Buddhist – Jewish Dialogue

– January 28, 2018

Why and when bad things happen to good people.


Host: Rabbi Hugh Seid-Valencia
Director of Community Engagement
Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center of Silicon Valley

Jianhu Shifu,
Abbot, Chung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale

At the start Rabbi Hugh set the parameters reminding people that sometimes, theological philosophical discussions don’t translate well into pastoral care.

The talk was about the Jewish perspective and the Buddhist perspective as to why and when bad things happen to good people.

The discussion took place in three parts: The Why, The When and Q & A.

PART 1 Why do bad things happen to good people?
Rabbi Hugh ~ The Jewish perspective

This question why bad things happen to good people is of central concern to people who are interested in living in a just world. We want to believe that our world is founded on a basis of justice, and if this is the case, there are times when evil or misfortune just doesn’t compute. This was put most powerfully by professor Jonathan Garb at the University of the Negev in Bersheva. He said, “there’s a fundamental problem in Judaism, if God is all powerful, and God is all good then evil doesn’t compute.” If God is all powerful and all good then why do babies die of cancer, why are there earthquakes, this is a problem that a person comes up against that it can be enough to cause them to lose faith. This is a fundamental problem for those of us who want to believe in a just world and it a particularly Jewish problem as well.

According to Professor Garb, in order to solve this problem one of the three terms needs to be weakened:
1. God is all-powerful
2. God is pure good
3. Evil is always evil

Evil is not Really Evil
The Rabbi covered these in reverse order. He first posed that maybe evil isn’t really evil; maybe what we experience as evil, we just don’t understand. What we experience as evil is because we have this limited, shortsighted human perspective. If we can see things from a more global perspective, what we’re experiencing as evil is maybe for our good, or for the benefit of a larger good.

The Book of Psalms says that a righteous person flourishes like a cedar as opposed to the wicked that grow like grass. The distinction being that grass grows and withers, while the cedar flourishes for generations. Maybe evil is a blip on the screen, that even though we may see the rewards of evil very quickly, ultimately evil is not going to hold the day, the cedar is going to win over time.

Another way of looking at evil is in the saying, “if that evil hadn’t happened to me a greater one might have.” Or, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” We learn from our misfortune. We turn evil into lessons that we can learn from. There’s a concept in Judaism called sufferings out of love. We suffer because we can handle it and it makes us stronger and better people. For some people all of this can be helpful, but for Rabbi Hugh, it’s problematic especially in the case of the holocaust. It’s particularly not useful in a pastoral sense. You don’t want to say to someone who is experiencing misfortune that this evil is for your benefit.

Good is not just good
As it says in a line from the Book of Isaiah 45-7, “I created light and darkness, good and evil, all things come from me.” This indicates that God is all powerful and that God creates it all. Another way to understand this is that God creates good and evil and He asks us to choose. And because we have free choice, there has to be evil for us to able to choose the good. God allows for evil so that we can have freedom of choice.

God is not all-powerful
There are two ways to understand this: one is that God creates not out of nothing, but out of a world that is formless and void. It’s an error to say that God created earth out of nothing. Actually, the earth was formless and void and that God steps in to a world of chaos and disorder and creates order. Professor John Levinson (author of Creation and the Persistence of Evil) makes the case that the work of creation is ongoing and incomplete. That God is constantly working to create order and goodness in a world that is fundamentally formless and void. The metaphor for this in the Book of Psalms and the Book of Job is of God taming Leviathan, that the sea creatures and monsters are symbols of chaos and the void. And God, in the world to come, will finally conquer these creatures, but is hasn’t happened yet. God has harnessed and tamed them, but they are still with us today. So as human beings we can imagine joining this ongoing work with God to bring more goodness and order into a world where this battle between God and the Leviathan is ongoing today. So our job is to be on the side
of God. Another way of saying this is that God isn’t present in the Evil, God is present in the response to Evil.

So in order to make sense of the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?”, we need to weaken one of the terms in our syllogism.

The Zen Perspective: Jianhu Shifu
Although Buddhism starts off from a different point than Judaism on this question, you may see how they are quite similar in their conclusions.

In Buddhism there is no creator that is all-powerful. So, what is the Buddha? The Buddha means the enlightened one. And he teaches that all of us, all conscious beings, can become enlightened to the Truth and therefore become buddhas.

Karma or Cause and Effect
Buddha is powerful and benevolent, but, Buddha is not all-powerful. There are things that he cannot change. For example, he cannot change your karma. Therefore, if a person has done bad things, the person must go through the consequences of his/her own karma, and Buddha can’t reverse their karma.

But Buddha can teach a person how to change bad karma into good karma even though the person is still responsible for his/her own action. Cause and effect is central –that you’re responsible for your own actions. In Buddhism, good karma is defined as something done that brings happiness or benefit to others, whereas bad karma is something done that brings suffering to yourself and others. Yet when we ask the question, why do bad things happen to good people, there’s an intricate detail that needs to be taken into consideration. There are many different kinds of good karma, and many different kinds of bad karma.

For example, killing. Killing animals, people, or other sentient beings, causes great suffering that leads to a particular kind of bad karma resulting in poor health or a shortened lifespan. Stealing is another kind of bad karma that leads to poverty or having your things taken away from you against your will.

As an example, a very charitable person donates a lot of money, which results in great wealth in the future. On the other hand, this same person goes hunting or maybe even kills people, the result is suffering from that kind of bad karma (e.g. illness or an early death). There are different dimensions to good and bad. A person may reflect: “I’m a good person, but when I was child, I did my share of killing little bugs for fun.” For the person it was fun, but for the bugs it was a matter of life and death, and those actions and as a result one gets ill from his own doing. This is one way we look at karma.

Past Lives
Buddhists also believe in past lives. There is the possibility of having done some bad things in a past life. Many people have a problem with this notion including Buddhists. They say, “How do I know if I did something wrong? I don’t remember it, it’s no fair.” So for some this may not be helpful. But for others it does and those people accept what has happened without anger or resentment and is able to move on with their lives and face the challenge.

Going back to this idea that evil is not evil. Another Buddhist concept is called emptiness –the emptiness of good and evil. In Buddhism good and dad are not absolute, they are relative. For example, if as a child you frequently got sick, was that bad for you? Of course, that was bad, but only in the short term. But then there are people who were sickly kids who went into medicine and eventually became good doctors. Is that a bad thing? No. When we are only focused on what happened, many things don’t make sense. But if we expand our vision toward a more long term, global view, things will look differently. An example is Steve Jobs. He was kicked out of his own company. It was the worst time of his life, but in retrospect, he admits that it was the best thing that could have happened to him because it taught him how to become a better manager/leader, and that’s how Apple has become the company it is today.

So emptiness of evil implies what happens to you is less central to what perspectives you take. What you do in response to that situation is what is important.

PART 2 When bad things happen, how do we respond?

The Rabbi agrees with Jianhu Shifu that when these things happen what we are called to do is respond. We can enter into philosophical speculations about why, but ultimately what were called to do is respond. What kinds of tools or attitudes do we have when bad things happen?

For the Rabbi, what we can do is bring presence to that encounter. What it boiled down to, in a pastoral care class that the Rabbi took, is “active listening.” What we do as human beings when we show up for each other is listen. We take it in and hear the other. We show up to their pain. And in so doing, we show up to the truth of that moment. Rabbi Heschel would have us showing up to the reality of our experience because God is present in the moment. And when we have moments of this immediacy and the encounter of the self with reality that is an encounter with God. So even when that reality is a reality of suffering, the reality of evil, when we show up and are fully present to that that is about being present with God. That’s the essence of living an engaged life. To really show up to what is, whether that’s good or evil or neither good nor bad. Just being with what is, being with that person who is suffering, without trying to provide them with meaning. We often want to be the teacher and have the good advice and solve

the problem, and often that’s exactly what the other person doesn’t need. And for ourselves as well, we so often go into problem solving mode, trying to put a diagnosis on our ailment before we even understand it. So just showing up to our own pain and the pain of others is part of the battle.

Jianhu Shifu: It took me 20 years to learn this lesson. As a (formal) engineer, I’m trained to solve a problem. But now I know sometimes that’s exactly what people don’t want. Zen is about being in the present moment. It’s a profound concept, and an application of being in the present moment is “active acceptance.” The idea is that whatever happens to you now, you accept it. This may sound passive, but actually not. Because we spend a lot of time being angry, thinking that it’s not fair; that negative energy is a form of escapism, “I don’t want to accept this,” and you don’t want to face it. So the idea of active acceptance is that whatever happens, even though I don’t know the reason, I accept it. What acceptance does is to free you up to be able to think about what to do now.

Karma and causality have two parts: one is what you’ve done in the past that lead to what is happening to you now. We may not fully know why, and we may feel it’s unfair, but it has already happened and there is no point contesting it. The second part is what you can do now to change the future. That is what we want to focus on. Instead of thinking, “life is not fair,” “it’s been forced upon me,” saying, “I must’ve sinned in the past,” and focus on what to do now. As an example, a Korean mother gave birth to a deformed little girl. She had two fingers on each of her hands and her feet were connected to her knees. The mother’s friends all told her to give her up for adoption. But the mom said no and accepted her daughter as she was. The girl was given a toy piano at a young age, fell in love with it, and now she’s in her 20s she tours with her piano performance. I wouldn’t know that she only had 4 fingers just by listening to her beautiful playing! Their story is an inspiration because they fully accepted their conditions. Fair or not, you just accept it.

PART 3 ~ Q & A

Q: Are you both saying that there is no answer as to why and that it’s time to move on? So if somebody says to you, “why my child? Why me?” What would be your answers?

Jianhu Shifu: From our perspective there is a reason. There’s karma, and karma always works in all aspects of life. Although, what we perceive as karma is through a narrow window of all that is happening, while it really goes back to the infinite past. Karma is dynamic. It’s not static or fixed. It’s a flow of cause and effect, and it gets complicated pretty soon. You try to explain that and people may or may not find it useful. However, what is definitely useful is to focus on the present. There are always certain things you cannot change, and there things you can change.

We also teach that there’s infinite potential within all of us. Another thing to keep in mind is having the right perspective. If you have the right perspective, you can totally change the experience. An example: once there was a man who was very jealous of the Buddha. He went up to the Buddha and started to insult him harshly. The Buddha, on the other hand, remained calm, didn’t react and didn’t even defend himself. The Buddha just listened in silence from beginning to end. When the angry man got tired and stopped, the Buddha then said to him, “May I ask you a question? If you were to bring a gift to someone and that person refuses the gift, what do you do with the gift?” The man was caught by surprise but answered, “Of course, I would have to keep the gift myself.” The Buddha replied, “I agree with you totally. Thus, the gift you have just showered upon me: I don’t accept it!”

When somebody yells and criticizes us we think that we are the receiver and that we have no choice but to feel hurt. But the Buddha sees that you actually do have a choice. During that first part (insult), you have no choice. But in the second part, in how you respond, you do have a choice. You can remain calm and present and mindful. Then you can evaluate whether you keep the gift or not. When you become good at this, that suffering ceases to be suffering. That bad thing ceases to be a bad thing and becomes an opportunity to teach that person a lesson.

Rabbi: With that example of coming with a child who has died, we may believe for ourselves that evil is not evil, and that that child will be an angel in heaven and will be with God in the time to come. I don’t find this compelling for myself. This is an answer that is available to us in the tradition, but not compelling to me.

We may say that God has created this evil. This is a result of God being responsible for everything. And our job is to practice acceptance. This is part of the order of the universe and our job is to practice acceptance.

We may say that God is not involved in that sickness. And that God is involved in our attempts at the healing. That God is actively working on the side of good and our job is to join in that struggle. Those are theological perspectives that we can bring to the experience. I would council against giving any of that advice in the moment. That’s good for us to think, and we can when we show up and listen, listen in the other person for one of those three choices. So that we can support them where they are. So we ask the grieving mother, “why do you think this is happening?” “What is your instinct about what is happening? This is an opportunity to listen and echo back appropriately. This is going back to being an active listener as opposed to laying our theology on that person’s suffering. Think this through for yourselves. Which of these three perspectives do you find compelling. What makes sense to me is that God is part of the attempts of healing and that it’s our job to join in that ongoing struggle. We show up to do the work of goodness and justice in a world that is not always that way.

Q: If somebody comes to you and says, “I’m a tumor to your society” they feel like a cancer. How would you help them to change their negative thought patterns?

Jianhu Shifu: I’m not a therapist, but here are some of things we can do. One of the reasons why that person became negative is because of their perspective. They focus on the negative aspects of themselves instead of focusing on the positive aspects. Just being a good listener can be a very good starting point. And then you can discover the rescue signal that the person is sending out. Watch for the rescue signal. And try to help that person build confidence. In Buddhism, everyone can become a Buddha, we certainly believe in everyone’s potential, but because of inside conditions or outside conditions you have karma that has become a mess. Part of the job we do is to help them build that confidence. I believe that everybody has talents, that we can learn something from everybody. We may start by giving the person a small project to give that person a sense of accomplishment.

Q: What is the role of prayer in your traditions and for yourself?

Rabbi: One of the ways of understanding prayer is as a call for God to wake up. Wake up! Wake up! Provide me with some guidance, get to work; I need help, the world needs help. Wake up, do your job! In calling for God to wake up, it is also a call to our selves to wake up. It can also have that effective of, “What is my place” in helping wake up this situation. It can be both a wake up “you” out there and then hopefully we’ll also have that sense of wake up “me” in here.

Jianhu Shifu: Another way of looking at enlightenment is waking up. Awaken yourself to the truth. Buddha is like a mother who is always reaching out to her children. But if the children turn their backs on their “mom,” no matter how much the Buddha wants to help, the help doesn’t reach them. But as soon as you say, “Buddha I want to learn from you,” right then there’s a connection. But the Buddha can’t force his help on you. There is a sense of coming back to make that connection. And there is a sense of waking up the buddha within. There’s a light that’s within that can help us illuminate the truth.

Rabbi: We often get that wrong in contemporary American Jewish culture. We often show up to services with a sense that they should calm us, that they should make us feel better, that they should have us feel contained and safe and that may be the case. But I also feel that we should get this charge, a little bit of energy for ourselves in that act of prayer.

Q: Jews say “God willing!” and, “You’re blessed,” “I am blessed,” etc. When I hear those things I feel like we should stop that kind of language because when I hear that it sounds like God wasn’t willing to help this or that person. The he only

blessed THAT person or situation. What about all the other people? I’m wondering how to make sense of that whole expression? And, is there something similar to that in Buddhism?

Rabbi: I’ve taken on the practice of saying “God Willing” in only the past 5 years. It started out as a joke for myself, and I’ve come to appreciate it, and it reminds that I am not fundamentally responsible for everything that happens to me. I can plan to be there tomorrow, but I may not! That so much is out of our control. And for me there’s something powerful about recognizing my limitations. Again, for me, I have that sense that God is involved in an ongoing struggle with forces of chaos and disorder. It’s not like I’m saying that God is responsible for all the ills that happen to the people that aren’t blessed in that moment. So for me, there isn’t that tension and the act of saying “God willing.” It is about recognizing my own limitations in a way that I find to be liberating.

Jianhu Shifu: As the rabbi said, it’s important to recognize one’s own limitations. In the Buddhist language there are a whole set of complicated causes and conditions that is going on around you, because you’re not alone, you are interacting with so many different people, and then there’s also the part that you can contribute and there’s also the big wheel that’s going its own course and so, saying “god willing” could mean: the time has not arrived yet, or, you’re not ready yet or you’re not mindful enough to see it.

Sometimes you have to be patient, but do your part, have faith and continue to make the changes that you can make. So no matter how small or how hopeless it seems there’s always something you can do and that you may have to wait until it bears fruit. It also helps to make good karma connections with people, and that means helping people and making a lot of friends so that the whole cause and condition will be more suitable for you to solve your problem.

Q: Bad things are happening all over the world and it would seem at an accelerated rate. And I find myself pulled between, is it people’s karma and it has to play out versus we need to help the world and keep working at it? Personally, do I work on my own inner peace, meditation so that my life and around me it’s beautiful? And, how much do I try to tune out the outer world that to me is very stressful and difficult? I’m wondering how this can be addressed.

Rabbi: David Jaffey offers a paradigm in his book “How do we change the world around us?” We start with us and when we can show up for ourselves and really hear what’s happening for ourselves and be present for our own suffering, and have the reservoirs to be able to hear that, we are more likely, I think, to be of service to others. So I think it starts with being present with ourselves and taking our inner condition very seriously in order to do the work of repairing of the world. It’s important to start with repairing ourselves, because if we just focus on repairing the world, we are headed toward burn out.

Jianhu Shifu: You are really a Zen Rabbi! The Zen Buddhist idea is that ultimately there is no difference between making yourself calm and free and freeing others. This is really the same thing. But in reality, in practice it’s very hard to achieve that balance. I would love to go on a 2-year retreat, but should I continue to teach at the Zen Center? I just returned from a 14-day silent meditation retreat. And that was immensely helpful. When I first met my teacher, the one thing that struck me was how calm and at ease he was, he emanated this incredible serenity. This serenity is not something a person can fake. And that, in itself, can have a very powerful effect on people even before saying anything. So, before we get to that peak point (of nonduality between helping oneself and helping others) we need balance. Sometimes we need to study on our own, but sometimes helping others is a very good learning process.

Q: In Judaism there are people who believe in free will, and some that believe in destiny and some that have no problem in believing in both. If you can change, you can change your destiny, but you have to have the free will to change. In Buddhism, if there is destiny, and people believe there is one, then it’s easier to accept destiny, how can you help us with this question?

Jianhu Shifu: I find it interesting how people in the West often has this question of free will. I thought about this because in Buddhism we don’t ask ourselves this question. I came to the conclusion that free will something we have taken for granted; nobody (in Buddhism) questions that we have free will. From the Buddhist perspective, there is a kind of fate or destiny that’s played out due to your past karma. So, our past lives have affected or even arranged our future, but we can always change that. We may not be able to change everything, but there are certain things we can change each moment. And that’s why it’s so important, to stay in the present and listen carefully, to observe, to be mindful and to know what is the right course to take as well as to study from the great teachers to learn the right perspective. Your future has already been shaped, but you can change it, even within this life span.