Réflexion sur la colère par Rita Gross
Enseignement de Khandro Rimpoche
I want to begin by telling a story of an event that took place a year and-a-half ago with one of my teachers, Khandro Rinpoche. She is one of the few women rinpoches in the world of Tibetan Buddhism, and I have been very much magnetized by her presence and her teachings.
She was giving a set of teachings, and a woman asked her: “What should we do with anger? How should we deal with anger?” And her reply was very sharp and very cutting: “Anger is always a waste of time.”
And the woman was sitting not too far from me. I could feel her energy, her kind of frustration and puzzlement and disappointment at that answer.
She said, “But” — you know there's always a “but” with anger — "what about things that are wrong? What about things that deserve anger?”
And Khandro Rinpoche replied, again very sharply, “I didn't tell you to lose your critical intelligence.” And that's the frame in which I want to discuss anger, because that actually has been my experience through practice with anger. “It's always a waste of time. I didn't tell you to lose your critical intelligence, to get rid of your critical intelligence.” As many of you know, I've done a lot of work, a lot of contemplation, about women and the dharma. I was a feminist before I became involved in practice. I was pretty angry when I began to sit. And I did not begin to sit because I wanted to find a way to work with my anger. In fact, I think if someone had told me that it might not be so easy to keep my head of steam going I might not have been quite so interested in sitting. I had a really good head of steam going, and I felt quite okay about it.
I think that's often the case with people who are involved in some justice issue. We feel that anger is a motivator to keep us going. If we didn't have anger to keep ourselves involved in a particular issue, what would we have? What would keep us going? A lot of us, in the early ‘70s, felt that anger was a much better alternative than what we had lived with before. I still agree with that. As someone who was socialized in the ‘50s, I actually went through a long period of self-hatred before I came to anger and anger is probably better than self-hatred. The kinds of things I wanted to do with my life didn't fit into the female gender role. My first solution to this problem was just to turn it in on myself. And I spent years basically cursing the fact that I had been born female. One day, I had an insight that it really wasn't me that was the problem, it was the system I was living in. That was a tremendous relief to feel that: “It's not me, there's nothing wrong with being female.”
But that didn't solve the anger problem. It turned outward. So I became very good at cutting rhetoric and white-hot outbursts of rhetorical fury. Of course I was always trying to control that too, because it's not politic and it's not polite. Needless to say, I wasn't doing too well even though I felt pretty okay with being angry and felt it was quite justifiable under the circumstances. I think that's probably about the position of the woman who said, “But, what about things that we should be angry about?” With that kind of head of steam I somehow became involved in sitting practice. That's pretty unusual for academics to do, especially academics who are in the study of religion and the study of Buddhism, but it happened. I found myself, for quite a while, in a kind of wasteland, a kind of no-man's-land situation.
When I first got involved with Buddhism, I already had a pretty good reputation as a feminist theologian or a feminist scholar of religion. And all of my friends in academia, especially my feminist friends, thought I had lost my mind. It was like, “What has happened to Rita? Rita's sold out.” It was understandable to them that you could inherit a male-dominated religion and try to work with it. Some of them were making that choice, but that you would convert to a male-dominated religion? I had to be out of my mind, according to them.
I think you're aware that Buddhism still looks pretty male-dominated to much of the outside world, and I don't think that reputation is totally undeserved. My Buddhist friends, meanwhile, were saying to me, “Oh Rita, that's okay. When you grow up, when you get to be a real Buddhist, then you won't care about this feminism shtick anymore. You won't have any attachments.” They said that when I got to be a real Buddhist I would be detached and not care about justice issues. I think that for some reason feminism among justice issues gets trivialized and becomes the object of hostility a lot more easily than many other justice issues.
And I don't want to try to explore that tonight, but I think that's the case. So they had a particularly live one on their hands — a Buddhist feminist, an oxymoron. I was pretty much alone. I live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is not exactly a hotbed of Buddhism. I have very strong ties with Vajradhatu, and I do a lot of programs in Boulder, Colorado, and in other places, but that still means that day by day my practice is by myself. And in some ways I'm very glad for that because I haven't had too many people always trying to yank me and jerk me; you know, do this and do that, develop this way. So in some ways it was good. What happened to me was actually very scary. After a while of practicing really intently, I realized that I just couldn't work up that head of steam. It just wasn't there. It wasn't very satisfying. I started to get really scared: “What's happening to me? Maybe my Buddhist friends were right. Maybe I'm not going to have this thing in my life anymore.”
Clearly what was happening was that I had made a pretty good ego out of anger. As that started to dissolve, I got scared. Simultaneously, I noticed that people were listening to me better. When I talked to people, instead of putting up a wall and going the other way, people were listening to me. And that's where it's at — that as the emotionalism, as the cloudy murky rage starts to subside, the intelligence can come through, and people can actually hear what we're saying.
That's what Khandro Rinpoche was talking about when she said, “Anger is a waste of time. Don't lose your critical intelligence.”
Very powerful, very provocative. As I was experiencing that, I was starting to be able to distinguish between pain, which is the pain of the human existence, which isn't anyone's fault, and the kinds of things that we do to each other through passion, hatred, and delusion. I was starting to see something that I think is really important for those of us who are trying to do our bodhisattva work in an engaged way in social justice issues: that there's always going to be basic human suffering. That's not the fault of any particular thing wrong with the way the world is put together, period. I think it's very helpful to know that and to be able to find one's way into accommodating the basic pain and having some distinction between basic pain and the things that are the result of passion, aggression, and ignorance.
So what was happening with practice-and I didn't realize this until much later-was like a test tube that has a number of ingredients in it and it's all shook up. You shake the tube, and nothing is clear, nothing is settled. And then with practice, that situation settles and stills, and the emotionalism subsides, and it leaves some intelligence, some clarity.
In the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, anger is connected with the Vajra family. The Vajra family is in the eastern gate of the mandala and is connected with the element water. This is very telling because water, when it is turbulent, is murky, and you can't see anything. But when water settles, it becomes an absolutely clear, perfectly reflecting mirror surface. When anger transmutes, it transmutes into clarity. The energy of anger becomes mirror-like wisdom. Same energy, different application. So this means, among many other things, that it's not so much that we need to throw away our anger as that we need to distill it: to settle the emotionalism, that cloudy, heavy, painful feeling.
You feel this energy in your body that hurts, and you know you can't say anything sensible while you feel that way. And yet, that's when people really are tempted to sound off. To go back to Khandro Rinpoche's statement, she said, “Anger is always a waste of time.” And that's absolutely true in my experience. I think what began to happen to me, when I could no longer get up a head of steam, was that I was beginning to see: “Who is this helping?” Who it was helping was me, myself, and I.
The pain was so great, an outburst of anger would give momentary relief. But it didn't do anything. It did not pacify the situation. It did not make people more understanding of the predicament I felt. It did not make people more willing to take a feminist critique of society or Buddhism or whatever very seriously. It's hard to take angry people seriously, partly because of what they bring up in us, partly because of the defensiveness we feel when somebody is lashing out. So I think that's very important: to somehow begin to see the absolute total counter-productivity of these tumultuous klesha-driven outbursts of anger-that they're not helping anything. They're not good skillful means.
Is there an alternative? I think one of the problems we face in our culture is that everything is always couched in either/or terms-either we stand up for ourselves or we're going to get rolled over. Certainly I think that's the logic that fuels a lot of our reactions. I certainly felt that way: that if I didn't put up this good front, I was just going to be pushed aside. But I think that there is a middle path between acting out aggressively and caving in. One holds one's ground gently and non-aggressively, in body, speech, and mind; one doesn't go away; one doesn't stop talking unless that would be the most skillful thing to do at that moment.
I think that to reach that place between acting out aggressively and just caving in, we need to develop a kind of self-confidence without arrogance, to develop maitri, more self-acceptance, more ability to be with who we are. There's a phrase in Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior that I really like, which describes this situation as “victory over warfare.” That's a wonderful phrase, victory over warfare. I think that's what it's about; that we have unconditional self-confidence so that we can stand our ground without being defensive, which is of course not always so easy to do. What I now do is try very hard to refrain from speech until I feel that I've reached that point. If something really riles me up and I'm tempted to flash off a letter or a speech, I check my body energy and often decide I'd better wait awhile.
So, I think that's some background to khandro Rinpoche's statement: “Anger is always a waste of time.” I think we have to unpack the word “anger” It's not so much avoiding feelings of irritation and frustration — it's acting out on them. Maybe we should use the word “aggression.” But then, you know, then there's the “but.” That's what this woman had in mind when she said, “But what about things that are really terrible?”— like battery, or murder, or all kinds of very aggressive things that are done to people that we need to take issue with. And that's when Khandro Rinpoche said, “I didn't tell you to leave behind your critical intelligence.”
In this particular perspective on anger, as one of the five basic energies of the five Buddha families, as I've already said, anger masks or veils clarity. The clarity is there, but as long as we're totally caught up in that body energy I talked about, it's very hard to get to the intelligence. That's why it's so important to let the anger settle. But anger or aggression, in this particular set of teachings, always contains some kind of intelligence. There's something going on that is worth paying attention to. The problem is we can't pay attention to it until we let the aggression settle. If we start investigating this a little bit, what we usually find is that very close to the surface of anger is pain. Very, very close.
If we look at ourselves, in some ways it seems like pain is even a bigger problem to deal with, to admit, than anger. I think it's very helpful, when we're dealing with people who are angry with us, to stop, and instead of getting defensive and starting to give it back, try to see where and what the pain is. What is really behind this? When I was an ideological angry feminist, it wasn't that there wasn't anything worth attending to in what I was saying. There was a tremendous amount of insight in my critique. It was just not being expressed very well.
So finding a way to get down to the genuine insights and letting them out — that's a very important part of dealing with anger. It's not so much that we need to get rid of our anger as that we need to distill it: to boil out the stuff that isn't so productive and get down to the stuff that has some intelligence in it, and begin to develop skillful means for working with that situation.
One of the most important things to distill out for me has been ideology or fixed mind-cherished beliefs and opinions. If you think about it, heavy opinions are pretty much the opposite of the mirror-like wisdom that reflects everything absolutely without distortion. Opinionatedness is actually very aggressive, if you think about it. If you ask a teacher, “What do you most want your students to give up?” often the answer is fixed opinions and beliefs. Well, you know, this is going to bring up another one of those “buts,” but if we're going to be concerned about the world, about justice issues, about poverty, sexism, homelessness, racism, homophobia — if we're going to be concerned about those things, don't we need strong convictions to be socially engaged? And I would say, no, what we really need is flexible wisdom, a kind of very flexible mind, not a know-it-all opinionatedness, because that's just going to turn people off. I think this is the middle path. People often think that if we don't have strong opinions about something, then we don't give a damn, right? No, there's a middle path between cherishing opinions and just not caring, period.
We need to find that flexible mind, that curious, open, very malleable, very workable mind that is a mind of bodhicitta, is a mind of caring, but caring in a very open and flexible way. So what is it about practice that allows this to develop — what is it? In this particular context, I want to bring in a couple of slogans that get used with meditation practice a lot in my tradition. One of them is touch and go: that when we practice, we don't censor or judge the thoughts that come through, which is one of the great reliefs of practice. It's not about censoring, it's not about judging all the stuff that comes up. But it's also about: don't lead, don't follow. In other words, the thoughts come but they also go. We don't entertain them. We don't dwell on them. And my favorite statement for that is that we don't believe in our thoughts, which to me is a tremendous relief-that I don't have to believe in all my crazy thoughts. Now, there is usually a lot more space around the thought. And I can recognize, “I don't have to believe in this thought.”
I want to conclude by suggesting that for engaged Buddhists, for people who have something that really is of concern, some real care about the world and things that are going on in the world, finding this kind of practice and this kind of way of working with anger is absolutely essential for staying the course. You know, the story of a lot of people who are very involved in social issues is that they have a lot of fire fueling their social concern, they're very zealous, and then they burn out. It gets to be too much. I think the missing ingredient there is practice, where we can learn to touch and go with our thoughts, not leading, not following them, developing a mind in which we don't have to believe in our thoughts, so that we have the energy to actually work with the situation intelligently and in a caring fashion.
Reprinted with permission from Wind Bell, Journal of the San Francisco Zen Center 300 Page Street, San Francisco CA 94102. Rita Gross was Zen Center scholar in residence for the summer of 1998. She is author of Buddhism After Patriarchy.