“Please allow me to introduce myself,” says The Devil in the Rolling Stones’ classic tune “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Unfortunately, devils are not usually so obvious. By nature, they are devious and hard to identify. In addition, our powers to discern good and evil are diminished by two things: our own ignorance or delusion and the cunning of “the devil himself.”
In Nichiren Buddhism “devils” symbolize a function of life. No one actually is a devil, but everyone has the potential to think and behave in a devilish fashion. Terms like devil and evil define modes of human behavior—our own or others’—that can hinder our ability to respect the Buddha nature in ourselves or in others.
Nichiren Daishonin writes of how difficult it is to discern good from evil while in an unenlightened state. He refers to this as a “dream realm,” in which our minds are “invariably engaged with phantoms, and so it gives rise to phantom capacities, phantom receptiveness, phantom responses…” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 836). Or, he writes, that people have “become drunk on the bad liquor of inner darkness” (WND-1, 478). To awaken from our dream state, to sober from our drunkenness of ignorance, we practice Buddhism as members of the SGI, dedicated to awakening and encouraging one another.
Sneakiness and cunning are the devil’s calling cards; according to Nichiren, obstacles and devilish functions arise in “confusing form” (WND-1, 281) to hinder one’s Buddhist practice, or to create division and mistrust among fellow Buddhists. For one who is taken in by these, he says, “The devil will watch over him like a parent” (WND-1, 770).
Devilish functions or the people who embody them often take on an attractive and sympathetic appearance like the “man of wealth and taste” in the Stones’ song. But to sympathize with those who behave in a devilish manner, who hinder the advancement of kosen-rufu, serves neither them nor ourselves. Their error is critical and driven by the worst in human nature—to diminish the value of others, to use others for their own gain, with the effect of estranging people from the community of believers who propagate the most powerful Law, which can relieve suffering.
Shakyamuni Buddha thoroughly reproached his follower Devadatta, who, out of jealousy, tried to destroy the Buddhist Order. The Buddha harshly criticized him in public to alert everyone, including the transgressor, to the seriousness of the offense. SGI President Ikeda explains: “It is by denouncing evil that we can cause such people to open their eyes. That is because hearing voices resounding with the justice of the Mystic Law has the effect of activating the Buddha nature that lies dormant in an evil person’s heart” (June 2003 Living Buddhism, pp. 37–38). When we do this, Nichiren says, we are acting as the offender’s “parent.”
Buddhism does not view good and evil as a duality, as existing independent of one another. Even a Buddha possesses the potential for evil. If this were not so, the principles of “mutual possession of the ten worlds” or “three thousand realms in a single moment of life” would not be true. The potential inherent in any condition of life are all the other possible conditions. The Buddhist principle called the “oneness of good and evil” means that where there is evil, good is an ever-present potential, where there is good, evil is always a possibility. As Nichiren writes, “Good and evil have been inherent in life since time without beginning” (WND-1, 1113). Since both good and evil are always present in all life, it becomes each person’s continual challenge to encourage and nurture good and to suppress evil.
Also, the good and evil we may see in others reflects the good and evil in our own lives. They are universal potentials. “I can see me in you” and “I can see you in me” is a viewpoint basic to Buddhism.
As Buddhists, we do not presume that anyone is exclusively evil, with no potential for good. Nor do we assume ourselves to be exclusively good and incapable of error. Such attitudes are non-Buddhist. To identify evil and discuss it with the conviction that this will lead to the growth and benefit of all involved is the purpose of Buddhist dialogue. In doing so, our aim should always be to inspire and empower others and to unite people rather than divide them.—Dave Baldschun