Showing posts with label Anger. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anger. Show all posts

18 June 2010

The Pscyhological Wasteland

waste land
A couple of years ago senior member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Subhuti, studied the Cetokhila Sutta [1] and was talking about it with other senior order members. Although I did not have the chance to study the text at the time I was intrigued by what I heard, and I have now done my own translation. This translation is also a condensation because there is a huge amount of redundancy and repetition in the Pāli - what I have done is communicate the same message, in the same order, but in succinct English.

There are other translations of this text and in this case I needed to rely on that by Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi to understand parts of it. [2] There are other internet translations, though I think they struggle to communicate the message of the text because they are caught up in the Pāli syntax. 

The Cetokhila Sutta

Thus have I heard. One time the blessed one was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anāthapiṇḍika’s park outside Sāvatthī. There the blessed at one addressed the monks.

There are five psychological wastelands unrenounced, five emotional bindings not cut that make it impossible to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

The five psychological wastelands are: doubting [kaṅkhati] and hesitating [vicikicchati] with respect to, and lack of faith and assurance in the teacher, the doctrine, the spiritual community, and the training; and taking offence, being angry, resentful and sulky towards one's companions in the spiritual life. In the psychological wastelands one's mind is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

The five emotional bindings are uncut passion, desire, love, longing, fever, and thirst for: sensuous pleasure, the body, and form; eating as much as one likes and being given to the pleasures of sleeping, lying about, and laziness; and living the spiritual life aspiring to heaven thinking: 'by this morality, this austerity, this spiritual practice I will become a god or go to heaven.' With these emotional bindings left uncut one's heart is not bent towards zeal, devotion, perseverance and making an effort.

For those who renounce the five psychological wastelands, and cut the five emotional bindings it is possible for them to produce increase, growth and fullness in this doctrine and discipline.

This samādhi of intention [chanda] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of vitality [vīriya] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of mind [citta] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. This samādhi of investigation [vīmaṃsā] with the forms of effort gives rise to the basis of success. Enthusiasm [ussoḷhi] is the fifth basis for success.

With these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough [abhinibbida], capable of fully understanding [sambodha], capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union [anuttarassa yogakkhemassa adhigama].

Just as a bird with eight or ten or twelve eggs perfectly sitting on them, incubating them, and brooding them need not wish: "may my chicks, with beak and claw, safely break through their eggshell", because the chicks are well-equipped with beak and claw to pierce their eggshell and break through. So with these 15 factors including enthusiasm they are capable of a breakthrough, capable of fully understanding, capable of the unsurpassed attainment of the peace of union.

This is what the blessed one said. The monks were pleased and rejoiced in his words.

This is almost like two suttas mashed together, which appears to go off on a tangent by introducing the samādhi accompanied by effort, though perhaps it made sense to the compilers of the Canon. In my comments, therefore, I want to focus on the part about the psychological wasteland and the emotional binds. Firstly some of the main terms.

Cetokhila: a khila is a patch of barren or fallow land. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi opt to render it 'wilderness'. I thought wasteland was a better fit because the metaphor is not of being lost in a wilderness, but of a place where growth is not possible. Ceto, and cetaso, are more or less the same as citta. Citta can be 'mind' generally; 'mind' as specifically the consciousness that arises in dependence on contact between sense organ and sense object; and it is also a synonym of 'heart' (hadaya) as the seat of the emotions. We usually get landed with either 'heart' or 'mind' because the two are distinct in English. My thought is that psychological covers both emotions and thoughts.

Cetsaso-vinibandha: the word vinibandha means 'bondage'. The plural 'bondages' sounded a little too 'Buddhist Hybrid English' to me, and not natural. Bindings seemed to fit. Here I have chosen 'emotional' to render cetaso because the items included under this heading are more clearly emotional. Although 'heart' is a well worn poetic cliché for emotion, I wanted to be specific and heart is used quite vaguely.

The basic message of the text is that if we don't have faith and confidence in the three jewels, if we are doubtful and unsure, then this is like a wasteland, a patch of barren land. A wasteland is not productive, not somewhere we expect crops to germinate, flourish and ripen; we cannot grow spiritually under these conditions. So this is an agricultural metaphor for a Buddhist life.

Note that the tone of the text changes with respect to our companions in the spiritual life. With the Three Jewels we can be confident that they will never let us down. With respect to other people, other Buddhists, the text does not suggest that we have faith them. It assumes that they will let us down, that they will fall short, and it requires of us that we not harbour ill-will and resentment towards them when they do let us down. We are not to take offence. This is much harder than it sounds because when people do let us down we usually assume the worst, we assume that they hurt us on purpose. We do not see them as conditioned beings responding habitually or unconsciously. So we blame them for their behaviour. In the Christian morality that underlies Western societies blame implies guilt, and guilt demands punishment. In Christianity vengeance is the Lord's province, but in anger Christians often pre-empt Him by harming the person who has offended them and calling this "justice". Similarly Buddhists profess to believe in karma, but are reluctant to allow karma time and space to work, but want to hurt the person who has hurt them. So we unreliable humans are constantly lashing out at each other. It is not a failing of religion, as militant atheists suggest, but a failing of people. Atheists are not less likely to lash out, but only to rationalise their lashing out in different ways.

The emotional bonds that prevent us from making progress draw on a different metaphor. Here passion, desire, etc are chords that tie us in emotional knots. The wasteland is more about aversion, and the bonds are about attraction. The main thing we desire is pleasure. As I have argued before: people mistake pleasure for happiness, and the pursuit of happiness becomes a pursuit of pleasure, which is disastrous for us, for the societies we live in, for humans generally, and for the planet. Despite the abject failure of the pursuit of pleasure to produce positive results we find it difficult to imagine any other way. This was true in the Buddha's day also. One of the most refined and pernicious aspects of this pursuit of pleasure is the idealised heaven. The text pays particular attention to using practice as a means to rebirth in heaven. Many culture's have heavens (even Buddhists) and you can tell a lot about that culture from the heaven they imagine: whether it is perfectly flat surfaces and jewelled trees, numbers of virgins, or a father's uninterrupted attention and love, heaven tends to contain the things that will give a man the most pleasure they can imagine. I say "man" advisedly here, because I think it's clear that 'official' heavens of the big religions were imagined by men. Unlike the Islamic heaven, in both Buddhist and Christian heavens there is no sex, and no sexuality. [3] Make of that what you will.

Perhaps it is the contrast between aversion and attraction that lead to the inclusion of stock phrases on the samādhi's accompanied by effort - which appear to refer to meditation accompanied by the four right efforts. Unravelling this paragraph on its own is next to impossible. Neither the Pāli commentary summary (MA 2.67), nor the longer explanation in the Visuddhimagga it refers you to, are very helpful as they are almost equally cryptic. I only understood it when I chanced on a reference in the notes to Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. [4] This pointed to the Chandasamādhi Sutta (SN 51.13 ) which untangles the long compounds in a way that makes sense. It is interesting that the Chandasamādhi appears to be a commentary on other texts which refer to the four bases for success (iddhipāda). The cryptic phrasing of this part of the text suggests to me a sophisticated intellectual milieu, and a written rather than oral medium. To find a commentary already in the Canon is intriguing.

The last image more or less speaks for itself. If you have faith in the three jewels, are tolerant of you companions, and cut the bindings of pleasure-seeking, and apply yourself to right effort, then you don't need to worry about breaking through. What we do as Buddhists is set up conditions for practice, and get on with practice. Wishing for Enlightenment is only useful to the extent that it gives us what Sangharakshita calls 'continuity of purpose'. We need to keep on committing ourselves, to keep on making the right kind of effort, but if we do that, then we can be confident of making progress. In fact doubt in, and of, this process prevents us from growing.

  1. MN 16, PTS M i.101. A pdf of my translation accompanied by extensive notes is available on my website: The Psychological Wasteland: a Translation of the Cetokhila Sutta.
  2. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. p.194ff.
  3. This is arguable. The Book of Enoch (which may originally have been in Aramaic or Hebrew, but survives only in Ethiopian) was originally part of the Canon of both Jews and early Christians, but was excised in the 4th century. In Enoch the sin of the fallen angels was not pride, but lust - they had sex with and fathered children with human women. See for instance: Link, Luther. The Devil : the Archfiend in Art from the 6th to the 16th century. Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1995. (see especially pg. 27f)
  4. Bodhi The Connected Discourses, p.1939, n.246.

image: lots of copies of this around the net. I copied it from

30 April 2010

"As if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended"

And thus the desire of defending liberty caused each to prevail [raise itself] in proportion as they oppressed the other. And the course of such incidents is, that while men sought not to fear, they begun to make others fear, and that injury which they ward off from themselves, they inflict on another, as if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended.

Niccolò Machiavelli.[1]

Machiavelli identified this problem in the sixteenth century. His solution was that states ought to limit the power of individuals. As we will see the Buddha looked at this same problem very differently.

I'm writing these words in the middle of a UK election campaign which is characterised by character assassination attempts by members of all three parties on each other. Media pundits happily join in this schadenfreude-fest. It's not enough to shine, one has to tarnish one's opponents. Of course our elections are a zero-sum game, i.e. win-lose is the only possible solution (hung parliaments not withstanding). During the second live leader's debate I watched the live blog comments on The Times website for a while. It was almost as if the comments were being randomly generated. "Love politician X; hate him. He makes sense; he doesn't make sense. He is sincere, he is insincere." People watching the same debate, and hearing the same speeches, were coming out with radically polarised views - and given that The Times is famously right-wing the reader/viewer comments were surprisingly evenly spread across the spectrum of possible reactions. In effect the comments were incoherent and irrational. And this is how we choose our government! (One can only hope that Winston Church was right and this is less worse than other forms).

Note that Machiavelli's observation is of people concerned with "defending liberty". We so often make war for peace, don't we? The US and UK take out Saddam Hussein (unerringly referred to by politicians and the media by his first name 'Saddam' which I think reflects a kind of ongoing ritual humiliation and infantilisation) because his of (fictitious, as it turns out) weapons of mass destruction and failure to abide by UN resolutions made him a danger to world peace (meanwhile other states with nuclear weapons have become untouchable!). In our long history of defending liberty our governments have invaded countries, toppled legitimate governments and installed puppet dictators whenever it suited them and they thought they could get away with it; and ignored atrocities and injustices when that suits them; and more recently they have even knowingly tortured prisoners. Having read about history of interference by UK/USA governments in Iran recently I found myself sympathising with their pursuit of the one weapon that they see as preventing them being at the mercy of the cynical West ever again! [2] Isn't it funny that the media never seek to contextualise the hostility of Iran towards the west by pointing out why the Iranians legitimately distrust our governments?

Machiavelli observed "that injury which they ward off from themselves, they inflict on another, as if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended". "AS IF IT SHOULD BE NECESSARY" Why do we think like this? I've pondered this question over many years. Scholarly debates tend to reduce this question to one of "nurture or nature". I suspect that something in our make-up as humans (especially as humans living the way we do - see Why do we Suffer?) makes us tend towards a zero-sum approach. On the other hand, whatever our make-up it is clear that conditioning plays a part in the person we become. When all of our role models behave a certain way we are apt to ape them. When they say one thing and do another we learn not to trust them (incidentally this theme is addressed brilliantly in the BBC TV sit-com Outnumbered).

So. Some combination of nature and nurture instils in us the idea that life is a zero-sum game. Or at least that in defence of ourselves it is permissible to injure another. One of the great ironies of our age is that the USA puts "in God we trust" on their money when they patently do not trust in God, but are constantly second guessing him and meting out what they think is his will (to the point where George Bush appeared to say that God spoke directly to him). So as Buddhists how can we operate in this kind of world? Human nature/nurture being what it is, nothing much has changed since the Buddha's day and he did leave some comments behind to contemplate. Compare for instance Machiavelli to this verse from the Dhammapada (v.201):
jayaṃ veraṃ pasavati dukkhaṃ seti parājito
upasanto sukhaṃ seti hitvā jaya-parājayam
Conquering gives rise to hatred, the defeated dwells in misery;
Abandoning victory and defeat, the peace-lover dwells in bliss.
The Buddha sees the same behaviour around him, but rather than seeking to limit individual power the Buddha's radical solution to the zero-sum game is simply not playing the game of conquest and defeat at all. I would venture that few of us give serious consideration to not playing. Most Buddhists, including me, flirt with it, or take it on partially. This is not intended as a criticism - the Buddha lived a lifestyle almost unimaginably different from anything we see around us now - having no family ties, no home, no possessions, no safety net other than what his good reputation provided (and we need to be clear that the Buddha and his followers were a minority and not universally admired despite what the Buddhist texts tell us). We stay in the game, I think, because we see not playing as a kind of loss, or letting other people win. As I've said before [Martyrs Maketh the Religion] being homeless, for instance, is seen as a very low fate indeed.

If we take Nietzsche's metaphor of man being a tightrope stretched between animal and übermensch (over-man) then, stretching the metaphor, most of us don't believe we can operate without a safety net. Which brings to mind the recent movie "Man on a Wire" - it's possible to operate without a safety net only with dedication, excellent preparation, intense self-awareness and focus. Which is not far from what the Buddha said about life.

It's interesting to note the declining interest in our Order for the more radical forms of living and working arrangements pursued in the 70's and 80's; and the rise of having families, developing careers and saving for pensions. I suspect that playing the win-lose game is a bit like casino gambling. The house always wins. By playing the game at all, one tends to lose to the establishment.

So if we play this game we generate hatred which will eventually come back to bite us. We cause other people to live in misery, or we ourselves live in misery. As I've already observed there is no shortage of food in the world - it's just that some of us are greedy! The Buddha's solution is to go beyond just saying it isn't necessary. He calls 'time' on the game itself. He simply does not play any more. His advice was to not get entangled in the world, in families, in careers, in politics. Focus on what's important (Dhp 183):
Sabbapāpassa akaranaṃ kusalassa upasampadā
sacitta-pariyodapanaṃ etaṃ buddhānaṃ sāsaṇaṃ

not doing any evil, doing the right thing
purifying your own mind, this is the edict of the Buddhas.

  1. Niccolò Machiavelli. The Discourses on the first Ten (Books) of Titus Livius. 1.46.
  2. See for example: Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. HarperPerennial, 2004.

image: Machiavelli, detail of an oil painting by Santi di Tito; in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence Alinari.

29 August 2008

Dhammapada 5 - 6

na hi verena verāni, sammantīdha kudācanaṃ
averena ca sammanti, esa dhammo sanantano

pere ca na vijānanti, mayamettha yamāmase
ye ca tattha tato sammanti medhagā

Not by hatred are hatreds calmed at any time
By non-hatred they cease, this teaching is primeval

And others don't realise that we should be restrained.
But if they do realise this, then they will settle quarrels.
Verse 5 is one of the most famous Buddhist aphorisms. Hatred is like fuel on the fire, it only leads to more hatred. These two verse continue the theme established in verses 3 and 4: that we are never justified in holding a grudge. Vera, translated here as hatred can also mean "revenge, hostile action." It's actually related to the term vīra which usually translates as "hero" but can also mean something like "mighty". Avera then is the absence of hatred: "friendliness, friendly, peaceable".

The verses tell us that this idea is sanantano or "primeval, or "of old, for ever, eternal", the word being related to the Latin senex, and the English senile. So it could mean that the teaching is old, or that it will always apply.

Either way it is an important principle. And those who know this principle restrain their hatred (line 6a). Actually the first line of verse 6 is difficult to translate because the word yamāmase seems only to occur once (a hapax legomenon), and is of unclear etymology. I have followed K.R. Norman in reading it as an optative of √yam a verbal root meaning 'restraint'. Others relate it to the god of death Yama, and make the line say something like: Others do not know that we must all face death. There is good and useful Dharma in this approach. It reminds us that our future destination depends on our conduct in this life. If we indulge in hatred the traditions suggests that we are destined for the hell-realms. I would say that being angry has a hellish quality anyway. [see also Jayarava Rave. 08-02-2008: The Anger Eating Yakkha] That said however, the idea of restraint seems to fit the context a little better I think.

Although it is clear that the text is saying not to hold grudges, and that when one feels anger one should restrain oneself, it's not entirely clear how one might do that from these verses. There is such a plan in the Aṅguttara Nikāya however (sutta V.161). Here we find five methods for dealing with grudges:
  • Practice the brahma-vihāra meditations. If you feel hatred towards someone then try to cultivate the opposite: ie love, compassion, equanimity. (the text suggests mettā, karuṇā, and upekkhā but leaves out muditā and so counts this as three methods). We could call this 'cultivating the opposite'.
  • Pay the person no attention, give no thought to them. This is sometimes called the "blue sky mind" approach - don't feed the feelings and they will subside.
  • Reflect on the consequences. Particularly reflect that whatever bad thing that person has done to you, they will have to experience the fruit of that action which will be painful for them!
There is an obvious link between non-hatred (avera) and loving-kindness (mettā), so cultivating mettā could well have been what the Buddha meant in this case. When we cultivate love, the opposite of hate, then hate cannot find a purchase in our hearts. I suspect that muditā or sympathetic joy was left off the list because it would be difficult to cultivate towards someone to whom you grudge happiness. Best to start with simply not hating them, build towards love, and then perhaps we can take joy in their joys.

A more active form of the blue sky approach which I find quite useful is to think about something else. Many of my raves for this blog have resulted from me taking up a subject to reflect on precisely to stop my attention wandering onto less helpful subjects.

Reflecting on the consequences is also, effectively, reflecting on the Dharma. This is inherently positive. In Dhammapada 3-4 we saw that hatred is never a good thing - that the effects on us of entertaining anger are always negative. So reflect on the consequences of that person shouting at you, or bashing you. As I noted last week, our culture is one in which we seek to punish (ie inflict harm upon) anyone who breaks the law. But since some one who abuses us will suffer anyway, is there really a need to inflict more suffering on them. The question is: "would seeing another person suffer make us happy?" If we see that other person as a human being, then we will not feel joy at their suffering. We know what suffering feels like. We know how unbearable it can be. We know that if we inflict pain because we are angry, that person will become angry and inflict pain also. This has to stop. We must try to stop the cycle of anger and harming. Really reflecting on the causes and consequences of anger and hatred is quite sobering. If we reflect on what might have led a person to want to harm us, we will find fear and anger at the root of it. If we wonder why are they experiencing fear and anger, then we will see that they too have been victims of other people's fear and anger. They have learned this wrong lesson that we seem to teach everyone - that despite what we may say, anger and lashing out are legitimate responses some times.

I recall in Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine, Mike was interviewing a PR man at Lockheed-Martin the massive weapons manufacturing business. They were standing in front of a very large missile, one that could only be used to strike at many people a very long way away (i.e. a weapon of mass destruction). He held his arms wide and his hands open, in the classic gesture of honesty, and said that he did not understand why these boys, who had gunned down many of their school mates, would resort to violence to resolve their problems. Why indeed? A very large missile, designed to deliver weapons of mass destruction is just the result of coordinated hatred, and of course our leaders do often resort to violence to solve their problems with the help of weapons manufacturers like Lockheed-Martin. And we often allow the emotions like hatred to persist in our minds. Of course we might take our revenge by something as simple as withdrawing our affection, or by doing something we know to be annoying. We might not be using a missile to kill thousands of people, or a handgun to kill our classmates. But it is only the scale that is different. If we were angry enough, and someone put a gun in our hand... well sometimes perhaps it doesn't pay to dwell on the consequences for too long. Just enough get the message and move on.

There is a definite sense in these early texts of working to eliminate negative or harmful mental states. There is none of the psycho-babble about allowing your anger to have expression or find an outlet. This is because from the Buddhist point of view the angry thought harms you, and any action undertaken with anger in mind will cause harm (viz my post on Dhammapada 1 - 2). Hatred is harmful so do what you can, whatever you have to, in order for it to subside. There is also no sense in early Buddhist texts of just thinking of anger as 'energy' as some Tantric traditions might do. Sure, there is energy: but are we alert enough, aware enough, Awake enough to refrain from hurting when we are angry? Not in most cases I think. Not without a great deal of training, and a great deal of mettā. Better to err on the side of caution with anger. It can be insidious. We can find ourselves justifying little cruelties to ourselves and others on the basis that "it's just energy", or "it's for their own good". Better to just nip it in the bud.

Bearing grudges only makes you miserable, and you are probably holding onto the possibility of harming someone in return for the harm they caused you. Hatred is never pacified by hatred - it never has been and it never will be. It is only by the opposite, by avera - non-hatred, that hatred is pacified. The good news is that by not bearing grudges, by not holding out for revenge, the hate will subside in you. When hate subsides it makes room for other more positive emotions. Dwelling in mettā all the time is equated with nibbāna in many texts.

See also my commentary on Dhammapada v.1-2, and v.3-4

22 August 2008

Dhammapada verses 3 - 4

akkocchi maṃ avadhi maṃ ajinji maṃ ahāsi me
ye ca taṃ upanayhanti veraṃ tesaṃ na sammati

akkocchi maṃ avadhi maṃ ajinji maṃ ahāsi me
ye ca taṃ n'upanayhanti veraṃ tesaūpasammati

"He abused me, he beat me, he overpowered me, he took from me."
In those who bear these grudges hatred is not stilled

"He abused me, he beat me, he overpowered me, he took from me."
In those who don't bear these grudges hatred settles and ceases.

akkocchi is verbal abuse, while avadhi is physical abuse. ajini comes from the root ji which means "to have power" or "to conquer" and so can mean overpowered, conquered, vanquished. Āhara is the past tense of hara "to take" and me is probably the genitive, so āhara me literally means "he took mine" - it is most often translated as "robbed me" or "stole from me". Sangharakshita has pointed out that the second precept against "taking the not given" has a broader frame of reference - it is not just stealing material things, but taking from someone anything which they have not willingly given you - their time or energy for instance.

These verses are said to have been spoken by the Buddha approximately 25 centuries ago. What this immediately tells us is that some things have not changed. Back then people shouted abuse at each other, they physically attacked each other. Some people tried to dominate their fellows. Some people took things that weren't theirs or that they were not entitled to. I find this quite a thing to reflect on. In 2500 years the human species as a whole has not evolved at all in the ethical sphere. So much for progress. Fortunately some individuals have evolved, and as individuals we all have the potential to evolve ethically and spiritually.

These two verses are only the bear bones of a manifesto for an ethical evolution, even perhaps a revolution. What they are fundamentally saying is that bearing hatred (vera) towards someone is never justified, no matter what they have done to you. This is not what we have learnt in our lives, not what we do on the whole, and seems almost shocking on first contact. Hatred in all it's manifestations is never justified. There is no righteous anger in Buddhism, no room for righteous indignation. Both terms are oxymoronic according to the Buddha. Most of us feel justified in being angry about something or someone, and about cultivating that anger, keeping it alive, feeding it, allowing it to fester. But the Buddha says no to all of this. Never allow anger to persist.

Because we are human our first response to being shouted at, or hit, or if someone tries to overpower us, or take our stuff, may be fear; but anger is usually not far behind. This is understandable. We can see anger is helpful for survival: it marshals our energy reserves (by preparing the body for action) and moves us away from danger, or prepares us to fight for survival. Most often there is nothing we can do about our physiological response to a threat - the reaction is instinctive, and most of us might not be alive today if that response had not kicked in at some appropriate moment in the past.

It is important not to beat yourself up for getting angry. Angry is instinctual. The verb in the second line of each verse is upanayhati which means: 1. to come into touch with; 2. to bear enmity towards, grudge, scorn. I've translated as "bear a grudge" because this seems the most useful way to approach it. For most of us it's not the initial reaction that is problematic, it is the ongoing anger, the grudge, the holding onto hurt, the contemplation or seeking of revenge.

When we hold on to hateful thoughts what happens? One thing is that while we replay the images or the conversation in our head we continue to re-experience the physical responses associated with the event. Say someone shouts at us, and there is an altercation. Our body prepares for action: the adrenal glands release adrenaline into our blood; our heart rate jumps and blood pressure rises; muscles tense ready for action. This can all happen in a moment, and yet it takes quite a few minutes to allow everything to settle back to a resting state. If we constantly replay the events in our minds, then we stir our bodies up, we may even vividly re-experience the the upset or even trauma of an event. Our bodies may continue to maintain a state of alertness for danger, of readiness for action, without ever fully relaxing. Over a long period of time this can be quite damaging to our body and our mind: one thinks of heart problems for instance, or of clinical depression. So holding onto hateful thoughts might be bad for our health in the long term.

Another possibility is that we become "an angry person". When we are constantly stimulating anger in ourselves, we feel angry, and we look angry: we scowl, we frown and grimace. We SOUND angry! Our body language communicates anger as well. Other people will be aware of this incipient hatred and experience it as a threat. It is quite clear to us when someone is angry, and we all know from experience that angry people are the ones who shout and hit, who try to overpower us, and so what do we do? We avoid them. It's only logical to avoid angry people - it is self preservation. Compare for instance the Rev. Iain Paisley with the Dalai Lama. Who would you rather spend time with? One very angry man (though admittedly much less so these days) and one who despite provocation does not express anger (in public at least). What's more people who are angry find it hard to communicate: even if you have something reasonable to say, you'll find that people are much less willing to listen if you are angry (unless perhaps they are angry about the same thing). So if you're angry a lot you're likely also to be lonely.

Holding grudges and exacting revenge prolongs conflicts and creates the conditions for more and more people to be harmed. We've all of us been harmed by someone, and probably all done harm even if only inadvertently. As the proverb goes: if an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth were really the rule; we would all be blind and toothless. The cycle has to stop somewhere. Why not with you, in you, right now?

On a deeper level there is the underlying tendency to refuse painful experiences. We can't avoid some unpleasant sensations. It makes sense to avoid pain if it is avoidable, but sometimes we must simply have a painful experience. At the very least we are all going to die, and then we must be prepared to hold that pain in our awareness just as we would a pleasurable sensation. Holding of grudges suggests that somewhere in our being we are saying "it's not fair", and we are holding back from experiencing the pain of that injustice. This is a wrong view of the world. Such a view causes us constant disappointment. Of course it isn't fair if someone shouts at us or bashes us. But life isn't fair. Experiences arise in dependence on causes, and we must constantly be trying to see this process in action whether we enjoy the experience or not.

So I think it's clear that bearing grudges is counter-productive by any rational criteria - whether or not you believe in rebirth, or Awakening, or other traditional Buddhist beliefs. What these verses do not tell us is the "how". How can we possibly not hate the person who has inflicted harm on us? The next two verses go into this little, and I'll deal with them in my next post along with some help from another text.

See also my commentary on Dhammapada v.1-2.

08 February 2008

The Anger Eating Yakkha

Browsing through the Pali Canon one often stumbles upon wonderful little oddities. This story from the Samyutta Nikaya leapt out at me while I was looking for something else. It is a story told by the Buddha to the bhikkhus while staying in the Jeta Grove...

Once an ugly yakkha sat himself down on the throne of Sakka, Lord of the Devas (also known as Indra in Vedic mythology). The various devas were appalled by this gauche behaviour and started to grumble and complain. But the more they grumbled and complained the more the yakkha became handsome and comely, more and more graceful. Confused the devas go and find Sakka and tell him what has happened. And Sakka said to them: "that must be an anger eating yakkha! ".

Sakka goes to the now handsome and good looking yakkha, arranges his robe over one shoulder, kneels down on his right knee and with his hands raised in greeting. Then three times he repeats: "I dear sir, am Sakka, Lord of the Devas." As he spoke thus, the yakkha became smaller, and more ugly. He got more and more ugly, and more deformed until he disappeared completely! Sakka then gives voice to these verses:
I am not one afflicted in mind,
Nor easily drawn by anger's whirl.
I never become angry for long,
Nor does anger persist in me.

When I'm angry I don't speak harshly
And I don't praise my virtues.
I keep myself well restrained
Out of regard for my own good.
Isn't this wonderful? The sutta is not much longer than my summary, and most of that is repetition. The structure of this sutta is much like an Udana - a prose story followed by two pithy gathas with a simple message. The moral is simple and straightforward - it echoes many other texts which advise on how to deal with anger. One thinks for instance of the lines from the Metta Sutta which enjoin us never to wish suffering on another even though we are angry. As far as I know this is the only occasion when an "anger eating yakkha" is mentioned in the Canon.

It brings to mind the Dhammapada verse (v.5) :
Anger never ceases through anger
Anger only ceases through love
This is an eternal law.
We could see the anger eating yakkha story as a parable illustrating this principle. The way to diffuse anger is not to meet it with anger, but to see that anger feeds on anger. If we meet an angry person with anger we escalate the situation. It's hard to be around an angry person and feel safe though - angry people can be unpredictable and even dangerous. I find I just want to get some distance between me and an angry person. If I'm responding to anger with anger then this is perhaps the best strategy. Words said in anger are often regrettable. Sakka proclaims that he keeps himself well restrained, that even if he does become angry he does not allow anger to persist.

In Tantric Buddhism emotions like anger are considered to be part of the path. Anger is related to Wisdom, is transformed into Wisdom through practice. The advantage of this approach is that it recognises the energy involved in anger, and how it can be harnessed in pursuit of our spiritual goals. However I think one needs to be very careful with this approach. One might attempt to justify unskilful behaviour on the basis that anger is "just energy" for instance. If we go around acting out anger then that is not going to help anyone, and indeed will hurt other people and ourselves. In early Buddhism anger is seen as aversion to some experience which one does not want to have. It is better to allow the experience to happen and cultivate equanimity towards it. I prefer to err on the side of caution in the case of anger and find the early Buddhist approach more helpful.

SN 11.22. Bikkhu Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. [1 vol. ed.] Boston : Wisdom. p.338-9. [= PTS S i.237f.]

image: (tweaked)

11 February 2006

Belief: to kill or die for?

Muslim protestor - source The Epoch Times
I'm interested in belief at the moment. This essay and one next week will explore two aspects of belief, one rather negative, and one more positive.

Few people can be unaware that some people hold their beliefs so dear that they are willing to kill others who disagree with them. It's all too easy to treat this fact simplistically. Such a rigidly held belief can be difficult to understand at first sight. We are repulsed by the killer.

Killing for one's beliefs is not a new phenomena. It's been happening for the entire history of human kind. However we live in interesting times. Since the Enlightenment we have stopped believing in an omnipotent god. This seems only right and proper to me, but then I am a product of a rationalist-materialistic social and education system. There are two main responses to this decline in religion: credulity, and incredulity, both in fairly extreme versions. The first extreme is that we believe in everything: from Aliens living amongst us, to crystals that heal diseases, and dead spirits that speak to us from beyond the grave. The other extreme is that we don't believe in anything beyond our five senses. We are skeptical of anything we can't measure.

From either point of view we may find it difficult to understand the radically angry reaction from Muslims whose faith has been publically mocked. From one point of view all beliefs are the same, God = Allah = Jesus = Buddha = Mohammed = Snoopy the Dog, so why would you get all het up over one or the other. From the other point of view believe in God is a childish whimsy, at best. We're just not equipped to deal with someone who is so insistent on their point of view that they will kill anyone who tries to contradict them, or to have a laugh at their expense.

There is also a remarkable naivete in the reaction which says that because a newspaper from Denmark, or where-ever, mocks us, then the government of Denmark is responsible, and Danish citizens are one and all legitimate targets of our anger.

In response to recent events I was saying to myself that I could understand dying for a belief, but not killing for a belief. I said to myself that there were no grounds on which I would kill anyone. But this is not entirely true. I'd probably kill to save myself or a loved one from harm. I imagine that I'm capable of it under extreme circumstances. So this is interesting. What makes me prepared to kill under these circumstances? Well it's a view isn't it? A belief. I believe that my life is worth more than the person I'm protecting myself from. So perhaps killing for a belief is not so alien as I thought. Gulp!

Further more I said to myself that I certainly wouldn't kill anyone for mocking the Buddha. I'm not like those fundamentalist theists! But then I realised that I had been in some pretty heated arguments on this subject, had allowed myself, perhaps even willed myself, to be pretty angry over issues which were relatively petty. And actually there have been times when I felt, and even expressed a considerable amount of illwill towards people whose point of view I disagreed with. So it's starting to look like a matter of degree in which I differ from fundamentalists, not anything intrinsic. I just keep my anger in check to a greater extent. That's not trivial by any means. But the anger is not different from the anger of the terrorist!

I'm not saying here that I have sympathy with killers, or condoning killing in any way. What I'm saying is that the mental states I imagine a killer to be experiencing as a result of their strongly held views, are not alien to me. I recognise hatred in myself.

We all have experiences that we don't want. Our cherished beliefs are challenged, mocked, abused. We respond with anger, and we might even feel quite justified. These need not be religious beliefs. We may believe that saying please and thank, in the English manner, are absolutely essential, but run into someone from a culture where they don't even have words for these concepts! That person unwittingly falls foul of our belief system and whammo we hate them!

The Karaṇīya Metta Sutta tells us, Diṭṭhiñ ca anupagamma "And don't fall into views". In the contemporary idiom of the FWBO we might say: hold your opinions lightly. Beliefs can be constantly re-examined in light of experience. Particularly hatred. My observation is that words said in anger fail to reach their mark. Whatever I am trying to say, if I'm angry, then pretty much all I communicate is I am Angry. And people respond to this in various ways, but none of them involve weighing up my words or empathising with me. And why should they? I know my own reaction to anger is FEAR, and I just want to get away whenever I known someone is angry. Angry people are dangerous, they lash out, they say and do hurtful things. I'm not so very different from anyone else.

If however we hold our beliefs lightly, if we are open to other view points, then we are much less likely to react with anger when we meet an opposing belief. And this is important because if our beliefs are so rigidly held that we are enraged by opposition, then we may end up killing for our beliefs.

In this essay I have assumed that killing is a bad thing without ever justifying this proposition. And last week I suggested that if we are really paying attention then we won't be happy if we try to be happy at the expense of another person. For now I hope that you agree with these sentiments enough to follow along with the argument. Next week I'm going to look a little more at why what we believe is important, not only personally, but more cosmically speaking. This should help to fill out the picture somewhat.


*image by Chris Jackson/Getty Images.