“The conflict isn’t between good and evil but between wisdom and ignorance.”

Federico Weinstabl passed this one on to me, which he’d kindly translated from the Spanish, (“El conflicto no es entre el bien et el mal, sino entre el conocimiento y el ignorancia”) as “The conflict isn’t between good and evil but between wisdom and ignorance.”

Neither version sounds like something from the Buddhist scriptures.

The word pāpa is used for “evil” and there’s a whole chapter on the topic — the Papavagga — in the Dhammapada. Pāpa is often contrasted with puñña, which is most often translated not as “good” but as “merit.” Puñña and pāpa are very much a pair.

Here’s an essay on the topic, by Venerable Asabho, in which the author notes, “Asian Buddhists who have grown up in their religion … are quite often surprised to find out that the concepts of puñña and pāpa (meritorious and demeritorious action), which they see as self-evident, seem to play a considerably less important role in the lives of Western Buddhists.”

The contrast between puñña and pāpa is seen in the Dhammapada chapter I referred to, where the second and third verses parallel each other thus:

Pāpaṃ ce puriso kayirā na taṃ kayirā punappunaṃ
Na tamhi chandaṃ kayirātha dukkho pāpassa uccayo.

Should a person commit evil, let him not do it again and again. Let him not find pleasure therein, for painful is the accumulation of evil.

Puññaṃ ce puriso kayirā kayirāthetaṃ punappunaṃ
Tamhi chandaṃ kayirātha sukho puññassa uccayo.

Should a person do good, let him do it again and again. Let him find pleasure therein, for blissful is the accumulation of good.

It’s true that westerners are drawn to the more technically precise terms “skillful” and “unskillful” (kusala/akusala) and tend to be put off by mentions of good and evil. I much prefer them myself! Puñña and pāpa are often encountered in poetic contexts (the Dhammapada is in poetic form), while skillful and unskillful are more often found in detailed explanations of psychology and practice.

Anyway, what’s the origin of this quote? I suspect that the words are actually those of contemporary Buddhist teacher David Loy. For example, in an essay in “Poverty and Morality: Religious and Secular Perspectives,” (Ethikon Institute, 2010) he wrote “For Buddhism, the primary issue is a struggle not between good and evil but between ignorance and insight.”

In another essay, this time in “The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra” (Snow Lion, 2006) he wrote “The Eastern duality is not between good and evil but between ignorance and wisdom.”

And in “Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement” (Springer International, 2016) he wrote “For Buddhism, the fundamental axis is not between good and evil but between ignorance/delusion and awakening/wisdom.”

And again, we find “In Buddhism, the primary issue is not a struggle not between good and evil but progress from ignorance to insight” in “The World Market and Interreligious Dialogue” (Cascade Books, 2011).

Incidentally, I think David Loy is correct in pointing out that in Buddhism, the duality between good and evil is not primary or fundamental. In my opinion, for what that’s worth, the Buddha used the terms puñña and pāpa as a matter of cultural convenience (they were familiar to the laity) and (as I’ve noted) for metrical convenience as well. But Buddhist morality is better expressed in terms of skillfulness and unskillfulness.

The way I explain these terms is to say that skill is about being able to accomplish an aim. A skilled carpenter can aim to make a functional and beautiful coffee table and do so. An unskilled worker cannot. In life, we all have the aim of finding happiness and escaping suffering. A practitioner is able to accomplish this only if she or he can cultivate skillful (kusala) states of mind, which are those free from greed, hatred, and delusion. This works because greed, hatred, and delusion inherently and inevitably lead to suffering, while non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion inherently and inevitably free us from suffering.

The Buddha thus encouraged us to abandon what is unskillful not because it is “bad” or “evil” but because it doesn’t free us from suffering. This is made explicit in the Kusala Sutta:

If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

How David Loy’s words got taken to be the word of the Buddha, I don’t know. But to compensate for my lack of knowledge, here’s a picture of me with the lovely David Loy! (Mr. Loy is, of course, the good-looking one!)

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2 thoughts on ““The conflict isn’t between good and evil but between wisdom and ignorance.””

  1. “Yam kammam karissāmi kalyānam vā pāpakam vā tassa dāyādo bhavissāmi”.

    Here we have pāpa making pair with kalyāna.

    Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates this as thus:

    “Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir”.

    1. That pairing is in the first verse of the pāpavagga as well: Abhitvaretha kalyāṇe pāpā cittaṃ nivāraye: “Hasten to do good, restrain the mind from evil.” In the second stanza of that verse, we’re back to puñña and pāpa, though.

      “Bhadra” is also used for “good.”

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