Role of Anger and Hatred
by Wayne Sensei (Ren Cheng)
Overcoming anger and hatred is necessary for anyone looking to promote more harmony, health and happiness in their moment-to-moment living and in the lives of others. Note here the word “overcoming”. Overcoming is not denying or eradicating something, a more useful view of it is learning to appropriately react to the arising of what the Buddha called ‘two poisons’ of human disposition. They are dispositions that directly hinder your ability to be tolerant, accepting and patient with yourself and with others. Anger and hatred are unfortunately part of the human equation and struggling to suppress them can lead to psychoemotional suffering. They are just emotional phenomena that come as part of the human package. They can exert great power over you if you let them run unchecked and/or can cause great suffering in you if you set the goal of cleansing them from your psyche and experience set-backs. So, taking the view that anger and hatred are going to be present why not creatively re-describe their negative roles into positive ones? No, I am not saying or inferring or suggesting that anger and hatred can be positive emotional phenomena . . . I am saying that by altering your reaction to their arising you can USE them in positive ways.
You must begin by recognizing that the total eradication of any emotion is a herculean task. Ridding yourself of emotional baggage has parallels in the taking of Precept Vows. You vow to try your best to adhere to those vows and you work hard to do so. When, and you will, you mess up you revisit the vow and do better next time. View emotional phenomena the same way.
Throughout the sutras and teachings of all Buddhist traditions there are guides for getting past anger and hatred. Meditation, in different forms, is known to be most effective due to its focus on HOW to recognize the arising of dispostions and HOW to react to the arising of dispositions. The practice of meditation develops the skill of staying calm and patient in the face of situations that may cause the arising of anger and/or hatred. Off the cushion and out in the world awareness and calming forms of meditation give you the skills to stay calm so that you can choose to react in appropriate ways when encountering the arising of these negative emotions.
Anger can arise as a result of a variety of triggers. The triggers may be external or internal but in either case you are responsible for HOW you react. Don’t react with anger, instead react with honest insight. It is important to ask yourself this question, “Has anger ever brought about positive results?” Making a mistake, dropping a dish and breaking it, or not achieving a goal isn’t a reason to get angry with yourself. How did the mistake happen and what was my causal role? I must be more careful and aware of what I am doing. I can reach the goal I just need to rethink my strategy. This is using the emotion of anger as a reminder to the conscious and unconscious mind that focus may be lacking.
Anger may also arise when you encounter acts of abuse, cruelty or violence. It is warning you that whatever the situation is it is something you view as wrong. Anger has served a purpose so you don’t want to allow it to arise any further. You do however want to take appropriate action. What that action might be is entirely dependent on the situation and what skillful means you can apply. It might require you to become physically involved, to call 911, to join an organization dedicated to solving the problem, or . . . and this is the most difficult . . . to recognize there is nothing you can do as an individual.
Then there is the anger that arises when you get stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work. Your blood pressure starts to rise, your face twists up in a scowl, and you start to mutter profanities. Really? This is an example of causation beyond your control (unless it happens regularly and then you might consider leaving earlier or taking a different route) and nothing to get angry about. It is time to apply rigorous self-honesty as to the real reason for the anger.
Anger is a destructive emotion but it is only an emotion. The acts of using anger for more positive purposes will eventually lead to it arising less as it loses its grip on your bodymind state. What will take the place of anger are patience and tolerance one of the Six Refinements.
In the Prajnaparamita texts, Shantideva wrote that one can be “disfigured by hatred” and that there is nothing as negative as hatred in the human disposition. Hatred can blind one to the beauty of human life, their connections with others, and can be the genesis of misperceptions of being separated from the causal Universe. With this in mind then what role can hatred play?
Hate is an emotional phenomena that arises as a result of intense hostility and aversion usually derived from fear, anger, or sense of injury directed toward something. Self-hatred can not, and should not be creatively re-described because it is only what it is . . . an internally destructive emotion that is the cause of many psychoemotional maladies. It isn’t the ‘self’ that is hated, it is the actions of the ‘self’. In Buddhism we know that it is a ‘not-self’ and that it is capable of the most profound positive change given commitment and effort. The role of the recognition of self-hatred is that it must lead to the realization that deep honest self-evaluation and in many instances, outside help is needed to reverse the destructive power of self-hatred.
Hatred expressed externally, racism as an example, can lead to horrific societal experiences. This is an example of hatred arising from fear of difference or sense of injury depending on personal perception. The hatred itself doesn’t have a role but the visible results of it must be used to spur people to take positive action against it.
And then there is the ridiculous form of hatred that can still have psychoemotional effects. The term ‘I hate ________”, is one used often by many people. It might be broccolli, a television show or a next door neighbor. No matter how ridiculous it is the continuing use of “I hate . . .” does have its negative effect on how you think and act. It makes hating easier.
Anger, like fear, can warn you that something negative is happening. You don’t want to act in anger or in fear. When you experience the arising of anger it is a time to stop and employ honest insight. Why am I getting angry? The answer to that question will help guide you to the appropriate action.
Hatred, when you experience its arising is likely a result of personal preference or misperception. You don’t want to act out of hatred. Do you “hate” broccolli or just not like the taste? Do you “hate” your neighbor or have you just not got to know them? Do you “hate” the weather or just wish it wasn’t raining?
Understanding that anger and hatred are devisive emotional phenomena and that you have control over HOW you react to them will empower you to make changes. With awareness the negative dispositons of anger and hatred can be harnessed for positive purposes until they lose their negative influence. Actions once spurred by anger and hatred will evolve into actions taken from a sense of compassion, tolerance and honest insight.