Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Buddhist anger and ancient rage

A friend of a friend has referenced a set of actions as my "having gone all Buddhist commando." I don't think he meant it as a particularly positive or complimentary appellation, but it definitely had the salutary effect of making me think about how one conducts philosophical, political, or spiritual conversations--or actions!--in a fashion that is consistent with the Dharma.

One of the things that the sutras warn us against is what Catholicism calls "quietism"--the terminology employed to describe a state of mind which, mistakenly understood as "inner calm," is in fact more mental laziness. In Buddhist circles, it's "the mind watching the mind be calm."

It's an easy trap to fall into, especially if one is trying to find ways to be "in the world" without buying-in to the rage, spite, or egocentrism that fuels our political discourse. There is a difference between anger and rage. Anger is a response (healthy or unhealthy, appropriate or inappropriate) to a present situation: the sight of a sentient being abused, the wilful or careless destruction of the natural world, greed that serves the few and causes suffering for the many. It is appropriate to feel anger to such injustices, and to use that anger's energy to create positive change.

Rage is a response to old suffering--not to the present. Rage is inappropriate, unexpected, or un-called-for--unsuitable to the present situation. Too many of us--too many of the people currently in the news and screaming at the tops of their lungs--are not angry at present situations, but enraged at past frustration, disappointment, and, mostly, fear.

Buddhism recognizes that anger, however, is an appropriate response to some aspects of the world the way that it is. There are great wrongs in the world. There are evil and ignorant actions in the world. There are people who, knowing where the route of compassion and generosity lies, knowingly choose the path of selfishness and greed. There is thus a reason that Tibetan Buddhist cosmology recognizes the existence of "wrathful deities": manifestations of the Buddha who take on wrathful aspects "in order to lead sentient beings to enlightenment":

"In addition to destroying the passions of the mind, the purpose of gods is also to protect the faithful. The wrathful deities, who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish negativity, especially perform this function." [Wikipedia]
It is possible to be an activist, even (sometimes) an angry activist, and a good Buddhist. In fact, MY teachers would have said that, in order to be a good Buddhist, one has a responsibility to be an active seeker of truth, compassion, and justice. It is not enough--indeed, it is irresponsible--to abrogate that responsibility. In my world, such irresponsibility most often takes the form of faculty who just "go in my studio and shut the door"--e.g., rely upon their sequestered experience and their tenured job-permanency to help them weather storms: in fact, to let others bear the brunt of those storms.

For me, that feels irresponsible. My life is one of enormous privilege, personal satisfaction, and material comfort: I'm warm, dry, fed, and protected by the upper-middle-class social safety net--and the much more potent safety net of university tenure. My response is that I have a moral responsibility to work, from this vantage, on behalf of those less privileged. I can't "go in my studio and shut the door." I have a moral--in fact, a religious--obligation to fight for justice.

There are situations of social injustice in which the appropriate response is anger.

This is a common misconception about Buddhism: that its "detachment" equates to a quietism that allows the practitioner to say "I'm just going to tend my garden and let the world go to hell." This is the quietism that led entirely too many Japanese Zen roshis to keep silent about their country's pre-WWII militarization. It is the quietism that led entirely too many American religious or educational professionals to keep silent about our country's pre-Gulf I & II militarization. It is the quietism that leads too many to say "well, this President isn't what I hoped he'd be, so fuck it! The system is fucked, so I'll just go into my studio (into my garden, up onto my mountaintop) and let it all blow over me."

I believe it is possible--indeed, a moral responsibility--to fight for a better world, especially when there is "no hope." The point of Buddhist "detachment" is not that one should "cease caring about the world." Rather, it is that one should abandon attachment to results, and instead work for a better world simply because such work is a good thing to do. Because fighting for justice is, in and of itself, better than passivity, quietism, or defeat. Absent any convictions or attachment to "victory".

When one becomes a Buddhist, in whichever of the traditions, one typically undergoes a ceremony called the "Boddhisattva vows." In this ceremony, the practitioner vows to continue to work toward her/his and all other beings' enlightenment (e.g., "to become a Bodhisattva"), but also--and very crucially--to forgo admission into paradise until all other beings likewise attain enlightenment. It's a vow that says, essentially, "I have the religious obligation to be the vehicle for all other beings' enlightenment. FIRST."

Some of the people I admire the very most in the world are both strong Buddhist or other spiritual practitioners and also strong activists. Their names are legion, and the full list far too long for a blog post, but here are a few, Buddhist and otherwise, the nature of their practice, and the depth of their political commitment:
  • Gary Snyder: poet, environmental activist, Zen practitioner; has worked on behalf of demilitarization, environmental sensitivity, and better stewardship of the natural world for at least 50 years
  • Thomas Merton: poet, Cistercian monk, antiwar activist; traced his own spiritual journey in a series of enormously influential and honest books and poems; explicitly opposed nuclear arms race and Vietnam at a time when no Catholics were supposed to do so
  • Allen Ginsberg: poet, Buddhist practitioner, antiwar activist; faced down rioting cops in Chicago '68 at Grant Park and wrote poems to his muggers
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Lutheran pastor, theologian, martyred under Hitler
  • Thich Nhat Hanh: Vietnamese Zen monk, poet, teacher, peace activist; when asked, in the '60s, "do you come from the North or the South?", replied "Neither. I come from the Center."
  • Martin Luther King: Baptist minister, author, Civil Rights organizer, martyred in 1968
  • Malcom X: black nationalist, Muslim, author, Civil Rights organizer, martyred in 1965
  • Dorothy Day: Catholic convert, anarchist, social activist, founder of the Catholic Worker movement
  • Robert Baker Aitken Roshi, founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship
  • William Sloane Coffin: Presbyterian minister, musician, peace activist
  • Helen and Scott Nearing: radicals, writers, simple-living advocates, teachers
  • Mary "Mother" Jones: socialist, Wobbly, community organizer
  • Shinryu Suzuki Roshi: Zen teacher, author, founder of San Francisco Zen Center
  • Ed Brown: Zen teacher, cook, author of the books (Tassajara Bread Book, Tassajara Cookbook) which first gave me a vision of how cooking could be part of the Dharma
  • Gerrard Winstanley: farmer, Quaker, religious reformer, founder of the Diggers, and author of some of the most powerful liberation poetry ever written
  • Harriet Tubman: Christian, abolitionist, slave smuggler, suffragette
These are just a few of the people who have shown me personally how to be a deeply spiritual and a deeply activist person. The two are not self-contradictory: in fact, each is essential to the other.

Sometimes skillful means requires action, conflict, anger, even combat: "gentle violence," Gary Snyder said, "if it comes to restraining some impetuous crazy."

You cannot be an enlightened person (much less a Bodhisattva) if you do not seek--sometimes even fight for--peace and justice for all beings.


sunshine said...

man, that's a protest I'd love to attend. amen, Sensei.

T Dawn said...

Thank you. Again.

masbrow said...

well-said, well-said.

Dharmonia said...

The topic of anger seems to always cause all kinds of debate and confusion during the course of Buddhist teachings. In the Tibetan teachings we are told repeatedly that anger is bad and we have to curb it – it’s one of those “three poisons,” anger, greed and attachment -- and yet it is considered right action to work against injustice, etc. On two different occasions, one or the other of my teachers offered clarifications that were really helpful:

1. I do not speak Tibetan or Sanskrit, so I can’t give you the original word in question here, but apparently the word that is translated as “anger” in a lot of the Tibetan teachings also carries the connotation of “intent to do harm.” Our word “anger” does not always carry that connotation, which is a very important distinction. (That might be why the three poisons are also sometimes translated as “hatred, greed, and attachment or desire.”)

2. When asked how a person could possibly get motivated to work for justice etc. without getting angry, one of my teachers said that the litmus test was a peaceful, calm and “undisturbed” mind. He said that it was, in fact, possible take an action to right a wrong, to work against corruption and injustice, etc., and to do it with a peaceful, undisturbed and compassionate mind. In fact, he put forth that it was crucial to strive to be able to do so, in order to be able to make right decisions about what kind of action to take (or not to take.)

Our culture does not associate a “calm, peaceful, and compassionate mind” with exposing corruption or knocking the block off of someone who is about to kill a bunch of other people. But isn’t that the goal of many Eastern martial arts? If there is such a thing as a “Buddhist commando,” I would imagine that would be the operating combination. In the meantime, I think that most of us average campers are kidding ourselves if we think that our minds remain peaceful and undisturbed when we encounter the hate, idiocy, corruption, environmental degradation and violence rampant in the world. Mine sure as hell doesn’t.

Christopher said...

Thanks for the comments. For 3rd-party readers, I should acknowledge that Dharmonia's practice is both different than (Tibetan rather than Japanese), more formalized, and more advanced than my own. So it doesn't surprise me that there seems to be a different set of interpretations/perspectives operating here.

I would certainly agree that a fully-realized person would be able to take necessary actions--up to and including the "gentle violence" Snyder describes--with a calm mind: certainly this is a fundamental part of the Zen-tinged Japanese martial arts. Those of us who are several lifetimes short of enlightenment--like myself--may find it difficult to maintain such calm detachment (I would add, though, that one thing martial arts training and on-the-job obligations to violence have taught me is that violence is much better handled with a calm mind--if you've been hit enough times, you learn not to panic--and overreact--if getting hit seems to be on the horizon.

But I think maybe I am speaking of something related to Dharmonia's teachers' statements. I think there is something to be said for recognizing that (a) anger and rage are two different phenomena arising from two different sets of stimuli (see above); that (b) anger can be an appropriate response to certain aspects of the world-as-it-is; and that (c) anger--if addressed directly, with self-awareness, with detachment from self-hood, and with detachment to specific ends--can provide the necessary energy and sometimes even the necessary courage to stand up against injustice.