Not Yet

Helen Tworkov

“A special section on anger? But I thought Buddhists weren’t supposed to get angry?”

I kept hearing this as we prepared “Seeing Red: Practicing with Anger.” Often enough, the verbal response was followed by a giggle, or a twist of embarrassment around the mouth, as if the witness had just, deliciously, become privy to some secret admission.

So. Buddhists aren’t supposed to get angry. Hmmm. That’s a good one.

In Buddhism greed, anger, and ignorance are the root causes of suffering. If anger had proven easy to tame, train, or transform, the teachings of the Buddha would not have survived. Two thousand five hundred years after their inception, the teachings still resonate with clarity and conviction, addressing us as we are: greedy, angry, and ignorant.

Taking vows, meditating, or labeling oneself a Buddhist does not spontaneously produce holy human prototypes, nor does a transitory experience of enlightenment guarantee enlightened behavior. One dilemma for new Buddhists is that often we’ve been the first or only members of our families or communities to embrace dharma, making us self-appointed emissaries from Buddha-land to our host society. This has brought its fair share of wondrous adventures; but it backfires if we use Buddhism to hide out from ourselves, or pretend to be less ruffled, or more spacious and accommodating than we feel. Yet if we do not acknowledge our own greed, anger, and ignorance, then what grist are we feeding the dharma mill? Once we give ourselves permission to acknowledge our own anger, then, one might well ask, is an angry Buddhist any different from an angry anyone else?

In Buddhism, anger is understood as a state of mind, fluid and transitory as a cloud. We get angry. It comes. And—if we let it—it goes; neither anger nor the self has a fixed, independent existence or identity. Mercifully, this allows us to explore anger without the specter of saddling ourselves with a negative, fixed, and—as it turns out—false identity.

How one conducts this exploration of anger is where practice parts company with much of what is advocated in other quarters. We’re encouraged to see anger as a product of our own minds, to watch what triggers it, what make it grow, what makes it boil over, what reduces and dissolves it . We’re encouraged to see the mind as the source of our anger, as well as the source of relieving it.

In her interview, Joko Beck says that as long as you are capable of being annoyed, “you can be sure that something will annoy you.” There is much in the world to annoy, irritate, and enrage. The paradox the teachers keep repeating is that meeting abuse with abuse doesn’t help; it’s ineffective and makes more problems. We are challenged to give up our habits and indulgences by meeting abuse with compassion and kindness. Chagdud Tulku suggests that once we develop enough spaciousness then, when we get angry, instead of immediately, reacting we can examine the feeling and ask, “'What is this? What is making me turn red and shake? Where is it?’ What we discover is that there is no substance to anger, no thing to find.” According to Gelek Rinpoche, if you don’t take care of irritation, it will grow into anger. But of irritation itself he says, “Everybody has it; even those people you might call enlightened beings.”

Even enlightened beings get irritated, and we’re not supposed to get angry? Then again, Buddhists are not yet Buddhas; like everyone else, we’re just Buddhas-to-be.

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