I suppose a certain amount of my anger is the result of my having chosen the parents I did.
My mother was psychologically abused as a child. She suppressed her anger and practiced denial in order to survive. As an adult, however, the anger oozed out in mood swings, generalized anxiety and depression, sometimes erupting violently in bouts of uncontrollable hysteria that could last for weeks. (So much for suppression as an anger management technique!) My father was clinically depressed from the time he was a young child. He was angry at the world, always angry at everything. Periodically his anger erupted in fist swinging violence, slamming tables and banging walls.
I remember feeling deeply threatened by the fist swinging, though he never actually hit me or any anyone else for that matter. At the age of 50 his suffering became so great that he took his life. Not surprisingly, he chose to end his life as angrily and violently as he had lived it.
Anger was a normal part of our family life. I learned it was an acceptable and appropriate behavior at a very young age. I also learned how to use anger and threats to get my way. It became a tool for success—the squeaky-wheel syndrome.
When I was twelve years old, my anger erupted violently for the first time when a kid down the street called me a “dirty name.” I beat him up. My parents came running. As my father screamed for me to stop and pulled me off the boy, I remember how repulsed I was by my behavior. Even at that age I knew that my behavior was profoundly wrong. Then and there I swore to myself never to hit anyone again.
It was the beginning of my lifelong commitment to non-violence and pacifism. It was one of the earliest seeds I planted that would later pave the way for my Buddhist practice. Although I would soon learn in Sunday school that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (the
Old Testament) was an angry God (dare I say a “capricious bully”), I doubt that that in any way explained or justified my anger.
I had learned at home that anger didn’t have to be explained or justified, not anymore than one had to explain or justify being kind. While I was only ten or twelve years old when I was taught about the punitive nature of Yahweh, I can remember categorically rejecting any expectation that I believe in this kind of a wrathful Maker. Having no other spiritual options at that age, I rebelliously planted my feet on the ground as a non-theist; my Sunday school days were soon over and I was done with any idea of a God.
Another seed was planted that would later allow me easily and wholeheartedly to embrace the Buddhist path. As I moved through adolescence into adulthood, I developed a distaste for anger in general and for my anger specifically. Anger didn’t dominate my worldview, as it had my father’s— was bathed in the optimism of my generation (the sixties)--but it was always there gnawing away at me, often in one form or another of resentment because, as I had learned at home,
the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side. Occasionally, my anger would appear as an embarrassing explosion in a restaurant or shop.
Waitresses and sales people became random targets for unexpected outbursts. And I had an embarrassingly good aim; when the anger took
control of me I suddenly turned brutally mean.
As I grew older, though, I reflected on the fact that our culture does rely on the Judeo-Christian conceptual frame for anger, not only to justify personal and interpersonal anger but also sociopolitical
anger: God was angry, and we were made in his image, so it’s ok to be angry, even good to be angry. And it was not only the God
of the Hebrew Scriptures who was angry;
Although my early training led me to perpetuate my anger and my angrily acting-out, the karma of that behavior became more and more
detrimental as I grew older. Even my best friends were leery of accompanying me on a shopping trip or inviting me to a restaurant for dinner. My karma had caught up with me, leaving me deeply marginalized.
What I realized after I began practicing was that because we are human (ok, human and not yet fully awakened), we label and
judge [consciousness: name and form; the twelve links]. We label
and judge everything good or bad, I want or I don’t want. Whether we
judge a thing good or bad, wanted or unwanted, there is aversion. In
the positive cases (good, want), our aversion is toward someone
or something’s loss; in the negative cases (bad, unwanted)
our aversion is toward someone or something’s occurrence.
Anger arises in response to aversion, and aversion is inherent in everything in life [life is dukkha]. Anger is as central to our lives as the air we breathe. In the Abhidharma, aversion is listed as the root cause of anger, along with wrath, enmity, spite, envy, aggression, and
anxiety. Anger can also give rise to other feelings, like meanness, viciousness, malice and revenge. When we look at anger, it is worth looking at these sister feelings and volitions as well. It is also worth remembering that anger arises in the mind—that anger arises in our mind. No one can make us angry. Our anger is always and only our
The definition of aversion is wanting to be separated from someone or
something. The reason we want to be separated is because we’re afflicted, because we deludedly label people and things as undesirable, thus aversion includes a high degree of projection of our subjective biases. Anger, then, arises when we feel strongly enough about the aversion that we need to act on it—whether tapping our foot or mumbling to ourselves at a minor irritation or exploding in a fit of rage
so powerful that we capriciously shoot at passing cars or kill children in
Anger is perhaps the most powerful of all our delusions. It leads to everything from “playful” teasing to global wars. Because anger, and its root cause, aversion, is fundamental to our being, minimizing and eliminating it from our lives requires great commitment, diligence and effort. There is no simple or easy fix, no set of guidelines or
numbered list to end anger. While I am suggesting that anger is
a natural part of us because we are human, I am not suggesting that we should resign ourselves to being angry. Anger is not an impulse over which we have no control. There is always some degree of
decision-making involved in our becoming angry, and in most cases, a considerable degree of choice.
I am not suggesting the other extreme either, that we can totally do away with anger. What I am suggesting is that the way we deal with
anger is the way we deal with life. The way we practice with anger is the way we practice. How we practice with anger is a direct reflection of where we are on the path.
What I am suggesting from my experience is that the Buddha has given us the tools we need to allow us to minimize the conditions necessary for anger to arise, and that when it does arise, he has shown us ways to minimize its impact.
The more we “practice with our anger,” the more rapidly we can recognize its causes arising and its arising and then are able to let go of the anger, so the less anger we have—and the less karmic perpetuation our anger has on us.
Suppressing anger, as my parents did and as I was taught to
do, is a wholly ineffective way to deal with this affliction; in fact, suppression perpetuates the anger and causes it to become self-renewing. We all know, one great burst of anger, one great explosion of our temper, can haunt us for weeks or months, or even years. A lifetime of practice can be shaken to the core with one moment of rage.
As Shantideva wrote:
...a single outburst of anger
can destroy all the good
conduct that has been acquired
over thousands of eons.
in newspapers and magazines, it pervades the workplace, in cities it is present on every street corner. Our children learn it in the halls of their schools. As the I-wants have turned into the I-deserves, as the I-know-what is-rights have turned into the I-am-going-to-prove-its we have become more and more angry as a nation. We have moved in recent years from believing we knew what was right to being warriors of certainty and irrational military bullies.
We have not only deeply identified with the anger of our everyday lives, we also have institutionalized the anger, making it a part of the very fiber of our society. We have transformed it into a core value.
In some minor way, though, we have begun to recognize it is a problem. We have anger management programs in our workplace, anger management classes in our schools, anger management seminars and books and workbooks and guidebooks and
trainings. None of which are particularly effective.
Why? Because they preach quick solutions, and they preach external solutions. We have become a people like carvings in a rock. Our anger and our resolve to remain angry have become carved into our psyche. They cannot be unlearned in a 3-hour course at the office.
Those who are like carvings on a rock, those who are like scratches on the ground, and those who are like writing on
People who are always getting angry and whose anger lasts for a long time are like a carving in a rock—the elements of winds and water, time
and air barely have an effect on them. Then there are people who are like scratches on the ground; they are generally angry, but the anger is milder and it doesn’t last long. And there are those who are like writings
on water. Regardless of how harshly or unjustly they are treated, how abusively they are talked to, they remain peaceful and patient. When anger does arise in this last group, it is so mild and so momentary that it completely ceases almost as quickly as it arises.
In another sutra, the
use a saw to dismember you, limb by limb. Instead of getting angry the
to understand that people commit those heinous acts to relieve their own suffering, we are better able to respond to them with understanding and compassion—like writing on water. (See Inside
Out Practice, page 12)
Anger, whether directed at others or turned inwards towards ourselves, leads to frustration, irritation, and anxiety, and eventually to
depression. In Buddhism it is therefore always viewed as a cause
of suffering [dukkha], and any act, no matter its size or intensity, that causes suffering
is unwholesome. Buddhists do not subscribe to notions such as “righteous
anger” or “justifiable anger.” As
righteous cancer or righteous tuberculosis.
All of them are absurd concepts.” As Buddhists we have an obligation to find ways to practice with anger and to cause the conditions for patience and forbearance to arise, for wisdom, compassion and loving-kindness to arise.
The more we practice, of course, the more we move from our delusions and afflictions and our rigid beliefs in self and permanence which lead us to anger and the more we move toward our Buddha Nature, with our sense doors open only enough to allow us to notice, to touch, but not enough to grasp and attach.
Applying the Dharma of no-self, impermanence and extinction to dealing with anger is an aspect of Buddhist education that I believe is one of the two best tools for dealing with anger that Buddhism gives us. Cultivating mindfulness is another key tool as it guards against anger,
and meditation is one of the best practices for cultivating mindfulness. Every moment spent on the cushion brings us one step closer to peace
and calm and non-reactivity, and takes us one step further away from our anger and the karma that pushes us toward that anger.
Shantideva writes powerfully about anger as the
main obstacle to developing compassion and
the awakened mind.
However, it is important to note that in Buddhist thought, compassion is not an emotion or feeling like anger, so the two are not opposites as so often portrayed in Western thought.
describes three types of people:
those who are like carvings on a rock,
those who are like scratches on the ground,
and those who are like writing on water.
The antidote for anger in Buddhism is patience. Being patient means to welcome, unconditionally and wholeheartedly, whatever arises. Being patient means to give up the idea that things should be other than what they are. It is always possible to be patient; there is no situation so bad that it cannot be accepted patiently, with an open, accommodating, and
When patience is our state of mind, through the three trainings [moral rectitude, meditation, and wisdom], it is impossible for a smorgasbord
of aversion and anger related thoughts to gain a foothold on us. There are many examples of people who have managed to practice patience
even in the most extreme circumstances, such as under torture or in the final ravages of cancer.
For some of us, learning to practice patience with small difficulties gradually increases our capacity to deal with bigger anger-provoking events. For others, it takes being confronted with a life-threatening event for the practice to arise.
Regardless of which has arisen in our life, if we practice the patience of voluntarily accepting suffering, we can maintain a peaceful mind. If we maintain this peaceful mind through the force of mindfulness, anger will have no opportunity to arise. On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to dwell on unhappy thoughts there will be no way for us to prevent anger
Patience doesn’t mean that we don’t take practical steps to improve our situation. If we have a headache there is no reason to practice patience with it and not take a Tylenol, but until the tablet takes effect we need to accept whatever discomfort we feel with patient-mind.
If we get angry and fight it, we will only increase its strength. We are all here together in samsara. We cannot avoid unpleasant situations and a certain amount of physical discomfort, sometimes even a great deal of heartache and physical pain. But instead of reacting blindly with anger, we should practice patience.
There’s no need to become angry just because things do not go our
way. Although for forty-five years of my life that this was my reaction to difficulties, once I recognized that there was an alternative in practice, a more realistic and constructive way of living, my life changed dramatically for the better. So how does patience work? Patience is simply unconditional acceptance. Utter acceptance of things as they are, with no desire to change externals. When we exhibit this patience, our hearts are open, we are not longer judging or critical, no are no longer labeling, we have eliminated the key conditions necessary for anger to arise.
Patience does more than just produce merit in us, it also helps those with whom we are patient. Being accepted feels very different from being judged. When we feels judged we become tense and defensive, but when we feel accepted we relax and our best qualities arise.
Patience causes a stable mind to arise in us, eliminating the conditions necessary for suffering to arise, but it also changes the way people react to us, for giving patience is another form of giving no-fear [dana],
and when we act in ways with body, speech, and mind that give no-fear it spreads peace and harmony.
Patience, which arises from following the precepts, from the practice of the six paramitas, from meditation, from deepening our awareness
of the twelve links of dependent origination, from wisdom, and
from training ourselves sufficiently that we are able to afford an apartment
in the four heavenly abodes, that patience is the tool we need, the tool the
Dare I say “ Patience is Right View?”
PATIENCE IS SIMPLY UNCONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE
Dharma in Practice
VOLUME ONE, NUMBER