On The Three Poisons-How to Confront Anger

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö
HITS( 10355)

I. The urgent need to extinguish anger

Greed, anger and delusion are prevalent in our daily life and in the work environment. We the beginners of Mahayana Buddhism oftentimes act like some of the uninitiated who cannot keep emotions contained. This not only makes the motto of delivering all sentient beings something tenuous but may also discredit Buddhism as a whole. Among the so-called three poisons, anger is the most harmful. It not only destroys one’s own virtuous roots but also invites negative opinions on Buddhists or even Buddhism in general.

It is clearly stated in The Way of the Bodhisattva that a moment of fury or hate is capable of destroying completely most of the virtuous roots accumulated over innumerable ages, just as a moment of compassion or bodhicitta can accumulate inconceivable merit.

Mahayana Buddhism holds that the worst among all defilement is great anger because it is the direct opposite of loving-kindness and compassion, the foundation and the aspiration of Mahayana. The bodhisattva vows rule that when loving-kindness and compassion for anyone are totally abandoned and replaced with strong anger, the root precept will be broken and no bodhicitta can ever be developed. We should not under estimate the negative effect of anger.

We have all seen the weapon-like objects such as a sword held by Manjusri and many other bodhisattvas. These weapons are not meant for subduing any beings but destroying desire, anger and delusion. The purpose for learning and practicing Buddhadharma is to enable us to face, control and eliminate all defilement, which are also the mission and the goal of Buddhists. The criterion for measuring the quality of any practice is not the amount of mantra recited, the extent of merit accumulated, or how one fares in money terms, job, health, etc., but whether negative emotions have been reduced. For example, we can check if we feel as angry as before when others insult or bully us now. If anger remains the same, our endeavor to learn the Dharma basically loses its real purpose. Naturally, it is impossible to completely eliminate negative emotions before realization of emptiness is attained. We can only somewhat keep them under proper control.

How to learn Buddhadharma is very important. If Buddhists don’t dedicate efforts to hear, contemplate and meditate the teachings, focusing instead on the rituals such as attending pujas, tsok, fire offering and empowerment ceremonies, burning expensive incense and worshiping the deities, among others, the real meaning of learning the Dharma would still be missing even if these are all done with great sincerity. Although a properly conducted empowerment is needed and useful, absent the practice of hearing, contemplation and meditation, the Buddha’s thought and teachings will not be propagated effectively. Holding concerns for personal health, longevity, money, work, family, etc. as their ultimate goal, Buddhist followers can neither benefit from practicing the Dharma nor actualize the path to liberation. And Buddhadharma ends up losing its real core value.

II. Types of anger

There are three types of anger: 1) anger toward sentient beings; 2) anger toward insentient objects; 3) anger or fear toward non-humans (ghosts or deities).

III. Ways to control anger

There are two ways: 1) of relative truth; 2) of ultimate truth.

1) The way of relative truth

i. Be understanding

Oftentimes, resentment, complaint and anger between people are caused by misunderstanding.

To control one’s anger when one is on the receiving end of someone’s abuse or bullying is difficult. It is normal not to handle the situation well right then and there. But afterwards, one should calm down and visualize the other person in the dispute, and say to oneself: I really shouldn’t have let my temper get the better of me just now. This person is not related to me in this life, but he or she must have been my mother before in previous lives and treated me with great kindness like my mother now. As she lost all her memories when she was reborn, the fact that we once had a mother-child relationship is completely lost to her now. Had this person known, he or she would not have treated me this way. But I know the truth and the reason behind it. How can I blame her and return her kindness with animosity? I should learn to be more understanding instead of being vindictive. It’s not her fault, but the fault of negative emotions, that she hurts me today. Due to ignorance, she forgot she was once my mother. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have hurt me or hit me back even if I treated her rudely. She never meant to hurt me if not for the anger that took over her mind, making her unreasonable beyond her own control. I would behave the same way if I were to let negative emotions take over me. It is plainly clear that the chief culprit is defilement itself. Blame it, if anyone is to be blamed.

This is not self-deception. If you know the truth of cyclic existence, you know this is the fact. Those who don’t believe in causality and cyclic existence will find it almost impossible to treat a total stranger with gratitude, especially when that person is not kind. And it may not be all that sincere even if appreciation is expressed. On the other hand, if one accepts the idea of cyclic existence, and recognizes the person as one’s mother in a previous life, it will be much easier to treat that person with kindness.

ii. Be grateful

We should ponder this: If I can be forbearing in the face of personal attack or insult, not only other people will see me in a new light but also help train my mind. If everybody is nice to me, how will I have the chance to practice forbearance? Now that this person has given me such a good opportunity and helped me accumulate great merit, how can I feel hostile toward this person and not repay the favor?

When Atisha was getting ready to go to Tibet, he knew he would be held in high regard there and no one would dare to offend him. In order to practice patience, he intentionally brought along an attendant with a quick temper. Even an accomplished master like Atisha would look for ways to practice patience, how can we harbor anger toward the object that affords us such an opportunity? We really ought to be grateful.

We should repeatedly reflect on this, repent, learn the lesson, resolve not to act impetuously again and make sure to handle such situation more calmly and appropriately in the future. Although anger or hate is very hard to control, it is still possible to make progress if one can train in first controlling one’s mildest anger.

What is the rationale to work on the mildest anger first? In order to do anything well, it is important to execute the task in proper sequence. Generally, that is to do the easy part first followed by the more difficult. When the mildest anger is overcome, one naturally gains the confidence to go on. As one becomes more stable and stronger in one’s practice over time, it will be much easier to deal with more violent afflictions. Conversely, if one tries to work with rage and fury at the start, one may fail miserably, be utterly disheartened and never want to practice again.

2) The way of ultimate truth

◎ Anger toward sentient beings

The first step is to be aware of anger.

When anger just arises, the first thing is to be aware of the anger. Very often, we don’t realize we are angry and are unable to monitor our emotions, thinking only that other people have mistreated us. When awareness is lacking, the chance to counter this is also missing. Unfortunately, when we are angry, we are hardly willing to calm down and examine ourselves; we won’t be satisfied until we give vent to our anger. Even if we try to make amends later on, the damage is already done.

The second step is to stop anger.

If we know that we are angry, the next step is to calmly look inward: What part of me is being angry? Is it my body, blood, brain, bones or consciousness? What exactly is this thing called anger? As we go through these examinations, the more moderate anger will stop and disappear immediately. Does the disappearance of anger mean we have gained realization of emptiness? No. In fact, any thought that we watch attentively will cease to continue. It has nothing to do with gaining realization or not.

Here, to “watch” attentively should not be taken literally to mean seeing with eyes, as eyes cannot see mind. Only mind itself can perceive its own nature. It is said in the texts of Yogacara and Buddhist Logic that mind is self-aware. Non-sentient species or organisms have no sense of self because they don’t have a mind.

Some hold the view that anger is present when mind is not being examined; now that anger is gone, it becomes emptiness.

This is not emptiness but a nihilistic view. Emptiness has nothing to do with the continuance of a certain condition. For any condition, its inherent nature is always emptiness. That is, even for something as vehement as fury or hatred, its nature is non-existent. This is the meaning of the verses “form is not separate from emptiness; emptiness is not separate from form.”

Another case is that while anger is still continuing, one can sense the absolute non-existence of real anger simultaneously. This is rather difficult for someone who has not yet attained realization of emptiness to understand—how can anger continue and be nothing at the same time? It’s just self-contradictory! But the truth will only be known by those who have gained sublime realization. Although there is the manifestation of anger, the essential nature has no real substance, hence illusory like dreams. To a certain extent, this is realization of emptiness of sorts, just not of very high level. Once the true nature of anger is realized, we can gradually transform consciousness into wisdom of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. This is a very effective way to counter negative emotions.

Atisha once told his chief disciple Dromtonpa Gyalwe Jungne, “My master told me that when a thought arises, observe and realize its nature. While doing this, you will meet the true Self of the Buddha (dharmakaya).” Dromtonpa asked, “What should be done when a thought arises again?” Atisha replied, “When the thought arises the second time, go realize the nature of the thought again. You will meet the enlightened truth body of the Buddha for the second time and do likewise the third, the fourth time and so forth. If there are one hundred various thoughts in a day, greedy or hateful ones among others, you will meet dharmakaya one hundred times in a day this way.” What is dharmakaya? It is simply the nature of our mind, also called Buddha nature which is the same essential nature that practitioners of Chan Buddhism seek to realize.

In the Diamond Sutra, it is clearly stated, “Seeking to see me in form or hear me in sound is taking the deviant path. The Thatagata cannot be met this way.” The Buddha represented via form or sound is not the real Buddha. Thinking that seeing the Buddha is to see the body of the Buddha and hearing the Buddha is to hear the voice of the Buddha are all wrong views. It is also stated very clearly in The Sutra of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vows that only dharmakaya represents the real Buddha.

Master Hui-neng condensed all he knew into four verses of which the most crucial is “fundamentally nothing is ever there.” Phenomena have no inherent existence, are neither arising nor ceasing, neither coming nor going. Through anger that is seemingly arising and ceasing on the surface, there is a chance to enter the non-arising, non-ceasing Buddha nature (dharmadhātu), thus meeting dharmakaya. Anger at this point does not produce evil karma; instead, it facilitates the practice. But the premise is having attained realization beforehand and the requisite for attaining realization is to have generated renunciation and bodhicitta. Those who have yet satisfied these requisites should then use practices of the relative truth to stop anger.

It is unfortunate that we do not have the merit to see in person the nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya of, say, Amitabha, Vajrasattva, or other buddhas and bodhisattvas, but we can meet dharmakaya, the true Self of the Buddha.

◎ Anger toward insentient objects

The same method can be applied here. For example, we are usually averse to noise. When that happens, we can also try to see what the nature of aversion is. Or, instead of resisting the noise, focus all the attention on the sound itself. By doing this, we will realize the so-called sound is only a kind of feeling produced in our ears when the external sound waves vibrate the ear drum; it is a mental phenomenon. Once the focus is on the sound itself, its empty and illusory nature will be realized.

Some meditation rooms may be facing the street, which can be quite noisy at times. If one has difficulty finding peace under the circumstances, try this method.

After some time, we may learn to adjust to the noisy environment. By then, the noise not only will not interfere with our practice, it may actually help us gain realization of emptiness.

◎ Anger or fear toward non-humans

Many people are afraid of ghosts, and Buddhists are no exception—afraid of going to dark places at night or getting nervous when passing the cemeteries. At times like this, if one is brave enough, stop moving and observe: When I was nervous just now, what exactly is that thought of fear? After making this observation, it is likely that one comes to realize that, although the sense of fear is still present, the nature of fear is entirely unreal, empty of any substance, like bubbles. Right away, the fear toward ghosts vanishes without a trace.

Even if we can actually see them, ghosts cannot harm us if we are not afraid of them. However, having fear in mind and thinking that they bring bad luck can, through psychological effect, lead to suffering for oneself or one’s family. Therefore, as soon as one suspects one has seen a ghost, stop and look into mind’s nature, then fear and confusion will disappear immediately, and one will not be bothered by it again.

Fear toward ghosts can be dealt with this way, but encountering danger in real life such as facing wild animals, floods, or earthquake is another story. Because the disturbance from ghosts or non-humans is not substantive in the minds of ordinary people—the fear is entirely psychological, it is easier to handle by using the method here as the habitual tendency is not so strong. But to handle calamity like floods or attack by savage beasts is beyond what ordinary human mind can do.

All the schools of Tibetan Buddhism offer chöd (cutting though the ego) practice. Chöd is a very special practice that has many versions. There is an initial chöd practice in the preliminary practice of Dzogchen, called kusali chöd. In this practice, one visualizes offering one’s own body to the guru and the Three Jewels as well as to the ghosts and non-humans. The real chöd practice is, by applying a rather uncommon method, to cut through attachment and defilement with realization of emptiness. The premise of undertaking this practice is to attain realization of emptiness and to grow and strengthen the power of this realization. When one has reached a more mature state in the practice, one then meditates in places where mundane spirits inhabit. There one is likely to encounter real ghosts, hear unusual sounds, or witness some strange phenomena. Most people will get nervous in this situation and have a heightened sense of self. If one concentrates on the void nature of phenomena at that time, self-grasping can be eliminated successfully along with other negative emotions such as fear and anxiety.

The drum used by chöd practitioners is made out of human skull, not of wood; human bones are also used to make their wind instrument. The places that they choose to do their practice are often haunted. All these seem impervious to reason for the general public, especially the exoteric Buddhist practitioners. The intent is to infuriate the spirits by deliberately showing contempt and provoke them into retaliating with thunder, lightning, and other such terrifying signs, because practicing emptiness under great stress is more conducive to eradicating self-grasping. Granted, such practice should only be done after attaining realization. If not, there may be more harm than benefit by just imitating others.

The rationale can be applied to many practices, that is, absent the attainment of realization, some practices are just beyond one’s capability, such as the bardo practice. To someone who has gained realization, even normal activities like eating and sleeping can become a form of practice; it is actually much easier to enter samadhi during sleep and to advance the practice at a faster pace. But undertaking the more advanced practices before attaining realization is at best a mere formality. It is therefore imperative to strive to attain realization of emptiness as soon as possible.