On Aug. 3 in El Paso, Texas, 22 people lost their lives after a man armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire at a Walmart. Just a day later, another armed gunman killed nine and wounded more than two dozen in a deadly attack in the Oregon District in Dayton, Ohio. These acts of mass violence, like the famine in Yemen, the AIDs epidemic and other global crises that affect millions, are examples of the evil that exists in this world.
“Evil, suffering, violence and tragedy have been around since the beginning of humankind,” said the Rt. Rev. V Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, who opened the Interfaith Friday lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.
So how can evil be explained? How is it that bad things can happen to good people, and vice versa?
Before joining Robinson for the Interfaith Friday conversation, Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, abbot and director of the Rochester Zen Center, approached these questions with the three most famous words in Zen Buddhist practice.
“I. Don’t. Know,” Kjolhede said. “I don’t know, and I think this takes us into the depths of the mystical traditions of all the different religions, … ‘mystical’ meaning that which is beyond the intellectual, beyond the conceptual, that which is the intuitive or contemplative. This is what unites all religions that have a mystical aspect to them; this realm of not knowing.”
Kjolhede began his lecture by quoting a famous Chinese Zen master who once said: “To speak of a thing, misses the mark.”
“That’s what I’m up against, and that’s what anyone in speaking about Zen is up against,” he said. “Anything I say falls short, because the true essence of Zen cannot be encompassed in words — it’s beyond words.”
The Zen school of Buddhism has historically been known as the school that doesn’t rely on words, or “the school of direct experience.” Kjolhede said the point of Zen Buddhism is to get behind the words.
The word “Zen” is the transliteration of the Chinese word, “Chan.” These two words simply mean “meditation” — Zen is a practice based entirely around meditation.
“Now here comes the hard part,” Kjolhede said. “If we’re talking about God, or evil or any noun, we’re always left with what that really means.”
Buddhists believe that all truth has two sides — the conventional and the ultimate, joined together to create a two-fold reality. The conventional side is the dualisms people face throughout life: time and space, success and failure, etc.
“But then there’s this other side, which you could call the undifferentiated,” Kjolhede said. “The eternal, the absolute. And reality, or I could say enlightenment, is seeing these two sides as just two sides of reality.”
In other words, this “other side” of reality is the unknowable side.
“But you can’t speak about either side as anything except half the truth,” he said. “The truth is ‘this,’ the whole thing. In addressing the matter of evil or God, or anything … we have to talk about it from these two sides.”
Reaching the unknowable side of reality requires emptiness. According to the Buddhist belief of emptiness, nothing in the world is fixed — everything is in flux. For example, an audience member who walked into the Hall of Philosophy 20 minutes before Kjolhede’s lecture began, wasn’t the same person when they left as they were when they walked in.
Everything is insubstantial, according to Kjolhede, including God and evil. Not that evil things don’t happen — he recognizes that heinous crimes and cruelty occur all over the world — but evil is not a fixed thing, it’s not permanent, it’s not a thing as it is in other religions.
“That’s not just what I believe; it doesn’t matter what I believe,” he said. “It’s what I’ve experienced.”
Kjolhede’s experience with Zen has spanned 49 years. Like his teacher, Philip Kapleau, Kjolhede became invested in the practice after an experience that left him “shredded.” He was arrested after being caught with peyote as a 21-year-old, and his night in prison was one Kjolhede described as a “night in hell.”
“I was with 13 other convicted prisoners convicted of murder; heroin addicts screaming and vomiting all night,” he said. “This is the suburban kid who grew up in Rochester, Michigan, by the way. … I realized that I had to change my life.”
Originally, Zen bored him — he was looking for stimulating philosophy, rather than rigid practice. Now, he believes, “a little bit of understanding inclinith one’s mind to philosophy, deeper understanding inclinith one’s mind to religion,” once said by Francis Bacon.
“I believe that,” Kjolhede said. “I believe it because to go to the depths of reality, to the depths of our own nature, requires us to go beyond this rational, logical mind.”
When addressing the question, “How can bad things happen to good people and vice versa?” Zen Buddhists don’t rely on any doctrinal points such as reincarnation or Karma, which states that everything results from a chain of cause and effect.
“In Zen, we don’t need to stay there in talking about Karma,” he said. “I would say that in Tibetan Buddhism, (Karma) is more of a thing. In fact, I’ve seen real, serious debates between Tibetan Buddhists about whether you need to believe in reincarnation to come to enlightenment. In Zen, that’s beside the point. In Zen, it’s this moment, it’s now. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in rebirth, or past life or future life. It’s, ‘Are you present now?’ That’s the important thing.”