A teacher, translator, and disciple of Kalu Rinpoche speaks with Tricycle about how the Tibetan lojong or “mind training” teachings can shift the soil in which anger grows
The essential teaching in terms of compassion is that whatever you experience, if it provokes a reaction in you, you can open to that experience. One way to do that is to practice [tonglen,] the mind training technique of taking and sending. If you are getting angry, you imagine that you’re inviting the feeling from all sentient beings into you. If you feel anger coming up, you might practice saying, “May all the anger of all beings come into me.” It’s a way of staying with your own experience of what’s happening in the process of getting angry. You thereby transfer the reactive process into a positive attitude. Just that moment of presence can change everything. It’s a tool.
Of course, this doesn’t happen spontaneously. It takes a lot of practice and training. And this process is not exclusive to mind training - it happens as a natural result of other types of Buddhist meditative training, too. As you become intimately aware of your own reactive processes, then when somebody is angry with you, from your own experience you understand what’s going on with them. When someone gets angry with you, you don’t rush to defend yourself.
The second way mind training helps with anger is by cultivating an understanding of emptiness. This occurs at a little higher level of practice. Because of meditation practice, you can experience a situation in which you might get angry as simply movement—the movement of feelings and phenomena. It’s not something solid that has to be acted on.
Once I did a one-month retreat using just the introductory meditations on love and compassion from The Great Path of Awakening, [the series of fifty-nine lojong teachings by the nineteenth-century teacher Jomgon Kongtrul the Great]. I did those solidly for a month, and then I did taking and sending. Everyone said my personality changed. I didn’t feel there was a big difference, but I certainly got a tremendous amount out of it in terms of cultivating really deep feeling. I was known to be short-tempered, very arrogant, and so forth. I’m not sure any of that’s really changed. But I do credit the practice of taking and sending with making a difference. Before that retreat I didn’t have the time to listen to anybody. But now I’m regarded as a good listener.
What makes me angry is stupidity. It’s something I’m still working with. But now when I encounter a person who isn’t understanding what I say, or who is doing something that doesn’t make any sense, even though I’m feeling angry, I let myself experience that anger. I know it for what it is - a movement in me, a reactive process. I use taking and sending, and try to see the stuff that arises spontaneously. When I encounter stupidity, I go to the breath and do taking and sending. I look and see what’s preventing this person from seeing what I’m saying and then I see that there’s nothing I can do. The next part of compassion is letting go. This is where the process clicks to nonexistence. When people are really getting angry and feel meaningless or ineffective, that links to notions of identity and self-image. If we let go of the idea that we are “solid,” then it becomes easy to let go of the anger.
If it gets to the point where I’m “dealing” with anger, it’s too late. It’s like the guy who’s entered a golf tournament and he’s practicing and the old pro comes along and says, “If you haven’t got it by now, you’re not going to get it before the tournament’s over.” It’s the same with getting angry. By the time the reactive process is underway, it’s too late. By practicing meditation and doing mind training, we can avoid being caught up in the reactivity of anger and can stay present.
Ken McLeod is the founder of Unfettered Mind, and the translator of many Tibetan texts including The Great Path of Awakening (Shambhala Publications). He lives and teaches in Los Angeles.
Image: © 1989 Peter and David Turnley