Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Understanding the cause of anger

(6.6) Although the enemy of anger
Creates sufferings such as these,
Whoever works hard to overcome it
Will find only happiness in this and future lives.

It is said that after the era of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings come to a close, the world will enter into what is known as the “age of weapons.”  During this time, the minds of living beings are so filled with anger that they develop a special “wisdom” which enables them to see how every object can be used as a weapon to harm others.  It is important to note, the transition from one age to another is not a night and day sort of transition, but rather a gradual transition where parts of the world enter this age before others.  I believe we are already seeing the beginnings of this age.  If we look to wars like Syria or Bosnia before that, if we look to terrorism leaving the battlefields of the Middle East and entering into our discotheques, if we look at the increasing violence between police and minority communities in the United States, if we look at the vitriol thrown around casually in on-line discussion forums and our politics, we can see the beginnings of the age of weapons already taking place.  Observing these things can sometimes lead to great despair.

But the truth is this:  the whole world is created by our own mind, and as long as we can keep the minds of love and patience manifest within our mind, the longer we hold back the tide of anger in our world.  In a world that is drowning, some people need to strive to swim to the surface.  If we never give up our practice of patience, we will, one day, overcome our anger.  Anger is not an intrinsic part of us, rather it is just a bad habit of mind.  Like all habits, they can be broken.  Venerable Tharchin said for every step we take towards enlightenment, we bring all living beings with us in proportion to their karmic relationship with us.  Overcoming our own anger is not just an issue of survival of our own mind, but rather it is the very means by which we can prevent this world from sinking into the abyss.  When my wife taught primary school, she had a banner in her classroom that said, “peace beings with you.”  More deeply, peace begins with cultivating the mind of patience.

(6.7) Through having to do what I do not want to do
Or being prevented from doing what I want to do,
I develop mental unhappiness, which becomes the fuel
That causes anger to grow and destroy me.

Why do we become angry?  All of our actions are in fact motivated by our basic wish to be happy all the time and be free from all suffering.  We become angry because we mistakenly think the cause of our suffering is something external, so the mind of anger seeks to destroy this cause.  It looks like it works. We become angry and change takes place. Where there was a problem, we feel that through an action motivated by anger, the problem goes.  It looks like we’ve destroyed the cause of our problem.  But we are not understanding that anger itself is a cause of our problem.  Anger itself is a cause of our suffering.  Because if we were to remove anger from our mind, we would experience freedom.  It’s what we want – freedom from our problem, freedom from suffering.  Take anger out of our mind, that’s the result.

Quite simply, anger develops in two stages:  Things don’t go the way we want them to go, and then we develop mental unhappiness.  Essentially things don’t live up to our expectations of how things “should” be or how we want them to go.  Because we think our happiness depends on things going that way, when they do not, we become unhappy.  We then look for something to blame for this mental unhappiness so we can end it.  We look at our external situation and think that it is the problem, so we seek to destroy whatever we consider to be causing our mental unhappiness with the wish that it goes away.  This is anger.  It is not that this process occurs as some rational calculation, but these are the internal steps that happen.

We can look at this from the perspective of substantial and circumstantial causes of our anger.  The circumstantial causes are undeniably the way the situation is going externally.  But the substantial cause of the problem is our expectation and attachment to things going differently.  The problem is not how things go, rather our mental expectation/attachment that they go differently.  When this attachment is thwarted we become unhappy.

Understanding this, there are two ways to overcome anger.  First, try manipulate and control all possible circumstantial conditions so that nothing ever happens that we don’t want.  The problem is the more fixed we become on having things go a particular way, the more angry we get and this is impossible.  Second, change our own mind.  This has two parts:  First, set our expectations at absolute zero for everyone and everything samsaric.  Expect things to go wrong, then if it goes anything better than completely wrong we are happy.  If we didn’t have this expectation/attachment then we wouldn’t become unhappy and there would be no basis for anger to develop.  Second, change what we want.  If the only thing we want from a situation is an opportunity to work on our mind and grow spiritually, then every situation will be perfect for us.  We will be happy with everything.  How can we change what we want?  Through a systematic practice of Lamrim.  The main function of Lamrim is to change what we want from worldly wishes to spiritual ones.

2 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Understanding the cause of anger

  1. Hello Ryan. May I ask you a question? I’m sorry, but my question has nothing to do with your article above. Why is Tibetan Buddhism influential here in the States? I’m learning about American society and culture.I was born, raised, and educated in Korea. When I lived in Korea, I was by no means exposed to Tibetan Buddhism.

    • Very hard to say beyond karma, I guess. Two reasons I can think of: (1) American culture is very much about individual’s taking responsibility for themselves, which dovetails nicely with the idea of we need to liberate ourselves, and (2) many Native American traditions also have teachings on emptiness (everything created by mind, etc.), so perhaps that creates some degree of cultural receptivity. But these are just guesses.

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