Fourteen years ago on Oct. 11, I was working a Sunday evening at The Morning Sun, a daily newspaper in Mount Pleasant, Mich. I was watching some posts on a thing called USENET. Remember that? I was following posts by a fellow who was updating a young man's condition out in Wyoming. This young man was severely beaten, tied to a fence and left there in the cold night on the Wyoming prairie.
His name was Matthew Shepard.
I don't know why, but as I was reading these posts, I felt like something momentous was happening. And as more details of this horrific crime became public, it was clear a fundamental change was about to occur within the American psyche.
Matthew was lured away by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who promised to take him home. Instead, they drove Matthew into the middle of the prairie where they pistol whipped him and tortured him. They tied him to a fence where he remained unconscious until about 18 hours later when a cyclist passing by spotted him. Initially, the cyclist thought Shepard was a scarecrow.
McKinney and Henderson met Shepard on Oct. 6, 1998, and it was probably after midnight when they beat him into a coma on Oct. 7. Shepard remained in a coma until he died four days later on Oct. 12.
He was 21.
When all the details of this event became public, the anger and hatred rising inside left me confused and feeling helpless. I hadn't found Buddhism at that time and I struggled to find ways to make sense of such a senseless act. I recall speaking at a candlelight vigil on the Central Michigan University campus; nothing formal, just a hastily organized gathering where I could not remain silent. I don't remember what I said, but I do remember how my voice trembled as I spoke.
Today, however, I do have Buddhism, and I am reminded of the many passages that clearly teach how anger and hatred never achieves anything good.
"As a log from a pyre, burnt at both ends and fouled in the middle, serves neither for firewood in the village nor for timber in the forest, so is such a wrathful man." Anguttara Nikaya II, 95
And in the Dhammapada the Buddha teaches:
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me of my property. Whosoever harbor such thoughts will never be able to still their enmity.
"Never indeed is hatred stilled by hatred; it will only be stilled by non-hatred — this is an eternal law."
"Guard your mind against an outburst of wrong feelings. Keep your mind controlled. Renouncing evil thoughts, develop purity of mind."
But one of the most interesting Buddhist tales about anger is one about the Anger Eating Demon, which I reprint in its entirety from Access To Insight.
Once there lived a demon who had a peculiar diet: he fed on the anger of others. And as his feeding ground was the human world, there was no lack of food for him. He found it quite easy to provoke a family quarrel, or national and racial hatred. Even to stir up a war was not very difficult for him. And whenever he succeeded in causing a war, he could properly gorge himself without much further effort; because once a war starts, hate multiplies by its own momentum and affects even normally friendly people. So the demon's food supply became so rich that he sometimes had to restrain himself from over-eating, being content with nibbling just a small piece of resentment found close-by.
But as it often happens with successful people, he became rather overbearing and one day when feeling bored he thought: "Shouldn't I try it with the gods?" On reflection he chose the Heaven of the Thirty-three Deities, ruled by Sakka, Lord of Gods. He knew that only a few of these gods had entirely eliminated the fetters of ill-will and aversion, though they were far above petty and selfish quarrels. So by magic power he transferred himself to that heavenly realm and was lucky enough to come at a time when Sakka the Divine King was absent. There was none in the large audience hall and without much ado the demon seated himself on Sakka's empty throne, waiting quietly for things to happen, which he hoped would bring him a good feed. Soon some of the gods came to the hall and first they could hardly believe their own divine eyes when they saw that ugly demon sitting on the throne, squat and grinning. Having recovered from their shock, they started to shout and lament: "Oh you ugly demon, how can you dare to sit on the throne of our Lord? What utter cheekiness! What a crime! you should be thrown headlong into the hell and straight into a boiling cauldron! You should be quartered alive! Begone! Begone!"
But while the gods were growing more and more angry, the demon was quite pleased because from moment to moment he grew in size, in strength and in power. The anger he absorbed into his system started to ooze from his body as a smoky red-glowing mist. This evil aura kept the gods at a distance and their radiance was dimmed.
Suddenly a bright glow appeared at the other end of the hall and it grew into a dazzling light from which Sakka emerged, the King of Gods. He who had firmly entered the undeflectible Stream that leads Nibbana-wards, was unshaken by what he saw. The smoke-screen created by the gods' anger parted when he slowly and politely approached the usurper of his throne. "Welcome, friend! Please remain seated. I can take another chair. May I offer you the drink of hospitality? Our Amrita is not bad this year. Or do you prefer a stronger brew, the vedic Soma?"
While Sakka spoke these friendly words, the demon rapidly shrank to a diminutive size and finally disappeared, trailing behind a whiff of malodorous smoke which likewise soon dissolved.
— Based on Samyutta Nikaya, Sakka Samyutta, No. 22
Hmm, it just occurred to me, did the demon disappear in a fart?