Anger. Rage. Fury. Wrath. Whatever you call it, it happens to all of us, including Buddhists. However much we value loving kindness, we Buddhists are still human beings, and sometimes we get angry. What does Buddhism teach about anger?
Anger is one of the three poisons – the other two are greed and ignorance – that are the primary causes of the cycle of samsara and rebirth. Purifying ourselves of anger is essential to Buddhist practice. Further, in Buddhism there is no such thing as “righteous” or “justifiable” anger. All anger is a fetter to realization.
Yet even highly realized masters admit they sometimes get angry. This means that for most of us, not getting angry is not a realistic option. We will get angry. What then do we do with our anger?
First, Admit You Are Angry
This may sound silly, but how many times have you met someone who clearly was angry, but who insisted he was not? For some reason, some people resist admitting to themselves that they are angry. This is not skillful. You can’t very well deal with something that you won’t admit is there.
Buddhism teaches mindfulness. Being mindful of ourselves is part of that. When an unpleasant emotion or thought arises, do not suppress it, run away from it, or deny it. Instead, observe it and fully acknowledge it. Being deeply honest with yourself about yourself is essential to Buddhism.
What Makes You Angry?
It’s important to understand that anger is something created by yourself. It didn’t come swooping out of the ether to infect you. We tend to think that anger is caused by something outside ourselves, such as other people or frustrating events. But my first Zen teacher used to say, “No one makes you angry. You make yourself angry.”
Buddhism teaches us that anger is created by mind. However, when you are dealing with your own anger, you should be more specific. Anger challenges us to look deeply into ourselves. Most of the time, anger is self-defensive. It arises from unresolved fears or when our ego-buttons are pushed.
As Buddhists we recognize that ego, fear and anger are insubstantial and ephemeral, not “real.” They’re ghosts, in a sense. Allowing anger to control our actions amounts to being bossed around by ghosts.
Anger Is Self-Indulgent
Anger is unpleasant but seductive. In this interview with Bill Moyer, Pema Chodron says that anger has a hook. “There's something delicious about finding fault with something,” she said. Especially when our egos are involved (which is nearly always the case), we may protect our anger. We justify it and even feed it.
Buddhism teaches that anger is never justified, however. Our practice is to cultivate metta, a loving kindness toward all beings that is free of selfish attachment. “All beings” includes the guy who just cut you off at the exit ramp, the co-worker who takes credit for your ideas, and even someone close and trusted who betrays you.
For this reason, when we become angry we must take great care not to act on our anger to hurt others. We must also take care not to hang on to our anger and give it a place to live and grow.
How to Let It Go
You have acknowledged your anger, and you have examined yourself to understand what caused the anger to arise. Yet you are still angry. What’s next?
Pema Chodron counsels patience. Patience means waiting to act or speak until you can do so without causing harm. “Patience has a quality of enormous honesty in it,” she said. “It also has a quality of not escalating things, allowing a lot of space for the other person to speak, for the other person to express themselves, while you don’t react, even though inside you are reacting.”
If you have a meditation practice, this is the time to put it to work. Sit still with the heat and tension of anger. Quiet the internal chatter of other-blame and self-blame. Acknowledge the anger and enter into it entirely. Embrace your anger with patience and compassion for all beings, including yourself.
Don’t Feed Anger
It’s hard not to act, to remain still and silent while our emotions are screaming at us. Anger fills us with edgy energy and makes us want to do something. Pop psychology tells us to pound our fists into pillows or to scream at the walls to “work out” our anger. Thich Nhat Hanh disagrees.
“When you express your anger you think that you are getting anger out of your system, but that's not true,” he said. “When you express your anger, either verbally or with physical violence, you are feeding the seed of anger, and it becomes stronger in you.” Only understanding and compassion can neutralize anger.
Compassion Takes Courage
Sometimes we confuse aggression with strength and non-action with weakness. Buddhism teaches that just the opposite is true.
Giving in to the impulses of anger, allowing anger to hook us and jerk us around, is weakness. On the other hand, it takes strength to acknowledge the fear and selfishness in which our anger usually is rooted. It also takes discipline to meditate in the flames of anger.
The Buddha said, “Conquer anger by non-anger. Conquer evil by good. Conquer miserliness by liberality. Conquer a liar by truthfulness.” (Dhammapada, v. 233) Working with ourselves and others and our lives in this way is Buddhism. Buddhism is not a belief system, or a ritual, or some label to put on your T-shirt. It’s this.