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The Concept of "Evil" in Buddhism and Lurianic Kabbalah

Professor Evgeny Torchinov
University of St Petersburg

I have recently completed an article "The Doctrine of the Origin of Evil in Lurianic and Sabbatian Kabbalah and in the 'Awakening of Faith' in Mahayana Buddhism" which will be published in the next issue of Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts (Ed. by Prof. Daniel Abrams and Prof. Avraham Elqayam). Here is a brief synopsis of this paper.

1. According to Lurianic Kabbalah the roots of evil (expressed as the power of din) are immanent to The Absolute (En Sof) itself and are contained in its depths.

2. The process of creation explicates these potential roots of evil.

3. This explication of din is the foundation of the very beginning of the creation through zimzum (contraction).

4. The purpose of creation is the elimination of the element of din (and consequently of evil) through its explication and subsequent liquidation in the process of 'divine catharsis.'

The "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" -- Mahayana Sraddhotpada Sastra / Dasheng qi xin lun (6th century c.e.) proclaims that besides the substantial reality of the primordial Enlightenment of the One Mind (Absolute) there exists secondary, or accidental nonenlightened aspect of the Mind which is a cause of all sufferings of samsara.

1. Both teachings (Kabbalah and the trend of Mahayana Buddhism represented by the Awakening) support the view that the roots of evil lie in the Absolute itself. According to Lurianic Kabbalah these roots are the potential force of din (Stern Judgement) which can find its overdevelopment and isolation from the power of Mercy as qelippoth, or 'shells'. Therefore, the dark side of being is latently immanent to the Absolute. According to the Awakening, the cause of evil and of the samsaric cyclical existence with all its sufferings originates from the nonenlightened aspect of Absolute (Suchness as luminous One Mind), which has a secondary and accidental nature but nevertheless is responsible for all defilements and attachments of the empirical consciousness of the sentient beings.

2. The very process of creation is seen as an objectivization, or explication of the roots of evil. In Lurianic Kabbalah the first point of the creative activities of the Original Unlimited Light of Absolute ('Or En Sof) is its contraction (zimzum) -- that is, its limitation. And every limitation can be seen as the manifestation of the powers of din which are the root of evil as well. Therefore, the explication of evil is the primary characteristic of the process of creation as such. In Awakening the first point of the emergence of samsara is ignorance originated from the unenlightened aspect of the Absolute. This ignorance manifests itself in the discriminating thought which erroneously takes itself to be  different from the substance of Suchness. The development of this process results with the mental constructing, or appearance, of subject-object oppositions and different kinds of attachments.

3. The process of creation is not only the process of the explication of evil, but also a means for  the liberation of the Absolute from the potential roots of evil, and can be understood as a kind of cathartic activity of the Absolute. In Lurianic Kabbalah this process of the Divine catharsis results in the tiqqun, or restoration of being.  (In some kinds of Lurianic Kabbalah the powers of evil, qelippoth, devoid of the forces of the Light, must be eliminated as a 'waste product' from the essence of the Godhead, in others they must be transfigured into the powers of holiness worthy of restoration in the realm of  the Divine Lights). In Awakening  the samsaric beings, because of the influence of their substantial original Buddha nature, attain Enlightenment which leads to the complete elimination of the non-enlightened black dot inside the Absolute, and its complete Enlightenment. The text does not speak explicitly about the cathartic character of the emergence and empirical existence of samsara but it can be easily supposed because of the very structure of the process of the movement from the Original Enlightenment through unsubstantial unenlightenment to the empirical Enlightenment resulting with the complete Enlightenment as the absolute elimination of the shadow of ignorance.

Nevertheless, there are also very important and theologically substantial differences between the understanding of the nature of evil and the ways of its elimination in these two kinds of the mystical theosophies. And they are also  important for an understanding of the essential specific features of the soteriological attitudes of Lurianic Kabbalah, as rooted in the Biblical world-view, and those of Mahayanistic Buddhism which is closely related to the traditional Indian ways of thinking.

First of all, it must be noted that the end of the world-process in the Lurianic Kabbalah is tiqqun -- that is, the restoration of the purified creation to its perfect and undefiled state, or even its inclusion into the sphere of the Divine pleroma. In the Awakening, Enlightenment is seen as the state of elimination of all subject-object relations and the extinction of the manifold world as such: mind returns to its own intrinsic nature, and the waves (i.e., the world) caused by the wind of ignorance cease to appear in the phenomena, revealing the true calm self-nature of the Mind as the plain surface of the Ocean of the Absolute. Therefore the Lurianic attitude toward the creation (manifold world produced from the depths of the Absolute) is ontologically optimistic, while that of the Awakening is pessimistic.

Secondly, the very evaluation of the creative process is rather different in both systems: the moving power of the unfolding of One Mind / Suchness in the world of phenomena is delusion, and only by complete Enlightenment are the effects of this delusion (the influence of the unenlightened aspect of Suchness) and the universe (three worlds of samsara), eliminated. On the other hand, the corresponding attitude in Lurianic Kabbalah is more complicated. There, the shadow of potential evil participates in the process of creation from the very beginning, but that creation is also a positively evaluated act of the Divine unfolding. Moshe Hayyim Luzzato had even suggested that the Absolute En Sof was obliged to give up His omniscience and omnipotence, in order to be able to  create the space-and-time dependent world. The Absolute is by its nature static, as Aristotle had asserted; therefore, in order to achieve a dynamic state of creation, the Absolute had to give up being absolute.

Summarizing the above-mentioned differences, it would be rather convenient to use metaphorically Nathan of Gaza's images of the thought-some and thought-less Lights. (Thought-some lights express the Divine Will to create, while thought-less lights express its Will to remain in the primordial quietness of its hidden mystery, understanding the creation only as an explication of the powers of evil and even as a revolt against the Absolute itself.)  Comparing this problem of creation in Lurianic Kabbalah and the Awakening, the former expresses mostly a position of the thought-some Lights, while the latter expresses that of the thought-less Lights.

And last but not least, these two systems use very different languages to express their ideas: that of the Lurianic and Sabbatean thinkers is the gnostic mytho-poetic language of a highly suggestive character, while the language of the Awakening is a philosophical and speculative one, relating this text to the traditional treatises of the learned Buddhist scholasticism.


Evgeny Torchinov



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text content © Evgeny Torchinov
posted on the Donmeh West mail list Sun, 17 Oct 1999
page uploaded 18 October 1999, last modified 12 July 2004