Greed and hatred are evident in the world. But behind them is the most powerful force of all: ignorance

Prophetic statements can be simple and understated, and none is simpler and more cooly accurate than Robert Frost’s poem Fire and Ice. 

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

It resonates for Buddhists who are used to thinking that the most fundamental forces at work in the world of experience reside in the mind. Desire: the urge to pull things towards us;  hate: the impulse to push away the things we find painful or threatening. Frost makes them elemental and that gives them a universal force. Greed is a fire he says and the same image is common in the Buddhist Discourses. Hatred is ice, like the ice-hell at the sixteenth level of Buddhist perdition.

I don’t know if the world is ending – after all, nothing really ever ends. But it is certainly on fire, heating up day by day and hour by hour. And what is behind the planet’s warming if it isn’t our desire for comfort and affluence? And the ice is there as well in all the hatreds that seem to be multiplying across the planet.

But Buddhists add a third force to craving and aversion. Delusion, or ignorance, is the third member of this trinity. It means both our unwillingness to look at reality and also the refuge we take in beliefs that evade the truth but meet our needs. Greed and Hatred are protective reflexes that grow from a more fundamental ignorance. We crave and hate because we believe they will help us, and that belief is a delusion. Darkness shrouds fire and ice.

It isn’t enough to understand the emotions that are at work in the world; we also need to understand the beliefs that justify them. Bad things are done by people who aren’t inherently bad; they act as they do because they believe they are right.

Many people suffer, but not all of them plant bombs or turn on minorities. You need a special kind of conviction to act in that way. We start with prejudice and bias and when such beliefs are made fully conscious we call them an ideology, or perhaps a religion. Propaganda confirms those biases and gradually hardens them; and the conviction this breeds prompts a fervour that produces action.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than views that distort reality and justify craving and hatred. So we shouldn’t focus on Trump, Putin or Modi, or the other demagogues and crony capitalists who have seized power around the world. We should focus on the beliefs that justify them and garner the support they need to survive. We must peer into the darkness.