“When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: ‘Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.’ We behave exactly like a mother: ‘Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.’ This is the practice of compassion.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“If you aren’t feeding the fire of anger or the fire of craving by talking to yourself, then the fire doesn’t have anything to feed on.” ~ Pema Chodron
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a child I often heard the expression, “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Maybe that was because back in the day, there was a tacit agreement of civility around expressing one’s opinion. I don’t think it’s my imagination that the level of social discourse has fallen into an extreme mosh-pit of bullying, shaming, and terrorizing those who don’t share our views. It’s all very angry and the loud shouting leads to louder shouting. It makes me wonder how to use our awareness of suffering and injustice in a way that doesn’t resort to hatred and violent words and is consistent with the Buddha’s teachings on Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action.
In the Buddhist texts, anger is always unwholesome and labeled as one of the ten fetters that must be undone to find the way out of suffering. There is a clear categorization of the Buddha’s classification of anger as unwholesome and negative. Anger is consistently associated with hatred and ill-will (dosa) and always an obstacle to spiritual progress. Buddhist teacher, activist, and author, Donald Rothberg (2006), in his book, The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, defines when anger and hatred are at the base of intention, the resulting action, and kamma or karma, will be harmful to self and others (p. 152). This single interpretation of anger as a vehicle for actions rooted in hatred, vengeance, and the desire to harm another, is the basis of the Buddha’s prohibition. This type of anger is akin to blind rage and causes damage to the one lost in anger.
The Buddha warns of the ruinous rage that makes blind in an excerpt from the Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person, “A person overwhelmed with anger destroys his wealth. Maddened with anger, he destroys his status. Relatives, friends, & colleagues avoid him. Anger brings loss. Anger inflames the mind. He doesn’t realize that his danger is born from within” (Thanissaro, trans. 2010). In the early Buddhist texts, the word for anger is often “khoda,” translated as anger, this leaves little room for the range of intensity that presents itself in anger. Anger, in western culture runs from irritable sniping on Twitter, righteousness, and condemnation, to full-blown assault, aggression, and violence. The Dalai Lama and Donald Rothberg (2006), consider “afflictive emotions,” “ill will or hatred,”(p. 152) to be more accurate translations.
The western view of anger is more nuanced, ranging from outright retaliatory rage to a feeling of moral grievance at the ill-treatment of the weak. Rothberg (2006) writes that anger in the ancient Greek world and in the West is seen “as an appropriate response to what is socially inappropriate, immoral, or unjust” (p. 153). The interesting thing about anger is that when it is used as a catalyst for action, and there is an intention of loving kindness and compassion, it ceases to be poisonous.
The Buddha said that the discernment of what is wholesome or unwholesome thought, speech and action rests on our intention before, during, and after producing the thought, words, or act. Kamma, or karma, in Sanskrit, means volitional action and its implied consequence. All kamma is made through the intention of the actor, “Intention I tell you is kamma. Having intended, one performs an action through body, speech, or mind” (AN 6:63) (Rothberg, 2006, p. 60). Someone who sees injustice and feels anger at a system of oppression, or at the treatment of oppressed people can act in a variety of ways. What separates wholesome from unwholesome kamma is the mind of compassion and goodwill or the mind filled with anger, revenge, and hatred.
Kamma is not like a restaurant tab that accumulates and is presented for payment as a tool of reckoning. We can experience the result of our kamma in this very moment. We can feel into the body’s response to judgmental thoughts of meanness and blame, or how our body responds to thoughts and words that arise from the kindness of an unbound heart. One way to do this is to call attention to bodily sensations of pleasant and unpleasant while watching the news. It’s not hard to find the kernel of bitterness and resentment that fuels many political groups who look to hurt and shame those with opposing views.
Anger is a strong emotion that calls for us to pay attention. When we can utilize anger as a wakeup call without letting it pull us into hatred or ill will, we see it can be used as the fuel for action in social justice actions that are based on non-violence and compassion for the poor and powerless. In the struggle for India’s independence, the US Civil Rights movement, and Catholic worker movement, anger at the systemic discrimination did not result in ill-will but catalyzed marginalized groups to act with non-violence and sought to liberate both the oppressors and the oppressed.
This week I invite you to check in with your own intentions before, during and after, thinking, speaking and acting. Ask the questions, “What is my true intention? How is my heart? Is compassion and understanding present?” Once we know that we have a choice of the root of our thoughts, speech, and acts, we can choose to cultivate only the beautiful blooms that grow from a wide-open loving heart.
May we all trust our light,
Thanissaro, B., trans. (2010). Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person (AN 7.60). Access to Insight: BCBS Edition. Retrieved from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.060.than.html .
Rothberg, D., (2006). The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston, Ma: Beacon Press.