Anger, Buddhist Style

I visited Drepung Loseling Monastery last night, on the north side of Atlanta, to hear Geshe Lobsang Tenzin talk about “The Wisdom of Forgiveness & Patience.” He never quite got around to forgiveness or patience, but instead spent the time laying the groundwork by discussing anger. The cause of anger is quite mundane, he told us; it arises from frustration either over encountering a thing we do not want, or over not getting a thing we do want.

Summarizing Shantideva, he listed four types of blind or inordinate desires, or “improper attention,” that are most likely to cause our problems: 1. material goods, 2. praise or recognition, 3. pleasure, and 4. reputation. Not getting these things (or not getting as much as we want of them precisely when we want) causes mental distress which becomes anger at whatever we see as standing in our way. Conversely, we have aversions to the opposites of these things: lack, criticism, pain, anonymity; experiencing these things we do not want (which no human can avoid!) can also develop into anger at whatever brings them our way.

But though the causes of anger are entirely mundane, he said, the consequences of it are disastrous – not just for others, but for the angry person herself. A single moment, a single word spoken in anger, can undo years of hard work and merit. And if religious talk of merit doesn’t convince us, he reported that there is good science to support the idea that “anger kills.” Thus, it is wise for us to cultivate patience and forgiveness, those dynamic states of mind that allow us to manage our expectations with regard to what we want and don’t want. (He didn’t get into the idea of righteous anger, over injustice for example; I am not sure whether he would see it as a potentially positive motivating force or not.)

The timing of the talk was helpful, since I had received some personal email criticism only hours before, from an author who had taken issue with (what I thought was a nitpicky point in) a blog post I’d written. I felt angry, not only at him, but at everyone (a rapidly growing number) who’s criticized something I’ve written. This makes perfect sense, of course, according to Shantideva’s #2 above. I might hope to write for altruistic purposes (though I write mostly because I can’t seem to help myself), but I can’t hide from the truth that I also – like most writers, I would guess – hope for praise or recognition. I’m a little child wanting people to notice me and think I’m smart and good. Conversely, I dread both anonymity and – despite knowing it is inevitable, particularly online – criticism. I dread having others’ anger directed at me.

So thank you, dharma teachers (and I don’t mean the Buddhist gurus), for once again revealing to me the perverse but natural inner workings of my own mind. I must say I don’t enjoy your pedagogical methods, but I am determined to try and let them change me for the better.

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