abbot_laugh_smallANGER & ZAZEN

The subject of anger has been coming up a lot lately in discussions of the Precepts, the Paramitas, and other topics not necessarily directly related to it. It seems obvious that when we are fed a steady diet of fear and anger via the public media, that some of it will rub off, if only so that we do not feel out of touch. It seems also that if we do not express ourselves with what passes for passion these days — loudness — then we are just not living large. We just don’t get it and must not have a point of view worth shouting about.  Nearly as important as loudness is certitude of our point of view — indicated by loudness, primarily — reticence playing the part only of not admitting to any ambivalence, let alone error.

Matsuoka-roshi made a wonderful analogy of anger to cutting with a knife. Thinking an angry thought or feeling anger is like cutting water – no mark remains. Speaking in anger is like cutting sand — takes the wind a long time to smooth over (hiding your tracks with your hand or a branch doesn’t cut it). Acting out of anger is like cutting stone. Forever scarred.

Anger is rehearsed. We can get better at it. It can become a lifestyle, a coping strategy and a control issue. Bullying is using the threat of anger or its outgrowth, violence, in an attempt to control others, or to control a situation. It can be subtle, not always overt. The perpetrators may be wholly unconscious of their manipulative technique. In some cases, it works for a time. But usually there is payback, or at least pushback.

If we become angry, allowing ourselves to feel a great deal of anger in a threatening situation, it can release the body chemistry necessary to fuel whatever has to be done. Cases of ordinary people performing great feats of courage or strength, like lifting a heavy vehicle off of somebody, have been thoroughly documented.

But most of the time, anger only clouds the situation, defeating the purpose of accomplishing our ends. It usually makes things worse. We give in to anger when we have a sense of hopelessness. When we sense futility in our endeavors, or frustration at the intractability of our situation, we react in anger, goaded on by its kissing cousins, fear and despair.

The question in Zen is not so much one of finding an escape from anger, but not to indulge in it. The Precept as we chant it says “Actualize harmony; do not indulge in anger.” Indulging in anger is different from feeling anger. But the most important side of this guideline may be to actualize harmony. When we feel anger, we generally feel out of harmony with our environment in the sense of the people and conditions we find there. Something, we say, has made us angry, usually the behavior of a colleague, friend or loved one. Less often, that of a complete stranger. Except on the expressway.

Anger is one of the “three poisons” of Buddhism, sometimes translated as hatred — greed, anger and delusion. I think we all recognize the onset of the first two, and guess that the third is thrown in to cover the “all other” category. After all, greed and anger must also be delusion.

Consider what a poison actually is. Many poisons are intoxicants when taken in small enough doses. We can get high from a bit of what’s bad for you. Almost anything chemical, if overindulged, can become poisonous. Some people cannot drink too much water, as it causes a toxic imbalance in their body chemistry.  What is healthful in one case can be deadly in another.

So it is interesting to think that we may be intoxicated by these poisons. Certainly it is easy to be infatuated with fantasies of what we would do if we were to win the lottery. Whether this is greed or not is to be seen in what we actually do with the winnings, if we win. But the temptation is there to fantasize while the real world around us goes to hell in a handbasket, as they say. We are high on imagination-thinking. If one won the lottery, the odds are so high against it that one could be forgiven for feeling “chosen,” another kind of intoxication all too prevalent in the world.

To be intoxicated by anger is natural. The release of certain chemicals, such as adrenaline, or endorphins, induces a natural high. People go to great lengths — bungee-jumping, high altitude mountain climbing and sky-diving — just to get the rush. Of course, they also claim a kind of spiritual high, an insight, that comes with the otherwise seemingly fatuous self-indulgence.

To be intoxicated cannot itself be the problem, the actual violation of the Precept. It is a natural consequence of existence. If we did nothing to indulge any identified intoxicating substance, we would still experience highs and lows. As Master Dogen said, when we shave our heads in the ceremony of renunciation, we are already intoxicated. We may even be intoxicated with the very idea of renunciation. Shamanistic practices deny the cravings of the body in order to bring about transcendent experiences. The body becomes toxic to its own nervous system, resulting in intoxicated experience.

Sitting in zazen, I believe we become intoxicated. It is a form of withdrawal from all other intoxicants, but the very process of withdrawal, the kind of chemical transition the body goes through in dealing with the denial of its cravings, is probably a kind of reverse-intoxication. Some people experience a kind of pleasure from pain. While zazen is not a sado-masochisitc activity, it can be seen as partaking somewhat of this principle. It would be impossible for the body not to conjure some sort of pleasure response from the deprivation — physical, mental and emotional — imposed upon it by extensive zazen. This is not a negative criticism, not neurotic, but just a theory of a dynamic that is probably at work.

It may seem perverse, but in zazen, the worse it gets the better it is. The more discomfort we can sustain, the more comfortable we are with life. Life will manufacture discomfort in situations, relationships, and particularly in one’s own aging body, without any consent of the governed. Whether we react in anger or not is a matter of our degree of discipline in training. If we are accustomed to the idea that we are confronting discomfort and anger in our very being, every moment, then it is not so difficult to embrace the times when circumstances conspire to make things especially difficult.

So it is best, I believe, to regard anger, and all other variations on the theme of emotions, as ever-present. What you are feeling at this moment, while reading this, is a degree of anger. And not because of what I am saying. It is not my fault. The very feeling of sensation itself is a degree of anger, which can be elevated to a white-hot intensity, if we allow it.

Extreme anger is a kind of intoxication — rage. It is contagious in a mob situation. Very powerful stuff. When we feel extreme anger, we might simply exult in the feeling without doing anything about it. Let it burn through without leaving a trace. Just as zazen intensity burns through all resistance if it is hot enough. The breath fans the flame.

Anger is an extreme form of suffering. It is not your fault. But Zen Buddhism is not about avoiding or escaping suffering. It is about nipping unnecessary suffering in the bud. Rather than indulge anger, we use the anger to actualize harmony.

If we recognize that we are always angry — always afraid, always on our guard, to some degree — then we cannot be caught off-guard. “Watch the anger arise” requires that we get ahead of it.

The way we get ahead of it is in zazen. But we cannot do so if we separate anger from our zazen. Both have five letters, and share the same vowels in the same sequence. “An” means “peace,” in Japanese. “Ger” means “Grrrrr!” Let that be a mnemonic for you.