Precious Energy

The Ninth Zen Precept: Not Being AngryNancy Baker

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Thich Nhat Hanh has a very beautiful thing to say about getting to know our anger:

Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it—simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed. If you destroy anger, you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother.

Perhaps the most important reason for getting to know our anger is that anger is actually a precious energy that becomes anger only when it is caught up in complex egoic patterns. As we’ve seen, those patterns include my stories about anger’s cause and object—the broken vase and the one who broke it, for example—as well as many deluded beliefs, not the least of which is the delusion of separation. This energy needs to be freed and transformed rather than distorted or destroyed. When we are unable to feel our anger, depression, collapse, loss of aliveness, dependence, and inability to be autonomous are likely to result. Years ago I was at a small party of dharma friends, and one of the hosts mentioned that he and his partner had very different ways of getting angry. Immediately, everyone was interested, and before we knew it, someone proposed that we go around the room and each say how we got angry or how we would get angry were we to really let loose. I sat there dreading the whole exercise, but when my turn came, I found myself happily announcing that I would be like Dr. Strangelove riding the bomb, ready to blow up the world! That I could even have such a destructive thought was a surprise to me, but incredibly freeing. Several years later, our small New York Zen group tried the same exercise. Given the age and rather staid nature of most of us, the images were hilarious—an ex-husband being shot in a restaurant; a huge flood drowning everyone; stabbings, suffocations, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove blowing up the world. What was fascinating was the effect this exercise had on us: our cheeks were beautifully flushed, our bodies were full of energy, and a wonderful vitality filled the room. We had released a life force simply by letting go of our shame and denial.

To deepen this practice even more, we can try, in a spirit of simple curiosity, to get so close to our anger that we no longer know or feel it as anger. Cause and object, the self being angry, and the anger itself all drop away, and all that remains is the precious energy, freed at last.

Again, we have Bodhidharma’s version of the ninth precept: “Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the dharma of no self, not postulating self is called the Precept of Refraining from Anger.” What he is saying is that when there is no self, no selfterritory to defend or construct, and hence, there is oneness— no separation—then there is no anger. But what about Aristotle’s remark that an inability to be angry is actually a failing? Can we reconcile that with the Zen version? In other words, can there be anger that does not come from a postulated self, anger that is not defensive and based on the delusion of separation? The answer is yes. There is anger at a child who rushes into the street, endangering his or her life. There is anger at cruelty, and at carelessness that endangers others. My teacher once got angry at me when he realized that I had not thoroughly condemned the behavior of a fellow student who was making money by delivering drugs. These are the quick, 15-second kinds of anger. When the 15 seconds are up, it’s over. There is a kind of cleanness, clarity, and purity to this kind of anger because there is no territory of self. But there is also an anger that stays longer than 15 seconds—stays cleanly, clearly, and purely until something that needs to be remedied is taken care of. We all know stories about heroic whistle-blowers who were angry about chemicals being dumped in a river, or angry that information concerning the side effects of a drug had been withheld. We are grateful that these people persisted in their clean, pure anger. That kind of anger is not about defending the territory of self; it is for the good of all.

The kind of anger we’re used to, the kind that isn’t pure, can be a great teacher, as Bodhidharma’s version of the precept indicates. Since anger by definition involves separation, it makes no sense to imagine it arising in a universe of oneness. Thus when it does arise, it instantly reveals to us the delusive creation of “me” and “not me.” Anger shows us just how fast self can arise, especially when we least expect it. It can happen whether we react to someone or something with a flash of temper, or some ancient buried anger wakes up and slowly takes us over. In either case, the self is born again. But when the precious energy is released from the entrapment of self and our actions arise from Self-nature, it is then that we experience the oneness of self and other, and the arising of compassion. Rumi’s poem “Ali in Battle,” says it all:

Learn from Ali how to fight
without your ego participating.

God’s Lion did nothing
that didn’t originate
from his deep center.

Once in battle he got the best of a certain knight
and quickly drew his sword. The man,
helpless on the ground, spat
in Ali’s face. Ali dropped his sword,
relaxed, and helped the man to his feet.

“Why have you spared me?
How has lightning contracted back
into its cloud? Speak, my prince,
so that my soul can begin to stir
in me like an embryo.”

Ali was quiet and then finally answered,
“I am God’s Lion, not the lion of passion.
The sun is my lord. I have no longing
except for the One.
When a wind of personal reaction comes,
I do not go along with it.

There are many winds full of anger,
and lust and greed. They move the rubbish
around, but the solid mountain of our true nature
stays where it’s always been.

There’s nothing now
except the divine qualities.
Come through the opening into me.

Your impudence was better than any reverence,
because in this moment I am you and you are me.

I give you this opened heart as God gives gifts:
the poison of your spit has become
the honey of friendship.”

This is the Precept of Not Being Angry.

Sensei Nancy Mujo Baker, a dharma successor of Roshi Bernie Glassman, is the teacher for the No Traces Zendo in New York City. She is also a professor of philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. Her article on the seventh Zen precept appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Tricycle.

Poem excerpted from The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition by Coleman Barks © 2004 by Coleman Barks. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers.

Images 1 and 2: Into a Delightful Illusion, 2010, 12" x 36", Japanese urushi on wood
Images 3,4, and 5: A Puzzling Statement, 2010, 12" x 36", Japanese urushi on wood

Homepage image: gforsythe

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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