The following is the transcript of a talk I gave this evening at my zen center about the Buddhist precept that addresses anger. This post is cross-posted at the Wy’East Zen Center Blog.
Do not indulge anger – cultivate equanimity. In the realm of the selfless dharma, not contriving reality for the self is the precept of not indulging anger. Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is a brilliant sea of clouds. There is a dignified sea of clouds.
Since we started doing precept study here at WEZC several years ago, the precept on anger has jumped out me.
First of all, the language is very much like a puzzle and it kind of hurts my brain. What does it mean to “Cultivate equanimity?” What is a “brilliant sea clouds?” For that matter, what is a “dignified sea of clouds”? What does “not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty” mean? This precept has made me think from the moment I first heard it.
On the surface it is pretty straightforward, “Don’t indulge anger.” Seems pretty simple. When I first started thinking about this precept, at first I concluded that it means not to be angry. After a few years of thinking about it and working with it I realize this is not what this precept means at all.
Anger is one of the many, many emotions we feel as humans. Emotions are normal and OK. Experiencing emotions, positive or negative, is what we do. It is a biological process. Anger is one of these emotions. We are going to feel anger in our lifetime. We are probably going to feel anger a lot in our lifetime. We will probably indulge anger a lot in our lifetime too. This is perfectly normal human behavior.
However, anger is one of those emotions where when it is indulged there is karma that is created. And then you have to deal with that karma. So use wisdom when you encounter anger.
This precept gives us advice on how to not indulge anger. The advice is to cultivate equanimity. I like the use of the word “cultivate” here because in my mind I picture someone lovingly tending to their garden. When you cultivate a garden it is a process. Sometimes a daily process. It is something you keep an eye on and tend to. Cultivating also requires pulling weeds. Noticing the weeds, and discarding them so the garden can grow.
So how do we cultivate equanimity? There are probably many ways to cultivate equanimity. We can start by having a consistent zazen practice. Zazen helps us learn to quiet the mind so we can notice when anger arises in our lives. If we can notice that it arises we can take a step back from it and choose not to indulge it. We can choose how we we want to deal with it.
Anger does have it’s place. Anger can tell us when something is wrong and that we need to do something.
Anger can be a powerful catalyst for change. I think about Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. His goal was to (according to Wikipedia) “expose “the inferno of exploitation [of the typical American factory worker at the turn of the 20th Century]” Do you think he was angry about the plight of the American worker? Yes, it sounds like he was. But He used that anger to write The Jungle, And, indeed, That novel changed our country for the better. The book caused a public outcry and laws were created to make our lives better. When we step back from anger and work with it from a place of wisdom it can be a powerful force for change.
Here is a quote I came across that touches on this thought:
“This is the essential difference between ordinary anger and wrathful compassion. Ordinary anger is motivated by fear and aversion; wrathful compassion is motivated by love that has the courage to confront people for their own sake. Anger seeks to protect the self, or one’s own self-righteousness. Wrathful compassion seeks to protect all others, by challenging what harms them. The difference is quite clear.”
– John Makransky, “Aren’t we right to be angry?” from Tricycle Magazine.
In our book, “Waking Up To What You Do,” there is the example of the woman who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving as a response to her anger at the person who killed her child while driving drunk. I think this is a really good example of what John Makransky is talking about in this quote.
Another interesting thing about this precept is that it explicitly states that it is the precept about not contriving reality for the self. I think maybe that of all the emotions this is the one that really gives shape to the ego when you are experiencing it. Here is a zen story that I think illustrates this idea very well:
The Prime Minister of the Tang Dynasty was a national hero for his success as both a statesman and military leader. But despite his fame, power, and wealth, he considered himself a humble and devout Buddhist. Often he visited his favorite Zen master to study under him, and they seemed to get along very well. The fact that he was prime minister apparently had no effect on their relationship, which seemed to be simply one of a revered master and respectful student.
One day, during his usual visit, the Prime Minister asked the master, “Your Reverence, what is egotism according to Buddhism?” The master’s face turned red, and in a very condescending and insulting tone of voice, he shot back, “What kind of stupid question is that!?”
This unexpected response so shocked the Prime Minister that he became sullen and angry. The Zen master then smiled and said, “THIS, Your Excellency, is egotism.”
Source: Zen Stories To Tell Your Neighbors
In our book Rizzetto states, “Anger can also be a signal that alerts us to how we may be mistreated. It shines a light beam on unacceptable abusive situations.” This is important! Anger can be our ally during bad situations. She goes on to tell the story of a student who was in an abusive situation and, as she was studying this precept, she realized that anger could have helped her out of her abusive situation. Years later she recalls her experience when someone pushed her and she “stood her ground” and told the person very clearly “take your hands off of me.” She said that the anger felt “clean and real.”
I’ll end my talk with this quote from the book. I think it sums up what I’ve been talking about well:
“Sometimes, this precept is taken as a prohibition against all anger, pointing to the hurtful results of of its indulgence. But I think if we keep in mind that our aspiration is to respond rather than react to conditions and situations, then we can approach this precept not as a prohibition against all anger, but as an invitation to explore the difference between anger that springs out of old patterns of thinking and perceiving – a reaction – and anger that springs out as a clear indication of conditions and situations that do not serve life – a response.”
I still want to know what a “brilliant sea of clouds” is though.
About the photo:
This a pinhole image made during my One Pinhole A Day project. I loved this Lego sculpture made by one of the kids at the Lego Club at the library. The camera that I used was a Zero 2000 and the film I used was Portra 160.