Tag Archives: anger

The Sword That Cuts Through Violence

During a recent meeting of the Spanish study group “Dharma en Español,” several students asked me to address the topic of violence and the recent killings of four young men of color across the street from San Francisco Zen Center. I spoke about the events, how multiple shots rang out one Friday night as a stolen car was riddled with bullets. The four people inside were barely men, between the ages of 18 and 21. They were all killed nearly instantly, though the police officers who responded tried to resuscitate them, blood spilling out on the sidewalk. The incident has been called “gang-related” in the press. I spoke of attending the community meeting and the march, the tears and the pain and the anger of so many. I spoke of how great the sense of separation must be for the one could commit such an act, how fixed the view of self and other, how desperate and alienated, how angry.

HV March Scott Strazzante The SF Chronicle

Scott Strazzante/The SF Chronicle


It was this last part that seemed to touch something profoundly personal for them. One young, Mexican man began to talk about his experience growing up in Los Angeles. His neighborhood had been home to several houses where crack cocaine was manufactured, where fires and fights would often break out. He said that he has come to understand in recent years, having arrived at his late 30s, that immigrant people like those of his own family fled lives of desperation, poverty and violence, but often ended up recreating those very conditions all around them here in the States. This young man felt that it was the anger, misunderstood and often obscuring other feelings, that fueled the violence. Adult members of the community were willing to turn away because they too were part of the system that had been built up. They too had recreated lives of desperation and violence.

I asked the others in the room whether they felt similarly. They too shared stories of their reasons for coming to the US, and reflected on how remarkably easy it would have been to slip into a similar way of life. The chain of events, as these Latinos saw it, was a familiar one to me. I recognized that story of arriving and encountering the barriers of language and education. I remember how they lead to feelings of frustration, sadness, and fear that were expressed as anger and a strong drive to exert control. This story had also played itself out in my family. I was touched to know that this dynamic had a larger context.

Then, I went to see the movie “Selma.” In it there is a scene in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in jail, and he reflects on the value of the work he is doing on behalf of voting rights at a time when black Americans across the South were struggling with poverty and a lack of education. Again the barriers became visible for me, the ways in which language and education had kept so many oppressed, and the anger that arose as a result. Painful. When he renews his commitment to the cause, it is a poignant moment. Truly the role Dr. King played in the passage of the Voting Rights Act lead to an enormous improvement in the lives of blacks and many others. His leadership of the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights Movement were brilliant.

So there is no question in my mind that secular education is one key to dismantling the structures that enforce inequality. Yet my own experience showed that even the most prestigious education could not relieve the suffering of my Latina and basic human legacy. I needed another education – in the Buddhadharma. I needed to learn how to be aware of my body and mind, the bodies and minds of others, my environment. I needed to learn how to accept, to be able to acknowledge what is as it is, though not necessarily as okay. I needed to learn how to sit with it. I needed to learn how to respond, rather than react to the states in which I find myself.

This is what I learn on the cushion. This is what I learn from the ancient teachings. This is the most basic message of the Buddha. He taught that sitting encountering the basic stillness and activity of body and mind will show us that violence will not bring us the life that we want, the life of fulfillment and peace. He taught that skillful action can only arise from a skillful view of the world and our place in it. For that reason Zen teaching is called the sword of wisdom, cutting through our confusion about life, cutting through the idea that violence is necessary.

So today I offer my profound gratitude to Dr. King for the wisdom of reflection and of non-violence. His sword is still very sharp.

The Tea Kettle Theory

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.”