The Ninth Zen Precept: Not Being Angry
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
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