What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?!


Buddha said that the root of all our negative minds — all our so-called “delusions” or unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — is self-grasping ignorance. We are grasping very tightly at an exaggerated sense of self — an I or me that is independent, real. Due to this we naturally develop a grossly overrated, over the top, overweening sense of our own importance, a delusion called “self-cherishing”. Due to this, we naturally develop all the other delusions such as anger and attachment. Due to this, we naturally do negative actions. Due to this, we suffer!

I find this to be an immensely encouraging summary of our human condition. We are not evil at heart, just ignorant, and ignorance can be overcome. We can tackle it in ourselves and forgive it in others. I think that Jesus understood that we are not evil, just ignorant, when he cried out on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”


So, let’s rewind to the starting point. We grasp at a real or inherently existent me or I all the time, but sometimes it is more obvious to see how — when we are afraid or embarrassed, for example. Geshe Kelsang gives the example of being about to fall off a cliff. We are not thinking “Aarrghhh, my body is about to fall!” or “Aarrghhh, my mind is about to fall!” – just “Aarrghhh, I am about to fall”. We have a visceral non-analytical grasping at a me or self that appears solid, real and graspable, and we are terrified for it. (If we had the time and mental space to analyze, we’d see that this I we’re grasping is independent, different from our body and mind, and existent from its own side. But self-grasping doesn’t analyze, it just grasps, and strongly at times like this…!)

Here’s another example. Imagine for a moment that you are attending a large meditation class, and at the beginning the organizer says: “Please remember to switch off your cell phones.” But you forget, and just as it becomes all quiet and peaceful, your cell phone goes off. Loudly. And it’s one of those really funky theme tunes that you chose late one night and never got round to switching back. And then what happens is a sense of “UH OH!”

Check what’s going on now. You have a powerful sense of me or I, don’t you? “My cell phone’s ringing! Everyone is looking at me! I look like such an idiot!” Within that embarrassment is a strong sense of me or I as unrelated to, or distinct from, everybody else in the room. You feel rather estranged from them at this point, don’t you? They’re over there looking at me, I’m over here. I’m really me, this is the real me here, and they’re really other. And there’s a gap between us, there’s some alienation there, some estrangement, I am all alone in here. “Help me out!” Maybe you give the friend you came with a little embarrassed smile, mentally beseeching, “Maybe you can help me out here, I’m feeling out on a limb, share the burden …”

Does a scenario like this one ring any bells?! We are experiencing a sense of isolation, grasping at a self that is independent and unrelated to others, and feeling that it is the real, the only — the one and only — ME.

Stand up the real me

Who is the real me? We always think it’s us, don’t we? “I’m the real me, everybody else is other. Everyone other than me may think they’re me, but I’m me.” That attitude is actually almost as familiar to us as breathing, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically nonsense.

We’re not the only me. In fact, I don’t know where you are right now but my guess is that there’s probably a lot of me’s around you, each one of them with a perfect right to call themselves “me” for they’re just as much me as you are. We have a strong sense of self-importance, that our happiness matters and so on, and where is that coming from?  If we check very carefully, we can see that it’s because we believe that our me is more real and therefore more important than others’ me! Strip away all the rationalizations and we end up with: “It is of the most crucial importance that I am happy and not sad because I am me.” 

But that mind is an ignorant mind. This may or may not come as a surprise, but you are actually not more real and important than me! Or anybody else. Not even close. In fact, what grounds do we actually have for thinking that we are more real and important than others? Do we have any grounds?

“Hands up who thinks I’m most important”

If we really were more real and important than others, don’t you think there’d be at least a few other people who agree with us about that? Maybe I should put up a Facebook poll to ask that very question: who is the most important person reading this page?! Whose happiness and suffering matters most? I think it would be a fairly divided poll. I don’t think we’re going to get a whole lot of consensus on that question.

Continued in this article … meanwhile, your turn. Have you ever had a scary or embarrassing experience where you notice at the time or in retrospect that you are/were grasping at ME really tightly?! What did that feel like?

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

24 thoughts on “What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?!”

  1. Thank you Luna Kadampa and all Dharma friends – these explanations and subsequent discussions of Geshe-la’s teachings is immensely beneficial. Thank you for your kindness in sharing your knowledge and experiences.

  2. Everyone has there own sense of me. They all have their own me. They are all a me, so therefor they are all me. I am me, they are me, we are all me’s. You are, I am, we are, no difference in me. In my me or your me. One and the same me. Accept this!(you are me and I am you)…

  3. I am just starting to read up on Buddhism and find it very interesting. I am reading modern Buddhism now and had to stop due to the recurring mention of this self-grasping and how it is detrimental. I still do not understand this. What thought process replaces self grasping thought processes. Do I say “it feeling embarrassed now” or “it feels guilty now”. How does one stop self grasping.

    1. Hi Kiel, abandoning self-grasping is not the same as abandoning all sense of self — it is abandoning the mind that apprehends the self to be inherently existent/existing from its own side/independent of body and mind. There is a merely imputed self that exists, called the conventionally existent self, so we can still talk about our I. If you read the chapter on ultimate truth a few times and think about it, it’ll become a lot clearer.

  4. This is all wrong.. I don’t think the sense of self is an illusion, but this reality and what we believe about it is, which might lead to evil and suffering.. Just listen to people who have died and come back..all of them retained their sense of self and most of them met beings who had a separate sense of self, like family members or spiritual beings. Investigate the facts. And by the way, if we really were more real and important than others..why would we be embarrassed anyway? Doesn’t make any sense. 🙂

    Nice articles though, loved the one about love and desire.

    1. Hi Tom, thank you, glad you enjoy the articles. To clarify on this one, the article is not saying that there is no self at all. Buddhism distinguishes between the inherently existent self, which doesn’t exist, and the conventionally existent self, which does exist. So you’re right in that it is what we believe about the inherently existent self (that it exists, and is most important) that gets us into trouble. There is a great explanation about the inherently existent self and conventionally existent self, or mere I, in Modern Buddhism (available as a free eBook from emodernbuddhism.com). Everything is an illusion to minds that have ignorance insofar as they appear one way and exist in another way. The point I was trying to make about the embarrassment is that we are not more important than others. Hope this clears things up a little.

      1. Thanks for the clarification! But don’t you mean “that we are not LESS important than others”. I was a bit confused there, because the article seems to imply (or so I thought) that embarrassment comes from the belief that you are more important than others, but isn’t it just the opposite? The fear of being less, or alienation as you describe it? Or, as I just now realize, are we both talking about the same thing..that is the illusion of the “inherently existent self”, the gap between us and others?

        1. Thanks. Yes, it is grasping at the illusion of the inherently existent self that causes the gap between ourselves and others.

          When we get embarrassed, we have a strong sense of a real self, and the gulf between self and others is correspondingly large. That is why embarassment is often used as a good example for seeing how we grasp at self.

  5. Self-cherishing can only function in our mind when we stop connecting to the love in our hearts. Love conquers all! We may have strong delusions, however if we don’t give them any power they cannot cause us harm, also if we consider others happiness before our own and unveil our mind to the truth of wisdom, we can protect ourselves and others from suffering.

  6. “There is no greater evil then anger”. If we practiced patience our self cherishing inner and outer responses would dissipate (cessation). “With the practice of patience we can accomplish any spiritual aim.”

  7. This is a great topic! How to disappear the me I always see and grasp on to. Wow what a trick! My cell phone went off a few years ago during an empowerment and we were just starting a group recitation of “OM MANI PADME HUM” and that mantra quickly turned to “what dope left their cell phone on”? That dope was me. Getting the phone out of my knapsack and turning it off was an excruciatingly clear example of the slowness of time!

    To me, it all boils down to not buying into the separateness of others.The emptiness of the three spheres helps me – the me that hurts so much – the other or others – and the thing that happened or is happening all don’t exist from their own side. They are projections of my my mind appearing due to karma. I associate this whole thing with very painful feelings and all I want is for the painful feelings to go away. They will, when death arrives – but until then I have to learn to transform pain to bliss. Can I learn to love to be the dope who leaves his cell phone on? The emptiness of the all important magnificent dopey me is a challenge to understand and directly perceive, but my teachers have said it works and I have faith in the teachings and their experience – so I keep trying. Thanks for another terrific post.

      1. This points out that even if we meditate on death quite often we don’t really accept the pain and confusion that can accompany the death process. I think about how upset I get when I lose an unsaved document on my computer – how much more upset will I be at the time of death if I have an uncontrolled mind.

  8. Oh boy have I had those “me” moments. I have a ton of klutz karma!. My grandfather use to say that I could trip over air!! I remember falling right in the middle of the hallway in high school over my own feet!! (btw, I still do that at 40)
    I also think that any parent who has ever had a 2 year old that falls out in the middle of a store screaming at the top of their lungs knows exactly how that “everyone is looking at me and judging me” moment feels. It is awful and very lonely. You want to grab the kid and run.

  9. Yes, yes yes. A hard one to banish, this “me”. Like being stuck sharply under a web of appearances, a habit we don’t know how to be without. Thank goodness for the conventional “me”!!! Whew!

    The biggest problem I have is how to imagine existing without it. How would I interact with others? How would I deal with looking after myself? How would I try to negate myself even?!!!

    Folks, I think it’s a certain pre-conception, a predicate if you like, that we attribute to the ‘me’ that Buddha is saying we should question. It’s Ok to impute ‘me’. But not ‘intrinsic, independent, inherent, established, present, naturalized, self-evident, self-produced, self-caused, self-effected” me.

    Importantly, our very consciousness is faulty, pervaded by an innate sense that what we are conscious of is present – that’s the appearing default we experience. When we question that mind, it starts to flicker a little. Then maybe we start to see these appearances as illusions, dreams, bubbles arising out of water. Including the ‘me’ bubble.

    I agree with JSK that it’s Ok to refute the innately default ‘me’ but not the conventional ‘me’. Otherwise we are smoking Hashang’s ‘abandonment of all concepts’ – a contradiction.

    At 1pm after the Ajax-Zagreb game, I bid love to all my dharma friends.

    1. We are refuting the inherently existent I, not the merely imputed I. But even the merely imputed I is empty of inherent existence.

  10. “The love of an inherently existent ME is the root of all evil.” Thank you for another insightful post.

    I’ve been meditating alot on the emptiness of an independent “I” and find it very helpful to recognize I have many different I’s arising in dependence on environment, other people, beliefs, etc. I’m certainly not the same “I” now that I was when I was a teenager (thank goodness). So which “I” is really, truly, independently “me”? None of the above – What a relief!

    I’m starting to notice how quickly I grasp at an independent self during my meditation break. It’s a habit that’s hard to break, esp considering I’ve been doing it for countless lives :-). But I must say the meditation on emptiness is definitely benefiting me. Just the fact that I can catch myself grasping at “me” is affirming my faith in the meditation.

    1. I like Eileen’s way of putting it – that the ‘I’ I think I am is dependant on the prevalent external (and internal) conditions that are present at the time. Thinking of it like this makes ‘me’ feel less concrete. Great – Thanks!

      PS I must say that it’s wonderful to be able to discuss Dharma with friends around the world, from a mobile phone on a commuter train in a wintery Denmark. Thanks for making it possible, Luna and everyone

  11. Yes – in those situations I feel a – how can I put it – a ‘gripping’ in my chest and stomach. You have brought out something I had not realised too – this sense of being separate from everything else. At those moments I do feel an unreal separation from my surroundings. Very interesting article Luna – I think I’ll read it again now…

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