The Oneness of Good and Evil

Buddhism’s concept of good and evil.


The following is study material for the weekly Soka Spirit chanting sessions being held at SGI-USA Buddhist centers across the country.

Q: What is the significance of the story of Shakyamuni and Devadatta?

A: The relationship between the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and his cousin Devadatta, as taught in the Lotus Sutra, is a prime example of the Buddhist concept of the “oneness of good and evil.” This concept explains that even the most evil person possesses the potential for good, while even a person of great good possesses the potential for evil. Recognizing this, Buddhists strive to take control over their evil tendencies while cultivating good within themselves and others.

After renouncing secular life and becoming Shakyamuni’s disciple, Devadatta earnestly strove in Buddhist practice. And, because he was very intelligent and had many great abilities, he gained distinction in the sangha, or Buddhist Order (for more on the sangha, see Sept. 16, 2016, World Tribune, p. 9). Over the years, however, he increasingly became driven by jealousy and ambition.

It is said that Shakyamuni in his elder years was approached three times by Devadatta. Due to the Buddha’s advanced age, Devadatta suggested that he take over and lead the sangha. Shakyamuni, perceiving Devadatta’s true nature, refused and harshly rebuked him in front of others. Unable to deal with his injured pride, Devadatta left the sangha and began plotting to wrest control of the order from Shakyamuni, devising many schemes to harm and even kill the Buddha. He also tried to undermine Shakyamuni’s bond with his disciples, stir up disunity and destroy the Buddhist Order.

He created his own order, establishing precepts that were stricter than those upheld in Shakyamuni’s order in a ploy to appear superior to the Buddha. Later, most of the 500 followers who had left with Devadatta rejoined Shakyamuni after two of his senior disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, reasoned with them.

Q: How does the Lotus Sutra view Devadatta?

A: In the end, Devadatta’s schemes failed. The Buddha’s state of life was such that no power or plots could harm him.

Given his behavior, Devadatta was viewed in pre-Lotus Sutra teachings as a man of supreme evil and is said to have fallen into hell alive for his evil deeds. In the Lotus Sutra’s “Devadatta” chapter, however, the Buddha reveals that in a past life this evil person had been his teacher, saying, “The fact that I have attained impartial and correct enlightenment and can save living beings on a broad scale is all due to Devadatta, who was a good friend” (The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 223). He also predicts that Devadatta will attain enlightenment and will lead multitudes of others to enlightenment as well.

In essence, the Lotus Sutra teaches that evil and good cannot exist in isolation. Both exist in life, and thus people are not intrinsically good or intrinsically evil. Even a supremely noble figure like the Buddha possesses the nature of evil, and even a great villain like Devadatta possesses the Buddha nature. This is the concept of the oneness of good and evil.

“Oneness,” however, does not mean that good and evil are equal or the same. SGI President Ikeda explains: “If evil functions to reveal good, then evil in its entirety becomes good. This is truly the oneness of good and evil. But if evil is simply allowed to run its course, then it does not become good. Only when evil is thoroughly challenged and conquered does it become an entity of the oneness of good and evil” (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 3, p. 83).

Q: Based on Devadatta’s example, how can we recognize evil?

A: Evil does not present itself, saying, in effect, “Hey, I’m evil and here I come!” A person driven by evil uses scheming and tactics to seem otherwise. In Devadatta’s case, he introduced precepts that seemed stricter than Shakyamuni’s during a time when rigorous, ascetic practices were popular in India. And he attracted those who thought the more austere the practice, the better it must be. Rather than helping his followers attain enlightenment, Devadatta used religion to fulfill his own self-serving need to feel superior to Shakyamuni.

In addition, his actions show that he was driven by his jealousy, desiring to be more highly respected than Shakyamuni. Rather than appreciating the great qualities of others, jealousy leads to finding fault with, injuring or somehow bringing down the other person, with the ultimate end result of injuring and dragging oneself down.

In general, anything that causes fragmentation and divisiveness—complaining, talking behind others’ backs, excluding others—and makes light of the dignity of life is a manifestation of evil in Buddhism.

President Ikeda explains: “Probably Devadatta’s inner mind was not that of a person of faith but of a person of ambition. A person of faith seeks self-mastery; a person of ambition or power seeks to control others. A person of faith takes action, works hard and struggles to overcome his or her inner weakness; a person driven by a desire for power forces others to work for his own selfish purpose, never reflecting upon himself. Devadatta, perhaps on account of arrogance, was such a person, and so in the end he departed from the path of a person of faith” (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 3, p. 72).

Q: How can we win over evil tendencies?

A: Devadatta was so blinded by his jealousy and ambition that he wasn’t able to realize his errors. President Ikeda says: “Most likely it’s because he had given up his own internal struggle. If we perceive our inner evil but neglect efforts to conquer it, then our lives are instantaneously stained with evil. In that sense, a good person is someone who struggles against evil. It is by fighting the evil around us that we eradicate evil within our lives and so purify them. That is the path of human revolution” (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 3, p. 76).

Buddhism entails an endless internal struggle against evil tendencies. Even though Devadatta failed in his attempts, his influence lingered. His order continued to exist for several centuries. This is why we must constantly strive against devilish functions.

Nichiren Daishonin says: “Devadatta was the foremost good friend to the Thus Come One Shakyamuni. In this age as well, it is not one’s allies but one’s powerful enemies who assist one’s progress” (“The Actions of the Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 770).

Our Buddhist practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo enables us to bring forth the expansive life force of the Buddha to conquer all negativity, and to transform “poison into medicine” and bad friends into good ones.

Facing difficulties is a sign of progress in our practice of revealing our enlightenment. “The key,” President Ikeda says, “is to use all sufferings as fuel to become happy; to use all evil as firewood to cause the light of good to burn brighter still” (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 3, p. 85).

When we are in the depths of misery, we challenge ourselves to bring forth happiness. When consumed by despair, we generate hope. In times of turmoil and divisiveness, we strive to bring people together and create harmony. This is the purpose of our Buddhist practice.


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