Eliminating the Root of All Evil

As the title of this volume suggests, we are living today in times of terror. How can comparative philosophy help us to cope with and ideally overcome terror? How can it help us envision a world without terror and the steps toward making such a world a reality?

My approach in this paper is to situate the question of terror in the larger context of the question of violence more generally (of which terror is of course a sub-variety) and ultimately in the even larger context of suffering (of which violence is a sub-variety). My approach, shaped by the Buddhist tradition, is to isolate the basic conditions that make violence possible, the idea being that the elimination of these conditions, should it occur, would necessarily lead to the elimination of violence.

There are many reasons to believe the complete elimination of violence is highly unlikely, if not impossible. Reasons for this to which I allude here include the degree to which practically all human beings are implicated in the phenomenon of structural violence and the arguably superhuman capacity for empathy that a life of complete nonviolence, on my analysis, would require. But is the pursuit of a world without violence therefore a waste of time? I would like to suggest that it is not, but rather that the attempt to pursue a world free from violence and the employment of a world free from violence as an absolute ideal or limit concept may very well decrease the overall amount of violence in the world and dramatically improve the quality of human existence.

This is the larger context in which the argument of this paper, which is presented as a case for absolute nonviolence, should be understood. The author is no utopian starry-eyed idealist when it comes to assessing the actual likelihood of a nonviolent world ever becoming a reality (although he has been accused of it in the past). In fact, there are good reasons for believing that, short of all beings attaining nirvana, such a goal will never be achieved in the realm of time and space. But the potential benefits of the attempt, though short of the ultimate goal, seem well worth the effort.

My Assumptions

What is violence? How does it arise? And how might a cessation of violence be brought about? What is the path to the elimination of violence? The not-somodest goal of this essay is to at least begin the process of sketching an account of violence and its emergence for the purpose of determining how an end to violence might be effected.

A basic assumption of the approach I am taking is the Buddhist “principle of the conditionality of existence.” This is the principle, as given in Samyutta Nikaya 2.28, that “(1) When this is, that is; (2) this arising, that arises; (3) when this is not, that is not; (4) this ceasing, that ceases.”1 The assumption is that there are certain basic conditions the presence of which coincides with the arising of violence and the absence of which coincides with the cessation of violence. Therefore, if one can determine what these basic conditions are, one can conceivably develop a path to the elimination of violence through the elimination of the conditions that invariably coincide with its arising, assuming these conditions can be eliminated.

Another assumption I am making here is that violence as such is something that needs to be eliminated. This assumption is again Buddhist. It takes for granted that violence is a form of dukkha or suffering which, on a Buddhist understanding, is that which is to be eliminated.

This understanding of suffering is probably the most basic of the assumptions I am employing in this essay. While suffering may indeed have a variety of redemptive or character building features, on a Buddhist understanding these are not features of suffering as such. They are effects of the creative uses that, if we are properly discerning, we may put to our experiences of suffering. For example, through our own experiences of suffering we may learn to develop empathy. We come to understand that we should not inflict upon others the kinds of unpleasant experiences that we, ourselves, wish to avoid. But positive effects of suffering such as these are not intrinsic to the experience of suffering. They are a result of what we do with our suffering. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist path is a state in which there is no suffering at all. Suffering, therefore, in and of itself, is not seen as having an intrinsic positive value in the Buddhist tradition.

While suffering is involved in the path to nirvana (for on a Buddhist understanding suffering characterizes all states short of nirvana) it is not something that the Buddhist tradition sees as in any sense intrinsically positive. So for all intents and purposes we may conceive of suffering as that which is to be eliminated.

Although the most fundamental assumptions and the approach to violence that I am taking in this essay are Buddhist, I shall also draw upon a variety of non-Buddhist sources in order to make my argument. It will hopefully become clear by the end of this essay that its very eclecticism is part of the claim that it advances–that at the root of violence is a false sense of self as an independent entity. This sense can be dispelled, at least in part, by a recognition of the interdependence and hybridity of all of our “selves”: cultural, religious, ethnic, national, or personal. Though I do not make a case for it here, it is my view that a plurality of paths are possible by which the elimination of a false sense of self and its replacement by an authentic self-awareness can be attained. My approach here is primarily Buddhist, but not exclusively so.

What I mean by “a false sense of self as an independent entity” is a reified sense of the self. Reification “involves a process of abstraction, as with constructions of the imagination, in which we convert the abstraction into a real thing. We take a mental abstraction…and reify it by giving it substantial reality and existence independent of its status as a mental abstraction existing in our minds/imagination.”2 In keeping with the Buddhist No Self doctrine, I take the self to be the result of just such a process.

My claim is not that simply by de-reifying the self, by undoing this process of abstraction and giving substantial reality to the self, we can necessarily arrive at the kind of right understanding that would be required to eliminate violence: an understanding of ourselves as interdependent entities, an interdependence the proper response to which is compassion for and solidarity with our fellow beings. On a Buddhist understanding, it is the desire for a separate self-existence that fuels the process of self-reification. It is this desire that must ultimately be eliminated if the de-reification of the self is to have any lasting effect–if it is to lead to nirvana. The de-reification of the self, in other words, in a Buddhist context, is a process undertaken not as an end in itself, but as both a step toward and a product of a right understanding of reality. It is therefore not the same as, for example, a materialist de-reification of the self.

But if the reified self is a necessary condition for violence and intrinsically an obstruction to a right understanding of reality, then its elimination (what I call the de-reification of the self) would be a necessary step in the direction of a world without violence. In the context of this essay I conceive of the dereification of the self not so much in its Buddhist soteriological sense, though my analysis does draw and depend upon such an understanding. I am conceiving of it here more as an antidote to prejudice and an alternative to the self-other dichotomies with which we are being constantly bombarded and which are invoked as justifications for acts of violence: nationalisms, ethnicities, and religious identities. I am proposing, in place of these “selves,” a not-self. My strategy is to undermine the “selves” that violence is often intended to defend and thereby to undermine violence itself.

What Is Violence? A Working Definition

We should be clear, first of all, what we mean when we speak of violence. What is it that we are saying should be eliminated? The Sanskrit word that is most typically translated with the English word “violence” is himsa, a noun derived from the sannanta, or desiderative form of the verbal root han, meaning kill, strike, or injure. Himsa, therefore, refers to a desire to kill, strike, or injure. Let us begin by defining violence, then, in terms of intention, as the desire to bring about injury and any thought, word, or action that arises from this desire. By “injury” we mean dukkha or suffering.

Violence, on this definition, is basically a perverse desire, a desire to bring about that which, by definition, is to be eliminated, as well as any thought, word, or deed which flows therefrom. Such a desire is a reversal of karuna, or compassion, which is the desire for the elimination of the suffering of all beings. The desire to bring about the end of all suffering is the desire at the root of the bodhisattva path, the path to nirvana, which, according to the tathagatagarbha doctrine, the doctrine of Buddha Nature, is our true natural state. On this analysis, therefore, violence is a perversion of our most basic nature as interdependently arising beings. When we injure others we injure ourselves. A similar understanding is present in a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, notably Hinduism and Jainism, but others as well. It is the essence, one could say, of the Golden Rule.

How adequate is this definition of violence as the desire to bring about injury and any thought, word, or action that arises from this desire? One possible objection to this definition is that it excludes a number of phenomena that are normally characterized by the word “violent,” like a violent storm, or a violent earthquake. A tornado is not, by this definition, violent (unless tornadoes are sentient!) although it is certainly productive of dukkha. So unintentional violence, on this understanding, does not occur.

But this only seems problematic if we are talking about the actions of sentient beings. If a comparison can be made with the word “evil,” much unnecessary confusion has arisen over the characterization of destructive natural phenomena as cases of “natural evil,” rather than simple tragedies. Violence, like evil, has a moral character. It involves intention and choice. Insentient phenomena are “violent” only by way of analogy.

But with regard to the actions of sentient beings, it seems that my proposed definition of violence has more serious problems. One could argue, for example, that the thief who robs a wealthy man, perhaps even killing him in the process, in order to provide for his starving children, is acting not out of an intention to do harm, but out of compassion for his children. Similarly, one could argue that someone who kills in self defense, or a soldier acting in the defense of her nation, or even a terrorist seeking to overturn the present, unjust world order for the purpose of bringing about a new order that he takes to be more just, is not engaging in violence, so long as the intention motivating the action is not to bring about injury, but a higher purpose, such as the defense of the innocent. The injury brought about in such cases, one could argue, is merely an unfortunate side effect of actions carried out with intentions that are ultimately pure and benevolent, a double effect argument.

One could respond to this objection that a distinction needs to be made between the ultimate intention that might motivate the actors in these cases, their long term goals, and their immediate intentions. The thief may intend, in the long run, to feed his children; but when he bashes the rich man over the head with a baseball bat, his immediate intention is to render his victim unconscious, and maybe even dead, so he can go about robbing him. The soldier may intend ultimately to defend innocents from harm; but when she has an enemy in the sights of her gun, her intent is to injure that enemy. The terrorist may be trying to create a just world order; but his immediate goal is terror and mayhem. But the argument would still remain that just as the suffering created by the tornado or the earthquake is not, morally speaking, violent, given that the tornado and the earthquake are incapable of violent intentions, the suffering created in a just cause is also not violent, given that this suffering is not the primary intent of its perpetrators. This is precisely the kind of argument used by those who attempt to justify violent actions in the name of a higher cause. The ends justify the means because the ends provide the true motive for the action in question; and motive is the determinant of the morality of an act.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that it militates against the goal of the elimination of violence by seeking to justify violence. It does not point the way to a world without terror or war, but seeks instead to justify the existing world order in which terror and war occur. If our goal is the elimination of violence then we must define violence in a way that does not give an opening to such an argument.

I would suggest, at this point, a refinement of my initial definition of violence. A new definition of violence could be the desire or the willingness to bring about injury and any thought, word, or action that arises from this desire or willingness.

I see this revision of my initial definition of violence, based on the meaning of himsa, as having a number of advantages.

First, it includes even those violent acts committed, ostensibly, for some purpose other than the mere infliction of the injury which they cause: acts of self defense, of national defense, revolution for social justice, etc. Acts of violence committed even for the noblest of causes are caught in its net.

But it also creates a spectrum, allowing one to make a moral distinction between an act of violence undertaken, say, out of extreme hatred for its intended victim, and one undertaken in the pursuit of a goal that is good in and of itself. There is a difference between a desire to cause injury and a willingness to cause injury in the pursuit of some other goal. This allows us to distinguish, for example, between a person who is abusing a child and another who injures the abuser in order to stop further abuse. But because the distinction is a matter of degree, it also allows us to recognize that both acts are violent, that both acts cause dukkha, and that the world we would like to envision would contain neither. This definition, essentially, allows for a kind of “two truths” doctrine, with nonviolence as an absolute in a world of relative violence.3

Finally, another advantage of this new definition is that it excludes any actions that bring about injury that the perpetrator neither desires as a primary goal, nor is even willing to countenance, but that nevertheless occurs due to unavoidable circumstances. I am referring here to accidental injuries.

The Jain tradition, of course, argues that there are no unavoidable circumstances, that activity carried out with sufficient care will not cause injury to any being. But this obliterates the distinction between violence and dukkha as such. More in keeping with the Buddhist tradition, I wish to preserve a volitional, and so moral, sense of the meaning of violence.

Arguably the greatest weakness of this definition of violence is that it also excludes, besides accidental injury, injury caused by economic and cultural forces that operate beyond the scope of the conscious intentions of human agents. This is what is often referred to as structural violence.

Structural violence is undoubtedly one of the most significant sources of suffering in the world today. The Sanskrit term himsa, on which my understanding of violence is based, does not seem to encompass wholly non-volitional forms of violence such as those that the term “structural violence” denotes, violence that is neither intended nor approved by anyone, but that is simply built into the structures of human existence in a particular time and place.

This raises important questions though, and troubling ones for all of us who cannot but participate in the global economy, thereby implicitly supporting the structural violence that it creates. Can violent structures exist in the absence of the volitional choices of the individuals whose repeated choices and actions maintain those structures? Once we become aware of the suffering caused by the structures in which we participate, are we not complicit in it?

With regard to my definition of violence in terms of desire or willingness to cause injury, it seems that structural violence also falls under it to the degree that those who participate in violent structures are aware of the harm that their participation in those structures involves. I may not desire to cause harm to the physical environment or to help fund terrorist organizations or multinational corporations, but every time I put fuel in my automobile I show a willingness to participate in a small way in these harmful activities. I may seek to justify this participation in a variety of ways, like the soldier taking part in violence in a more explicit sense by fighting in what she takes to be a just war.

How so? I may tell myself, for example, that I need to put fuel in my car so I can transport myself to a conference where I am going to speak about nonviolence. But the difference between me and the soldier is only one of degree rather than of kind, at least to the extent that I am aware of the harm my actions help to cause.

The contemplation of structural violence and the degree to which we all acquiesce in its occurrence is sobering, creating an almost Jainesque sense of the nearly superhuman difficulty of truly practicing nonviolence in thought, word, and deed. The contrast between ahimsa as an absolute ideal and as a pragmatic reality is most dramatically evident when we look at structural violence.

The Reified Self as the Root of All Violence

Operating with the revised definition of violence just given as the desire or the willingness to bring about injury and any thought, word, or action that arises from this desire or willingness, let us return to the questions with which we began this essay: How does violence arise? And how might a cessation of violence be brought about? What is the path to the elimination of violence? Violence, like every phenomenal experience, involves a subject and an object, a self and an other–in this case, a perpetrator and a victim. At the root of all violence, I wish to argue, is a false separation between these two.

In an essay entitled In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, the French-Lebanese, Arab-Christian novelist Amin Maalouf traces the connections between violence and identity. He defines identity straightforwardly by saying, “My identity is what prevents me from being identical to anybody else.”4 He elaborates by explaining that,

Each individual’s identity is made up of a number of elements…Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality–sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited. A person may feel a more or less strong attachment to a province, a village, a neighbourhood, a clan, a professional team or one connected with sport, a group of friends, a union, a company, a parish, a community of people with the same passions, the same sexual preferences, the same physical handicaps, or who have to deal with the same kind of pollution or other nuisance. Of course, not all these allegiances are equally strong, at least at any given moment. But none is entirely insignificant, either. All are components of personality–we might almost call them ‘genes of the soul’ so long as we remember that most of them are not innate. While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it’s this that gives every individual richness and value and makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.5

The root of violence, Maalouf argues, is not, as one might expect, and as a Buddhist might suggest, an egotistical desire to assert or to protect our unique, special, individual identities. These he regards, as his language in the quotation just given suggests, as precious, as a source of “richness and value.” Difference as such is not the problem. This resonates well with a Whiteheadian process understanding of the self in which the telos of the universe is the generation of diverse novel forms of experience. Difference, in such a worldview, is to be celebrated.

The problem, Maalouf says, arises when we define ourselves in terms of just one of our many allegiances. This is a kind of violence to the self, in which we subvert the totality of our complex selves to just one defining allegiance.

Again, this is different from a Buddhist analysis. But I believe the two can be connected in the following way. Both false senses of self–the reified self that is the object of the Buddhist critique, and the exclusive adherence to one allegiance of which Maalouf speaks–are inauthentic forms of self-awareness, reflecting a lack of insight into the true character of self. Both are reinforced through habitual thought patterns. Both are based on fear–or negative desire, as a Buddhist would say–of self-annihilation. Finally, and most significantly, both lead to suffering, including violence.

Maalouf speaks of being asked, as someone who is both Arab and French, which of these two he really is “deep down inside.”

For a long time I found this oft-repeated question amusing, but it no longer makes me smile. It seems to reflect a view of humanity which, though it is widespread, is also in my opinion dangerous. It presupposes that ‘deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters, a kind of ‘fundamental truth’ about each individual, an ‘essence’ determined once and for all at birth, never to change thereafter. As if the rest, all the rest–a person’s whole journey through time as a free agent; the beliefs he acquires in the course of that journey; his own individual tastes, sensibilities, and affinities; in short his life itself–counted for nothing. And when, as happens so often nowadays, our contemporaries are exhorted to ‘assert their identities,’ they are meant to seek within themselves that same alleged fundamental allegiance, which is often religious, national, racial or ethnic, and having located it they are supposed to flaunt it proudly in the face of others. Anyone who claims a more complex identity is marginalized.6 (Maalouf 2-3)

This, according to Maalouf, is where violence begins: within ourselves, with the suppression of our own inner complexity. From a Buddhist perspective, this is not the ultimate root of violence. But is certainly a possible effect of desire, in this case, the desire to belong.

What are the conditions that make violence possible? Again, violence, like every phenomenal experience, involves a subject and an object, a self and an other. In an essay entitled “War and Warriors: An Overview,” Bruce Lincoln argues “that it is only when human actors come to regard others as ‘things’ that they become capable of employing force, particularly lethal force, against them.”7 If one is to engage in violence against another, one must blind oneself to the ways in which the other is like the self. A necessary condition for violence is the “othering” of the other and the “selfing” of the self.

What does this mean? At the root of all evil, according to the dharma traditions of India, is a primordial ignorance or avidya. This ignorance manifests, at its most basic level, as a lack of self-knowledge, or of an authentic selfawareness.

The particular form that this ignorance takes and the authentic selfawareness that is its antidote vary from tradition to tradition, depending on the metaphysical and cosmological orientations of each. But all point to an awareness that radically undermines conventional distinctions between self and other. All point to the interdependence and interconnectedness of all beings.

In the Bhagavad Gita, for example, Arjuna is cautioned against identifying the self with the physical body, the most obvious distinguishing factor among beings in the material world. The body will perish and pass away, being cast off by the soul like a set of old, worn out clothes.8 According to the Gita, as well as the Samkhya and Yoga traditions, the body, and indeed all of physical nature, is but the ever-changing play of the three gunas of prakriti.

Similarly, in the Chandogya Upanishad, the doctrine that the body is the self is presented as the doctrine of foolish demons.9 Ultimately, in the Vedantic tradition, particularly Advaita Vedanta, the self is identified not with the body, but with the atman, the universal self, which is ultimately identical with Brahman, the Absolute, Reality as such. Authentic self-awareness therefore consists, broadly speaking, of an awareness not of that which distinguishes us from all other beings, but of that which connects us to all other beings.

In the Jain tradition, the true self, again, is not the body but the soul or jiva. Though the jivas, according Jainism, are numerically distinct, they possess the same essential nature; and it is the fact that other living beings possess a jiva of the same kind as oneself that is the basis for empathy, and for the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence in thought, word, and deed. “To do harm to others is to do harm to oneself. ‘Thou art he whom thou intendest to kill! Thou art he whom thou intendest to tyrannize over!’ We corrupt ourselves as soon as we intend to corrupt others. We kill ourselves as soon as we intend to kill others.”10 Again, we see an authentic self-awareness as an awareness that connects us in bonds of empathy with other beings.

Finally, in Buddhism, one finds the no self doctrine and the doctrine of pratityasamutpada or interdependent arising, according to which, again, the self is not that which finally makes us distinct from all other beings, for no such independent, distinguishing self exists. The idea that there is such a self is the final state of false consciousness that needs to be eliminated in order for nirvana to occur.

In the Buddhist tradition an authentic self-awareness is an awareness of perpetually arising and perishing moments of experience. These moments exist interdependently and without any final or ultimate distinction obtaining between self and other. “Self” and “other” are false dichotomizing conceptual constructs.

It is this lack of any ultimate distinction between self and other that is the basis for compassion, for seeing the suffering of the other as one’s own; because there is finally, on an ultimate, metaphysical level, no difference between the self and the other. Suffering is suffering and is to be eliminated regardless of where it occurs. So “your” suffering is “mine” and “my” suffering is “yours.” We are all suffering together.

True, the Mahayana tradition makes this more explicit than the Theravada, sometimes coming close to an almost Vedantic affirmation of the unity of beings, which one sometimes finds in the Zen tradition, for example. The Mahayana metaphysics of the alayavijñana and the dharmakaya–which are both principles, among other things, of cosmic unity–allow for such seemingly Vedantic formulations. The ideal of compassion and solidarity in suffering is central, however, to both the Theravada and the Mahayana traditions.

Maalouf draws our attention to the fact that our identities are a complex and ever-changing nexus of allegiances that connect us, in some fashion, with every other being on the planet. Maalouf does not mention Buddhism in his essay, nor is he to my knowledge a scholar of Asian philosophy. But his insight is one which resonates with, and, I think, helps to fill out and complete the Buddhist (and Whiteheadian constructive postmodern) sense of the self as an everchanging and dependent stream of events with no final defining essence. On a Buddhist analysis, the reification of the self, the attempt to give the self an essence, to make it an “it,” a self, in the first place, is the root error that is at the heart of all error, and of all suffering. This error arises from and reinforces desire. This self becomes the object and the subject of desire, of the craving for permanent satisfaction in a world of impermanent events that is the cause of dukkha, according to the Second Noble Truth.

Similarly, on Maalouf’s analysis, the attempt to define the self–or, to use his term, identity–in terms of just one of its many allegiances–usually an ethnic, national, or religious one–is not only a form of violence to the self, but is the shift which enables the objectification of the other that Lincoln affirms to be a necessary condition for the commission of acts of violence against the other. If I identify myself exclusively with my nationality, for example, I blind myself to the host of other allegiances I may share with those who do not share my national allegiance. I distance myself from them, making them “other” and ignoring our shared bonds.

At the same time, Maalouf’s emphasis on how the distinctive uniqueness of each being adds richness and value to the universe serves to

  1.  John Koller and Patricia Joyce Koller, Asian Philosophies (Third Edition) (UpperSaddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), 151-152.
  2. Douglas Allen, personal communication, May 23, 2004.
  3. The two truths doctrine, found in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions (in the works, respectively, of Shankara, Nagarjuna, and Kundakunda) essentially postulates a realm of ultimate truth–corresponding to the realm of nirvana in the Buddhist tradition– and a relative world of conventional truths, in which human beings normally operate. Gandhi invokes a similar distinction between nonviolence as an absolute and the realm of pragmatic action, in which the best we can hope for, normally, is to be minimally violent. I thank Doug Allen for pointing out the resonances of my definition of violence with the idea of the two truths (personal communication, May 23, 2004).
  4. Amin Maalouf, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, Barbara Bray, trans. (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000), 10.
  5. Ibid, 10-11.
  6. Ibid, 2-3.
  7. Bruce Lincoln, Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 144.
  8.  Bhagavad Gita 2:11.
  9.  Chandogya Upanishad 8.7-12.
  10. Christopher Key Chapple, Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 4.