The Devil as a Lack of Clarity

I’m a fan of Stephen Batchelor, the author and, for some, Zen apostate. He doesn’t believe in reincarnation or karma in the cosmic sense. He’s a believer in what he calls “secular Buddhism,” that is the relationship between Buddhism and the world we live in. I’ve especially been influenced by his book “Living With the Devil – A Meditation on Good and Evil,” that was published in 2004. I read a lot more in this book about the secular world than Batchelor possibly intends, even though elsewhere, such as in Buddhism Without Beliefs, he’s a great deal more explicit about secularity and his atheistic take on Buddhism.

Much in the way that I read Christianity as myth (in the same, albeit not as deep, way that Joseph Campbell did) I see Buddhism as myth, especially when dealing with themes like reincarnation and karma. Many of the stories recounted in Lving With the Devil involve Buddha’s meetings with Mara, which is the Sanskrit name for the devil. Looking at this mythically, I can’t say I believe that the historical Buddha actually ran into Mara dressed as a farmer, nor that Buddha was the subject of an attempted seduction by Mara’s beautiful daughters (and so on and so forth.) But I do believe that the themes of the stories are real and are a regular battle that humanity wages both amongst and within themselves. A devil is created by things such as attachments, attachments to such things as wealth, fame, ego and even a sense of oneself as a being separate from the rest of life. A devil is created when one attaches the meaning and definition of oneself outside of oneself.

If Zen is about one thing at all, at least as I see it, Zen is about clarity. Zen is about seeing things (and this becomes cliche among many Zen writers) as they really are. Zen is the squeegee that clears the mud from the windows, the wipers on the windshield. It’s difficult to see where you are going without clarity. A devil is a lack of clarity. It’s something in the way, though in the tragic sense Kurt Cobain used the phrase as a lyric rather than the wide-eyed wonder in George Harrison’s use of the same phrase. It’s a blocking, and “Living With the Devil” reiterates this over and over – a devil is that which blocks one’s path.

To be in the throes of attachment is to grasp desperately at something (or someone even) outside of oneself for answers and a sense of self. To be in the throes of attachment is to lose sense of right and wrong. To be right is to be on a path; to be in the wrong is to lose that path. To be attached is to be lost to not be able to see. Even something that is on its own perhaps, a good thing, can be the source of losing one’s way. Zen can be an attachment. Vegetarianism can be an attachment. Love of one’s country becomes nationalism when one is attached. It’s a lack of clarity that turns something that is neutral or even good into something that blocks one’s path. The phrase “my country, right or wrong” is an obvious illustration of this – sure, my country is fine as long as it’s doing the right thing, but supporting something that is in the wrong necessitates wearing blinders.

I’m not entirely clear on Batchelor’s take on reincarnation. I agree with him that the dogmatic view that there is something about one that passes into another body cannot be substantiated by reality, at least as we know it. But there is something when it’s read mythically. To me it’s very related to karma, as in the popular reading of karma as “what goes around comes around.” If you plant seeds of good in your life, good things grow after you’re gone. There may not be eternal life, but I remember vividly the bad things perpetrated upon me as a child by certain relatives. In my mind they are still alive. But here I am being, dare I say, attached… I still believe the evil things they said, they still affect me, despite the fact that what was said is  objectively false. This attachment, however, blocks the path, creates a devil, and robs me of the clarity needed to see that path or even forge a new one.

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