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Ask A Buddhist: Are evil spirits real?

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By Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Is Satan or evil spirit true or just myth? If true does it reside within or without?

Thanks for your question. Many religions and cultures have legends, lore, and beliefs about evil and evil beings, such as the devil or Satan.

While the idea of an evil presence or evil force looms large in our Western culture, Buddhism takes a quite a different view. Without denying that beings have the capacity to do horrific things, Buddhists believe that no being—ordinary or supernatural — is all bad or inherently evil. We separate the person from the action. Actions can be harmful enough to be labeled evil, but the person is not. A person him or herself is never evil because they have the potential to become fully awakened, to become a Buddha.

Buddhists assert that all destructive and constructive actions of body and speech arise from the minds and hearts of human beings, not from any evil entity. There is no eternal force or evil spirit tempting people to do evil.

From a Buddhist viewpoint, the root of negativity or evil in the world is our own ignorance. This ignorance is two-fold. The ignorance we are talking here is the ignorance that doesn’t understand cause and effect properly, making us think that greed and self-centeredness are helpful motivations that inspire us to act in ways that bring us what we like and want without any adverse consequences. Mental states supported by greed and craving lead us to steal, engage in unwise or unkind sexual conduct, lie, gossip, and so forth—actions that clearly bring problems to ourselves and others.

Similarly, we mistakenly believe that our anger and belligerence will protect us from harm by making us act in aggressive and threatening ways toward others. This easily leads us to kill and maim others as well as to speak divisively and harshly. Again, the suffering results from these actions affect us as well. We don’t realize that harming others also harms ourselves.

In the scriptures we find the personage of Mara, who is not an actual living being but a representation of our ignorance, greed, and hatred. This symbolizes that to stop evil in the world, we must uproot our negative attitude and emotions and transform our minds into positive emotions and attitudes such as love, compassion, wisdom, generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, and so forth. We do this by learning and practicing the Buddha’s teachings.

About Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Venerable Tenzin Tsepal met Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey, in Seattle and studied Buddhism with her from 1995 to 1999. During that time, Venerable Tsepal attended the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India in 1996 as a lay supporter. An interest in ordination surfaced after she completed a three-month meditation retreat in 1998. She lived in India for two years while continuing to explore monastic life. In 2001, she received sramanerika (novice) ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

While Venerable Tsepal was in India, some Australians friends introduced her to the 5 year Buddhist Studies Program at Chenrezig Institute (CI) north of Brisbane, Queensland, where she subsequently lived and engaged in intensive residential study from 2002-2015. As the Western Teacher at CI, she tutored weekend teachings and retreats, and taught the Discovering Buddhism courses.

Prior to ordaining, Venerable Tsepal completed a degree in Dental Hygiene, and then pursued graduate school in hospital administration at the University of Washington. Not finding happiness in 60 hour work weeks, she was self-employed for 10 years as a Reiki teacher and practitioner.

Now a member of the resident community at Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Tsepal is compiling and editing the many years of Venerable Chodron’s teachings on monastic training as well as leading a review on the Buddhist philosophical tenets for the residents.

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