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Sunday, April 25, 2010


Symbols of evil

In countries such as Thailand and Cambodia I observe that spirit beings are often a part of local belief systems. Often these beings are considered to be evil. These beliefs come from Animism that dominated these cultures before Buddhism was introduced. Unlike some religions, Buddhism doesn't usually attempt to replace existing religions but offers its teachings as further enrichment. Over the years the two have blended. It is not uncommon to find Buddhist monks refer to spirit beings. In fact, such beings have been adopted into Buddhist teachings.

In my early study of Buddhism I read several books by Trevor Ling whose interest was largely with the Theravada Buddhism of Burma. Recently I discovered a book of Ling's 'Buddhism and the mythology of evil' first published in 1962 which discusses the various mythological 'evil' creatures and compares them to Mara as a symbol of evil.

Ling points out that Buddhist teachers have embraced the existing folk beliefs rather than contradict them but have used the all-encompassing name of Mara. Instead of trying to teach that these beings do not exist (as I'm aware of Christian missionaries doing in Cambodia) the Buddhist teachers have used them as a way of describing that which is a distraction from ones path. The stories may describe horrible beings that do terrible things but this is intended as a metaphor for our own inability to concentrate on our path. Ling also sees the Christian concept of Satan in the same light.

The problem this raises in teaching religious paths in the modern world is that science has cast doubt on the existence of such beings. However the existence of distractions from ones path is very real. Ling suggests that perhaps the symbols of Satan and Mara have had their day but the reality which is symbolised by these mythological creatures is still relevant.

'If, because the symbol is outworn and irrelevant in a scientific age, it is discarded, then the reality to which it pointed has no longer any representation by means of which men may be constantly reminded of it. There is thus a need to find other effective ways of speaking of this reality which these symbols formerly represented.'

Buddhism and the mythology of evil
A study in Theravada Buddhism
Trevor Ling
first published George Allen & Unwin, 1962
republished 1997 by Oneworld Publications, Oxford

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