Sunday, April 27, 2008


(I wrote this a couple of years ago.)

If we use anger at injustice as the source for our energy, we may do something harmful, something that we will later regret. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that is useful and safe. With compassion, your energy is born from insight; it is not blind energy. - Thich Nhat Hanh
Not indulging in anger is one of the ten grave precepts a Zen student is supposed to follow. My teacher suggested that the precepts are simply restrictions keep unenlightened beings from doing harm. A Buddha behaves in a non-karma-generating way spontaneously and without thought, therefore s/he has no need of precepts. When administering the precepts in ceremonies, my teacher would always follow each with the question "do you vow to follow this precept until you achieve Buddhahood?"

This is one of my areas of ambivalence towards Buddhism, where the received wisdom of the ages seems to clash with my own experience. The more self-knowledge I develop, the more conscious I am of my anger, and the less afraid I am of it. I am beginning to understand it not as a force to blunt down and bury and deny, but as the fire that effects change. Yes, it can harm us if we attach to it, but so can any other emotion or thought or feeling.

Moreover, it seems to me that to regard anger and compassion as mutually exclusive--to reject anger in order to cultivate compassion--is to embrace a false duality. We talk about doing zazen for all sentient beings, and that's a beautiful mystical concept, but perching on a little black cushion won't house the homeless or feed hungry mouths or stop the military-industrial complex from trampling the weak. That takes recognizing the need for change and reacting to it with the passion, the drive, the anger that makes the change happen.

I suppose my road to complete understanding lies long before me.

But if I'm not getting off the wheel of life and death this time around, I'm ok with that. It's mighty interesting here, where there are cats, and really good music, and dark chocolate, and soft spring evenings, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and millions of beautiful fascinating people, each one a cosmos.

My quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in this context isn't quite fair. Of any teacher, he has most exemplified the engaged activist path that more and more seems my dharma. But honestly, my sympathies lie more with Audre Lorde:
My anger has meant pain to me, but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I'm going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.
And with Zack de la Rocha:
Your anger is a gift.


T said...

Yay for quoting Audre Lorde!

And some anger is a good thing. Can you imagine heavy metal being what it is without a dose of it?

(I like the new blog layout, by the way.)

Rob said...

Metal is all about anger! I think that's why I've been into it so much since I've been in analysis. Also punk, and loud extreme music in general. Especially if there's screaming.

Glad you like the layout. It's a template called, er, "stretch denim," with a few modifications. I'm not sure how happy I am with these colors.

hsempl said...

thanks for posting this! i think about anger often, as i have not gotten comfortable with it yet. but a while ago i saw what i thought was a supercool magnet: May you always have anger by your side.
I thought how cool and true: anger next to me, to help me, not inside of me overpowering me; always there when i need it.

Turned out to say "angel". But I saw what I needed to see.

Rob said...

Ha. Of course it said "angel."

I've got my anger on my back.