December 06, 2011
Today we have a guest post from Leonard Scheff, co-author with Susan Edmiston of the book The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger. Read about his views on dealing with anger and then let us know: What do you think of the assertion that "being angry at an event is judging the universe to be unacceptable"?
The Dalai Lama said that overcoming anger is the front gate to enlightenment. Generally we become angry because something that happened or didn’t happen wasn’t the way we wanted. However to deal with anger on a more basic level, it is necessary to look at its effect in a broader context. The Buddha said:
You shouldn't chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right here, right there.
Not taken in, unshaken,
that's how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing what should be done today.
—Majjhima Nikaya (131)
When we become angry it is tempting to “chase the past” by getting caught up in irrelevant questions like “Did he intend to injure me?” or “Why did she insult me?” In other words, you want to know what in the other person’s life caused them to refuse to comply with what you thought should happen. However basically, being angry at an event is judging the universe to be unacceptable.
If you are going driving down the street and going through a green light when a driver running a red light crashes into you, it is likely an occasion for anger. After such events, people are heard to ask something like, “Why me?” or “Oh lord, what did I do to deserve this?” If you look at the errant driver’s immediate past, you might discover that he had a violent argument with his wife and his dangerous driving was propelled by his anger. That would give you the immediate cause of his conduct. It doesn’t however answer the question of why you showed up at that intersection at the precise moment that resulted in the crash.
After the Indonesian tsunami that killed about 230,000 men, women and children in 2004, a Buddhist monk was asked how Buddhism would explain an unimaginable tragedy like that. His answer was, “Because.” That is the Buddhist answer to why anything happens: simply, “Because!” It reflects Buddhism’s strict view of cause and effect. The Song of Zazen says: “Cause and effect are one, not two, not three, the path is straight.” This means that everything that has ever happened is the cause of the event that provoked your anger. From the big bang, to the first amoeba doggy paddling across the slime, to the dinosaurs, the extinction of the dinosaurs, Columbus (or whoever) discovering America, what you did yesterday and in the last minute, all led up to, for instance, someone injuring or insulting you, which has lead to your being angry. All that has ever happened funnels down to this moment. In my case, the events of my life and before have resulted in my typing this page. In your case it results on your reading this page. Whatever it is happened because of what went before for literally billions of years. If you ask me to explain what led to me writing this article I might say that it’s because I attended the Dalai Lama’s 1993 teaching in Tucson. However it would also be correct to say that the Chinese are responsible for my writing this book because the Chinese invaded Tibet causing the Dalai Lama to flee and become available to the world.
To deal with your anger and avoid this pointless inquiry, you need to understand that every time you are angry and want to indentify one or more immediate cause or causes you are disregarding all the rest of the history of the universe. The immediate cause of the person crashing into you might be useful in permitting you to obtain compensation for your losses. However it has nothing to do with dealing with your anger. Again, it is everything that has ever happened that has left you angry. To the extent that you make the judgment that the occurrence was unfair or unreasonable and thus produced your angry reaction, you are, in effect, doing battle with the universe. The odds for your winning that battle are not good.
Does This Mean That We Have No Control Over The Things That Will Happen To Us In The Future?
Fortunately this does not mean that what happens next in your life is also determined by what went before. Buddhism recognizes that there is an exceedingly, perhaps an unbelievably rare, event in the history of the universe which allows an escape from determinism. I have good news for you. Since you are reading this article, it means that you have won the great cosmic lottery which allows you to possess human intelligence. Winning the cosmic lottery is so rare that winning the ordinary lotteries of this world, by comparison, seems like a sure thing.
Therefore you may be able to use your intelligence to seek to change future events in grand or subtle ways to prevent the reoccurrence. By definition intelligence, as opposed to instinct, allows you to choose how you react to the events that are before you. Intelligence is basically the power of choice. The simple truth is that when you are angry the use of your intelligence is severely limited and, if you are acting out of habit, perhaps non-existent. So now that you know that you have won the ultimate lottery prize, you may want to decide that being angry and unaware is a silly way to waste it. While you can’t expect to change the entire universe, you do have a considerable ability to change what will occur in your future. By not acting out of anger and acting with awareness, and thereby using the full power of your intelligence, you increase the odds that the events of the future will be more to your liking.
Another thing we can do in the present moment is to prevent the reoccurrence of something that occasioned our anger is to accept our responsibility, in whole or in part, for the incident. If you were fired from your job, you may rise up in righteous indignation, believing that you bear no responsibility in the matter. That may be true if an asteroid strikes you, but in the more mundane world, your conduct always bears some responsibility for the undesirable result. This is a hard issue to deal with because you may not be aware of your conditioned response or your habitual conduct that contributed to the problem. Perhaps worse yet, if you are aware of your habits or that you have a conditioned response, you may believe that’s beneficial and see no reason to change. It is generally difficult to acknowledge that the beliefs underlying our actions may not be in our best interests. To the extent that you deny that your conduct was at least a partial cause of the event, you are increasing the odds that it will happen again. The same result will occur over and over again until you acknowledge your responsibility. As Einstein said, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”
Change may not come as fast as you like. After all, you are dealing with at least a few billion years of causation. Nonetheless, you can, by changing the way you deal with the present, have some power to affect what will happen to you in the future. This requires that you use the occasion to escape the conditioning or habitual conduct that may have put you in the unacceptable situation. If your previous mate walked out on you, you may find it helpful in preventing a repeat performance to change your method or criteria for choosing a mate. Again, when you act out of anger, the likelihood of changing your pattern of conduct and thus what will happen in your life is unnecessarily small. That is when the anger switch is turned to “on,” you view each of your habits as sacrosanct and reject any notion that you should change any of them. As long as we believe our anger has a beneficial effect, we will continue to be at war with the universe, which only by unusual coincidence may behave in accordance with our illusory mental view of how things should be. We are like gamblers who know that the odds are against them but convince themselves that somehow they are exempt from the inevitable result.
Appreciating the Universe
Instead of waging war with the universe by being angry we can consider appreciating the universe. The question is not whether you like what is happening but whether you understand that what has happened is past and not subject to change. If someone has done something that occasioned your anger, you may be able to get an apology or even compensation from that person, but that does not change the fact that the offending event occurred.
There are grotesque injustices abounding in the world right now—killing, starvation, torture, poverty—but they are all a product of the billions of years that have gone before. Again you can use your intelligence to try to change what it is you don’t like now for the future. But if your attempt to change the future is to only be angry at what happening, it inhibits the use of that intelligence and thus makes the change you seek less likely to occur.
So to the extent you reserve the right to judge what has happened, you are impeding your progress toward a spiritual and calm abiding. The problem for many of us is that somehow we give more attention to the things that we don’t like and pay little or no attention to the blessings that we have. So how can we break out of this cycle and be willing to appreciate the universe for its blessings even when we don’t like what is happening to us? We can seek to come to terms with the problems befalling us by developing the heart and by living a kind and compassionate life. Joseph Campbell said, “Spirituality is an appreciation of the universe.” That means that not only do you appreciate, mountains, waterfalls and sunsets, but you appreciate whatever it is that is happening now to you or around you as a manifestation of the universe whether you like it or not.
In order to fully appreciate the universe, we need to be aware of its blessings. One such blessing is the fact that we exist and are conscious of that fact and that alone is something to be grateful for. We can then realize that for billions of years of titanic events of unimaginable and frequently destructive proportions some how our planet has come through in a form that allowed organic forms of life to come into existence. In fact, we live in an incredibly small window in the universe where life can occur and that window has been open for sufficient time to allow that life to evolve into intelligent life.
We can balance the feeling that the universe is not dealing fairly with us by contemplating the dance of gravity and centrifugal force that allowed galaxies to form containing the controlled source of energy that is the sun that allows the formation of life on a tiny dot in the vast sea of the universe. We can think about the anomaly that only two substances, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen dioxide, aka water, expand when they go from a liquid state to a solid—thus causing ice to have a lower specific gravity than water and thus float rather than sink. The general opinion is that if water contracted on freezing, life as we know it on earth would not exist or exist in a far different form because ice would sink to the bottom of the oceans, ponds and streams and the result would be that the earth would be a much colder place. Or we can be angry at the driver ahead of us that keeps putting on his brakes for no apparent reason.
You can contemplate a leaf which has the ability to absorb the energy from the sun and thus provide food, clothing and shelter for us. As it says in Torei Zenzi’s The Bodhisattva’s Vow:
With this realization, our noble ancestors, possessed of compassionate minds and hearts, gave tender care to bird and beast. And in our own daily lives we, too, should be reverently grateful for the protections of life: our food, drink and clothing.
Yes there may be catastrophes that befall us far greater than our everyday problems which can make anger seem a reasonable response. When those things befall us, we can be angry, or consider ourselves a victim or a martyr, or we can be like Jean-Dominique Bauby who ended up in an iron lung, all but completely paralyzed. He found his state satisfactory and managed to write the book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly using only the blinking of his left eye to indicate when an assistant pointed at the proper letter. Or we can go back to feeling incapacitated because our toe hurts.
It is true that within that window in the universe where we live has rough edges that take life such as earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods and so on. However the reality of the danger in this world was expressed by Edward Gibbon:
Man has much more to fear from the passion of his fellow creatures than from all the convulsions of nature.
—History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1781, Volume II, Chapter XXVI, Part I.
We can see how our unawareness and conditioning of individuals is projected outward to restrain our progress to a better society. History is full of wars, oppression and slaughter resulting from pernicious stupidity. “Can you imagine the damage that would be done if women and blacks were allowed to vote?” “Next you’ll want equal rights for women and blacks?” The first doctor to suggest that surgeons should wash their hands before operating was the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis. He was ridiculed and only received recognition for his insight after his death. The first person in England to translate the Bible into English, William Tyndale, was burned at the stake for his efforts. Our history, and indeed the present is full of long lasting wars resulting from powerful people who choose to enforce their illusory view of the world with the resources at their disposal.
We can begin to benefit all sentient beings by learning to deal with our most destructive emotion, anger. We have just come out of the twentieth century which proved Gibbon right. In the twentieth century humans slaughtered humans by the tens of millions. With all of our improvement in understanding the world around us and the benefits of technology, we remain at the mercy of these destructive emotions.
If you conclude that anger is the proper response to things that we don’t like and thus if you still want to do battle with the universe, then ask yourself how that will benefit your and if you want to continue to suffer because you have taken on an impossible task. Or you can following the teachings of the Buddha and turn your anger into compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.
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