Ngawang Gelek Demo Rinpoche speaks with Tricycle's Amy Gross
What makes me angry? That’s an interesting question. I don’t get angry. If you ask the monks and teachers who were with me in Tibet or India, I’m sort of known for not getting angry. I do get irritated sometimes. Especially being diabetic. If I explain something and people don’t understand and then I try my best to talk to them and they still don’t get it, then I get a nervousness within me, and I’m thinking, “What is the use of talking? I better shut up.” Or physically, I start sweating. Is it a diabetic effect—when the sugar is low—or is this really irritation?
Honestly, I don’t recall having hatred toward anybody. Anybody—including the people who have taken advantage of Tibet and have been mean to my mother. Somehow I could not develop hatred for them. When my brother came to visit me in the United States, he told me about people who did bad things to our mother. Then last year he came again and mentioned those people, and I said, “Who’s that?” And he said, “Oh, you’re so terrible—I told you what they did to Mother.” “Oh,” I said, “Oh, oh, yeah, yeah, I remember,” but truly, I forgot. It’s not that I have great patience or great compassion, but I just don’t get angry. Whether it’s good or bad, who knows, but it’s true.
If I hear a terrible story, I feel sad. I feel sour. It’s almost like having an ulcer when you get a bitter taste. I’m never even upset with the Chinese. They took everything that I had in Tibet. They took the country and tortured people. I was not one of the poor people in Tibet. I’m one of those—what do you say—“born with a silver spoon”? I can say that I was born with a gold spoon in my mouth. When I hear about the children tortured and killed and the women being raped and even men getting raped, I get a bitter taste inside me, and I do get a stomachache. But even this irritation doesn’t last very long. Maybe I’m stupid. Maybe I’m what you call a very wimpy and weak person who gets scared and doesn’t know how to get angry with anybody. Maybe I’m that. I don’t know.
Some people are short-tempered. They yell and they scream. There’s a person who lives in my house—a huge, big guy—and he was so upset one day. I don’t know the reason. It was no big reason. He picked up a big bundle of clothes and threw it on the floor and shouted at the top of his voice, “Fuck you!” [laughs.] So I got pretty scared, because if he gets wild, he could beat me. I just sat there, and I pretended nothing happened. I thought, “Oh, my God, poor guy, I’m sorry he’s so upset.”
Many students come to me who are very angry at someone. I ask, “How do you benefit from being angry? Can you undo things by getting angry? What are you going to gain?” And they all reply, “Nothing.” And then I say, “What do you lose by having anger?” And many of them say, “Nothing.” And then I say, “No. You lose your peace of mind and you lose your positive karma. You’re creating negative karma. You’re training your mind to develop hatred. You’re opening the door for the ego to hate people.” And I keep on listing. Sometimes they get upset and straightaway change the conversation. But if they’re willing to listen, I keep listing the countless faults of anger and hatred.
Hatred is worse than anger. Anger, irritation, is not that bad. But it will definitely become hatred if you don’t take care of it. Irritation is okay. Everybody has it, you know; even those people who you might call enlightened beings, as human beings they may have some irritation.
Americans think it is beneficial to “get in touch with” their anger. That’s just the first step—recognizing your anger. The second step is analyzing and meditating on your anger. The tradition to which I belong [Gelugpa] teaches that analytical meditation must be combined with concentration meditation. So, analyzing your thoughts, your ideas, your emotions, is absolutely important. With this you recognize what is really hatred, what is really anger. You’re going deeper and recognizing that “I am angry, I am hating.”
This approach also depends on the mind. When the mind is at the bursting level, you don’t do anything. Just let it be. For the time being, watch a movie, see a nice view, be on the beach or the bank of a river. Try to divert the attention, because when the anger is really strong you cannot challenge it. If you try, you may get defeated, and that’s when people say, “That’s it! I cannot take it anymore!” And they hit the ceiling. What you’re really doing then is giving the okay to anger. My suggestion is never to give the okay to anger, and divert your attention when it’s really hot. Divert. When the anger’s not that hot, but still there, at that moment you can recognize it and the feelings that you get before and after. Then analyze. You’ll see all the disadvantages—personally see them; I’m not talking about believing in religious principles, but about simply seeing the disadvantages. Your peace of mind is lost. You can’t do anything you want to do. You can’t concentrate. You can’t do your job. You can’t talk to people straightforwardly. Or you have to cry. You have to do all these things and you see all the consequences of that. You really see it. Then ask: Do I still want that? Then you make a decision: “I do not want it.” It will come back. But that doesn’t matter. Keep on repeating the process. That’s how you train your mind not to get angry.
Sometimes friends will try to arouse your anger to make you aware of a bad situation. They’ll point to how someone is treating you unfairly. I don’t buy that. I would say, “You cannot take that abuse anymore. Have compassion for yourself.” I would use compassion, not anger, to motivate you to protect yourself, and compassion toward the person who’s giving you the trouble. Compassion rather than hate is what helps. That’s not easy, because of our established patterns. But true dharma practice is to try to change that habit, change a pattern. It’s not easy, but if you constantly keep on doing it, one day you will do it without any difficulty. Compassion is much stronger than anger.
When I was working in India in radio, the director general of Indian Radio was once so furious with me, he was yelling and screaming. And I looked at his face, and it looked like the backside of a monkey. I couldn’t help but laugh. He was so upset, he kept screaming. And I couldn’t stop laughing. He finally shouted, “Get out of here!” Then he fired me.
Ngawang Gelek Demo Rinpoche is the founder and spiritual director of Jewel Heart Tibetan Center. He was interviewed by Tricycle contributing editor Amy Gross. Photo © William Klein