope. So, by what mysterious Force are the Bodhisattvas able to prevail over evil? As we will see, their special power is the energy of affliction itself and their complete reliance upon supernatural love. In theistic terms, they are instruments of the divine, manifesting God's power.
I should eliminate the suffering of others because it is suffering, just like my own suffering. I should take care of others because they are sentient beings, just as I am a sentient being. ... All sufferings are without an owner, because they are not different. They should be warded off simply because they are suffering. (Santideva, 1997, p. 101-102).
It is significant that the Bodhisattva does not vow to liberate only the good sentient beings, the righteous sentient beings, or the chosen sentient beings. There is no qualification or limitation: The Bodhisattva vows to liberate them all—good and bad, saints and sinners. In particular, the evil are not left out. In fact, they are explicitly included:
May those who falsely accuse me, who harm me, and who ridicule me all partake of Awakening (Santideva, 1997, p. 35).
The secret power of the Bodhisattvas in their approach to evil is to rely upon love, and not hate. As Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, love your enemies. Because, as Gautama Buddha put it, hate is never conquered by hate; hate is only conquered by love. This means that the Bodhisattva’s response to suffering and affliction is exactly opposite to the response of an evil being: rather than denying it and trying to escape it and transfer it to others, the Bodhisattva’s heart remains completely open to suffering.
Whatever offense you have committed toward others for your own benefit, let it descend on yourself for the benefit of sentient beings (Santideva, 1997, p. 110).
Thus, the saints are saints not because they are lacking in sin, but because they are completely open to it. Their saintliness lies in acknowledgement of their sin, not their lack of it. Even with “mere mortals” the extent of our willingness to suffer is the mark of our psychological health, just as the avoidance of suffering is the mark of illness. M. Scott Peck describes the difference this way:
It is often the most spiritually healthy and advanced among us who are called on to suffer in ways more agonizing than anything experienced by the more ordinary. ... Conversely, it is the unwillingness to suffer emotional pain that usually lies at the very root of emotional illness (Peck, 1983, p. 123).
With exactly the opposite attitude of the evil, the Bodhisattva views the openhearted experience of imperfection, suffering, and sin as beneficial for its own sake. We are blessed to the extent that we can know the truth of our own suffering and sin, rather than having it hidden from us. Simone Weil explains:
I should look upon every sin I have committed as a favour of God. It is a favour that the essential imperfection which is hidden in my depths should have been to some extent made clear to me on a certain day, at a certain time, in certain circumstances. I wish and implore that my imperfection may be wholly revealed to me in so far as human thought is capable of grasping it. Not in order that it may be cured but, even if it should not be cured, in order that I may know the truth. (Weil, 1987, p. 51)
Thus, the Bodhisattva’s embrace of suffering is not some demented masochism, but a willingness to remain experientially open to the truth, no matter how unpleasant it may be, no matter what personal attachments must be sacrificed, no matter what pain must be endured. This willingness begins with the suffering that results from personal unwholesome actions. But, for the Bodhisattva, this love extends beyond personal suffering to embrace all the suffering of limitless sentient beings. As Santideva tells us,
One who does not exchange his own happiness for the suffering of others surely does not achieve Buddhahood. ... Therefore, in order to alleviate my own suffering and to alleviate the suffering of others, I give myself up to others and I accept others as my own self (Santideva, 1997, p. 106).
For the sake of accomplishing the welfare of all sentient beings, I freely give up my body, enjoyments, and all my virtues of the three times (Santideva, 1997, p. 34).
Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude. (Weil, 1987, p.55)
Because suffering often comes upon the Bodhisattva as a result of interactions with adversaries or evil beings, there is gratitude for these people as our greatest teachers. Because suffering is a beneficial gift, those who bring us these good gifts should be thanked:
Since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure discovered in the house and acquired without effort. ...Patience arises only in dependence on his malicious intention, so he alone is a cause of my patience. I should respect him just like the sublime Dharma (Santideva, 1997, p. 73-74).
The reason for this gratitude toward suffering and those who bring it on, is that affliction and adversity are actually energies that the Bodhisattvas transform into redemptive power. Like the martial artist who skillfully uses the opponent’s energy to prevail, the Bodhisattva’s capacity to embrace suffering and affliction with love and gratitude magically transforms the energy of the adversary into liberating energy. Rather than trying to resist the affliction with the defensive energy of self-preservation, the Bodhisattva receives the energy and selflessly opens to it inwardly, so that it serves to further reveal the truth and deepen compassion. The enemy’s attempt to overcome the Bodhisattva thus only increases the Bodhisattva’s power. The Bodhisattva is thus genuinely grateful for the energy of affliction as a manifestation of divine love, helping the Bodhisattva more completely sacrifice and surrender the self-cherishing clinging to the ‘I’. Simone Weil explains further:
Relentless necessity, wretchedness, distress, the crushing burden of poverty and of labour which wears us out, cruelty, torture, violent death, constraint, disease—all these constitute divine love. It is God who in love withdraws from us so that we can love him. For if we were exposed to the direct radiance of his love, without the protection of space, of time and of matter, we should be evaporated like water in the sun; there would not be enough ‘I’ in us to make it possible to surrender the ‘I’ for love’s sake (Weil, 1987, p. 28).
And Geshe Rabten echoes this insight:
Just as if we were to throw a rock straight up it would fall back and hit us, so too when we encounter adverse circumstances are we experiencing the results of past unwholesome actions done because of attachment. ...Therefore, instead of being despondent, we should be grateful and joyous that the trouble has returned to attack and thereby demolish the self-cherishing attitude that was originally responsible for it (Rabten, 1986, p. 66).
What is the capacity that allows the Bodhisattva to effect this magical transformation? How is the Bodhisattva able to take on extreme energies of affliction and terror, and transmute them for beneficial ends, rather than being overwhelmed by them? What is their secret?
Humility consists in knowing that in what we call ‘I’ there is no source of energy by which we can rise (Weil, 1987, p. 27).
The source of a man’s moral energy is outside him, like that of his physical energy (Weil, 1987, p. 3).
Even those who are not yet Bodhisattvas intuitively recognize this truth in situations of extreme affliction or danger, when they are forced to recognize their utter powerlessness, and spontaneously turn in prayer to a higher power. Mental health also requires that the will submit itself, at least to some extent, to some principle that transcends mere selfishness. As M. Scott Peck explains,
Mental health requires that the human will submit itself to something higher than itself...some principle that takes precedence over what we might want at any given moment...be it truth or love, the needs of others, or the demands of reality (Peck, 1983, p. 162).
The reliance on something beyond the limits of the self can feel very difficult at first, since it demands that one continue to love and endure, even when old habits of hate and fear arise. One must even love and be open to the full experience of these old habits, because otherwise the trust in love is incomplete, and—as Simone Weil tells us—one will fall into despair:
Extreme affliction...is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul. ... But through all the horror he can continue to want to love. ... It is only necessary to know that love is a direction and not a state of the soul. If one is unaware of this, one falls into despair at the first onslaught of affliction (Weil, 1951, p. 134-135).
Insofar as the reliance upon love is complete and unconditional, the affliction will be transformed. The Bodhisattva is one who has learned this secret of reliance upon supernatural love, and has confidence in using this reliance on love for the transformation of the energy of affliction into the energy of liberation. This energy of liberation is the energy of transformative love that opens a window beyond selfish habitual responses based on hope and fear. Simone Weil describes this as using affliction to benefit the destruction of the ‘I’, to help the liberation of constricted habits of response:
So long as we ourselves have begun the process of destroying the ‘I’, we can prevent any affliction from causing harm. For the ‘I’ is not destroyed by external pressure without a violent revolt. If for the love of God we refuse to give ourselves over to this revolt, the destruction does not take place from outside but from within (Weil, 1987, p. 23-24).
Once the Bodhisattva has learned this secret inner alchemy, a kind of fearlessness is born. Because afflictions are no longer a threat, but are actually a benefit to the process of liberation, the Bodhisattva has nothing to be afraid of. Thus, because the Bodhisattva’s heart is unconditionally open to all suffering, the old self-centered habits of hate and fear begin to lose their grip, and a space opens up for the spontaneous flow of merit and success:
From the time that one adopts that Spirit with an irreversible attitude for the sake of liberating limitless sentient beings, from that moment on, an uninterrupted stream of merit, equal to the sky, constantly arises even when one is asleep or distracted (Santideva, 1997, p. 20).
The gratitude of the Bodhisattva for affliction and suffering is thus based on the profound experience and understanding that this energy is beneficial for deepening the Bodhisattva’s compassion, allowing merit and success to arise, and helping further purify the Bodhisattva. It is the exact opposite for evil beings, who avoid affliction at all costs and try to push off suffering onto others:
Upon harming another for one’s own sake, one is burnt in hells and the like; but upon afflicting oneself for the sake of others, one has success in everything (Santideva, 1997, p. 105).
By inverting selfishness, Bodhisattvas rely instead on selflessness. Instead of avoiding affliction and pushing it onto others, they embrace it and take it upon themselves. Rather than hating imperfection and sin, they acknowledge it with complete unconditional love. The magical result of this inversion is the possibility profound transmutation, healing, and redemption.
The healing of evil...can be accomplished only by the love of individuals. A willing sacrifice is required. The individual healer must allow his or her own soul to become the battleground. He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil. ... Good people can deliberately allow themselves to be pierced by the evil of others—to be broken thereby yet somehow not broken—to even be killed in some sense and yet still survive and not succumb. Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world (Peck, 1983, p. 269).
Something supernatural and cosmic takes place when pure, unconditional love selflessly opens itself completely to experience the afflictions of evil, and stays with them, even when it seems unbearable. There is an opening in the soul. As Simone Weil explains:
The irreducible character of suffering which makes it impossible for us not to have a horror of it at the moment when we are undergoing it is destined to bring the will to a standstill, just as absurdity brings the intelligence to a standstill, and absence love, so that man, having come to the end of his human faculties, may stretch out his arms, stop, look up and wait (Weil, 1987, p. 102).
When one endures the void of this standstill, and refrains from exercising one’s efforts to escape suffering, the opening—the void in the soul—allows the supernatural to flow in:
Not to exercise all the power at one’s disposal is to endure the void. This is contrary to all the laws of nature. Grace alone can do it. Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. ... To accept a void in ourselves is supernatural (Weil, 1987, p. 10).
The acceptance and endurance of this void in the soul is at once human love made divine, and divine love made manifest. It is at once an emptiness of the self, and a fullness of selflessness. There is an intersection of the natural and supernatural, an opening of boundless radiance in the world of form, and the miracle of redemption becomes possible. In this redemption, the selfish resistance is not removed but transformed. Thus, when a Bodhisattva confronts evil, the affliction is allowed to completely enter the pure heart of the Bodhisattva, where the suffering is completely experienced. The Bodhisattva’s capacity to encounter evil is not due to a protection against it, but to a capacity to be completely vulnerable to it. That perfect openness is what transforms and liberates the energy of affliction. As Simone Weil explains,
Purity is...highly vulnerable in the sense that every attack of evil makes it suffer, that every sin which touches it turns in it to suffering (Weil, 1987, p. 66).
The sin which we have in us emerges from us and spreads outside ourselves setting up a contagion of sin. ... But at the contact of a perfectly pure being there is a transmutation and the sin becomes suffering. ... Evil beings, on the other hand, transform simple suffering (sickness for example) into sin. ... Where, then, are we to put the evil? We have to transfer it from the impure part to the pure part of ourselves, thus changing it into pure suffering (Weil, 1987, p. 64-66).
This is the secret of supernatural redemption of evil. When the affliction is transformed into pure suffering, the evil being is redeemed in that moment. This miracle is possible because the affliction is—in spite of the intentions of the evil being—no longer harmful, but is actually beneficial. As Simone Weil puts it,
If someone does me an injury I must desire that this injury shall not degrade me. I must desire this out of love for him who inflicts it, in order that he may not really have done evil (Weil, 1987, p. 66).
Thus the evil deed is redeemed through the purity of it being finally and completely experienced by the pure heart of the Bodhisattva, and thereby no longer actually being an evil deed at all. The suffering is the joy of liberation, and the evil is the goodness of divine blessing.
Although we may not be advanced Bodhisattvas yet, our experience is a microcosm of this process of transforming evil into goodness. In our own lives, we can aspire to the Bodhisattva ideals, and cultivate the virtues that allow the Bodhisattva to subdue extreme evil. Thus, even in our more modest efforts to subdue and redeem the milder forms of evil within ourselves, our afflictions and sins are transformed by reliance upon a love beyond our limited selves in much the same way that the Bodhisattvas use their special powers to transform extreme manifestations of the constricted energies of evil in the world. Through practice, we can increase our capacities to rely upon these principles of transformation. In our own ways, no matter how apparently small, we constantly have the opportunity of assisting the Bodhisattvas in their selfless devotion to the liberation and enlightenment of all sentient beings. The choice is ours.
Peck, M. Scott (1983). People of the Lie (New York : Simon & Schuster).
Rabten, Geshe and Dhargyey, Geshe (1986). Advice from a Spiritual Friend (London : Wisdom Publications).
Santideva (1997). A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Ithaca : Snow Lion).
Weil, Simone (1951). Waiting for God (New York : Harper & Row).
Weil, Simone (1987). Gravity and Grace (London : Ark).
(c) 2000 Thomas J McFarlane