We are on a quest to display the Buddha’s teachings on anger. Many people today take many positions on what we are to do– ranging from complete embrace and acceptance of all the range of human emotion, to an ascetic rejection of all things that might rustle up any emotion– but the Buddha gave a clear teaching that Buddhist people follow. In this installment, we’ll address some misconceptions, look at what the Buddha advises in the Brahmajala Sutta and then we’ll briefly point to what happens to the brain on anger.
The wise are quick to accept reproach, but fools are already too perfect to hear any of it.
After sharing part 1 of this series, I received some feedback. Please, allow me to respond real quick.
“It’s natural, dude.”
I discovered there is this notion that anger is to be accepted, embraced, expressed, and or released. Okay.
Yes. Anger is human.
Sure, it is ‘natural’ (what a horrible word), but so are many other horrible things. Just because things are “natural” does not mean we should embrace them.
There are many “natural” behaviors that are obviously hangovers from some previous evolutionary stage– they don’t serve us well today. We are flexible, humans are adaptable, we can change. We can control ourselves (to a degree). We can ‘tame’ ourselves. Buddhism encourages us to try!
So, the Buddha teaches in the Dhammapada:
231. Let a man guard himself against irritability in bodily action; let him be controlled in deed. Abandoning bodily misconduct, let him practice good conduct in deed. 232. Let a man guard himself against irritability in speech; let him be controlled in speech. Abandoning verbal misconduct, let him practice good conduct in speech. 233. Let a man guard himself against irritability in thought; let him be controlled in mind. Abandoning mental misconduct, let him practice good conduct in thought. 234. The wise are controlled in bodily action, controlled in speech and controlled in thought. They are truly well-controlled.
I find that many Western Buddhists sharing their views on the internet entertain this kind of:
‘anger is natural let’s just accept it and excuse it’.
It is a funny blend of new-agey type stuff and some relics from western psychology’s past. It has very little to do with the Buddha’s teaching on anger and more to do with our urge to excuse our shortcomings and ignore our errors.
The Buddha was clear, over and over again, ‘abandon anger. It is no good’.
All those quirky Zen stories are popular among western Buddhists. And, it is true, we do find funny stories about Zen Masters shouting and hitting each other… but, I ask myself,
“Were they really so angry while engaged in those apparently angry gestures?”
And, quickly, I answer myself,
“No. If they were really masters of the Dhyanas, they were not angry, but were doing these weird things to teach each other.”
For example, here is a story about when Master Huang Po hit Master Lin Chi with a six foot pole.
When Lin Chi was a young monk, he studied under Master Huang Po Si-Yin (?-857) in Huang Po Shan (Yi-fong, Jiangxi). During the first three years at the temple, Lin Chi went unnoticed. He minded his own business and did what he was told; his daily schedule included: work in the fields, meditation, helping in the kitchens, and preparing baths for the older monks.
The head monk, Mu Chou, observed and noticed Lin Chi’s mindfulness and meditation in action. He was impressed with Lin Chi’s humanity and genuineness, and wanted the Master to notice Lin Chi. Since Lin Chi was so honest and simple, he never had anything to ask the Master, and did not make himself the center of attention for no reason. So Mu Chou advised Lin Chi to ask the following question: “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” Lin Chi asked Huang Po this question three times, and each time Huang Po hit him with a six-foot pole. Lin Chi failed to understand the truth in these blows, and decided to leave the monastery. In the tradition of what eventually became known in Zen history as hsing-chiao, traveling on foot, he decided to be a wanderling and learn from ordinary life what he failed to learn in the monastic setting. When he went to take his leave from Master, Huang Po told him not to go far away, but to first go to Master Ta Yu, who will teach him what he needs to know.
Lin Chi went to Ta Yu’s monastery and told him what had transpired. Ta Yu then said, “Why, Huang Po was to you as your own grandmother. Why have you come here suddenly, asking me about your faults?” Lin Chi became Enlightened. Up until this moment, Lin Chi had a dualistic perception of Buddhism and teachings, they were ideas in his mind, separate from himself. He had always searched for the truth outside of himself, but now, in a flash, he experienced existence as it is in itself, and he realized the emptiness of thoughts, words, and philosophical explanations.
He now understood that Huang Po’s stick pointed to the truth of his own being, and that his own question about Buddhism came from illusion.
So, as you can see, Huang Po wasn’t hitting Lin Chi out of anger, he hit with that six foot pole with an intention to teach.
And, I guess that in certain Buddhist places the people have told stories about wrathful deities. I think I have seen that kind of talk in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Here is an article listing the wrathful and peaceful deities.
I, personally, have not spent as much time with the Tibetan Buddhist teachings as I have with Buddhist teaching produced elsewhere. But, yeah, I have read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and a few other books related to Tibetan Buddhism.
Some might take these teachings to be praise of angry beings. Some might then assume that we are to emulate these beings. With this kind of thinking, a person might end up thinking that the Buddha is promoting anger. Nah.
It is described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead that these are only aspects of our own original mind. They are conceptual imputations. But! Yeah! They are the destroyers of obstacles to realizing our original nature.
It is said that, after death, these beings only arise if we miss the opportunity to realize our true nature during the initial appearance of the Great Light. The mind continues to spin out forms as it moves through the bardos.
In short, it seems these beings are reflections of our own nature– they are the product of our own wrong views. They are intense destroyers of obstacles because they shock our minds into aligning with the truth. They are not there to emulate/mimic– the existence of these wrathful deities serves a different function. They represent errors, the mind missed the boat and got lost in anger, which is painful and is like a fiery prod pushing us back toward compassion and loving kindness. It’s just like when we display anger here and now– bad things happen, we feel guilt/shame/remorse and correct our course.
Don’t stoke the fire!
It seems there is this idea that anger is due to an internal buildup of some kind of hate-fluid. Seems that some people believe that if we express our anger by hitting a pillow, or screaming in people’s faces, that it will somehow go away, be reduced, or something like that.
But, all my angry friends, like myself, know this is not true. We have seen that as we give in to anger, it only gets stronger.
If we act on our anger once, we are conditioning ourselves to act on our anger again. You know: “neurons that fire together wire together”. We may hit a pillow one day, and the face of a friend the next.
Thich Nhat Hanh
One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, brought this line of thinking to me as a child. The way he presents the Buddha’s teaching about anger made so much sense to me.
Here, Thich Nhat Hanh provides this translation of The Discourse on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger, prepared from the Madhyama Agama No. 25. It corresponds with Aghata Vinaya Sutta (“Discourse on Water as an Example), in the Anguttara Nikaya iii, 186:
This sutra appears in Thich Nhat Hanh, Chanting from the Heart (Parallax Press, Rev.Ed., 2006), and is recited regularly at Plum Village Practice Centers around the world as part of our daily sitting and chanting sessions.
We are planting and nurturing seeds of hatred in the soil-mind (alaya vijnana) every time we give in to the expression of anger. This is conditioning! I have seen the influence of anger in my own life, if you look deeply, I am sure you will see it as well. It is an ugly fire and we are stoking the flames when we punch pillows and give in to our anger with expressions of rage.
If you’ve looked at Western Psychology, you will know that Pavlov really got us thinking about how important conditioning is. But, it can be helpful to recognize that the Eastern psychologists had already made a big deal about conditioning, but their ideas were on a larger scale, their teachings on Karma were about the unfolding of conditioning over many lifetimes.
Buddhists today can combine what we know from the Psychological traditions (that focus on the external expressions of our internal experience) with what we have received from the meditation traditions (those that have focused on internal experience directly).
So, let’s do that.
Anger in the Brain
In short, anger makes us stupid.. Buddha says so and there is a lot of science to back this up. There is a lot written about this and I encourage you to spend some time reading about anger in the brain. I’ll provide my favorite resources, but there is so much to explore.
- Here is a nice article that walks us through what we know about anger in the brain.
- Everyone’s favorite interpersonal neurobiologist, Daniel Siegel, teaches about anger in the brain in these following videos:
When our thinking gets cloudy, it becomes more likely that we will create problems for ourselves and others. We do things we regret. We hurt ourselves and others. We tie ourselves tighter and tighter into the knots of spinning, loopy samsara. So, the Buddha didn’t speak about a righteous anger (if it is ‘righteous’, then it is, by my definition, no longer ‘anger’– it has already been transmuted into other more useful mental factors).
Like the Buddha in the Brahmajala Sutta, the author of the article above, tells us that when we become angry we leave our thinking skills behind.
“When someone is experiencing and expressing anger, he or she is not using the thinking (cortex) part of the brain, but primarily, the limbic center of the brain.”
**Read the rest of the article here.
The Buddha tells us, in the Brahmajala Sutta:
If you were to become angry or upset when others speak in dispraise of us, would you be able to recognize whether their statements are rightly or wrongly spoken?”
And the Buddha’s disciples respond:
“Certainly not, Lord.”
The monks and nuns, by the practice of looking deeply, have seen that thinking becomes less clear as they fall into anger. The Buddhist psychological systems were developed by the process of introspection, while the Western Psychological systems are built up from the analysis of the external expressions of internal processes. In short, these teachings work together nicely because they are two approaches to one understanding. We look at our internal experience closely and supplement that with what has been discovered through observation of external phenomena.
Don’t believe the hype. It is okay to recognize that anger is always an error. It is okay to recognize when we have done wrong. It may not be particularly pleasant to say,
“Hey, I have been a hateful fool in the past, may I be happy and contribute to others’ happiness”.
With this recognition, the shame resulting therefrom can be a powerful goad to push us toward friendliness. Shame and humiliation can be powerful allies. Yet, these too can become oppressive.
In the Buddha’s teaching we are taught to move beyond, beyond, further beyond, completely beyond to the other shore. To the highest happiness of the unconditioned. Nirvana. The end of delusion, anger, and greed.
In the next installment, I’m going to walk through the Sutra translated by Thich Nhat Hanh that I have already linked to above. We’re going to finish this series with an article about “how-to abandon anger”.
Thanks for joining me. Bye bye.