The Wisdom of Anger

A wise person does not neglect the way of propriety.  Democracy means freedom and equality, and mutual respect.  Authoritarians and demagogues use people as a tool.  The American way was always supposed to be about appreciating people as an end in themselves . . .

Trying to gather my thoughts about this election has been difficult.  I was so angry.  I still am.  Problem is, Buddhists are not supposed to get angry.  We have this notion that we always have to avoid any display of emotion, that there is never justification for anger, and our words must always be kind and healing.

I don’t believe that every moment has to be a kumbaya moment.  Now and again, there is justification for anger and rather than be afraid of the anger, or be ashamed for feeling anger, we can use it.

If you are a Mahayanist, then you realize that Buddha taught a certain use for the energy of anger . . . the bodhisattva, like the peacock who can use poison to be beautiful, can use the heat, the fire of anger . . .”

So says Robert Thurman in a video “The Wisdom of Anger” (see below).  Japanese Buddhists have a term for what he is talking about:  hendoku iyaku – change poison into medicine.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind.  I suspect that many Buddhists practice suppression rather than transformation.  There are situations when negativity has to come out in order to be an object for transformation.  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that there are two truths and they are not separate, except when they are.  Conventionally speaking then, anger directed toward injustice or the infliction of harm can be positive.

T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i was one of the first Buddhist teachers to explain how good and evil are non-dual.  Ng Yu Kwan* tells us that Chih-i taught “good and evil do not make terms with each other, but are constantly in a struggle.  Good must overturn evil in order to prevail, and good can prevail only by the overturning of evil.  It follows that overturning evil is a necessary and sufficient condition for the prevalence of good.  But the overturning of evil does not imply extirpation of evil.”

Why not?  Because ultimately, good and evil are non-dual.  They are “different states of the same thing under different conditions.”  The keyword here is ultimately.  This is the view from ultimate truth and it is important for us to remember that even though the ultimate and conventional are mutually inclusive, there are times in the conventional world when it is necessary to use conventional means.

The fact is that in the Mahayana Buddhist way of expressing non-duality, things are dual sometimes.  There are situations when it truly is a matter of good vs. evil, us vs. them.

This post-election period is one of those times.  It is not wrong to identify the President-elect with evil, for what he represents – hate, misogyny, racism – are identified as evil states of mind.  We do not have to support the President-elect or unite behind him.  To do so would be like saying hate speech is acceptable, that using hate speech to win an election is something we can tolerate.  It’s isn’t.  Not in the America I was taught to believe in.  Freedom of speech and accountability for your words are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding inter-dependency (dependent origination) means taking responsibility for being infinitely connected to each other, so we want to avoid creating animosity with people whose views are different from ours and do out best to follow the ways of propriety and mutual respect.  Yet, we should not become enablers of their delusions, sold to them by demagogues and hate-mongers.

If we’re angry, we need not be ashamed of it or feel that it must be suppressed.  We can take the anger, temper it with wisdom, and then speak out, raise an objection.  Our country is in a fog.  Our protests can be the sunlight that burns off the fog.

 

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* NG Yu Kwan, T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, 171

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2 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Anger

  1. Thanks, David; trying my best to keep anger from becoming wholly negative, and attempting to channel it into real, substantive communication… and action. Frustrated with the already insidious “normalization” of the election results, and have been trying to keep a “dharma perspective” (tough for me right now)…. and your piece helps (again). Hang in there…

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