December 06, 2011

Guest Post: Judging the Universe

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.

The Choice

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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rbeck99's picture

Great post. One of the main points I take away from this article is that due to the multitude of causes and effects it's both difficult to exactly explain how this current pleasant or unpleasant experience really came about, and it is likewise difficult to predict the outcome whether good or bad of any action I take now on thefuture. So while anger and the other strong emotions may seem to be motivating forces for change, one can be deceived by what appears to be the righteous thing to do, when in fact this ultimately causes more problems. Sometimes what seems an immediate kindness later turns out to be more complicated in its ultimate ramifications. One of my favorite sayings is "The chief cause of problems is solutions". I'm a physician and I see this dance of cause and effect occurring everyday. I once "saved a man" from dying gracefully of a heart attack while sleeping only to inadvertantly subject him to weeks of suffering in a brain damaged state, which a common outcome in CPR survivors, before he eventualy died in a quite ungraceful manner.

recurvata's picture

I read this article not as saying we should cultivate an attitude of passive acceptance of everything that occurs, so that we should do nothing. It seems to say instead that it's more useful to accept what has happened, rather than get angry over it.
It's fine to use the occasion of a car accident to become aware of the social formation, and to be spurred by that into working for change if you feel that's the right thing to do. But, the article says to me, anger at the accident itself serves no useful purpose, and drags us away from a clearer view of reality.

Keith McLachlan's picture

"We value life and human dignity."

General Westmoreland is in this case being disingenuous.

Westmoreland and Western leaders may value our lives and human dignity, but after Vietnam, Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan, I can't say they value the life and dignity of all peoples. If they did, they would not tolerate so many civilian casualties.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Certainly his was an atavistic mindset rooted in the righteousness of Manifest Destiny, America's mission to promote and defend democracy throughout the world. Is this why many Americans have difficulty with the bodhisattva vow? To save all living beings regardless of who (or what) they are?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Such attitudes as the monk who just says "Because" with regard to the 2004 tsunami once prompted Gen. William Westmoreland (commander of US military operations in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive) to say that "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner...We value life and human dignity. They don't care about life and human dignity."

wtompepper's picture

This is the kind of specious reasoning Western Buddhists love to hear. It justifies doing nothing at all except learning to “feel better”.

It is absolutely absurd to say that anger “is judging the universe to be unacceptable.” Scheff here uses the standard pop-Zen reduction of all causes to one level, and says if we are angry at a social injustice we are disapproving, or at least lacking gratitude for, the big bang. This pseudo-Taoist refusal to recognize the difference between natural and social causes pretends to greater wisdom in order to justify political quietism.

It is an absurdity to conflate a tsunami with a car accident, not because of the difference in magnitude (car accidents kill far more people every year), but because of the difference in cause. Western Buddhists love this kind of sophistry, because it absolves them of any responsibility for anything that goes wrong. If we can see the “cause” of the accident ONLY as the driver’s inattention or self-absorbtion, we can refuse to see that the accident is also caused by a social formation which encourages, in fact requires, most people to constantly use the most dangerous, destructive, and wasteful mode of transportation ever invented.

It is true that anger inhibits the use of intelligence; it is also probably the case that most times when anger arises it is because we are operating at the level of ideology, of habit and unexamined beliefs that avoid the use of our intellect. It would be great to produce a world where anger never arose. But to learn to suppress it at an individual level is just to learn to refuse to see the causes of suffering that we could change. Instead, we should learn to notice anger, and learn that every moment of anger is a sign that I am operating in an ideology that causes suffering. I cannot just try to “increase the odds that the events of the future will be more to [my] liking”, because this separates “me” as an atomistic self from the network of causes and conditions that produce me. To reduce the odds of negative events would be to change the social formation, and so to change myself.

Of course, the flip side of this is that gratitude is too often just a euphemism for the pleasure we take in attachment. We don’t like to be aware that all those comforts we feel “gratitude” for do not come from the “universe,” but often depend on the oppression and suffering of billions. Perhaps instead of taking comfort in my cup of tea, it would be better to contemplate the enormous history of imperialist oppression that went into developing the habit of intoxicating myself with caffeine so easily, cheaply, and often.

Instead of simply blaming the other driver for the accident, or blaming the laws of physics, we can blame the thing we can and should change, the social formation. In Scheff’s sophistry, this level of cause is invisible. Car accidents cause and average of 600 deaths a week in the U.S., and yet we only want to blame the individual driver. We could change this, but when such change is suggested the Western Buddhist says we are not accepting the universe—disasters will always happen, people will always be ill. Well, sure, we need to learn to accept those things, but it is a grave error to conflate earthquakes and murder.

The part of Buddha’s teaching Scheff forgets is the most obvious of all: if you are suffering, change the social formation in which you live.

beeclectic's picture

wtompepper, I can emphatically identify with your feelings and thoughts. Fought the universe my whole life. I won more than I lost. Now I am getting old, and realize that no matter how hard I fought the universe, I never seemed to get any better. So now I am working on myself - looking for some peace of mind and resolution, because it has become obvious I can't fix the universe before I die.....
You seem to think in a dualistic framework throughout your reply, somehow considering yourself, humanity, and social formations removed from the ultimate nature of reality, i.e. emptiness. Consider how long the universe you are familiar with existed without humanity (and concepts) - and you think that now because of the existence (and I assume ultimately passing) of humanity, that reality, which currently includes us, is somehow different? Or that you or anyone else is in control? Maybe consider the position you have taken in terms of the key Buddhist ideas of equanimity and emptiness, for a little relief. That is not to say don't do anything.

Sareen's picture


I hear that you have a lot of care and concern for the suffering in this world and that is compassion.

I hear the same compassion in this article.

The way I read it, you are both saying that compassion is the route to effective action. You are emphasizing the thinking aspect of experience and the social causes of suffering. These are important.

Spiritual practice enables us to individually cultivate compassion and your point to pay attention to the social causes and take action to effect change in the social causes is a point well made.