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Righteous anger


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I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. ~ Mark Twain.

From a Buddhist perspective, I could keep this short and sweet, and regurgitate the words that “righteous anger” is part of the “three poisons” in Buddhism — greed, hatred, and ignorance —end of conversation. However, unfortunately I do not think it is that simple. Anger is related and can result in hatred, but is not the same as hatred. I think most anger can be seen in a similar light to the quotation above. Much anger seems to be the result of taking a lot of things very personal  which I think reflects the result of a long history of misunderstanding who we are. Of course many other factors can trigger certain anger as well, such as lack of patience, impulse control and appreciation. That said, I’m also very fortunate to live in a relatively free country that freed itself from the shackles of dictators, monarchies and so forth. I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, unless there were people willing to stand in harms way and put up a fight against oppressors in the service of justice, freedom and equality. Can these values be gotten without so much bloodshed? Yes, but I’m convinced that we can do way better. This is one of many reasons why millions of people practice in the wisdom traditions, or invest into education. So we can learn to solve problems a bit more creatively and amicably next time, and find ways to realize beneficial results for all parties involved. In this post I just want to highlight some aspects of anger from my point of view.

There is a lot of “righteous indignation” and righteous anger every day around us and in the media. Most of this stuff feels righteous to the individual in this state of mind, but is it really righteous? Are we really 100 percent absolutely sure that we have every right to be righteously angry? How do we know that we are utterly right and that the other party is absolutely 100 percent wrong? This process of questioning can be difficult, and fosters doubt and humility. It is much easier to have moral clarity  i.e. this is white, that is black, etc. but there are lots of ambiguous cases that are not so clear cut. It is only in a shared sense of not-knowing and mutual respect that I believe dogma can turn into dialogue and collaborative problem solving. I’m definitely not advocating some type of denial or repression of the matter at hand, aloof passivity, detached equanimity or worse, nihilism. Nor am I going to advocate angry reactionary behaviors. I do think this subject deserves to be given some pause, of which we allow ourselves and our society so little of, and which, when ignored, leads to all kinds of expensive wars in our families, with other countries and so forth. What a wisdom tradition such as Zen Buddhism  helps with is the  cultivation and the discernment to find out what is really going on here, what is the most appropriate and most long-term beneficial response for all involved.

Identifying what worldview, what understanding escalates harm, and what state of mind decreases harm is crucial to not just the parties involved, but in managing the energy of anger when it does arise. In other words, if one deliberately and consciously cultivates wisdom and understanding or compassion,  while carefully directing or transforming the energy of anger into beneficial channels, then one also primes oneself much better for an appropriate response when anger does arise unannounced. To the point where in most cases a response may not even need to involve anger. And I’m talking at the most individual level, but at the same time at the macro or national level where everything is interconnected. A larger collection of individuals is just as prone to the same knee-jerk reactions as an individual. For example, blowing up half a country based on unconfirmed evidence and hearsay about weapons of mass destruction is an example of a knee jerk reaction, and also an example of blind anger, combined with pride and a sense of entitlement, nurtured into revenge. And revenge is a kind of blind rage, a destructive emotion without regard for consequences (like the unintended consequence where one’s own violence and disregard, plant the seeds for a new cycle of violence, or opposing reaction later). Examples of this type of an eye for an eye, are countless. This type of violence can go on for generations, to the point where no one knows any longer who originally did harm to whom, it is merely a reaction back and forth, you hurt me and my tribe, so now I hurt you and your tribe. The other tribe then repeats this cycle, and so forth.

The two following examples illustrate very well how on an individual level, assumptions about limited choices on how to respond to anger directed at an individual could be turned around. I recall the anecdote of a Christian nun who not only identified as a Christian, but who also attempted to practice what Jesus taught -things like, “love one another”- religiously for many years. One day she’s walking down the street to her car and a person, likely hyper focused, ran into her and angrily asked for her money. She smiled, not a fake smile but a heart felt authentic smile and gave him a hug, and then asked him how she could help. What is interesting for the purposes of this illustration is not so much that she gave him money, or that she did anything special, but the way her state of mind de-escalated the situation. Her state of mind calmed the man down and he was embarrassed. In other words, since she was always intent on practice, her practice was much more aligned with her actions and in this case her baseline state of mind was calm and compassionate. This was probably not what the person stealing was expecting. He probably had not had that kind of warm human to human acknowledgement in a long time. So it humbled him at least momentarily. She had, without really trying, creatively diffused and de-escalated the situation. Changed the outcome of this encounter in a meaningful way. She wasn’t doing anything special, her no doubt 10.000+ hours of practice was instant and primed to recognize the humanity in this encounter. He may have had a mean exterior, but she hadn’t disregarded him, she had a conscious orientation to his humanity and their shared humanity (a Christian point of view might say that she saw them both as equal children of God). Conscious or not, she was seeing and treating everything as equal and worthy of respect. Her orientation was seeing the world around her as a manifestation of the mystery. Just changing ones view can change ones whole attitude towards life. Again, I want to emphasize, this doesn’t then mean that this is the correct response in all situations or that we have to turn our other cheek in all circumstances. I don’t care for blindly copying behaviors, or rigid adherence to unverified doctrines written up by people who have their own internal and circumstantial biases. I’m interested in resonance and verification within ourselves. Does a response like the one above resonate within your own heart-and-mind?

The second example is one of my teachers who has since passed away. She was a very good Tai Chi instructor, a very down to earth human being. One day she told me a story of how she was in the subway and a few folks wanted to attack her for money. Without hesitation, and antecedent to thought, she dropped into her training, not having a clue as to whether it would work or not. She just stood there, dropped into her meditation practice while standing. The guys decided against further pushing her and ran off. There was no verbal encounter or exchange. Her particular practice for 40-plus years was inner disarmament through Tai Chi and mindfulness meditation, so at that point the practice is doing you, rather than you doing the practice. When a person has consciously practiced like that for a while, challenging situations are just given a little more room, a little more possibility, things become a little more workable. This is very similar to the previous example, but I think it shows that another way is also possible to diffuse and disarm a potentially dangerous situation.

These two examples are nothing out of the ordinary, any one of us can make these choices. These two people had their rough days as well no doubt to which any of us can do this and verify this. For example, you can test this yourself, if you are in a situation that can escalate, you can tell by looking at physiological signals from your body if you’re reactive, and getting angrier, as your breathing won’t be calm, will be way up high in your chest, you may feel like you are solely focused on the anger and the object of anger, and forget to see and hear the world around you. Conversely, when you deescalate a situation, your breathing is likely more natural, or calmer, and you are more likely able to think clearly and have a sense of spaciousness and possibility, as compared to the physiological constrictions more typical of an escalating situation. These examples show the possibilities, beyond just a fight or flight response. But I also hope this provides examples of a non-formulaic response; these two individuals were responding to non-repeatable, unique situations, from within their own unique conditions. They were both open handed and available, not uptight and closed off.

Most of what riles us up is not personal at all, especially in day-to-day affairs. For example traffic anger i.e. someone cuts us off, someone gets ahead, etc. This person could have had a very real and legitimate reason to be absent minded. They may have been a senior, or someone with a child in the hospital, or someone who’s having severe pain. In this example, if a honking is needed (say to keep the oncoming driver from plowing into you), then it is the intention and state of mind behind this honking that will determine how much you let it get to you, how much energy is going to be expended. If you notice the person, feel the onset of anger, and you simply honk, remind the person they are about to cause major harm, and then check to make sure they noticed and are re-engaged with the present, then your efforts have likely been beneficial and potential. Disaster averted. It may be the best thing you could do for the offending driver; using the angry energy to honk the horn and remind the person to be awake, to pay attention to driving. The trick is then to shift to seeing that everyone is safe, and let it go. Now if you then also start cursing and getting upset that this person has wronged you, etc, you’re adding and expending all kinds of mental energy anguish to the situation that has no benefit to you or anyone else. In addition, these actions may further ripple out through the rest of the day. Instead of just naturally dissipating like the thunder clouds in the sky, or the duck defending her ducklings with a threat, if the anger gets indulged or turned into self/other thinking, then the anger becomes concretized and toxic, and turns into affliction. If this type of anger gets further cultivated and nourished with attention and time, then this may lead to much more destructive levels of hatred and alienation (see my post about hatred and fundamentalism).

To provide an example of where the energy of anger without indulgence or attachment was turned into something useful, I’ll dig up something that happened in my youth. My father’s uncle was a Catholic priest, and I was a rather small reckless child at times. I recall not remembering a single of his sermons, but I do recall how fun it was  to go on his big motorized ship as the thing was basically an old Dutch barge, very long. So one day we’re out on it, and the ship was going at a fast clip, and I was out playing at the front of it. I suddenly decided to goof off on the roof  while we were only a number of feet away from an oncoming metal bridge. My head was right above the bottom of the bridge, and I was completely clueless about this oncoming danger. My rear uncle, the priest, suddenly noticed and without thinking, pondering, or praying upon higher powers, angrily yelled out a host of really nasty swear words, ordering me to duck or else. I heeded his call, and ducked. Had I not ducked, my head would have been probably cleanly sliced off. He and my father were very happy that I ducked, and that was the end of this anger. He didn’t dwell or further punish, and I learned a good lesson about paying attention that day. Quoting a couple of lines from the Boddhisatva’s vow, a Buddhist vow,  one can see how this applies a little in this particular case:

All the more, we can be especially sympathetic and affectionate with foolish people, particularly with someone who becomes a sworn enemy and persecutes us with abusive language. That very abuse conveys the Buddha's boundless loving-kindness. It is a compassionate device to liberate us entirely from the mean-spirited delusions we have built up with our wrongful conduct from the beginningless past.

In this particular situation I was a foolish person, and the abusive language of the priest was a  “compassionate device to liberate me” at least temporarily from my foolish conduct, and inspired me to be more mindful of my surroundings next time. While this is one example of numberless examples, you see how sometimes what appears to be a very negative type of event could be very instructive and beneficial. And at other times, we have to have the discernment to see that abusive language for example needs to be vigorously corrected. Someone in an abusive relationship is NOT going to want to use this quote to justify the abuses done to them. That is a completely different situation, requiring a different response, like picking up the phone and calling the police, getting counseling, and moving to a shelter if need be.

Most anger however, becomes destructive and blind. The news shows evidence of this every day. If anger is fed, it can escalate into hatred or blind retribution, and divisive worldviews. So from my particular Zen Buddhist perspective, the best treatment is to learn to understand the root causes of this anger, both within oneself, one’s group, ones time period and particular conditions, and the world at large. Learn to recognize and discern when it is based on avoidance of pain or ego/ignorance/greed driven. Recognize when it does arise and take care of it as though it is an energy that could use some guidance. Put it to some beneficial use! This tremendous energy can then be harnessed and focused towards projects like social justice, without allowing one’s ego attachments and attachments or expectations of instant results to arise. Clearly some of these projects take generations beyond one’s own individual lifetime, so one has to learn to take the long view. In a Zen practice one hopefully learns to de-escalate situations, defuse through understanding, deep listening, deep looking into the causes of one’s anger, and developing compassion, rather than escalating and increasing the consequences. The Zen tradition offers many practices and instructive stories (such as the Koan curriculum) that allow us to attend to the matter at hand skillfully, as well as also to learn to slow down and not react so quickly in situations that would benefit from insight.

There is a strong emphasis on meditation and looking at the root causes of suffering in Buddhism for many reasons. In the most practical way, Buddhism opens you up to a much bigger vista, from the smaller me and my world and my direct needs, to something that includes more of the community of life. Awe, wonder, and joy are more likely to occur after some meditation and thus lengthen and loosen one’s fuses and destructive emotions. Anger indulgence can be avoided by being mindful and very attentive of the present moment where life happens by forgetting oneself, dropping away our notions and narratives. By losing that strong sense of I’m here, and you are out there, your understanding becomes more “multi-centered”. You can better understand where other people are coming from, thus reducing misunderstandings. With a disciplined practice, and support of an open genuine community of fellow student-teachers, one can learn to empty oneself of the cup of preconceived ideas, notions, conceptions, self-serving agendas, and opinions handed down from generations, and really ask, am I sure about this? This is the practice of opening up to not knowing. This familiarity with not-knowing alone will loosen up any sense of self-righteous entitlements. When one isn’t so sure, it is harder to be righteously angry and let situations concretize into something substantial. However, when one is sure about something harmful that is happening, say injustice and disregard for the homeless, prison inmates, corruption, pollution, rapes, animal cruelty, racism, etc, then one has a bit more energy to put up a meaningful fight (without creating further divisions and destruction). At the same time, cultivating deep insight into oneself, also helps being aware of one’s own wrongdoing, our own greed, mean spirited behaviors, and ignorance.  A realistic and authentic self-understanding helps in reducing the self-righteousness that sometimes comes within activists or righteous views.

The examples I’ve used talk about some ways of looking at, and taking care of, anger simply as an energy that can be used to help, and seeing yourself reflected in others. That way there isn’t such a need to lash out or punish the “other.” I believe this is the same way our left hand takes care of our right hand when hurt, without hesitation or scheming, or adding narratives and judgments on. It is the same in larger situations, if you see the “other” person, tribe, or nation as a relative, a family member who needs help, your response is going to be vastly different and more skillful than if you see the “other” as something that needs to be pushed away, patronized, punished, or worse, eliminated. That view is an alienated and divisive destructive view that creates more suffering. The source and the why of anger has to be recognized, and seen through, not given substance or identified with, then hopefully transform the energy of anger into service to the greater good. If the energy of anger can be used in service of all, and informed by non-harming, through understanding, a beneficial livelihood, beneficial intentions, speech, actions, mindfulness, and concentration, then the energy of anger can benefit. Taking up the way of minimizing harm, no killing, no stealing, no indulgence in anger, is a way to apply and clarify that realization of our underlying intimacy and kinship. That way one learns to develop and encourage a relationship that welcomes, honors, and celebrates the differentiation of life, while at the same time connecting and integrating it with the underlying kinship of all that is.

Rood is panelist at our next Coffee Topic, which will be at 10 a.m., Saturday at Indaba Coffee.  

Sicco Rood
Sicco Rood
Sicco Rood began exploring spiritual ideas in his teenage years and was drawn to those who followed a path of understanding, kindness, compassion and non-separation. This led him to Zen Buddhism and the practice of meditation. Rood is an active member of the Zen Center of Spokane.

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Bruce Meyer
Bruce Meyer
10 years ago

Nice post Sicco! Zen Buddhism seems to have some similarities with the Christian Quietism of Guyon and Fenelon from the 17th century.

Ghani, Tom Schmidt
Ghani, Tom Schmidt
10 years ago

It seems to me that the problem is not that we often have anger, or any other emotion, but that we often choose, or are in no habit of responding to these emotional events in a religious way. Your good examples show the value of such a response, which, in the words of Paul, we must do: Pray without ceasing. So, the problem is not , for me, concerning whether anger is good, bad, righteous, or destructive, but how am I living my life. Am I taking the situation with equanimity, serving love and healthy relationship? What rituals, such as deescalating deep breathing, looking for G-d in the other, am I using? Am I practicing discernment?
Too often we can get bogged down with psychology and counseling, instead of considering the religious aspects of our handling our emotions. “Just what is G-d suggesting I do with my life at this instant? How can I see G-d in the other, right now?”

Sicco Rood
Sicco Rood
10 years ago

Thanks for your comments Bruce, I’ll check Guyon and Fenelon out!

Hi Tom, thanks for your comments! Yes, those are great questions to cook in ourselves.

10 years ago


There are two kinds of people in the world: those who hurt and do not care, or do it for pleasure; and those who hurt you by mistake. You can work things out with the second type of person.

Those of us who develop our heart, must also cultivate mind – otherwise those without heart and having intellect, will rule us, rule our world.

Peace out.

10 years ago
Reply to  HolyWar

Those without heart, and caring, being sociopaths. They are thought to be about 4 in 100 people. They are hard to understand, identify and believe in for the rest of us. What is the correct relationship with one of them? Think I love one, but it is a limited, lop-sided love.

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