Precious Energy

The Ninth Zen Precept: Not Being AngryNancy Baker

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Anger is a natural human emotion; it lasts only 15 seconds. So said the grief expert Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in an interview I once read. Unfortunately, when the human ego is involved, anger tends to last far longer. One of the most famous examples is the “wrath of Achilles,” the mega-anger that begins Homer’s Iliad and remains a theme throughout the epic. A recent translation calls Achilles’ anger “sustained rage.” It’s the sustained part that’s the problem. But shouldn’t we also avoid, or control, or suppress even the natural, 15-second variety? It all depends. Aristotle tells us that “he who cannot be angry when he should, at whom he should, and how much he should, is a dolt.” This suggests that in certain circumstances, anger is appropriate, justifiable—even necessary. But before we look at what those circumstances might be, it would be good to consider how our cultural and psychological prohibitions against anger can cause us to misuse the ninth precept.

Working with any of the precepts is not about engaging the super ego. The Zen precepts are moral principles in a sense, but they aren’t “out there,” separate from us, to be held up as standards with which to criticize ourselves when we fall short or, even worse, to criticize others when they fall short. Nor are the precepts moral straitjackets for controlling our own behavior or anyone else’s. Instead, they express what the realized person does naturally. As Bodhidharma puts it, “Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the dharma of no self, not postulating self is called the Precept of Refraining from Anger.” Self with a capital S, the Self of Self-nature, is in reality “no self”— Buddhanature, the realm of no separation. But until we reach that stage of realization (if there is such a thing as reaching it once and for all), how do we work with the ninth precept? As with all the precepts, we need to work with it in a way that liberates rather than confines us. And that means not using the precept to reject any part of ourselves. Because anger is so universal, frequent, and varied, it serves as a particularly useful model for this.

First of all, it’s important to move beyond an oversimplified picture of what anger is. Anger takes many forms, and it’s good to explore its subtle and not-so-subtle variations so that ultimately each of us can find out precisely what works for us as a practice. Think of all the words there are for anger: nouns like rage, outrage, wrath, fury, resentment, annoyance, irritation, displeasure, indignation; modifiers like ticked off, pissed off, boiling mad, stewing, annoyed, simmering; verbs like blow up, snap at, hit the ceiling, see red, get under someone’s skin, lose it. In addition to all the different kinds of anger are all the different things we do with anger. Some of us suppress it, some of us act it out, some of us disguise it as something else. Some of us get very angry, even at ourselves, and some of us haven’t the vaguest idea that we are ever angry. Some of us even get angry at things. How could one get angry at things, you may wonder. Well, try the computer. Some of us get angry at computers and other objects much more often than we get angry at people. I once had a boyfriend who during a particularly difficult week became so angry on discovering that money had fallen out of his back pocket that he ripped the pocket right off his pants—while he was wearing them! I’ll never forget how angry he was. Actually, “enraged” is a better word for his state.

Because we imagine anger is never a good thing, it is easy to think we should practice simply not being angry. But that approach is too general and abstract. It’s important for each of us to be precise, to be real, to be personal and honest, to find out exactly what my anger is. To do that we need to ask ourselves lots of questions about its actual nature. [See “Practice: Working with Anger”]

The first step, then, in working with the ninth precept is to discover my own particular version of anger. Once I’ve seen the quality of my anger, the next step is to get to know it intimately. Like many emotions, anger has both a cause and an object. Its cause might be that my best vase was broken through carelessness, but the object of my anger is you, the one who broke it. Getting to know my anger means turning my attention away from its cause and its object, and all my stories about it, to the anger itself. Getting to know my anger means not having any judgments about it, compassionately allowing it, and being curious about it. Suppressing anger is one obvious way of avoiding getting to know it, but so too is acting it out. In the latter case the anger is like a hot potato—I can’t get rid of it fast enough.

What makes us avoid getting to know anger itself, rather than focusing on its object? In some cases it is fear. Once, in a conversation about psychoanalysis, I asked an old friend what her analysis had been about. She thought carefully and said, “Not being afraid of my anger.” I then asked what she was afraid of. After a few moments, she replied: “Blowing up.” She wasn’t speaking metaphorically about having a burst of anger; she meant literally blowing up, in the sense of being annihilated. It was an existential fear. Another fear that can prevent us from expressing or even feeling our anger is fear of being rejected by the one with whom we’re angry. Then, too, some of us are ashamed of being angry and can’t face it or admit it. Others of us may have such a powerful self-image of not being the angry type that we deny having any anger to get to know.

Why is it important to know all this about my anger? Why not just not be angry? For one thing just not being angry is easier said than done. For another, there is no freedom in avoiding or suppressing it. Again, the precepts are about not rejecting any part of myself—in this case, the one who gets angry—but rather getting to know that part of myself and accepting it without any judgment. This is a very important step in working with any precept. The more we can truly accept who we are, all the way to the point of becoming one with it, the more we give the precept a chance to manifest naturally. Some of us need to practice not acting out our anger, and knowing when and how it shows up can be an enormous help in that regard. Others of us need to get in touch with our anger and not be so afraid or ashamed of it: here too, getting to know the anger, even welcoming it, is an enormous help, especially when we have the courage to admit to others that we’re angry. For those with a self-image of never being angry, it’s important to realize that a never-angry self-image postulates a self just as much as being angry does.

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jackelope65's picture

As a teen and young man, anger dominated me, either suffering with suppression or feeling guilt after exploding. The worst incidence was when my mom was in our hot 3'rd floor tenement, with multiple locks and was not answering as my brother and I, then 18, fumed in the hallway heat after a hot hard day of construction work. I punched the door so hard the locks and hinges broke knocking my mum out because she was behind the door; i though i killed her but fortunately not, but when she woke, i began the process of awaking myself. At first my wife helped me greatly, married at 18. We looked at my childhood: decorating the X-mass tree at midnight, my mum swearing at my dad for coming home late, drunk, searching for a suitable gum tree(Australia) with flashlights.'Father' punched walls breaking his hand once after hitting a beam, lacerating the radial artery hitting a glass window; my brother, then 14, learned how to drive racing Father to hospital. Tipped over meal tables, mum throwing pots and pans and so forth. Surprisingly, I really did not consciously feel anger towards them knowing my mum saw my grandmother whipped and my dad killing Japanese silently by knife or with his german shepherd during pre invasion missions setting up ammunition dumps where noise resulted in death. I knew they loved me by showing keen interest in my life by helping me with school and attending all of my sporting and scout family events. My mum, while i was in Vietnam, got me back into college( The first time i attended college my GPA was 1.2). When i applied she had Senators Pastore & Pell write me letters for medical school accounting my service and GPA improvement. The cause and effect went back in my family as far as I could look. But with my wife's help and sitting in meditation, I began to unravel the cause and effect relationships and see that i did not have to be "the angry person" that i thought i must be, that anger was evanescent and ephemeral when unattached, and that i possessed tremendous compassion from my family's suffering. I wanted to break the chain of anger and 'exploding doors' in my children. After i became an MD, i chose to be with my patients in a not very lucrative practice of spending long periods of time with them, treating those with the greatest suffering: severe burns, severe trauma, para/quadriplegia, head injury, amputees,stroke and so forth. often with the worst insurance. My beloved patients taught me compassion & humility, as did the wonderful nurses and therapists. Wife, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha in that order, helped me so much and it seems the energy used for anger fuels my compassion now. I am grateful for my family whose love, compassion, and anger taught me so much, nothing good or bad, but providing the fuel for the contemplations best described by Shantideva.

stevenorthcounty's picture

Thank you for this helpful piece. BTW Listen is correct - Slim Pikens rode the H-bomb down.

kentc33's picture

How our conditioning is passed on:
“Looks like what drives me crazy
Don't have no effect on you--
But I'm gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy, too.” -
Langston Hughes

kentc33's picture

Here's an excerpt from Pema's "No Time to Lose", p. 161: "there are times ... when anger is appropriate, but hatred is never justified. Anger can be motivated by compassion, but hatred is always accompanied by ill will." Nice distinction. Intention is paramount.

toonteo's picture

Thank you so much Ms.Baker.very useful teaching & very practical one,especially I am so pleased when I saw the poem of the Rumi,our great poet I have the chance to read it in original language (Persian).
But I have a question ,about the "useful anger"it remind me of the Medieval sacred anger of"Crusaders",or recent sacred anger of Muslims in the Middle east,or proletarian Anger of the Russian ,they somehow rationalized their anger against others as useful one,
My question is how we can protect our self from this kind of rationalization,which our "ego " is very skillful in that.
with best regards

celticpassage's picture

It all sounds nice, but I think it highly unlikely that a person can reach the stage where anger becomes pure energy to be constructively used, unless of course one is a Buddha,
as illustrated in this quote:
"Suzuki Roshi was once asked if anger could be like a pure wind that wipes everything clean. He said, 'Yes, but I don’t think you need to worry about that.' He said that he himself had never had an anger that was like the pure wind..."

rajilukkoor's picture

"...get so close to our anger that we no longer know or feel it as anger."

wow. That really got my attention. Thank you for the terrific article, Nancy. I find myself examining my anger in a completely different light, sans shame or denial.


Leo Pezzementi's picture

This simple teaching and Buddha's parable of holding on to a hot coal allowed me to see the source of the anger I was holding onto and let it go.

Two people wait for a late bus.
One is frustrated,
while the other takes it easy...
Thus, the source of frustration cannot be the bus.
Is there an evil bus-driver out there to be angry at?
The seed of anger lies within.
The "late buses of life" are only conditions which
ripen our anger.
In the end, it is you who cause your state of mind.
The causes of (un)happiness are within your mind.
Take care of your mind then.
It is a garden -
you decide what seeds to plant and nurture.

jchristopherjennings's picture

Thank you.

lumeischa's picture

I liked what you wrote a lot! Thank you for helping me deepen what I've learnt from the article.

dswilliams65's picture

Thank you for sharing this parable; it is one I will hold onto and contemplate daily as I work on pulling out the weeds in my mind so I may plant a beautiful, nurturing garden ~*~

Leo Pezzementi's picture

For some reason, I clicked on your reply on the left side of the tricycle page and saw it was in response to the Mind Garden!

robertomainetti's picture

very helpfull....than you very to take care of my angry like my child...obserrve him and take care of him and learn from him...thank you to the comunity that to know about all of that who make the effort...i do not feel that lonly prioritasing this work...thank you

Bobbyhearts's picture

All emotions are legitimate. Be mindful of the emotion and understand its true meaning. Anger with just cause needs to be understood and played out not repressed. It is an honest feeling if treated honestly and not taken to extremes or violence.

boiester's picture

Sometimes an event will allow us to show the anger we have held close to our heart for a long time, but also allow us to further hide the anger within our response to the event. Knowing the anger is understanding how complex the ego can be! Thank you for this wisdom.

emedae's picture

The poem by Rumi reminds me of the theme I always associate with this poet. "The light of my love will always trump my anger. Even anger that I feel is justified." This is my thought, not Rumi's.

ulisesh's picture

Great article:)

jshanson's picture

I was talking with a psychiatrist several years ago about a personal violation that really hurt and made me very angry, the anger disturbed me. He replied "if you weren't angry something would be wrong with you." So the anger is real at times in our life, from there a skillful response is needed that is more than just being angry.

alalaho's picture

we are taught that it is all mind. all phenomena are just projections of mind. so it seems what is projected, in a sense, is a reflection. for me it is very important to be accountable for what is displayed. although it can be very challenging to connect with that when the energy is at a high level. nevertheless, it is accessible. and this becomes more and more easier as we take the time to sit.
i read this article yesterday and was strongly impacted and moved by the beautiful words of Thich Nhat Hanh on getting to know our anger. this morning i was pleasantly surprised by receiving Tricycle's Daily Dharma. it was these same words by Thầy. ..a beautiful reflection.

Listen's picture

Don't get angry, but Dr. Strangelove wasn't the one riding the bomb.
Great piece, thank you!

jbricklin's picture

"Anger is always a lesson and to the degree we stay angry we are not learning it." Sciousness

beemindful's picture

Beautiful! This seems so true to me, one who has a long history with anger. Thank you so much.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Thank you, Ms. Baker, for the lesson. I've found myself unconsciously quoting some of your main points in recent posts.
My appreciation to you, LInda