Sunday, February 28, 2010

Don't Make Gods into Demons

This article is part of a series of short commentaries on proverbs or slogans from the Lojong ("mind-training") teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Several other such commentaries will be offered soon, in addition to the ones that have already appeared here in previous months. To see the whole series of commentaries on Lojong slogans, click here.

Don't Make Gods into Demons

Most of us have a strong tendency to complain about things, even when our circumstances are actually very good. As Chogyam Trungpa said in his commentary on this slogan, we habitually "make painful that which is inherently joyful." Lost in stinking thinking and spaced out in what Tara Brach calls the ‘trance of unworthiness,’ we focus only on the negative — on what is wrong, what is missing, what we lack. This is one of the meanings of turning gods into demons.

As humans, we have a curious power to manifest what we envision. This power can be a gift or a curse, depending on how we use it. When we envision negativity and focus on what we lack and what is wrong with our circumstances, then nothing we get ever seems to be good enough; the self-centered, “what about me?” attitude of the ego is a bottomless pit of dissatisfaction. We drift helplessly in a sea of poverty mentality, blown to and fro by the winds of hope and fear. But when we envision contentment and focus on making the best use of what we have, then we experience altogether different results. We might even find ourselves wondering how we can leave this world a better place than we found it.

The other meaning of turning gods into demons is perverting our spiritual practice by becoming arrogant and prideful about it. The spiritual path should be leading us towards greater humility and selflessness. If we find ourselves getting puffed up about our realizations or being judgmental and hypercritical of those who don’t agree with us, then something in our practice is amiss.

Chogyam Trungpa was once part of a panel of Tibetan teachers who were asked to explain how students could know whether or not they were making progress on the spiritual path. Each of the other teachers on the panel gave a rather lengthy, formulaic answer that relied on traditional doctrines and lists of qualities. Trungpa’s response, however, was brief, blunt and to the point: you know you’re progressing along the path, he said, if you’re becoming less arrogant and less opinionated.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Be Grateful to Everyone

This article is part of a series of short commentaries on proverbs or slogans from the Lojong ("mind-training") teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Several other such commentaries will be offered soon, in addition to the ones that have already appeared here in previous months. To see the whole series of commentaries on Lojong slogans, click here.

Be Grateful to Everyone

This slogan is closely related to the previous one, "Always Maintain a Joyful Mind." When we maintain a joyful mind in every life situation, then we are able to see that everyone we encounter — including and especially the people who irritate us and push our buttons — is giving us opportunities to transform our negative patterns and awaken from our own delusion. Just as Atisha realized that his difficult and temperamental Bengali tea boy was his greatest teacher, so each time we meet someone in our lives who tests our patience we are given a choice: to do the habitual, instinctual thing — or to wake up.

The teacher Krishnamurti is said to have had a student like Atisha’s Bengali tea boy, someone who was very temperamental and difficult to work with. All the other members of Krishnamurti’s spiritual community loathed and avoided this man. One day the man got fed up and stormed out of the community. He got in his car and drove away, determined never to come back. Most people in the community secretly breathed a sigh of relief. But Krishnamurti got in his car and went after the man, and persuaded him to come back. When a student later asked him why he had gone out of his way to bring back this man who was so difficult and caused so much trouble in the community, Krishnamurti is reported to have said: “Are you kidding? I pay him to be here!” Krishnamurti knew that the one thing his students needed most was the continued presence of this man who tested their patience and pushed all their buttons.

The other side of “being grateful to everyone” is recognizing that our own well-being depends entirely upon the endless network of sentient beings of which we, ourselves, are part. Almost no blessing or comfort that comes to us is solely the product of our own hands or our own minds; everything is shot through with interdependence. Consider something as simple and ordinary as a cup of coffee at your local coffee shop: thousands of people were involved in serving, brewing, roasting, transporting, harvesting and growing that coffee. A team of hundreds was busy ensuring that clean water would flow to the coffee shop, and providing electricity to run the machines and light the shop so you could read your newspaper while you sip your coffee. You might never meet any of those people, but your happiness in the moment of enjoying that cup of coffee depends on all of them.

The simple fact that you’re reading this would be impossible if not for the kindness of the many teachers who patiently taught you, step by step, how to read and write, how to comprehend and communicate abstract ideas. And standing behind them was a network of teachers stretching back thousands of years, to the dawn of written language, and beyond. How often do you think with gratitude of the kindness you have received from those generations of people and all the ways it has benefited you?

Our habit of taking everything and everyone in our lives for granted means that we seldom see how interdependent we are with everyone around us, and how indebted we are to other beings for providing us with the causes and conditions of our own happiness.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Always Maintain Only a Joyful Mind

This article is part of a series of short commentaries on proverbs or slogans from the Lojong ("mind-training") teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Several other such commentaries will be offered soon, in addition to the ones that have already appeared here in previous months. To see the whole series of commentaries on Lojong slogans, click here.

Always Maintain Only a Joyful Mind

Look at the lives of the great spiritual beings who are now walking or have walked among us: the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others like them. These people are not gritting their teeth and just flatly enduring the hardships and challenges that come their way. They do not slog through their work as spiritual leaders with a sense of weariness or a chip on their shoulders. They do not cop resentments about the burdens they have to carry and the things they are asked to do for others. Quite the opposite: they bring boundless joy and cheerfulness and relaxation into everything they do, even in the midst of very difficult circumstances. They are always smiling and laughing, taking delight and finding humor in the situations and people around them — not in a Pollyannaish or frivolous way, but in a way that is united with their tremendous heart of compassion. They bring a constant sense of joy to their 24-hour-a-day practice of helping others.

For the rest of us, back on planet Earth, this slogan may sound naïve and pie-in-the-sky. Always maintain only a joyful mind? You’ve got to be kidding. How is that possible? And why would you even want to do that?

Often, the difficult circumstances we encounter in life land in our laps with a great thud, and no prior warning. We didn’t ask for our lover to leave us, or for our children to rebel against us, or for the stock we own to crash, or for the doctor to give us the diagnosis we didn’t want to hear. But there it is. We have no choice in the matter. The question is: how do we react? How do we work with it? How do we hold our minds in response to what life throws at us?

There is no situation that cannot be made better by infusing it with joy. Not Pollyanna joy, which is a kind of stupid, plastic cheerfulness that masks a total denial of the realities of ugly situations and negativity and suffering in our lives — but authentic joy, which sees these realities clearly but sees every situation as workable and as fuel for spiritual awakening.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the most beloved Catholic saints. She lived at the end of the 19th century and died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 24. When she was 15, she entered a Carmelite nunnery in which she was secluded for the rest of her life. Among the other nuns she encountered there was one particular nun who pushed all her buttons. Everything this nun did stuck in Thérèse’s craw: even the way she walked and talked and smelled was irritating. The Carmelites were a contemplative order and would spend many hours sitting in silent prayer in a chapel that echoed. This nun happened to sit near Thérèse, and all through the prayers she would make little clicking noises with her mouth that drove Thérèse up the wall. Thérèse sat there unable to focus her mind in prayer, consumed with annoyance and loathing for this clicking nun.

At some point, Thérèse concluded, to her dismay, that there was nothing she could do to make this nun change: she was stuck with her, and they were both committed to being there for life. Thérèse realized that the only way to change the situation would be to change herself, her whole way of relating to the other nun. Rather than avoiding the nun, as she had been doing, Thérèse began to go out of her way to find her and spend time with her. She always greeted her with the most genuine smile she could find within herself, and made little friendship gifts to give her. Finally, one day the nun said to Thérèse, “Sister Thérèse, I just don’t understand why you love me so much.” Thérèse thought: Well, if only you knew.*

Thérèse’s relationship to the other nun utterly changed, not because she succeeded in changing the other nun, but because she committed herself to changing her own mind. No doubt the other nun continued for the rest of her life with her clicking and all the other behaviors that annoyed Thérèse, but for Thérèse these things were no longer a problem. Thérèse had a boundless commitment to the practice of maintaining only a joyful mind; this commitment shines through in her autobiography. It is one of the reasons she is so beloved, and why she was one of the saints most quickly canonized after death. Thérèse didn’t have stigmata or perform any parlor-trick miracles: she performed the ultimate miracle of transforming her own mind. When she saw the blood on her handkerchief and pillowcase that signaled the presence of fatal tuberculosis and realized she would soon die, Thérèse “thought immediately of the joyful thing that I had to learn, and so I went over to the window.” How many of us would be able to hear our doctor give us a fatal diagnosis and “think immediately of the joyful thing” that we could learn from it? On her deathbed, Thérèse is reported to have said: “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer anymore, because all suffering is sweet to me.”

When we adopt the commitment to maintaining a joyful mind even in the face of challenging and difficult circumstances, then everything that happens in our lives is fuel for awakening. But if we take ourselves and our life situations too seriously and make too big a deal of them, then that very same fuel stokes the flames that burn us. Our habit is to get locked into a heavy, oppressive sense of how fixed and stuck things are — whether it’s outer circumstances, or other people and their neuroses, or just our own minds, our neuroses and our seeming inability to change. When we infuse our lives with a sense of lightness and joy and not taking things too seriously, it transforms our experience. Everything becomes much more workable, and we are able to relax right in the midst of chaos.

Our spiritual practice, too, should be a practice of maintaining a joyful mind. How often do we sit down to meditate as if we were going under the surgeon’s knife, as if meditation were a terrible and unpleasant chore that must be accomplished? With such an attitude, it’s little wonder we often lack enthusiasm for practice. Imagine, says Pema Chodron, what it might be like if we could bring to our spiritual practices the same sense of joy and delight and enthusiasm that we bring to, say, going for a swim, or eating popcorn and watching movies. We would probably be enlightened already!

When we find ourselves getting “too serious” about our spiritual practice, it might be helpful to turn down the flame on the stove a little bit, and let our practice simmer at a more reasonable pace rather than boiling over. Our challenge is often in knowing and respecting our own limits, and working at the level where we can maintain enthusiasm and joy.

We tend to think that our biggest obstacles and enemies are on the outside, in the shape of people and circumstances that challenge us. For instance, we might get very worked up thinking about the corrupt politicians, and the greedy Wall Street fatcats, and the lords of the military-industrial complex. We might get very enthusiastic about pointing the finger of blame at those people for many of the problems we see in the world today.

But in terms of what hinders our practice on the spiritual path, what stymies our awakening, it’s not the politicians or the fatcats or the five-star generals, or any other external figure — no matter how corrupt or misguided or galling they might be. In fact, no one outside of ourselves really has the power to hinder our awakening in the slightest. What hinders our awakening is the enemy within: our own mournful weariness, our laziness, discouragement, despair, depression and fatigue — all the internal enemies that deprive us of joyful exertion and make us withdraw fearfully into our protective shell.

The irony is that we devote ourselves whole-heartedly and enthusiastically to the pursuit and acquisition of external things that promise to make us comfortable and happy: money, possessions, relationships, careers, hobbies and so on. We don’t seem to have any shortage of joyful exertion for grasping at shiny baubles and emotional highs. Yet we seem unwilling to pursue the causes of true and lasting happiness — enlightenment itself — with the same zeal and enthusiasm. At bottom, it’s a question of understanding what really leads us to awakening and freedom, and what further ensnares us in suffering and delusion. When we hold the answer to that question deep in our bones, then our priorities become clear, and mournful weariness evaporates. With that kind of wind at our backs, we will not find it so difficult to always maintain only a joyful mind.

* I'm indebted to Tenzin Palmo for sharing, in one of her Dharma teachings, this beautiful story about St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Mega-Bus to Enlightenment

There is something that all genuine spiritual traditions seem to have in common. Invariably, they stress the importance of altruism: the necessity of realizing our interdependence with other beings, and acting from a heart of concern for the well-being and spiritual care of others. The individual self’s wants and needs are seen to be petty and insignificant next to the great ocean of suffering in which all sentient beings are bobbing helplessly.

In every religion (with the exceptions, perhaps, of Satanism and the philosophical cult of Ayn Rand), spiritually mature beings downplay self-centered concerns and place greater emphasis on the welfare of others. The “what about me?” attitude of the childish ego has been entirely replaced with a compassionate concern for other people’s happiness and well-being. The great spiritual leaders -- the Buddha, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and so on -- all seem to devote themselves single-pointedly and fearlessly to the path of altruism and compassion, with little or no residual traces of a self-seeking ego.

The further and deeper we go into the spiritual path, the more our lives become dedicated to relieving that suffering and helping others, and the more we let go of our own personal agendas and territories. This self-sacrificing love and compassion for others is the motivating force behind the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; it is the purpose of Tikkun Olam, the mystical Jewish principle of ‘healing the universe’ in order to return the Holy Spark that is each sentient being to the divine source from which it sprang; it is the vision behind the Buddhist archetype of the ‘Bodhisattva,’ the noble being who works for the benefit of others and strives towards enlightenment so that others may also reach that state.

Over the centuries, Buddhism evolved and split into different schools and sub-schools, in much the way Christianity, Judaism, and other religions have done. A few centuries after the Buddha’s death, a new kind of Buddhism sprang up alongside the old. It was a revolution on the scale of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and it altered the face of the Buddhist religion forever. This new school was known as Mahayana, and from it descended many of the forms of Buddhism we know today, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. Maha- means “great” or “big,” and yana means “vehicle.”

If the older schools of Buddhism had produced a lot of individuals driving along the road of spiritual awakening in their own private cars, Mahayana was seen as the great, collective vehicle, the mega-bus that would carry all beings together along the path of awakening. As people today are becoming more environmentally conscious about driving, so the early Mahayanists came to see that there was something slightly amiss in the notion of driving, alone, in your own little spiritual bubble, focusing on your own needs first.

In reality, Buddhists from the older 'Hinayana' schools (including Theravada) are not at all self-centered, as this language would make them appear. It's merely a doctrinal distinction that the Mahayana school paints in order to make a point about the crucial importance of selfless compassion and the altruistic motivation.

The spirit of Mahayana is that we travel the path of awakening not just for ourselves and our own liberation, but for the sake of all beings. It’s a view that places compassion front and center, and emphasizes our interconnectedness — that fact that we need each other to do this work of waking up. When you embrace the Mahayana path, helping others becomes your primary goal, an end in itself — and attaining your own enlightenment is seen as merely a means to that end. When you, yourself, wake up, then you will know best how to help others wake up. Developing the strong intention to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings, and then putting that intention into practice, is the way of Mahayana.

The Mahayana path of altruism is not an easy one. In some ways it would be much easier, and more convenient, to focus on your own needs, driving along the spiritual path in the comfort and privacy of your own personal car. Perhaps you’ve got your car tricked out with a nice paint job and special hub caps, and tinted windows so no one else can see you. As everyone who takes public transportation knows, to ride on a bus is less comfortable, and more insulting. To ride a city bus without losing your mind, you have to be able to set aside your own agenda and accommodate the eccentricities and annoying behaviors of others. Focusing first and foremost on the needs of others, and regarding your own awakening as a means to help them rather than an end in itself, turns your personal project of enlightenment upside-down. Making that commitment requires an unflinching allegiance to growing up and leaving behind the petty, selfish concerns of the childish ego.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Seeing What Wants to Be Seen

Human beings these days are disembodied and ethereal. Our ancestors lived close to the land; they knew where their food came from because they planted and harvested it with their own hands, and they knew where the heat in the fireplace came from because they chopped the wood themselves. Today most of us live in cities or in suburbs, far-removed from the sources of our food and energy. We buy it in units or packages, and couldn't care less where it comes from or how it's made. Many of us sit all day in an office cubicle, staring at a computer screen, while others sit all day on a sofa, staring at a TV screen or playing video games. When we leave the house or the office, we carry a portable device with us so that we are never cut off from the stream of information for more than a few minutes, as if we are uncertain what might happen to us if we don’t have constant input and output.

We live most of our lives from the neck up — constantly spinning in a mental hurricane of thoughts, ideas, commentary, story-lines, images, songs, memories, fantasies, emotions, daydreams, hopes, fears, judgments, strategies, and plans. The hurricane never seems to slow down for very long, because the wind of new information and fresh stimuli always keeps it turning. And with today’s mobile and social networking technologies, we’ve adopted the philosophy that almost every thought or idea that passes through our minds is important enough to share with the entire world, and should be injected into the minds of everyone else we know or have virtual contact with. A song plays on our iPod, and we quickly log on to Facebook to tell all our friends what we're listening to at this moment, as if they should care. And this unceasing ebb and flow of information into and out of our minds must not be interrupted at any hour of the day, no matter where we go or what we are doing. I heard about a man who took his mobile phone into the meditation hall at a weekend retreat, and was posting updates to his Twitter account during walking meditation: The person in front of me is walking WAY too slow.

Our attention is hypnotized and dazzled by this unceasing bombardment of information, and we spend all our time awash in it. As a consequence, it happens only rarely that our attention descends down out of the maelstrom of thoughts whirling in our brains and into the world of experience that is happening down below, in the rest of our bodies. We have, by and large, lost touch with what it means and what it feels like to be embodied — to experience the world and our own existence in and through the medium of this physical body made of matter and energy, alive with sensations, intimately connected to the world around it, and pulsing with information that has nothing to do with the realm of ideas and thoughts and stories. The average person today has become “a brain on a stick.”

Our habit of living all the time in our heads is toxic to our well-being, and a major stumbling block on the spiritual path. But it is an enormously seductive habit, reinforced by appearances. Of our six consciousnesses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and the mental consciousness that perceives thoughts — at least four of them, and possibly five, seem to be concentrated in the head, where our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and brain are all housed. This results in a strong, felt sense that our “self” exists in the head. It’s little wonder, then, that we spend most of our time living from the neck up.

Of course, we think about the body a great deal — in fact, many of us think about our bodies obsessively — but this is very different from being in and with the body on its own terms. It is our very allegiance to thinking and strategizing about everything — mediating and managing our experience and our lives through conceptual thought — that is the root of our disembodiment in the first place. For the most part, we think of our bodies as mere tools (or sometimes obstacles) that serve our ambitions and our ego’s goals of attaining happiness and comfort. We rarely descend into the darkness of the body itself and witness, on its own terms, without an agenda, the naked experience that arises there.

In his book Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body, the American Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray shares a story that comes from the African spiritual guide, Malidoma Somé. Somé once moved to a West African village where there was no electricity. When he wanted to light some lamps at night to see better, he encountered strong resistance among the village elders, who told him, “If we light the lamps, we won’t be able to see.” The elders explained to him: “You can’t see anything real in the daylight. The only thing you see in the daylight is what you want to see. When you turn the lights off in the night, you see what wants to be seen, which is a whole different story.”

Descending out of our heads and the thinking mind and down into our bodies, says Ray, is like turning off the lights in order to see better. In the “darkness” of the body’s own perpetual unfolding of experience, we see not what we want to see, but what wants to be seen.

Psychology speaks of the mind’s conscious and unconscious aspects, with the conscious being likened to the small part of an iceberg that sits above the surface of the water and the unconscious being likened to that far more vast part of the iceberg that is hidden and submerged beneath the surface. This is also how we relate to our bodies, concentrating so much of our attention on that small and limited part of our experience that unfolds above the neck. Only rarely does our awareness descend into the vast regions of bodily experience that lurk, unexplored, beneath the surface. But it is impossible to be really present and aware of our human life if we are ignoring 95% of our embodied experience in every moment. All of that experience, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, exciting or boring, painful or pleasurable, is a vital part of the total mystery that is human existence.

The human mind is, to use a strong word, a liar. The mind is always time-traveling into the past and into the future; it is forever fantasizing about things that don’t exist, trying to relive moments and experiences that are over and gone, and plotting to control situations that have not yet arisen and may never do so. The mind is very rarely satisfied with simply being here and now, in a naked and unfabricated way: it is always projecting onto its own internal screen what it wants to see.

But the body is incapable of deceit. It is always right here, right now; it cannot be elsewhere, or elsewhen. The body puts on no airs, and makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is or feeling anything other than what it feels. Upon the internal screen of the body, there is always and only projected that which wants to be seen. If what is projected there happens to also be what we want to see, that’s nice — but the body doesn’t particularly give a damn. So, when we are grounded and mindful of the body, we cannot help but be present and awake to our actual experience, here and now. As Reggie Ray says, “We are not only able to touch enlightenment with our bodies...there is actually no other way to do so.”

Making a Bad Situation Worse

Our disembodiment and our addiction to thinking can create huge obstacles for us on the spiritual path. If we practice meditation, for example, we might do so under the mistaken belief that meditation is all about working with the thinking mind and that it has nothing to do with the body. This can be worse for us than not practicing meditation at all, since in reality meditation has a tremendous amount to do with the body. From the time we first sit down to meditate, we are working with our posture and with the restless and uncomfortable sensations that arise in our bodies. And as we continue to practice meditation, we begin to discover more and more profound depths of insight and realization within the body’s own unfolding of experience, moment to moment. This is why Saraha, the 8th-century Indian Buddhist saint and meditation master, said: “There is no place of pilgrimage as fabulous and open as this body of mine, no place more worth exploring.”

Because of our sworn allegiance to thinking, we may see our bodies, at best, as tools to be utilized to achieve the spiritual aims and ambitions of our minds — and, at worst, as pain-producing obstacles that prevent us from getting where we want to go on the spiritual path. We may, for instance, imagine that samadhi, or very deep meditation, is some kind of alternate, disembodied state, an ethereal nirvana-realm that exists somewhere other than where our asses happen to be sitting right now. Surely, we think, samadhi is something holy and pure, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the body’s aches and pains and farts. But time and again, the great masters of meditation have told us that meditation actually begins with the body and unfolds in the body, with open and mindful and unbiased awareness of our precise situation in the present moment. The Buddha’s teachings on meditation in the early scriptures began with developing a profound mindfulness of the body, and this is one of the meditations that the Buddha continued practicing even after he attained enlightenment. So why, then, do we often regard our own bodies as little more than irritating hindrances to meditation? Where do we suppose realization is going to take place, if not in and through the body?

There is a curious feedback loop between mind and body that we can begin to discover in meditation. We might notice, for example, that at times when we are lost in discursiveness and mental chatter, we also tend to be very absorbed in that level of experience that happens from the neck up. The further we go into discursiveness and mental chatter, the more we begin to physically slouch and lose touch with what’s going on in the rest of our bodies, below the surface of the iceberg. By contrast, at times when we are particularly mindful and undistracted, we tend to be more grounded in the dimensions of experience that happen below the neck, in the dark regions of the body where energy ebbs and flows according to its own patterns, beyond the control of our conscious minds. By staying with that experience, we are able to abide in a more present and relaxed way. And that, I'm increasingly convinced, is the key to unlocking every door to realization that we might encounter on the spiritual path.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Upside of Anger

In Buddhism’s extensive teachings on how to work with the kleshas, or destructive emotions, anger usually gets the lion’s share of attention. There is good reason for this: of all our emotional demons, anger is the most destructive. One brief flash of strong anger, if acted upon, can be the tiny match that burns down the fragile house of our best intentions. In a single moment of unmanaged anger, we can commit negative actions whose consequences will haunt us for the rest of our lives (and for future lives, too, say Buddhists). It is in the heat of such small moments of unbridled anger that many people lose their lives or take the lives of others -- or say things that wound each other irreparably, tearing apart friendships and marriages. Anger and its kissing cousin, hatred, are the root of violence and suffering at every level of society, from personal relationships to wars between nations.

On a personal, psychological level, few things we experience are as hot or as uncomfortable or as detrimental to our well-being as anger. It sends our minds reeling and keeps us awake at night. We sweat and tremble and mutter profanities and insults under our breath, if we don’t actually scream or commit violence. Anger triggers chemical reactions in our bodies and the release of stress hormones that contribute to a range of health problems from cancer to stomach ulcers to depression. As Shantideva wrote 1,200 years ago:

Those tormented by the pain of anger
Never know tranquility of mind --
Strangers they will be to every pleasure,
They will neither sleep nor feel secure.

Anger is the most volatile and flammable emotion; it so easily explodes and rages out of control, and it’s tremendously habit-forming. The more often we indulge in anger and direct its energy at others, the more accustomed we grow to being angry -- until rage comes to feel natural and automatic, a regular state of mind.

Although the Christian notion of the Seven Deadly Sins (of which anger is one) has permeated our civilization, in Western cultures we tend to hold rather contradictory views about anger. We often don’t think there is anything wrong with it. In the Old Testament, Himself is portrayed frequently as an angry and vengeful God. Like father, like child. Our anger can seem not only justified, but righteous and holy, especially when it’s directed at what we perceive to be injustice.

In the Questions of Upali Sutra, the Buddha explained the conduct of a Bodhisattva: an altruistic spiritual practitioner whose life and actions are entirely dedicated to the awakening and enlightenment of all sentient beings. A Bodhisattva, said the Buddha, could misbehave for thousands of lifetimes, and if his or her misdeeds were motivated by desire, it would still add up to a relatively minor offense. This is because, when we act improperly out of desire or lust, we can at least (in most cases) still hold sentient beings in our embrace; we can still have their welfare and happiness in mind. But when we act out of anger or hatred, we throw our care for the welfare of other beings out the window, and we do what no Bodhisattva should ever do: we actually wish harm and suffering upon them. A single act committed from such a blackened motivation, said the Buddha, is a grave offense against the path of awakening -- worse than all those lifetimes of misdeeds motivated by desire. Similarly, the great Tibetan yogi Padampa Sangye said, “A moment’s action arising from anger is worse than a hundred actions arising from desire.” (Now, don’t misinterpret: the Buddha and Padampa Sangye weren’t suggesting that we let ourselves get carried away in lust and attachment, and they weren’t praising the mind of desire, which brings its own set of problems; they were merely saying that, in the grand scheme of things, anger is far more destructive.)

In the moment it arises, anger can be very seductive. “There’s something delicious about finding fault with something,” says Pema Chodron. If we bite the hook and react out of anger when another person provokes us, then the force of anger acquires strong momentum. It becomes difficult for us to back down. When Joe says something to us that provokes our wrath, biting his head off can feel like the most natural and beneficial way to handle the situation. And why not, right? After all, it was such a stupid thing for Joe to say. He deserves to have his head bitten off, doesn’t he?

It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate.
It takes strength to be gentle and kind.

-- The Smiths

Anger, like any other emotion, is a chain reaction. It can be broken down into component parts, and the chain reaction can be interrupted if we are able to catch it in time. If we replay a past scene of anger in slow motion, it’s not difficult to see how it works. First, something provokes irritation or annoyance, an uncomfortable feeling that’s raw and vulnerable, and difficult to sit with. Then comes the anger that targets an object or person outside as being the cause of this uncomfortable feeling. Finally, if not recognized and released, the aggressive energy of anger attaches stubbornly to the object and mutates into an abiding sense of hatred and prejudice. There is a tremendous difference between that initial, vulnerable feeling of annoyance or irritation, and the final result of wishing harm upon another person or group of people (and perhaps acting in order to bring about that harm).

Yet we would have to be blind and deaf to fail to see the disastrous effects of this chain reaction in our world on a daily basis. Turn on the evening news or pick up the paper: husbands are murdering their wives out of anger; ethnic groups are committing genocide out of hatred. Nations are locked in bitter, intractable conflicts that drag on for decades or centuries and cause entire peoples to despise one another; in the name of self-defense, they plot angrily to inflict destruction and death and suffering upon each other.

Self-defense is often the wellspring of anger. Our so-called ‘self’ feels threatened or insulted in some way, and so we lash out in defensive maneuvers to push away or suppress the cause of discomfort. Not long ago, I got into a heated confrontation with a fellow monk at the Abbey, Sonam, who had criticized me for re-ordering a new supply of the Abbey’s old letterhead. He didn’t like the way the letterhead was designed and had ambitions to redesign it before any more letterhead was ordered. It was a petty matter, but it quickly blew up into a major meeting of egos. The way he expressed his displeasure seemed to imply that I was an idiot and a slacker — or at least, that’s how my mind heard it. I felt insulted and abused, and I reacted with strong, sharp anger. Who did he think he was to speak to me that way? We exchanged a series of remarks that grew more and more pointed and angry; other people in the office stopped what they were doing and stared in disbelief, uncertain whether to intervene.

Later, when I calmed down, I realized the conflict was not really about the Abbey’s letterhead at all. In fact, I didn’t even disagree with him: the letterhead was, in fact, cumbersome and difficult to work with, and should have been redesigned. Rather, the conflict sprang from Sonam’s harsh words, and from my reaction of lashing out in self-defense against someone who was triggering in me intense feelings of insecurity and vulnerability and humiliation. I was out for blood, which I was determined to extract from Sonam in the form of an apology that would placate my ego.

One evening, a few days after that confrontation, all the monks and nuns at the Abbey were gathered in the main shrine room for our biweekly Sojong ceremony in which we confessed whatever wrongdoings we might have committed in the previous two weeks, clearing the slates for a fresh start. The nun leading the ceremony read a chapter from Patrul Rinpoche’s book, The Words of My Perfect Teacher. One particular passage, about the benefits of working with patience when someone wrongs us, and the dangers of flaring up in anger, seemed to hit me right in the gut:

Every time anyone says a single word you are extremely sensitive to the way they speak, and boil with anger whenever you think you are being humiliated or criticized. That sort of touchiness is a sign that your mind and the Dharma have gone separate ways and that the Dharma has not changed your mind in the least.

As I contemplated all this in the context of the Sojong ceremony, I realized that an apology definitely needed to happen — from me, to him. Even before the clash with Sonam, I had been carrying around a backlog of unspoken anger and irritation at him. He had a forceful manner of speaking to people that I had often experienced as domineering and bossy, and I resented it whenever that tone was directed at me. In the confrontation over the letterhead, the emotional force of that undercurrent of unacknowledged, petty resentments had surfaced; it clouded my vision and shaped my reaction, turning what could have been a non-incident into a major one.

Tibetan Buddhists sometimes talk about döns, which are personified as malevolent, trouble-making spirits -- outer representations of our inner demons. Döns manifest as sudden attacks of anger, depression, and other negative states of mind that seem to strike out of nowhere and completely take over our minds. My confrontation with Sonam had that quality of an attack of döns; I had been shocked to see myself get so upset, and wondered where such an intense anger could have come from. But upon reflection, I realized it didn’t actually strike out of nowhere. Behind that sudden flare-up was a long, gradual accumulation of irritation that I had not dealt with. Our conflict over the letterhead was simply the match that lit the fire. But the kindling for the fire was already there inside me, waiting to be ignited.

We don’t plan on being angry. No one ever wakes up and says, “Today is a good day to be angry. I think I’ll start cranking up my anger right after breakfast.” Anger usually strikes with that sudden, dön-like quality, when something provokes us. But döns only have the power to strike us abruptly because we’ve already rolled out the red carpet and invited them to come in. The habitual patterns in our minds create conducive conditions for negative emotions to flare up suddenly. To interrupt this process, we need to re-train ourselves in new ways of working with anger.

One way of working constructively with anger is to apply an antidote: arouse the opposite, positive state of mind and try to dwell in that experience in order to cool the anger and let its energy dissolve. This method works on the principle that two opposite mental factors cannot exist simultaneously in your mind; they might alternate so rapidly that you think they’re both there simultaneously, but they’re not. So, when anger arises, cultivate a mind of patience, loving-kindness, generosity: open, accommodating qualities that are the energetic and emotional opposites of the shut-down, hardened mind of anger.

Patience, in particular, is traditionally said to be the antidote to anger. The hot discomfort of anger pushes us towards verbal or physical displays of aggression; we are driven to act impulsively because we feel that something needs to be done now to change the situation and alleviate our discomfort. When we apply patience to the situation and refrain from acting impulsively, we create space for the hot energy of our anger to cool down. Practicing patience in this way does not mean suppressing our anger, but it also does not mean indulging it. Often we think of patience as simply biding our time and twiddling our fingers while we wait for something else to happen. But the patience we need on the spiritual path is of a different kind. In her book Working with Anger, the American Buddhist nun Thubten Chodron writes:

Patience does not involve pasting a plastic smile on our face while hatred simmers inside. It involves dissolving the anger-energy so that it is no longer there. Then, with a clear mind, we can evaluate various alternatives and decide what to do to remedy a situation.

Another way of working with anger is to practice seeing the positive qualities of the person at whom we feel angry. When we are angry, we single out negative qualities about the object of our anger; we focus exclusively on those negative aspects, ignoring other, more positive qualities that would tend to undermine the emotion. But no person or situation is ever entirely positive or entirely negative.

There are many stories of Buddhist monks from Tibet who were imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese after the invasion of 1959, but who nevertheless held a positive view of their Chinese torturers. One monk who was kept in prison for many years was tortured repeatedly with electric cattle prods that were inserted in his mouth, shattering all his teeth and causing unspeakable pain. When he later fled Tibet and went to India, he met the Dalai Lama, who asked him if he had been afraid when he was in prison. The monk replied that yes, there had been times when he was afraid: he was afraid that he might lose his compassion for the Chinese.

It boggles the mind to imagine having that much serenity and compassion and patience: it seems almost impossibly advanced in spiritual terms. Most of us would probably be eaten alive with anger and hatred of our oppressors in situations containing even a fraction of the horrors to which that monk was subjected. But as the example of such people shows, it is, in fact, possible to transform even the most difficult and negative situations into positive fuel for awakening.

That is the upside of anger: like every other moment of consciousness, it is a brilliant expression of mind's natural luminosity and wakefulness. The question is whether we rest in that wakefulness, or fall back into the sleep of our habitual patterns of acting and speaking destructively. We recoil from the sharpness and intensity of anger because it is bright, blinding, painful to look at: it's easier to divert our attention outwards and focus on the object that's provoking our anger. Yet the brilliant sharpness of anger is nothing other than the brilliant sharpness of mind itself. Everything -- our entire future -- depends upon how we work with our anger when it strikes.