by Lama Surya Das
Even the Dalai Lama gets angry. The trick is what you do with it.
Q: What did the Buddha teach about anger, specifically righteous anger? Is any anger acceptable in Buddhism?
A: The Dalai Lama recently answered the question, “Is there a positive form of anger?” by saying that righteous anger is a “defilement” or “afflictive emotion”–a Buddhist term translated from the Sanskrit word klesha–that must be eliminated if one seeks to achieve nirvana. He added that although anger might have some positive effects in terms of survival or moral outrage, he did not accept anger of any kind as a virtuous emotion nor aggression as constructive behavior.
Buddhism in general teaches that anger is a destructive emotion and that there is no good example of it. The Buddha taught that three basic kleshas are at the root of samsara (bondage, illusion) and the vicious cycle of rebirth. These are greed, hatred, and delusion–also translatable as attachment, anger, and ignorance. They bring us confusion and misery rather than peace, happiness, and fulfillment. It is in our own self-interest to purify and transform them.
In the tantric teachings of Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism), it is said that all the kleshas or afflictive emotions have their own sacred power, their own particular intelligence, wisdom, and logic. The late Tibetan teacher Chogyam Tryungpa Rinpoche often taught that five kleshas (in the Tibetan tradition, they are greed, hatred, delusion, pride, and jealousy) are in essence five wisdoms. The wisdom side of anger, for example, is discriminating awareness.
How can this be? Anger makes us sharp and quick to criticize, but anger also helps us see what’s wrong. Our feelings and emotions are actually serving like intelligence agents, bringing in news from the field of our experience. We should not dismiss, ignore, or repress them.
In Tibetan tantric iconography, moreover, not all the Buddhas and meditational deities are pacific. Some are surrounded by flames and wear fierce masks symbolizing the shadow side of our psyches. Yet it is always taught that the wrathful buddhas and “dharma protectors” have peaceful Buddha at their hearts. Perhaps this is connected to the modern, Western notion that righteous anger can help drive compassionate action to redress injustices in the world.
Sadly, in our increasingly uncivil, fast-paced, and competitive society, there are plenty of contributing causes of anger. Violence in the media, permissiveness about expressing oneself, accelerating change, and lack of an ethos of personal responsibility are coupled with a growing sense of entitlement and dearth of family and community connection.
But the Buddha said that no one can make us angry if the seed of anger is not in our hearts. The truth is, we all have some anger in us. Even the Dalai Lama says he gets angry as does the Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The difference is that these two sages know what to do with their anger. Intense angry feelings don’t automatically become unhealthy or destructive or drive negative actions.
The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, I believe, have learned to constructively channel the energy that can turn into anger. Through opening the heart to that energy rather than repressing and suppressing it they have learned how to recognize its essential emptiness and transitory nature, and then transform and release it, or direct it creatively.
“The ghosts of the past which follow us into the present also belong to the present moment,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. “To observe them deeply, recognize their nature and transform them, is to transform the past.”
Ultimately, I believe that anger is just an emotion. We needn’t be afraid of it or judge it too harshly. Emotions occur quickly; moods linger longer. These temporary states of mind are conditioned, and therefore can be reconditioned. Through self-discipline and practice, negativity can be transformed into positivity and freedom and self-mastery achieved.
A clue to anger is that a lot of it stems from fear, and it manifests in the primitive “fight or flight” response. I have noticed that when I am feeling angry, asking myself, “Where and how do I hurt? What am I afraid of?” helps clarify things and mitigate my tempestuous reaction. After cooling down, I ask myself, “What would Buddha do; What would Love do in this situation?” This helps me soothe my passions, be more creative and proactive instead of reactive. In that state, I can transcend blame, resentment, and bitterness.
As Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “Our attitude is to take care of anger. We don’t suppress or hate it, or run away from it. We just breathe gently and cradle our anger in our arms with the utmost tenderness.”
This “embracing” of our anger is an important part of the practice of lovingkindness: learning to accept and love even what we don’t like. The Dalai Lama has said: “My religion is kindness.” The cultivation of lovingkindness is an inner attitude that embraces all in a way that allows no separation between self, events, and others, and honors the Buddha-nature or core of goodness at the heart of one and all.
Loving kindness is the root of nonviolence, the antidote to anger and aggression, and the root of mindfulness practice, in that it requires the same non-judging, non-grasping calmness and clarity that is at the heart of Buddhist meditation practice.
When anger surges up in you, try cultivating patience, lovingkindness, and forbearance. When hatred rears its head, cultivate forgiveness and equanimity, try to empathize with the other and see things through there eyes for a moment. If you are moved towards aggression, try to breathe, relax, and quiet the agitated mind and strive for restraint and moderation, remembering that others are just like you. They want and need happiness; they are trying to avoid pain, harm, and suffering, too.
The following is a very simple strategy to apply in the moment that anger arises:
1. First [say], “I know that I’m angry–furious, livid, etc.”
2. Breathe in deeply, and while breathing out say, “I send compassion towards my anger.”
Practice this mantra, and observe how it magically interrupts the habitual pattern of unskillful, thoughtless reactivity. This practice can provide–on the spot–a moment of mindfulness and sanity. It helps us take better care of ourselves and heads off negative behaviors we know we don’t want to perpetuate.