Friday, September 25, 2009

Extinguishing anger

No one needs to look very far to find relevant passages in the Tipitika that show the Buddha’s teachings on anger. Anger is, after all, considered one of the Big Three evil things that doom us to the endless cycle of birth, life, death, and then rebirth for another round.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us:

Whoever takes a rod
to harm living beings desiring ease,
when he himself is looking for ease,
will meet with no ease after death.

In the Yodhajiva Sutta: To Yodhajiva (The Warrior), the Buddha tersely explains that even a soldier acting valiantly in war will not escape his punishment for willingly being engaged in battle, killing his enemies (SN 42.3).

In the Kodhana Sutta: The Wretchedness of Anger (AN 7.60), the Buddha enumerates the seven results of anger, which include that the angry person will be ugly and in pain.

There are hundreds of such passages in the Tipitika. It’s pretty clear, anger is no good. I get that, it’s clear to me that anger is one of the three primary causes of my suffering. I know that I shouldn’t be overcome with anger, hatred, rage, or any of these similar states of mind.

But how do I do that? How do I stop being angry? How do I let go of this awful burden that anger buries me under?

I am not afraid to admit that I am an angry person. As a gay boy growing up in a Catholic hegemony that included Catholic school for a while, as well as in a society that supported what I was hearing in the catechisms, I felt alone, isolated, and extraordinarily insecure.

I was also angry. Angry at many things and many people. I was angry with school, with the Catholic Church, with God, with the other boys I hung around with, and I was angry with my parents.

There was also that dreaded word growing up – faggot.

For many gay boys growing up, sarcasm becomes a well-honed skill – we turned our anger into a rapier wit to belittle those who dared to call us names, and we did so with such aplomb that we gained friends at the same time.

I still occasionally have a sharp tongue, but what I have gained over time is an awareness of when I unleash it, and a feeling of shame when it occurs. While I became somewhat skilled with sarcasm, my fear of the “dreaded word” led me to become all things to everyone just so I could satisfy myself that people liked me. I was friendly with virtually everyone, but friends with no one, as there was no one I could really be myself with.

I have also learned over time how to let go of my anger much more quickly than the days when I would hold onto my anger as though it were a prized possession.

But it’s still there.

Buddhism is no different from other religions in that it, too, has the message that anger and hatred are bad.

I have found, however, that Buddhism is significantly different from other religions in how it treats anger. While other religions, particularly the monotheistic ones, cite anger as an emotion that can bring about one’s downfall, it is nonetheless glorified in many ways, with many angry acts often exalted as being righteous: the righteous war, as an example.

And this is where a key difference between Buddhism and other religions become apparent. The Buddha provided steps to follow to rid oneself of anger – he didn’t just say that anger was bad; he actually taught how you can rid yourself of it. The Buddha provided all these handy lists of qualities follow, and when it comes to anger, there is one of these lists that is particularly helpful.

It is called the Four Right Efforts. Yeah, ridding myself of anger is going to take effort, but there is right effort that is effective, and wrong effort that is futile. The Four Right Efforts are:

To prevent unskillful qualities from arising.
To denourish and remove unskillful qualities already present.
To strengthen and further develop skillful qualities already present.
To nurture and develop skillful qualities not present so they may arise.

So first, I need to be sure I don’t start doing terrible stuff that I’m not doing right now. For example, I’ve never killed anyone. Sounds silly, but this is exactly what the Buddha was talking about. If you have never killed a human, then don’t start.

Ah, but the second step is much trickier, and that is to “denourish” and remove my unskillful anger that is already there. And that “denourish” term can sort of hang people up a bit. That term implies that the anger I have has been nourished, and that it has been me providing the nourishment. To withhold that nourishment, I need to understand the origin of my anger. Jeez, this is going to take work, because to do that, I need to have a focused mind. Aw crap, and to have a focused mind, I need to practice my meditation to make sure I am focusing on the right things.

Gosh, this denourishment thing is difficult! No kidding, and this is where I see a considerable number of people abandon Buddhism. They wanted Buddhism Lite, they just wanted to wear the label. As soon as it became apparent that being a skillful person takes effort, it was adios my friend! Hmm, do I sound angry about this?

But I digress. Because the choice is pretty clear for me. I want to stop being angry. It’s no fun. And no one’s going to do it for me. So I accept the work and do the best I can to uncover the seeds of anger inside of me so that I can get rid of them.

There is good news in all this too. I am not a total screw up. I have good qualities. The third effort is to strengthen the good qualities I already have and nourish them rather than nourish my anger and other unskillful qualities. And the more consistent I am with that, the easier it will become to cultivate the skillful qualities I don’t have but desire.

I’m still an angry guy. But each year when I go to Boystown here in Chicago for the annual Pride Parade and I pass the lonely, angry and virulent man that stands every year with his bullhorn at the corner of Clark and Belmont, shouting out warnings that all us gays are doomed to hell, I can smile at him. I’ve let go of the anger related to him.

Now if I could just let go of the anger I have for those jerks on the Jane Adams Tollway who don’t know scat about driving.

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