AGGRESSION IN MANY FORMS

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

A critical aspect of Buddhist philosophy and practice is the ideal of non-violence (ahimsa). Violence, any physical action that results in the harm or death of another being, is antithetical to the development of compassion, loving-kindness and to liberation from suffering. The reality is that violence abounds in the world; violence in acts like murder, rape, war and genocide, as well as any other actions that cause harm or death to living beings. The question each Buddhist practitioner must ask, and answer with rigorous self-honesty is what acts of violence have I committed or am I considering. None, or very few is likely to be the honest answer. Most people have never purposely taken a truly violent action. It is very likely though that most people have engaged in aggression in one of its many forms in thought and in action. To reach the ideal of non-violence requires an acceptance of the reality of aggressive habitual reactivities, unwholesome dispositions and habits that arise without mindfulness. Once accepted there must be a commitment to weeding the bodymind of them. When aggression is accepted as a major causal precursor to violence then practice can begin to mitigate and finally eliminate aggression in thought and action. Eliminate aggression and violence falls away.

The Buddha began the Attadanda Sutra with this verse,“Violence breeds misery; look at people quarreling.” It offers the reality that violence leads to suffering. The words look at the people quarreling also offers a glimpse of a causal factor of violence, aggression. Some people believe that aggression is as much a part of the human condition as is suffering itself. There is a factual basis for this view that can be experienced in language. In human relationships for example an argument gets called a fight even thought nothing physical usually happens and disciplining a child gets called punishing a child. Aggression is a phenomenon of human personality, personality that is subject to causal conditioning and impermanence so aggression can be transformed into loving-kindness with the application of mindfulness and compassion. A bodymind anchored in loving-kindness is one without aggression; a bodymind anchored in unbounded compassion is incapable of violence.

Look at people quarreling is the Buddha’s skillful way of directing mindfulness and awareness to aggressive thoughts and actions. The Buddha’s common mode of teaching through discourses is by pointing out the problem to be addressed, in the Attananda Sutra the first verse offers that it is violence that causes suffering. Then he points to a path to addressing the problem, be mindful of our own aggressive tendencies and aware of the same in others. This is a path that leads through practice to the elimination of aggression, a path that when walked further will lead to the elimination of violence.

It is recent situations at the Buddha Center in the virtual world of Second Life that prompted me to think deeply about aggression. ‘Griefers’ have been disrupting sessions by interfering with attendees, being inappropriately undressed, using foul and abusive language. and being disrespectful to teachers, sangha members, and staff. The fear and anxiety caused by these actions have led sangha staff and members to engage in their own thoughts and actions of aggression, sometimes even thoughts of violence. How some people have reacted to these ‘griefers’ reveals the negative impact that aggression can have on others, and how the seeds of aggression spread on this wind of unwholesome activities.

Asking why these griefers are acting so aggressively has little value in stopping them from engaging in the activity. Asking why is like the man in the Parable of the Arrow wanting to know all about the person who shot him with the arrow before he would seek medical help. The more pragmatic question is asking why are people allowing these griefers to have such an unwholesome effect on their experience in Second Life. There is nothing to fear or get anxious about. Second Life is a virtual world peopled by avatars with no actual physical interactions at all so the only harm they can do is emotional and emotions are temporary phenomena that one can allow to fall away. The most effective non-aggressive way to respond is to not respond. Be silent. Ignore IMs. Walk away. Teleport away. Aggression thrives on the emotional reactions it causes so don’t fertilize it, let it wilt, wither and die off.

There is another non-aggressive way to handle griefers but it requires one to be extra mindful and calm. Respond in open chat so that nearby avatars become aware of the griefer. Ask them this question: What is your reason for choosing to act this way? No matter what is done or said keep asking the question until it is answered. After a time either the griefer will answer, will get frustrated and give up, or the one being griefed can teleport away. Dealing with such issues in the virtual world of Second Life is great training for similar experiences in real life (RL).

Griefers, as they are understood in a virtual world aren’t as common in real life because there is not the anonymity that a virtual world offers. The term can apply though, the manifestations of action are still based in aggression. Aggression is readily recognized in threatening acts, property damage and openly carrying weapons in public (some will disagree with this view but their view is based in delusion). Aggression arises in more subtle ways, ways that a practitioner must be mindful and aware of. Mindful so that their own aggressive habitual reactivities can be realized; aware so that the aggressive tendencies of others can be appropriately responded to.

Intentional rudeness and disrespect are common examples of aggression that occur in human interactions. Whether it is forcing their way to the front of the line at the grocery store checkout or loudly making fun of a woman in a burkha, it is aggression. There is experiential proof that aggressive actions such as these lead to violence. In the first instance it precipitated a fist fight in the aisle; in the second two men who attempted to intervene were stabbed, one died of his injuries. These are physical reactions but a Buddhist practitioner must be mindful that even the thought of taking such rude and disrespectful actions is aggressive behavior. Aggression leads to violence. The more that aggression is limited in thought and action, the more that violence is limited.

Go back to the statement made above that openly carrying weapons in public is an act of aggression. To further this idea, even carrying a concealed weapon is aggressive. In both cases you might think that no violent act is being done by just having a weapon and you would be correct, but remember we aren’t just talking about acts of aggression and violence. In Buddhist philosophy and practice there is acceptance of the role that the mind has in how we interact with the world around us. How we think is of equal importance to the actions that we take. Carrying a weapon, in view or concealed is done with the anticipation of aggression or violence and so it creates in the mind a continuous possibility of the same. The expectation of aggression is rooted in the mind by a physical representation of that aggression.

In his book Creating True Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Hatred cannot be stopped by hatred. Violence should not be responded to with violence. The only way out of violence is for us to embrace the practice of peace, to think and act with compassion, love, and understanding.” With the realization that aggression leads to violence then Master Hanh’s words find a deeper meaning. When aggression is accepted as a causal precursor to violence then practice can begin to mitigate and finally eliminate aggression in thought and action.

The individual practice of eliminating aggression begins with the mind, with how you choose to think. Letting go of the fear of what might happen is a step on that path. Fear is a major causal factor of aggression. The practitioner must ask themselves what they have to fear and then, with rigorous self-honestly answer the question. Determine if the fear being experienced is founded in reality or in delusion.

These days it might seem that aggressiveness and violence is everywhere and that belief is strengthened by the language being used. In politics for example there used to be opponents, now they are enemies; contest became war. Political rhetoric uses the combative word campaign to describe the activities of elective officials. In sports it used to be the Rams play the Falcons, now the Rams battle the Falcons. In the social arena it was Us and Them, now it is Us versus Them. Just today I heard a comment on the radio about retail stores like Target, Wal-Mart and Sear vying for holiday business and the CEO of one company called these businesses ‘battleground industries’. These examples may seem trivial but these are all subtle examples of aggressive habitual reactivities. We must be mindful of the language we use as an element of a path to non-aggression and ultimately to non-violence.

By now someone is thinking what about defense. How can I defend myself and others without aggression, without violence? The initial question to ask is just what I am defending. Defending the the ego is a waste of energy. Defending from a physical attack is another matter entirely. The ideal of physical defense without aggression is a reality. It is all in the intent.

Intent in this type of situation is key. Looking to the martial arts practice of aikido offers one path. The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba said, “To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.” The foundation of the practice of aikido is doing the least harm to an attacker by redirecting the energy of violence.

Most people have never purposely taken a truly violent action or been the victim of violence leading to physical injury. Most people have experienced some form of verbal or non-damaging physical aggression. The ideal set forth by Master Ueshiba can be applied to that reality. Respond to such situations with calm and equanimity. Walk away if possible. Do not return verbal injury with verbal injury. Do not return rudeness and disrespect with the same. Instead respond more appropriately with actions of loving-kindness and the voice of compassion.

The unwholesome weeds of aggression can bear the fruit of violence. Weeding aggressive thoughts and actions for the bodymind must be the goal of all of us who choose to walk the Noble Path. Be mindful of aggressive habitual reactivities so they pulled from the fertile soil of the bodymind leaving space to plant the wholesome seeds of loving-kindness, compassion and generosity.

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4 thoughts on “AGGRESSION IN MANY FORMS

  1. Thich Nhat Hanh is a wonderful example of Buddhism in practice. In the spirit of compassion, I suggest checking out some of his talks (on YouTube), particularly “Thich Nhat Hanh: Why Everyone Should be Vegan” and “Why Vegan and Not Vegetarian.”

    • Greetings Dennis,

      Thanks for your comment. As this posting is not about eating habits (which you have made comments on for appropriate posts) I wonder if you could comment more directly on the subject presented. You must have experiences with or thoughts on aggression that would not only be appropriate but would add to this conversation. Certainly your practice and view of Buddhism goes beyond dietary opinions. I bow with respect, Wayne Ren-Cheng

      • Indeed. It appears that we both agree that today, perhaps more than ever, society is increasingly besieged with aggressiveness – political discourse, violent themes in entertainment, etc. Participating in confrontational dialogue can be a challenge, seemingly unavoidable at times. At what point does trying to achieve a beneficial result morph into nonconstructive conflict? I think that’s often the problem, that people aren’t aware that that line has been crossed. The “us versus them” mentality is not only a characteristic that evolution has given us, but an effective tool that people have learned to exploit, especially in the political arena. For me, personally, when I find myself falling into the “us versus them” mindset, I try to remind myself that there is always a reason (actually many reasons) behind every opinion with which I might disagree. I have found that by obtaining a somewhat more informed and objective understanding of the nature of such views, the “us versus them” emotion tends to subside. Not necessarily agree, but at least better understand. I believe we agree that the roots of conflict usually are not intentional, although they often become so when that line is crossed. With effort, I think we can avoid crossing that line. I like to chill out by quoting Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse 5 – “So it goes.”

      • Greetings Dennis, Very well put. We sometimes forget how language (the word versus is so common) can affect how we engage with others and how language has emotional impact that we sometimes lose awareness of. Knowledge and experience can definitely keep us from crossing that line. I bow with respect, Wayne Ren-Cheng

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