Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, Stephen Batchelor

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

This book is written in the clear prose found in Batchelor’s other books such as “Buddhism Without Belief”, “The Awakening of the West”, and “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”. His grasp of history, Buddhist or otherwise is broad, his knowledge of Buddhist texts is deep and expansive, and his recall of world literature is impressive. The words and ideas of an encompassing range of individuals including Shantideva, Einstein, Baudelaire and Nagarjuna are used to show how pervasive the idea of personified evil is in human existence. Evil is given a form. I found it difficult to connect with this book due to my own acceptance that there is no inherent “Evil” in human beings only the bad, inappropriate choices that they make.

“Life was just a dazzlingly tentative array of contingent processes, playing themselves out in complex sequences of causes and effects but with no discernible beginning and no divine power mysteriously directing them to a preordained end.” This is how Mr. Batchelor writes that Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, thought and he follows it with, “Gotama found this revelation of a selfless and Godless reality to be deeply liberating.” [pg. 6] This points to what my own study has revealed, that human beings are totally responsible for what happens to them and the world around them. There are no higher powers to fix our mistakes, or to punish us for doing wrong. Each human being is responsible for their own thoughts and actions. This would have been a startling new paradigm for the Hindu people of India 2600+ years ago.

Much of this book is spent in personifying Evil as a being. Someone who believes that The Devil of Judeo/Christian and Islamic beliefs is in fact an Evil Being whose influence is experienced in the wrong that man does will see the parallels between that Devil and Mara. Like the Devil constantly probes the weaknesses of man, Mara does the same. For thousands of years personifications of Evil have been blamed man’s wrongdoing. The Devil, or Mara made me do it.

If Mr. Batchelor meant to draw the reader to the conclusion that whether The Devil or Mara these concepts are only metaphors for the thoughts and actions of man, he doesn’t make that clear. Throughout they are presented in some moments as beings, in other moments as compulsions and vexations. In the final chapter he writes, “Buddha and Mara are figurative ways of portraying a fundamental opposition within human nature.To live with the devil is to live with the perpetual conflict between one’s buddha-nature and one’s mara-nature.” [pg.180] I found this to be one of the few indications that Mr. Batchelor sees the responsibility for what human beings do as entirely their own. Mara-nature as the propensity for humans to make bad choices balances out man’s buddha-nature, the desire to make good choices.

As in all of Batchelor’s books there is much to learn, and much to contemplate.

Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, Stephen Batchelor, Riverhead Books, 2004, ISBN 1573222763

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