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I have a question about Buddhism, which is similar to or modified from the Problem of Evil or the Problem of Suffering in western religion philosophy:

If [ by definition from ordinary intuition ] the Buddha Sakyamuni really had achieved perfect altruistic "merit" or "abilities", then, contradictorily, why when the Buddha Sakyamuni was presenting in the world, the hell is NOT "empty"? --- there were still sentient beings in the situations, such as in the hell, that they cannot meet the Buddha Sakyamuni? Doesn't the NON-emptiness of the hell means there are still rooms yet for achieving perfect altruistic "merit" or "abilities"?

Hello everyone. I am from Taiwan. Thank you in advance for everyone who may or does give any constructive/helping information.

P.S. Actually I have flagged this my question post as "in need of moderator intervention". Explanation: (1) I was indeed surprised by myself that thoughts questioning the Buddha via the way of reductio ad absurdum came out in my mind (and also written in my question post). (2) I don't have confidence that such reductio ad absurdum is no misleading/misguiding to every kind/level of Buddhism learners.

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  • I really have some kind of concern that such way of thinking in my question post may be danger.
    – user21001
    Nov 30, 2021 at 7:34
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    Why did you post this comment about "danger"? Would you like to explain at greater length e.g. in a Chat room? And/or is there something you might like a moderator to do, perhaps to edit, about what's posted in this topic? How can we help?
    – ChrisW
    Dec 1, 2021 at 7:51
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    You are asking, if the Buddha is perfect and omniscient, why didn't he save everyone already by now? And you are worried that asking this question is a sin, as if you are stepping on a dangerous path by questioning the Buddha, did I understand that right?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Dec 1, 2021 at 16:47
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    If you're concerned that your question is "dangerous," ask to have it deleted or modified so that it is no longer "dangerous." That seems reasonable, no?
    – Caoimhghin
    Dec 2, 2021 at 14:41
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    @Caoimhghin I've thought better of my question; can I delete it? suggests we avoid deleting the topic -- because it has two "good" answers -- so I was trying to find another solution, or to even understand what the problem seems to be.
    – ChrisW
    Dec 2, 2021 at 21:07

3 Answers 3

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A somewhat hand-waving answer would be "Hell is both empty and not empty". This excerpt from Khyentse Norbu's book What Makes You Not A Buddhist would probably make things clearer:

Let's say there is a cowardly man named Jack who has a phobia about snakes. Jack walks into a dimly lit room, sees a snake coiled up in the corner, and panics. In fact he is looking at a striped Giorgio Armani tie, but in his terror he has misinterpreted what he sees to the point that he could even die of fright—death caused by a snake that does not truly exist. While he is under the impression that it is a snake, the pain and anxiety that he experiences is what Buddhists call "samsara," which is a kind of mental trap. Fortunately for Jack, his friend Jill walks into the room. Jill is calm and sane and knows that Jack thinks he sees a snake. She can switch on the light and explain that there is no snake, that it is actually a tie.

[...] It's important to understand that by switching on the light and demonstrating that there is no snake, Jill is also saying that there is no absence of the snake. In other words, she cannot say, "The snake is gone now," because the snake was never there. She didn't make the snake disappear, just as Siddhartha didn't make emptiness. This is why Siddhartha insisted that he could not sweep away the suffering of others by waving his hand. Nor could his own liberation be granted or shared piecemeal, like some sort of award. All he could do was explain from his experience that there was no suffering in the first place, which is like switching on the light for us.

When Jill finds Jack frozen in terror, she has some choices about what to do. She can directly point out that there is no snake, or she can use a skillful method such as escorting the "snake" from the room. But if Jack is so terrified that he is unable to differentiate the snake from the tie, even with the light on, and if Jill is not skillful, then she could actually make things worse. If she dangles the necktie in Jack's face, he could die of a heart attack. But if Jill is skillful and sees that Jack is delusional, she can say, "Yes, I see the snake," and carefully take the tie out of the room so that Jack feels safe for the time being.

In short, the Buddha could see that hell is empty - a.k.a conditioned and lacking inherent existence - and he could also see that others might not see it that way. For some of them, saying "hell is empty" might not help them advance on the path to enlightenment as much as "there is hell".

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  • I really have some kind of concern that such way of thinking in my question post may be danger.
    – user21001
    Nov 30, 2021 at 7:32
  • Actually I have flagged this my question post as "in need of moderator intervention". Explanation: (1) I was indeed surprised by myself that thoughts questioning the Buddha via the way of reductio ad absurdum came out in my mind (and also written in my question post). (2) I don't have confidence that such reductio ad absurdum is no misleading/misguiding to every kind/level of Buddhism learners.
    – user21001
    Dec 3, 2021 at 18:36
  • Great answer. Will check out Norbu's book.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 18 at 16:15
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In Western traditions, evil is typically seen as personified into a being with a power similar to the power of good, locked in eternal battle over the souls of humans. However, this concept did not exist in early Judaism, which held Yahweh responsible for both good and evil. One of the oldest Hebrew texts, Isaiah states in 45:7:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

Evil as a separate concept & entity became prevalent in Western religion based on the dualistic Zoroastrian model, where Good was represented by Ahura Mazda and Evil by Angra Mainyu. This was integrated into Judaism during the Persian occupation. It is from this period and its writings that we get Satan as the personification of evil, which found its way into Christianity and Islam: a powerful being working against the creator deity by tempting human souls into sin.

There are some similar myths in Buddhism, like Mara tempting the Buddha to prevent him achieving attainment, but by large the Karmic principle is not based on the forces of evil conspiring against humans, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Evil, both as a human characteristic and as an external force, is a foreign concept to Buddhism. Instead, each individual's choices and actions are the determinating factor in his/her Karmic destiny.

Which brings us to "The Problem of Evil": the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God.

In Theravada and some Mahayana schools, deities are irrelevant to Buddhism. It is personal practice and adherence to the path that results in attainment, not divine intervention. In Mahayana, this principle is known as 自力 (Jap: Jiriki), "one's own strength".

And yes, there are Mahayana schools that subscribe to 他力 (Jap: Tariki) meaning "other power", "outside help". Some believers of Pure Land Buddhism, for example, believe Amitabha Buddha will lead them to enlightenment, similar to Christians believing that Jesus takes away their sins to allow them into paradise. But even in Tariki schools, evil is not personified into an external, personalized force, but it does identify evil as part of our human nature that one must come to term with - in fact, this "negative thinking" is essential in Tariki schools to realize that one needs the help of a Buddha to reach attainment.

As for beings in hell, many Mahayana schools teach that every one of the Samsara realms has a Bodhisattva to assist those dwelling in that realm. For example, Ksitigarbha: Bodhisattva of the Hell Realm.

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  • "Christians believing that Jesus takes away their sins" Maybe off-topic here but I think the doctrine is that Jesus and baptism removed Original sin; perhaps that Man is justified by Faith (schools differ on that subject); and, so far as I know, that God is benevolent but problems arise from Man choosing other than God.
    – ChrisW
    Nov 26, 2021 at 11:13
  • @Chrisw I referred to "sin", not "original sin".
    – Codosaur
    Nov 26, 2021 at 12:18
  • Yes and I thought that might be misleading or oversimplifying and so I commented, but never mind, it's off-topic. I thought the bits of the answer about Buddhist doctrine were just right.
    – ChrisW
    Nov 26, 2021 at 12:21
  • I really have some kind of concern that such way of thinking in my question post may be danger.
    – user21001
    Nov 30, 2021 at 7:33
  • Actually I have flagged this my question post as "in need of moderator intervention". Explanation: (1) I was indeed surprised by myself that thoughts questioning the Buddha via the way of reductio ad absurdum came out in my mind (and also written in my question post). (2) I don't have confidence that such reductio ad absurdum is no misleading/misguiding to every kind/level of Buddhism learners.
    – user21001
    Dec 3, 2021 at 18:36
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Lord Budhdha nor anyone can deliver others to Nirvana. Your deliverance is in your hands. Lord Budhdha can only show you the path. Walking on it is your responsibility. Lord Budhdha clearly teaches that the Apaya and even planes of existence like Arupaloka are unsuitable places because in these planes you cannot hear Dhamma. If you are in them, you first have to get out of them in order to listen to Dhamma. Lord Budhdha explains that sansara (the endless cycle of birth and death) is an extremely dangerous place due to this reason. Yes there are places you can enjoy for a little while, but there are planes worse than your wildest nightmares. Only you and you alone can end your sansara.

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