The Real Enemy and True Heroes

Mass shootings like the one in Oregon last week leave many of us with feelings of despair and frustration. Are we helpless to stop these incidents? They also lead to questions about guns and mental illness. Investigators have portrayed the Oregon shooter as an angry young man disconnected from others. How can prevent people like this from amassing stockpiles of weapons?

Frankly, angry and disconnected describes an awful lot of us, and from the Buddhist point of view, we all have mental health issues.

Buddhism teaches that all human sufferings stem from mental afflictions. We also call them delusions. The Sanskrit word is kleshas, meaning, “that which disturbs the mind from within.” A primary affliction is anger, also known as aversion or hatred.

Anger is a vengeful attitude toward one’s self, toward others, towards things that produce frustration, and towards frustration itself. Individuals who live in the realm of anger are obsessed with fault-finding, and while they may display a victim mentality, the truth is, as T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i put it, they are more “like a hawk sweeping the sky in search of prey.”

Dalai Lama6One of the most instructive and powerful Buddhist texts dealing with anger is the one I mentioned in a recent post, Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (or “Way of the Bodhisattva”). The Dalai Lama has given teachings on this work many times, in particular on the “Patience” chapter.* In 2001, I attended one of these teachings in Pasadena California and took copious notes.

Anger has lingering effects. The Dalai Lama said that when strong anger arises, all our normal senses of behavior are destroyed:

When one is under the domination of anger, those around us suffer also. Even friends and family suffer because they worry about our bad mood. Small outbursts of anger may seem to bring some satisfaction but there are long term negative effects. Anger [that arises when another person has harmed us] does not reverse. If we return the harm then the person responsible just becomes angrier and it becomes a vicious circle.”

The Dalai Lama pointed out that Shantideva identifies anger as “the real enemy, our inner enemy.” Anger is very powerful and comes from causes and conditions that we need to analyze so that we can prevent the causes from arising. He said, “The Buddhist way is to try and trace back the causes and counteract them.”

Here, I’d like to say that when we talk about causes and conditions, it is not just causes and conditions. It is also choices. I don’t accept that Shantideva or Buddhism in general is determinism. We have free will. Many of the causes were produced by actions we chose to undertake, and because mental afflictions disturb the mind from within, only we can chose whether or not to take the necessary actions to defeat them.  This should be empowering, for it tells us that we are not at the complete mercy of external forces.

Verse 8 in the chapter on Patience reads,

Therefore, I should eradicate
the fuel of this enemy,
for this enemy has no other function
than to harm me.

According to Shantideva, the practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger. It involves cultivating tolerance and compassion, but it also requires an ability to endure hardship and maintain a strong determination to remove the causes of anger.

What happens in society is a reflection of what happens in the minds of those who live in that society.  Because of this, we are not helpless to stop gun violence and societal anger.

I believe that Buddhism rejects the notion of helplessness. If there were not a possibility of rational hope for human beings in the face of suffering, the Buddha would not have taught the Four Noble Truths, in which he said, “Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering . . .”

We change the world by changing ourselves and it can have a ripple effect. We are only helpless when we become hopeless, and because we can change, there is always hope.

As the Dalai Lama noted, in itself the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality. It is up to each one of us to decide in which direction our minds will move.

Shantideva wrote,

Since my mind is not physical,
no one can destroy it.

And the Dalai Lama said,

We are changing our natural habitual patterns and since what we are changing is so monumental, there can be no relaxing in the battle against mental afflictions. Those who battle mental afflictions are true heroes.”

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* A 1993 teaching given by the Dalai Lama on the “Patience” chapter in Shantideva’s Guide was published as Healing Anger The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective

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No Anger

In response to last week’s post Cancer Again (Naturally), a reader wrote in a comment, “Usually the prognosis is pretty grim once it [cancer] has metastasized.” I saw my oncologist the next day and it turns out that’s true.

I am going to start radiation treatments the first week in May, but while we might be able to get rid of the current tumor, sooner or later, it will spread somewhere else and if goes someplace where there are vital organs, well, let’s just say, it won’t be pretty.

A relative asked me if I was at least a little angry that the cancer “came back” (though it actually hadn’t left). He mentioned how novelist and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis vented at God when his wife died a painful death after her cancer, thought to be cured, returned. Lewis wrote a journal of his thoughts and feelings about his wife’s ordeal that he published as A Grief Observed in 1961. I have not read the book (not much of a Lewis fan), but previewed it at Google Books: “Meanwhile, where is God? . . . Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” (p6)

In the past, I have had some issues with anger management. When the liver cancer first appeared, I was angry. I was irritated. It was a major interruption in my life. I had other things I wanted to do than go on doctor’s appointments, sit around in waiting rooms, have people poke and prod me, etc. But I did my best to work through the anger, and its cousin, fear. And I wrote about that process here on The Endless Further.

After the transplant, I thought the cancer was gone. But it was merely in hiding, keeping a low profile, and now it’s active again, threatening to take my life. But I am not angry this time. No thought of anger has risen in my mind. No angry emotion has surfaced. I don’t believe in God, so getting angry with him would be like venting to a closed door. No sense in getting angry at the cancer, it could care less whether I like it or not.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva wrote that anger is our greatest enemy, capable of destroying all the good in our lives, and since it has no purpose, rather than getting angry at something or someone, it’s better to see whatever it is as assisting you in your spiritual development.

Viewing cancer as a spiritual friend is a tall order. I’m not quite there, but no anger is a good accomplishment.

Another reader in a comment to last week’s post, encouraged me to continue to share this part of my journey, and I think I will for the time being. However, for today, that’s all I have.

With all this going on, I have neglected National Poetry Month, which I like to celebrate each year. Anger can be a positive, motivating force when it is in response to the suffering of others or directed at injustice. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Cesar Vallejo’s poem is a meditation on that aspect of anger.

The Anger That Breaks The Man Into Children

Translated from Spanish by Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia

Three unidentified girls during the Spanish Civil War (photographer unknown)
Three unidentified girls during the Spanish Civil War (photographer unknown)

The anger that breaks the man into children,
that breaks the child into equal birds,
and the bird, afterward, into little eggs;
the anger of the poor
has one oil against two vinegars.

The anger that breaks the tree into leaves,
the leaf into unequal buds
and the bud, into telescopic grooves;
the anger of the poor
has two rivers against many seas.

The anger that breaks the good into doubts,
the doubt, into three similar arcs
and the arc, later on, into unforeseeable tombs;
the anger of the poor
has one steel against two daggers.

The anger that breaks the soul into bodies;
the body into dissimilar organs
and the organ, into octave thoughts;
the anger of the poor
has one central fire against two craters.

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One Moment

Shantideva in Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, cautioned that in one moment of anger we can destroy all the good we’ve ever done. There is a Chinese saying I see often, and I don’t know if it is authentic or not, but it’s a good one that says “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.”

I had one of those moments of anger yesterday, and I was not patient. It was with a TSA agent at an airport. I thought she was being stupid but she was just doing her job. I was the stupid one. If for no other reason that TSA agents are not exactly the best recipients for outbursts of anger. That could lead to big trouble. Then, of course, the anger itself was stupid.

In the moments following my outburst, I reflected on a quote I included in Friday’s post: “You should cultivate a mind unconquerable . . .  a mind invincible . . .  a mind not shaken in the abyss and the currents of the ocean of evil temperaments.”

It was like in that one moment I hadn’t learned a damn thing in 30 years. And it disturbed me. I thought, why is it that I can’t be the perfect Buddhist? I mean, all I have to do is remember to practice patience and equanimity.

If I had stated my remark to the TSA agent, which was something along the lines of “this is why everyone hates you people”, in a different tone of voice, and with different words, it would have been fine. But, no, in that one moment, I lost control and raised my voice.

The truth is that none of us is perfect and we all screw up. That could be taken as a rationalization, but I feel it’s more a form of honesty. I don’t claim to be perfect. I don’t claim to be an arhat or enlightened. No one is. Those are idealized states of being. I think it is absurd to think that the Buddha never got angry. Even the Dalai Lama admits to getting angry.

And so, the quotes above are idealized as well. Ideals to hold in our hearts. Ideals to aim for. The only thing that one moment of anger destroys is that one moment. It could have been a peaceful moment. It can be more destructive if we don’t let go of that moment. The crucial thing, I think, than the anger, is to make a determination to avoid letting that one moment of anger rise again. It probably will, but it is the effort we make to improve that counts the most in the long run.

It’s all so simple. Just be in the present moment, let go of your anger but don’t take it out on anyone, practice patience, cultivate equanimity. Very simple, yet hard. Or as Carl Jung, the great psychologist, said, “It would be simple enough, if only simplicity were not the most difficult of all things.”

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