Last time I began to propose an answer to David Chapman’s questions about what might be distinctively Buddhist about a modern Buddhist ethics. I mentioned the classical Buddhist critique of politics and activism, and noted that I agree with some of that critique. Let me now say more about what I mean by that.
What first excited me about Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra was not the widely read eighth chapter (with its meditations on self and other and the deconstruction of the body that repulses many). Rather, it was the sixth chapter, on anger and patient endurance – when I responded to a student’s question about the text by saying “in this text, there’s no such thing as righteous anger.”
I do not think this is a message a typical secular North American liberal is likely to accept. My student found it bewildering and frustrating, for one. A popular bumper sticker reads “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” And a great many of my secular Bostonian friends regularly boil over with rage over injustices of many kinds, at least if what they say on their Facebook feeds is to be believed, and as far as I can tell they believe this anger to be a good and proper thing. I do not. I think it a poison, a kleśa, that burns one up and causes more suffering than it alleviates. I saw how corrosive my own righteous anger was in the ’00s, and I see little place for it in a good life.
I also see just how hard that anger can be to alleviate. I doubt that those who’ve seen my own Facebook interactions in the past couple of years would think me an exemplar of patient endurance. The example of Jack Layton – and, importantly in the present context, Thich Nhat Hanh – made me see it was possible to participate in politics without anger and hatred, and so over the past few years I have waded back into the fray of political concern. But I came to realize, too late perhaps, that when I did so I did not follow Layton’s and Nhat Hanh’s examples; rather, I let myself fall back into the same kind of bile I had felt in the ’00s, even though its targets were different.
Most insidiously, it has lately been far too easy for me to get angry at others when I have found them too angry about a particular issue – and what a ridiculous and counterproductive reaction that is! It is not the same thing as passive aggression – another potential pitfall of trying to be less angry – but the problem is very similar. Here as elsewhere, qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête. The Buddhist injunctions to get rid of one’s anger – injunctions I support – are an urging to be angelic, but one must be very careful to make sure they do not become beastly, a snake wrongly grasped.
So far, my best help and guidance in this regard have come from something very Buddhist – my nightly anuttarapūjā practice. Especially, I have found it very helpful to practise pariṇāmanā, the redirection of good karma: to wish for the well-being of everyone, with a special focus on those who have angered you or even those you consider your enemies. I no longer cry when I do this – for I do it every night, and have been doing so for many months now. It strikes me and disturbs me just how much anger still remains in me – not just at politics but at other things like technology that doesn’t work – and I take that as further evidence of a deep distortedness within normal human action, a distortedness I think Christians and Buddhists should recognize but that often goes unrecognized in post-1960s secular culture. But I do think that the practice has helped. It is up to others to say whether they find me kinder now than I was a year or two ago, but I feel a significant difference in my own heart.
Now there is a limited version of this sort of non-anger which many secular people would probably have no trouble accepting: sure, in most cases it’s better not to be angry. But, most would say, this anger is justified when we are fighting for justice. A.J. Jacobs took such a position in The Year of Living Biblically: he appreciated how the practice of not swearing helped curb his usually trivial angers, but still thought there remained some, rarer, cases of righteous anger. Such a position seems characteristically Jewish and Christian – and not Buddhist.
I also disagree with it. I believe – and I think the vast majority of Buddhist tradition would stand with me on this – that if one simply could not fight for a given just cause without getting angry about it, then one should give up the cause rather than keep the anger. One might well hope a compromise can be reached, but if it cannot, no cause is worth sustaining hatreds in one’s heart. Anger damages both its holder and its target.
In many cases it’s not even practically effective. My hatred of George W. Bush was a response to real crimes and injustices on his part. But where did it get me or anyone? After the debacle of 2004 I was moved by a letter written by Dean Esmay’s “Letter To John Perry Barlow From A Pot-Smoking Deadhead Bush Voter” (it is no longer available on its original site but can be found midway through this page). Esmay said (with profanity):
Of all the people I know who support this war, most of us have conversations like this with each other all the time:
“Why are the anti-war people so vicious and nasty?”
“Why are the anti-war people so irrational and hateful and smug?”
“How do we get through to them? They just won’t listen!”
“Don’t you get tired of being called a liar and a fascist? I sure do.”
It reached a point for a lot of us that on election day, we were doing more than just saying “We want to re-elect George Bush.” When we pulled that lever for Bush, we were also just plain saying “FUCK YOU!”
Well Mr. Barlow, you said you wanted to try to understand. You spent a lot of time in your missive confessing to your anger and your hatred. Well now I’m telling you: Yup, a whole lot of us saw that. We saw it real well, and heard it loud and clear. We aren’t stupid you know. You guys treated not just the President but all of us who agreed with his decisions with absolute contempt, and when we tried to call you out on it you just got nastier.
Meanwhile we were, many of us, talking to the boys and girls doing their work over there in Iraq. While some had their doubts, most were proud of the war effort and cared about the Iraqi people and made friends with them….
Do you disagree? Okay. That’s fine. That’s your right as a human being. But you guys did more than disagree. A lot of you were just plain assholes about it. You could have talked to us but instead you wanted to tell us that Chimpy McSmirk was the new Hitler and a big fat liar just because you didn’t agree with him. It offended the shit out of us, because we did agree with him and we didn’t think he lied (and most of us still don’t). We saw a good, decent, moderate man in Bush who decided to take a big gamble and do the right thing for both America and Iraq and finally, finally, finally bring down the monster Saddam. Which would have been done a long damned time ago if we’d had any decency as a country.
You don’t agree. Fine. You don’t have to. But don’t think that acting like an asshole about it gets you my vote.
Our hatred, in other words, turns out to have made things worse – it had made people more likely to vote for its target. I still consider Bush an enemy, as I do with bin Laden. But I considered sadness the proper reaction to bin Laden’s life and death, and I think the same is true for Bush. I do not by any means see him as a “good, decent, moderate man”. But a bilious stream of outrage at those benighted fools who think he is such – that is worse than useless, far worse. Says the Dhammapāda: na hi verena verāni sammantīdha kudācanaṃ | averena ca sammanti esa dhammo sanantano. Not by hatred are hatreds ever calmed in this world, but by non-hatred. This is the eternal dharma.
I can think of a few times in my life where I am glad that I got angry. But they were not the times I got angry about social or political injustice. Rather, the times I am happy with my anger are times where it accompanied a realization, a waking up – typically, when there was something in a relationship that I had just passively accepted and suddenly realized in the moment how wrong it was. In those angry moments I learned to stick up for myself in that situation. One could certainly have a similar moment learning to stick up for others. The important thing, though, is to let go of the anger after that moment of realization, to then work for it calmly. Or at least, recognize that one cannot let go of the anger, that one is not ready to do so, and that one must express it or risk repressing it and inviting the passive aggression that ensues. One should still recognize in such a case that it is a second-best option: ideally one would not get so angry, but one acknowledges that repressing it would make things still worse.
The rejection of righteous anger, I would argue, is both controversial and correct; it should be a central premise of modern Buddhist ethics. It is, I think, endorsed by Asian Buddhist modernists like Thich Nhat Hanh and the present Dalai Lama; other Yavanayāna Buddhists probably tiptoe around it, but I don’t think they should do so. If, like Gary Snyder, you think that vengeful wrath is entirely appropriate and unproblematic in the name of environmental protection or justice for the poor or marginalized, then yes, you’re no Buddhist.
Perhaps secular Californians, as the stereotype of the mellow hippie is often portrayed, are indeed more receptive to this rejection of anger than are secular East Coasters. But it seems to me that if that is true, it is likely connected with the widespread semi-acceptance of some degree of Buddhism among Californians.