Ivan Karamazov: Russian Intellectual
Dogen Zenji: Buddhist Monk
Stephen the Deacon: Heretic and apologist for Jesus
Dogen: Tell me again, Ivan. You say everything is about the suffering of children?
Ivan: Yes. Actually, they’re my best case. We should all be concerned about the kids. I know you are too. …Why the look?
Dogen: You know me too well, I think. It’s not the fact that you want to save the children that puzzles me. I’m curious about this idea you have, or had, about how we are bad, and someone cares about them, but doesn’t save them?
Ivan: You mean, you are still curious about Jesus?
Dogen: Yes… I’m a Buddhist.
Dogen: You spoke with your brother, Alyosha. What was your idea as you explained it to him?
Ivan: Let’s see. Mmm ….I pointed out I’d spent some time documenting kid’s suffering.
Ivan: I’m not just concerned about children. I recognize that adults, too, suffer. But with adults, I think, some people could argue that even the most innocent looking adult may deserve to be tortured. I know, it might be hard to imagine how your grandmother, for example, might deserve to have her eyes gouged out with hot pokers. There are some who could argue there might be a good reason to do so. I didn’t really want to argue about that because it wastes our time. I wanted only to leave my strongest cases. I didn’t want to deal with the claim that I have no cases of undeserved torture because all people are guilty of something. Maybe your Grandmother had an impure thought once. Maybe she failed to give enough of her meager earnings to the church. Maybe she joined the wrong clubs. O.K. …I’ll grant you that there might be pretty high standards that your grandma couldn’t pass.
Stephen: I think we need to remember that this is about conflicts in the world. We need to consider some Israeli mother getting blown up on a bus. Some mother with a kid. And too, it’s about Palestinian family shot up on a road somewhere in Gaza. Each is guilty of something. In cases like these it seems guilt is in the eye of the beholder.
Ivan: Yes, it’s about them, but I was thinking about Russian examples. I want to focus on the children, though. I just want no one to say we should be making some kid suffer because it’s right we make their loved ones suffer.
Dogen: I understand. The youth living around the monasteries back home…they were scared and cold, and when facing the Lord’s armies… most ran. The older samurai were harder. They had seen enough.
Ivan: You know, then, about the innocent one’s I’m talking about, kids who’ve yet to hurt a fly.
Dogen: They haven’t left their mothers. But, they run off to be with their brothers and cousins in the war lord’s army. You spoke to Alyosha about this fact. What was your idea about this?
Ivan: I pointed out we have the idea, an idea that we get from our parents, one of Mother Russia’s favorite ideas…
Stephen: I’m sure it’s common by now…
Ivan: …that we are sinners and there’s a God who made us, and there’s Jesus who cares and will save us.
Dogen: Yes. That’s the idea I’m curious about.
Ivan: I made the case to my brother that if our world, such as it is, involves the torture of children, then this fact has to make us think hard about what kind of a God made things this way. I argued that an all powerful God must not be very good or kind or merciful, if he made the world so children could be tortured in it.
Dogen: I’m not sure I understand what you mean by an “all-powerful God.”
Ivan: This is a war lord who not only tells his armies what to do, but is also the master of every thing in the world, like all the objects one could point to. He creates his household with certain rules, and the world behaves accordingly. By “all-powerful” it’s meant that he creates the world and governs everything in it.
Dogen: Just because I want to be clear about this, I imagine you mean to be talking about a Master who isn’t just living down the street in the biggest pagoda on the block.
Ivan: Yes, I know you understand about “Maya.” I know you understand talk about the veil of our experience which obscures what’s beyond.
Dogen: Yes, I understand what people mean by “Maya.” So you mean that this “all-powerful” God can’t be experienced, like we can experience a donkey or our supper. He’s invisible.
Ivan: He’s not just invisible. He’s everywhere. He could be seen, too, if he wanted to be. There are stories of God being seen in a burning bush.
Dogen: Your God is not like a donkey, or my supper, because He cannot be seen, or if he wished, he could.
Ivan: He’s “all-powerful.”
Dogen: It just doesn’t seem right that an “all-powerful” being who can be seen or not even when he’s everywhere, couldn’t make things so kids aren’t tortured.
Ivan: You’d think that a God that made the universe and every little thing in it could keep the dogs off the kids. Cases like that make me think he’s just careless, or weaker than we are lead to believe.
Dogen: You mean, a world with tortured kids is pretty much a lemon.
Ivan: Yeah. But, someone will point out the world is pretty cruel. There’s a reason for that. And, whatever the reason, God will make things right in the end. This is the idea of “harmony.” There’s some kind of working out of a plan. The plan has a good ending, but the story leading up to it involves all these torturings and sufferings of the innocents.
Dogen: So, you tried to imagine how God could have allowed the suffering to happen, as though it were part of some master plan. Don’t you think the ending of this story wraps up the loose ends?
Ivan: No, I don’t. I point out that no matter how the story comes together, the fact remains that kids are tortured.
Dogen: You’re not satisfied?
Ivan: The way I put it was…we are told that at the end God will reveal why all the suffering in the world had to occur, and that revealing these reasons will create harmony. I wondered just how the suffering of these kids will be justified. What possible story could we tell that would make the tearing apart of that kid by the general’s pack of dogs worthwhile?
Dogen: Maybe, God could say the general got his just desserts, and that was important…an object lesson for others.
Ivan: But what do I care for avenging them? And why would I think it would be alright to torture kids to teach someone else a lesson? And, what should I care about punishment? Whether I avenge their suffering, so that someone else suffers equally, or someone else comes to “see the light,” or if the torturers are suffering in hell, the fact remains that the kids were still tortured. I don’t want anyone else to suffer because of them, so vengeance is not important. It isn’t right to torture kids so that some other good can come of it. And punishment doesn’t bring back these kids, or take away their pain.
Stephen: Makes you wonder why there isn’t some way to prevent the torturing and all the suffering in the first place.
Dogen: I can see Ivan is concerned about these kids. Isn’t it well known that life just is suffering? …You’re always going to find kids being torn apart by dogs, or having their parents make them sleep out in a freezing outhouse , and so forth. Why not find comfort in the knowledge that no bad deed will go unpunished?
Ivan: Are you actually comforted knowing God will punish evil? I think that’s pretty scary. Wouldn’t you think that torturing kids would be an obvious example of evil, yet I found parents torturing their own kids? I found the leaders of our communities using dogs to tear apart little scared boys…to teach lessons. I therefore suspect evil isn’t always something we can recognize when we see it. If parents and generals can’t recognize the evil of torturing children, I’m afraid there are other horrible crimes that we might not be able to see. We could torture kids too.
Dogen: It’s a truth, whether noble or not, that life is a matter of this kind of suffering.
Ivan: I am troubled by your claim that suffering always has been and always will be. Why should we go along with this way of doing things? If we’re told that God set everything up this way, can’t I raise an objection?
Dogen: The fact that life is suffering does seem unfair. Why doesn’t this invisible daddy protect us?
Ivan: Yes. If he was kind and good he would protect them. The fact that kids suffer suggests that God is not so kind or good.
Stephen: It’s easy to think that if God is so powerful, and good, he would prevent the suffering of his people. And when they suffer, it seems right to question whether God is keeping up his side of the bargain. We worship you, you protect us.
Dogen: Clearly, a kind Master doesn’t set out to arrange for his children to suffer. Maybe we should recognize that the general’s of the world are just not in his control. There are evil people and they just don’t listen to what God tells them. They torture kids because they like it, or… because they hate kids …or God.
Stephen: Or, the people held responsible to carry out the work of God are themselves corrupt. Maybe they make it seem like God is at fault when actually they have made deals. Kids get tortured by people who don’t care about God.
Ivan: If we were talking about one of the Masters of your monastery I’d say that, if he were concerned to protect children, he may be unable to tell everyone what to do. His influence may be limited. However, God is not some parochial master of assassins. I’m talking about the creator and ruler of the universe and every little thing in it. There isn’t anyone He can’t get to, so to speak.
Dogen: But, don’t the advocates of this story talk about free-will? Don’t they make the point that God gave people the ability to make choices? The general had the opportunity to let the kid off with a warning, but instead, he chose to have the kid dismembered. Seems there God’s pretty much innocent of any wrongdoing.
Ivan: Yeah. We’re told we’re responsible for evil because we have this free will. Though, I think our ability to make choices is constrained by who and what we are. We cannot choose to fly. And people who need bread, for example, or someone to give them ideas, will torture kids if getting their bread depends on it, or if our given ideas make demands. Yes, people choose to make deals with mobsters, in order to obtain positions of power. But, it seems God made people this way. Aren’t we told that we would be irrational if we didn’t do what we could for ourselves?
Dogen: Are you saying God is incapable of giving people a will free enough to choose to either kill kids or not by their own choice? He can’t make them free of their needs?
Ivan: I think it’s one thing for Jesus, a guy related to the all-powerful God, to choose to not eat for forty days, or to refuse all the wealth of the world, or even to refuse the ability to command the powers of nature, but it’s another thing for real people like that general to deny his needs, or refuse to do what his ideas tell him to do. We are made to do what our needs and ideas tell us to do or think.
Dogen: I’m looking over your dialogue here…you summarize …here.
Ivan: Yes. I said, “…Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last,…” There I was thinking about all the folks who expect to be in heaven after they’ve been good in this life. That’s the reward one gets for doing whatever in this world. I go on, “…but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature – that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance…” Or, I thought, the boy who by accident injured the general’s favorite hound. “…and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears,” I said, “…would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” …There, I kinda put the ball in my brother’s court. I challenged him to tell me he could be happy with such a situation.
Dogen: And he told you he could not.
Dogen: Your argument has been summarized, saying, there are two points, and about the torturing, we can’t stop torturing kids because God made us this way. This is the argument that the claim we have free will fails to acknowledge that we are made a certain way, and even with our free will, there are things we can’t help doing, like torturing kids. The second point is that God can’t stop torturing kids because he made things that way. This is to acknowledge that God is all powerful, he could have chosen to make things turn out differently, but he didn’t. Therefore, on your view, the world made by this God can’t help but make kids hurt.
Ivan: But also, people who get to go to heaven benefit from this way of doing things. This is what pains me. Once we see that the system involves suffering, inevitably, how could any decent person condone it? How could they participate? …So, let’s say your Dad is a bank robber and enforcer for the mob.
Ivan: Wouldn’t your staying at home under his roof, eating the food that his crime spree pays for, condone his choices that make other people suffer? You know he tortures kids for a living. How do you eat his food?
Dogen: I was troubled by a similar problem. How could Buddhism benefit from the making of good assassins? I could not believe that Gautama had such a racket in mind. But I know there’s another kind of response. I could say, it doesn’t matter to me, I’m just a kid. Don’t trouble yourself; everyone is getting something out of this arrangement.
Ivan: But we know you understand it would be terrible for anyone to torture you. Why would that not be O.K. with you, yet it would be O.K. for your Dad to torture some other little kid. I think that would be hypocritical of you. You wouldn’t be honest? You couldn’t let others suffer without protesting, could you?
Dogen: I know that some people don’t care about others. It doesn’t hurt them if others suffer.
Ivan: I had thought we would be governed by the thought that if what’s good for the goose would be good for the gander, then one could not let others suffer because you would thereby give up your being able to protest when somebody tortures you.
Stephen: Do unto others…as I remember, as you would have others do unto you.
Dogen: I see you’d like to say an honest person would want to refuse to participate in a world where you’d benefit at another’s expense.
Ivan: I’m saying I can’t participate. I can’t let anyone think that I would accept any benefit from such a world. I would not be happy.
Dogen: So what? So what if the world is unfair. We know it’s unfair. Life is suffering for Christ’s sake. Why don’t you just let God sort it out in his own sweet time?
Ivan: I don’t want to let it be unfair without raising an objection. I don’t want to be in the position of benefiting from the unfairness of it all. I cannot be happy if my reward, or my happiness even for a moment in this life, is built on the suffering of one little kid. I made my argument about this.
Dogen: I take it you advocate suicide in this situation.
Ivan: I’m for “turning in our entrance ticket.”
Dogen: What’s the difference? So what if you kill yourself? Is that going to stop anything? Is that going to save even one kid from the dogs? I don’t think so.
Ivan: I know my non-participation isn’t going to save any particular kid. It wouldn’t have saved the kid from the general’s dogs. But if we can’t stop torturing because we’re made to torture, and God can’t stop the torturing because he set it up that way, then there would be nothing I could do to stop the torturing either. My act of rebellion, the rebellion that my brother accused me of, is against this situation. I’m against the way things are. I can see no other way of helping kids from torture. Maybe God can do better next time.