I recently attended a dharma talk on the topic of forgiveness. When the speaker finished her elegantly simple discourse, she invited those in attendance to ask questions and offer comments. One of the participants, a young woman who sat near the back, raised her hand to speak. She said that she’d found the talk difficult because she had been a target of harassment and intimidation at work until just the prior week, and she couldn’t find it in herself to forgive the person who had treated her this way. She said that she felt ashamed because she was so angry with the person who had done this to her. Others in the audience expressed their surprise, empathy and concern softly while she recounted the details, and then all eyes turned back to the speaker. There was a momentary tension in the room while we waited for the speaker’s response.
The Buddha is quoted as having said that unleashing your anger on someone is like picking up a hot coal and throwing it at someone – you have hurt yourself long before you’ve hurt anyone else. For this reason, anger or hatred is seen as one of the three poisons. Anger agitates the mind and body, and it can also be intoxicating, filling us with a sense of power or righteousness that expands the sense of separation from everyone else.
In fact I believe that it is just this sense of righteous anger that causes people who engage in war and torture to feel justified. Consider the word “mischling,” which the Nazis used to describe Jews as less than a full person. By taking the sense of righteousness and separation to an extreme, the people of Germany created great suffering for themselves and for millions of others.
Anger arises. In this case, the young woman seemingly has a very good reason to be angry. Surely the principles of Buddhism don’t encourage people to tolerate harassment or genocide. Or do they? With regard to this question, the Buddha is quoted in The Dhammapada as having said,
“He abused me, attacked me, defeated me, robbed me!” For those carrying on like this, hatred does not end.
This is a very clear teaching. It points to the fact that we cannot blame our problems on others. We cannot correct hatred with hatred. We cannot address unskillful action with more unskillful action. We have to accept our feelings as our own, no matter how egregious the actions of others. And we can choose to set the feelings down, to allow the feelings in the body to subside and the feelings in the mind with them. In fact it’s said that a Bodhisattva, an “awakening being,” is able to have compassion for the person that is cutting her arm off. This is a very demanding practice.
However, even in the midst of that practice ideal, there is the question of what to do with anger that arises. So I would like to propose the Tea Kettle Theory. The Tea Kettle Theory goes like this: when anger arises, it is simply informational. It is like the whistling of the tea kettle – a signal to which you must respond. When the tea kettle begins to whistle, you don’t deny that it’s whistling, ignore the whistling, or complain that whistling shouldn’t happen or is too loud. You simply move to take the kettle off the fire. So in your life, when you notice anger arising, you can accept it as a signal, a way that your body/mind tells you that a response is needed. You can see that you need to respond, not react, to the signal right away. You can respond in a way that doesn’t burn you or others, but does skillfully address the information presented. There is no need for resistance to or judgement about anger. Anger is simply information that is encoded directly into the body/mind response. It is telling you something.
So, with that in mind, we can return to the young woman and to the Bodhisattva. They too can use the Tea Kettle Theory to identify the things with which they must practice, the situations that require a response. They too can study ways in which to show compassion for deluded beings – perhaps kind, gentle compassion, or perhaps the sword of compassion that cuts through delusion and unwholesome acts. They can discover the teaching that everything we do is a response to the contact we experience in the world and, when that contact causes anger to arise, we had better address it. So you might say that Buddhism teaches you to respond to oppression, violence and injustice not by blaming, but by acting from a place of acceptance, responsibility for one’s own emotions, and the wisdom that life is a study in skillful response. As we say in Zen, you have to say something.
And the wise speaker said this, “You have to show compassion, not just for the person, but for yourself.”