Monday, September 9, 2013

Anger is a (necessary) energy

Buddhists are supposed to be placid, right? In statues and paintings the Buddha is sitting implacably in deep meditation. Cartoons show wise gurus in caves dispensing pithy, if incomprehensible, advice. Popular Buddhist authors like Tara Brach and Pema Chodron and Shinzen Young talk about radical acceptance of things as they are right now, about witnessing the rise and fall of emotions as thoughts and bodily sensations and staying present with the experience.

Buddhists don't get angry, right? They may witness the arising of anger in themselves, but they don't bite that hook. Acting out of anger is unskillful. You can Google up a gaggle of articles to tell you that. It's an issue that's come up for me lately, in personal conversations and as I read about  the debate over whether nations should take action against Syria for its use of nerve gas.

That is, however, a limited and limiting view, which doesn't fit with a philosophical system that teaches that we are limitless, that our wisdom and compassion know no boundaries.

Tantric Buddhism teaches that -- as John Lydon sang -- anger is an energy. Specifically, it is the neurotic, or confused, aspect of the energy of the vajra family; the enlightened aspect is clarity, clear-seeing.

The Dalai Lama says in a recently translated interview that anger is essential to achieving social justice.

There are two types of anger. One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having. For example, a good parent, out of concern for a child’s behavior, may use harsh words or even strike him. He may be angry, but there is no trace of any desire to hurt him.

...The question is a person’s state of mind or the motivation that causes the action. When we act, that act arises out of a cause that already exists in us. If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. But if we act out of consideration for the other person, if we are motivated by affection and sympathy, then we can act out of anger because we are concerned with that person’s well-being.
For example, he says, that if a child is playing with poison, a parent may shout or strike the child's hands to keep him from putting it in his mouth. That anger "was directed toward the child’s actions that could harm him, not toward the child himself. In such a case, it is right to take the necessary measures to stop the action, such as anger, shouting, or striking."

On a larger level, anger about social injustice is necessary, he says, but should be directed at the social injustice itself. "The anger should be maintained until the goal is achieved. It is necessary in order to stop social injustice and wrong destructive actions," he said.

What that means is that you need to keep going inside and re-examining your own motivation and intention. What situation does the anger point you to? Often we displace anger at one thing onto a more convenient target or we simply explode, shooting anger out in all directions, hitting the innocent and the obstructors. What is the wise or skillful way to act?

Rita Gross, a Buddhist teacher and former history of religion professor, spent most of her life bringing to light the ways that patriarchy has tainted Buddhism and hurt women. It wasn't an easy path, but she sees benefits for herself and others.

New Lotus, an online magazine, describes her as a faithful Tibetan Buddhist who has been "fearless in critiquing the human-made power structures of Buddhist institutions," it says, citing her "pugilistic" approach. "She can afford to be because she is acutely aware of the important difference she has made with her contributions to Buddhist-feminist scholarship."

Gross cites Buddhists teachings interpreted to mean that only males can be enlightened as at the core of the patriarchal institutions -- and her own path. “Female rebirth is necessary to have people in female bodies speak out against the injustice of patriarchy,” she insists, with an uninvested charm that only retired people can afford. “Had I not been born in a female body, I could not have likely walked the path I did, wrote the books I wrote, and made the difference that I made,” she says.

Anger isn't a problem, it's an energy. As with all emotions, it's what you do with that energy that matters.

This doesn't tell you whether Buddha would bomb Syria. He pretty much stayed away from those questions -- but he suggested that you look at your intentions, motivations, and the possible consequences and act with clarity.


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