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Living with the Devil: a Meditation on Good and Evil

by Stephen Batchelor
Riverhead Books, 2004
185 pp plus Notes and Bibliography
reviewed by Vladimir K , November, 2007



Po Chü-I  asked a Zen master: “What is the essence of Buddhism?”
Zen Master Niao-k'e answered: “Do no evil; do what is good.”
Po Chü-I  said: “Is that all there is to it? Even a child of three realizes that!"
The Master replied: "True, a child of three may realize it, but it is not sure that a man of eighty can practice it!"

The question of good and evil has perplexed philosophers and religious leaders ever since Adam ate from the tree of knowledge and realized his own mortality. The dialogue between Po Chü-I and Zen Master Niao-k'e begs the question, what is evil? What is good? There are times when it seems clear: Nazi death camps are evil; love is good. Unfortunately, we don’t usually live in such a black and white world and we’re confronted each day with our actions, good or evil. Threading our way through the thickets of morality and good behavior has never been clear and demands eternal vigilance of ourselves.

Stephen Batchelor’s Living with the Devil: a Meditation of Good and Evil elegantly probes the questions that good and evil throw up every day but he cannot do other than help give some general outlines. How we behave is always up to us. Understanding our behavior and why we are the way we are is only a small step — a child of three realizes that evil is bad and good is, well, good.
book cover
Batchelor is best known as the author of Buddhism Without Beliefs. He is a former monk in both the Tibetan and Zen traditions, contributes to Tricycle Magazine and conducts meditation retreats. Although there is no doubt that his philosophy on good and evil is firmly grounded in Buddhism, the book draws from a wide variety of sources, from not only the Buddhist sutras and ancient texts, but also from modern science and writers such as Baudelaire, Milton, Kafka and, of course, the Bible. The breadth of his intellect is revealed in the diverse sources he taps to work his way through this discussion on the nature of evil as personified in the Buddhist Mara and the Christian Devil.

The book is less than two hundred pages, plus notes and bibliography. It is broken into three sections, each with short chapters totaling twenty-three in all. The first section, The God of This Age, begins with a discussion on mythologies, past and present. He then introduces the two protagonists, the Buddhist Mara and the Christian Devil. It is in the first chapter that Batchelor introduces the Buddhist concept of emptiness (sunyata), pointing out that emptiness is not something to believe in but rather an “emptying”, a letting go of the fixed way of thinking in which we all indulge and which prevents us from experience the “torrent of life”. (p 8) It is also here that paticcasamuppada is introduced. Rather than define it as the usual ‘dependent origination’, Batchelor prefers the term ‘contingent’, “something that depends on something else for its existence.” (ibid) As he points out, nothing actually needs to happen because if conditions were different, different things would happen. This theme of contingency runs throughout the book. Nothing has to happen; it’s just that conditions arise and things do happen. With everything being contingent on something else, nothing has its own intrinsic irreducible essence; therefore, all things are ‘empty’, including us.

Although Mara and the Devil each have their own chapters in the first section, (Mara — The Killer and Satan — The Adversary) Batchelor conflates the two, flowing between the two words with little or no distinction. For example, he quotes the Buddha as saying, “Then Mara came up to me and started talking in words appearing to be full of sympathy.” At the end of the quotation, Batchelor writes: “The devil appears to have Buddha’s best interests at heart.” (p 18) “Yet, no matter how carefully Mara is analyzed and classified, the devil eludes precise definition.” (p 27) Both terms are used somewhat indiscriminately throughout the book although Mara seems to get more mention than Satan or the Devil. Batchelor appears to have some fondness or perhaps sympathy for Mara, describing him as “tragically human” and “oddly endearing”. (p 22) It is odd that a Buddhist practitioner and teacher of Batchelor’s standing would see human life as “tragic” and that this tragedy is “endearing”. The Buddha taught that life is suffering, not tragic, and that there is a way out of this suffering.

The second section is titled, Creating a Path. This was the section I enjoyed the most and it brought forth some concepts I had not previously considered. For example, a path is often envisioned as something constructed, such as a road, upon which we can walk. Batchelor, quite engagingly I think, sees it as a place without hindrance, something that is unobstructed. Space is that which has nothing in it, an “absence of resistance’ (p 71); a path is likewise “a space that offers no resistance” (ibid), allowing one to walk upon it, offering freedom to move. Mara, on the other hand, is that which obstructs, which blocks movement. It is our compulsions, our endless thoughts, our feeling of separateness that block our movement and prevent us living in true freedom. It is “our” Mara that hinders our path.

Batchelor sees the path as “both a task and a gift”. (p 79) Here he claims that in Zen, the “sudden” way is a ‘gift’ while the “gradual” way is the task: “The gradual path is accomplished by commitment and discipline; the sudden path is beyond the reach of training and seems to burst forth without effort.” (ibid) I find this to be oversimplified and somewhat misleading for readers who are not versed in the historical arguments between these two schools of thought. Historically, the Northern School of Chan has been labeled “gradual” while the Southern School has been called the “sudden” way. Given that both labels were the result of internecine conflict and only the so-called Southern School survived into the modern era, it is hard to understand what Batchelor means by these two terms. Insight, or kensho, is always ‘sudden’; cultivation up to that point and more importantly, after enlightenment, is gradual and both demand discipline and training. If the sudden path is “a gift”, who gives this gift?

The third and last section of Batchelor’s book, takes on the book’s title, Living with the Devil. This section, perhaps more than in the earlier parts of the book, has many stories of the Buddha’s battles with Mara to highlight that we all have Buddha-nature and “mara-nature” and “to live with the devil is to live with the perpetual conflict” between these two. (p 180) Throughout the book, Batchelor points out that the Buddha struggled with Mara throughout his life, that Mara, while never dominate, also never quite went away. Mara is the trickster, ever-ready to appear reasonable, whispering in our ears, tempting us with often rational arguments to lead us astray. There were doubts and compromises in the Buddha’s life. In the chapter, The Kingdom of Mara, Batchelor notes that firstly, Gotama was not a prince of a kingdom but the son of an elder in an oligarchic republic. When Gotama became the Buddha and began preaching, he needed protection and patronage and he knew where to get it: among the wealthy and the powerful in the kingdoms of Magadha and Kosala. His first major patron was King Bimbisara of Magadha. The Buddha needed “utmost vigilance and care” in handling the powerful upon whom he depended, just as we do today among our circles of dependency and power. Living with the devil demands not only compassion and understanding of our true self, but wisdom as well. We are, after all, contingent on everything around us to survive and to “do no evil; do what is good.”

Books such as Living with the Devil have a ready audience of those searching for some meaning and understanding in their life but who don’t want deeply intellectual or complex answers. Batchelor is a wonderful writer — clear, eloquent and engaging. There are pearls throughout for every reader but they will be different pearls for different readers. It’s a book you can pick up at any time and dip into as the mood dictates. The sheer simplicity of the writing belies the depth of ideas that Batchelor is trying to convey. It’s refreshing to read a book that attempts to humanize the Buddha. Buddha’s conflict with Mara, his ongoing relationship with his human side, brings the Buddha down from the impossibly high pedestal he’s been placed upon over the millennia. The Buddha and Mara have become dualities, one good, the other evil, and this flies in the face of what the Buddha taught. Batchelor emphasizes that the two are one, that neither can exist alone. Just as it is nonsense to talk about up when there is no down, or male when there is no female, it is nonsense to talk of good when there is no evil. Without Mara there can be no enlightenment. As Batchelor puts it, “Mara is the self to Buddha’s selflessness, the fear to Buddha’s fearlessness, the death to Buddha’s deathlessness. The two are inseparable. Mara addresses Buddha as though he were a stranger, but he is really Gotama’s own conflicted humanity.” (p 28) However, the book is not without its flaws.

In the opening chapter, Batchelor discusses the mythologies we all live under, both ancient and modern. As he says, “A dominant myth of modernity is provided by the scientific understanding of the world”. (p 4) Yet Batchelor draws on these modern myths when it suits his purpose. For example, the chapter Riddle of the World (pp 87-93) begins with the creation of the universe fifteen billion years ago, the formation of this earth four and half billion years ago, the beginnings of life through to “an asteroid five miles wide smashing into the Yucatan peninsula” (p 88) and the rise of homo sapiens. Batchelor admits that “The emerging understanding of reality disclosed by the natural sciences evokes in me feelings of awe incomparably greater than anything religious or mystical writings of any tradition can inspire.” (pp 90-91) I found this dependence on the “dominant myth of modernity…provided by the scientific understanding of the world” (p 4) disconcerting and contradictory to his argument. As Batchelor himself acknowledges, “on the great questions of what it means to be born and die, do good and evil, the natural sciences are silent”. I find a Buddhist believing that natural science provides an “emerging understanding of reality” difficult to accept. Science is a very useful tool but it provides no more understanding of reality than does a television show. The Buddha taught that reality is to be found within, not without.

Batchelor also seems conflicted with the natural world. He says, “Mara is the natural world in all its glory and horror” and “will destroy you with neither malice nor mercy” (pp 23-24) In an interview, he denies that it is the fear of death that is Mara, and that this approach just “psychologises” Mara, internalizing the relationship with death. When it is suggested that Batchelor “re-demonizes” nature, he does not deny it: “'That's right, in a way. Nature is what will destroy us, but nature is also what allows us the possibility of waking up.” (Jones, 2005) I found Batchelor’s relationship with the natural world odd for a Buddhist and professed admirer of science. We cannot externalize Nature as that creates duality. It’s not that Nature is out there and I am in here and I should live in fear of Nature in all its indifference. The leisurely one, walking the Tao, is ever serene, regardless of what Nature throws at him. Understanding transience, especially our own, is a fundamental of Buddhism.

Release your hold on earth, water, fire, wind;
Drink and eat as you wish in eternal serenity.
All things are transient and completely empty;
This is the great enlightenment of the Tathagata.
Transience, emptiness and enlightenment --
These are the ultimate truths of Buddhism (Shodoka)

Stephen Batchelor’s project, through his books, is to make Buddhism relevant to modern Western society. He tries to make sense of the ancient beliefs in a modern scientific and materialist culture quite different from the one that the Buddha knew. However, the difficult questions of life that each of us struggle with have not changed. The answers that the Buddha revealed can be accepted or rejected as one wishes. Batchelor, a self-confessed “agnostic” Buddhist, seems to reject quite substantial aspects of Buddhism while accepting uncritically modern scientism as a path to reality. It’s a matter of faith to say that “evolutionary biology and neuroscience…offer glimpses of self and world that illuminate the path opened up by Buddha.” (p 183) Buddhism does not reject modern science; it just says that the meaning of life and the end of suffering won’t be found there.

References and Further Reading:

Bhikkhu Bodhi (1998) “Review of Buddhism Without Beliefs” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 5, pp 14-21
Jones, Thomas (2005) Empathy for the devil, Dharmalife, Issue 25, winter/spring
Sangharakshita, Urgyen (n.d.) Buddhism Without Beliefs? Western Buddhist Review, Vol 2
Silverman, Marjorie L. (2002) A Critical Examination of the Agnostic Buddhism of  Stephen Batchelor, Masters Degree Thesis, McGill University
Bhikkhu Punnadhammo (2000) A Critique of "Buddhism Without Beliefs" by Stephen Batchelor
Very Good Dharma Friends An Interview with Stephen and Martine Batchelor, Insight, Fall, 1996

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