A Buddhist response to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Christian dualism is at the heart of the problem

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A Buddhist response to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Christian dualism is at the heart of the problem

Erin Bagus

In Roger and Hammerstein's retelling of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the wife of the King of Siam adapts Harriet Beecher Stowe's story to an Eastern perspective, seemingly changing the religion at its core from Christianity to Buddhism by replacing Jesus with Buddha. I would argue, though, that this simple trading of religious protagonist is the only real switch that is made and that the tale remains essentially Christian. What would a real Buddhist retelling be like? Would it call for a different response?

Christianity is a fundamentally dualistic religion. God is good; the devil is evil. Heaven is opposed by Hell. One is either sinful or repentant and saved. This duality is obvious everywhere in Beecher Stowe's story. Most of the characters are either Christ figures or devilish sinners. Eva is constantly portrayed as if she were a holy angel. When she is first introduced, she is described as having "the perfection of childish beauty, [...] an undulating and aerial grace, [...] mythic and allegorical being [...] deep spiritual gravity [...]" and to finish it off, she seems like "something almost divine [...] one of the angels stepped out of [the] New Testament" (126-7). Tom, the other Christ-figure, never hesitates in his faith. Even when he is being beaten to within an inch of his life by Simon Legree, he only thinks of saving the soul of the tyrant who beats him:

Tom looked up at his master, and answered, "Mas'r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I'd give 'em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. O, Mas'r! don't bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than 't will me! Do the worst your can, my troubles'll be over soon; if ye don't repent, yours won't never end! (358)

Tom is a near perfect parallel to Jesus; beyond human concerns, his sights are on Heaven and on saving others so that they, too, will make it there instead of falling into Satan's grip and being pulled down to Hell. The Quakers are also portrayed as a nearly perfect, sinless and selfless group. On the other hand, the book offers fundamentally evil characters like George's master and Simon Legree, who try to brutalize and debase their slaves as a matter of principle.

It has often been argued that Harrier Beecher Stowe created such a polarized tale precisely because she was trying to create a sort of Christian fable. She wanted to make the divide between good and evil so well defined that the reader couldn't help but choose good. Not only that, however, she wanted to move the reader so profoundly that they would ACT and do something to end slavery. I want to argue, though, that this strict duality doesn't really lead us to action; that the dualism is really at the root of the problem.

David Loy, a professor at Bunkyo University in Japan, wrote an article called "On the Nonduality of Good and Evil: Buddhist Reflections on the New Holy War." In this article he presents the Buddhist perspective on good and evil, which is in stark contrast to the Christian idea and he would say, more generally, that of all Abrahamic traditions. He asserts that there are good and evil within each human being and that the real evil actions in the world arise when the battle between good and evil, which should be an internal struggle, is externalized, allowing one to consider himself good and someone else evil. He explains that, "Buddhism emphasizes the concept of evil less than what it calls the three roots of evil, or the three causes of evil, also known as the three poisons: greed, ill will and delusion" (2). He goes on to make an important distinction between the dualism of the Abrahamic religions and the non-dualism of Buddhism: the prior focuses on "the struggle between good and evil because the main issue is usually understood to be our will: which side are we on?" The latter, on the other hand, focuses on "ignorance and enlightenment because the main issue depends on our self-knowledge: do we really understand what motivates us?" (2-3)

In his article, Loy applies these ideas to the current war in the Middle East. He shows how both President Bush and Bin Laden use the rhetoric of fighting evil, in nearly mirror statements. He gives the example, "Osama bin Laden/George W. Bush looks at the world in very stark, black-and-white terms. For him, the US/al-Qaeda represents the forces of evil that are bringing corruption and domination into the Islamic/Western world" (2). The war between these two will only bring more human suffering into the world as long as they refuse to examine the roots of the conflict. As was mentioned already, Buddhism considers the three roots of evil to be greed, ill will, and delusion. Applied to the current war on terror, an examination of these three roots could lead the West to a better understanding of why many in the Middle East despise us so fundamentally. Could it perhaps be that America's greed for oil, ill will towards those that stand in the way of what we want, and delusional certainty that we are right again refusing to see the duality that exists in everyone, us and them has led the Arab world to hate America so deeply? Whether or not this specific expansion of the three roots of evil is totally accurate is not the most important point; what is vital is that we realize that there must be some root, some cause of the evil acts. People are not essentially evil in their nature, but are rather good and evil a balance of the two. Loy comments that the "Buddhist solution involves breaking the cycle by transforming greed into generosity, ill will into loving-kindness, and delusions into wisdom" (3). We can only begin to transform the system when we know its causes.

To return to Uncle Tom's Cabin, I repeat my earlier statement that the dualism of the book, which is supposed to induce action, is at the root of the problem. If we simply think of slave owners as evil and slaves as good, of whites as evil and blacks as good, we fall into the same kind of externalized battle that Buddhism sees as a shortsighted or deluded struggle. To make any real and lasting changes, we have to look at roots: greed, ill will, and delusion. We have answer the question of what really motivates us instead of simply taking sides.

In some ways, Beecher Stowe does begin to examine these questions. She touches on the fact that greed is the main motivation for some slaveholders, like Simon Legree, who she describes as using "everything [...] merely as an implement for money-making" (298). Ill will is everywhere in this novel, felt by the slaveholders towards their slaves and vice versa. There are few, other than the Christ-figures of Uncle Tom and Eva, who feel real true love for everyone. Master George, who has known Tom since birth, loves him as a sort of father figure and friend, and thus seems to be one example of breaking the cycle of ill will. However, though he feels no ill will towards his slaves, George cannot help but despise Legree. He cannot love him as Tom, symbol of Christ, can and does.

It is worth noting that Master George is a generation younger than pretty much all the other protagonists in the book, which brings me to the idea of social education. I think that he represents the real solution offered for the future. Once we have examined the causes of the conflict, of the human struggles, we can teach our children to live in a different way. Just as past generations have taught children to hate, we can teach the next generation to love. There are repeated examples in this book of children and of how they are taught the social scheme. Eva has taken to heart her father's principles, even if he doesn't have the moral strength, or is too lazy, to carry them through. Henrique, Eva's cousin, is being trained by his father in how to break slaves of their spirit. He repeats his father's rhetoric, "it's the only way to manage him, he's so full of lies and excuses. The only way is to put him down at once, - not let him open his mouth; that's the way papa manages" (231-2). He will carry on the family tradition of owning and mistreating slaves. Then there is the aforementioned example of Master George, who has taken to heart his parents', specifically his mother's, convictions about slavery, and though they were not able to make decisive action in their own time, he will realize the changes that they imagined. If Tom can also be considered a parent-figure for George, it seems particularly important that it is "kneeling on the grave of his poor friend" that the young master declares before God that "from this hour, [he] will do what one man can to drive out this curse of slavery from [his] land" (365). Standing on the shoulders of his forefathers and understanding the fundamental causes of the unjust system they handed down to him, George declares that he will "never own another slave, while it was possible to free him; that nobody, through [him], should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation" (380). Not only does the young master set his slaves free, but more importantly, he does it for the right reasons. He sees their humanity, and that they are no different from he.

In the end, I think this is the most important message of this book, when seen from a Buddhist perspective. Change is not instantaneous. It takes time because we must first begin to understand the roots of the problem, and then we must seek to eradicate them. Just as we will not be able to end the war in the Middle East until we deal with the causes of all the hatred involved; slavery, too, could not simply be eradicated by freeing the slaves. The greed, ill will, and delusion that brought the system to life and allowed it to flourish had to be uprooted as well.

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WORKS CITED

Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Elizabeth Ammons, Ed. New York: Norton & Company, 1994.

Loy, David. "On the Nonduality of Good and Evil: Buddhist Reflections on the New Holy War." Japan: Bunkyo University, 2004. Online 9 February 2006. 9 pages. [an error occurred while processing this directive]