on anger

Do you want to be happy in life?

And when you are angry, are you happy? Does anger bring you happiness?

Then why don’t you remove it?

Anger is universal. There is no culture, religion, or country that is unaffected by anger. 

It is also universally disliked – nobody likes to be angry, or to be around somebody who is angry. 

And yet – what do we know about anger?

Though every human being on the planet has anger, and nobody likes it, it is very hard to find someone who will give you a satisfactory answer, or who has even given thought, to even basic questions about it, such as these: 

How is anger formed? 

How many kinds of anger do we have?

Is anger caused by something outside, or something inside, or does it sometimes come from outside, and sometimes come from inside?

Does there exist a good reason for being angry?

Can one have a right to be angry?

Is anger right or wrong, or is it sometimes right and sometimes wrong? 

Can we control it?

Can we remove it?

Can we ever become completely free of it?

(Of course, we could also ask these questions about any other emotion – fear, hatred, jealousy, sadness, anxiety.)

When you are angry, are you happy?

We can mostly agree that anger does not make us happy. When we are angry, we are not happy. The more we stay in anger, the less we are calm, the less we are happy, the less we are at peace.

We can also mostly agree that anger is a cause whereby people hurt and harm others. When you are angry with somebody, you are not wishing for that person’s happiness. You are wishing for their unhappiness, for their suffering. You want to punish them, you want them to suffer for whatever they have done wrong. Maybe you won’t act on it, maybe you will.  

Even if, out of anger, we can sometimes also do good or useful actions (such as volunteering for an aid agency out of anger at the neglect of poor people, or protesting against wars or injustice) – we cannot do these good actions with a happy and peaceful heart if we are doing them out of anger. Being tormented by our anger at these things, we can spend our whole life miserable, at war with the world and at war inside ourselves, we cause harm to ourselves even while doing something good in the world outside. Would it not be better to do those kinds of actions simply out of compassion and a wish to help, not out of anger? 

So anger hurts us, makes us unhappy, and is a cause whereby we hurt others and ourselves. On this, we can mostly agree.

Then comes the most difficult question – if we see it is wrong, if it makes us unhappy, if it is a cause of us hurting ourselves and/or others – then why do we not drop it, why do we not remove it?

Is it impossible to drop it?

Vanishing anger

Suppose you are in a crowded train station, waiting for the next train to arrive. It’s so crowded that it’s hard to find room to move. Suddenly someone shoves you rudely from behind. Immediately, like gasoline bursting into flame when touched by a spark, anger rises inside you– how dare they do that!?

You turn around, with your mouth already opening to give them a piece of your mind – and then you see who your “attacker” was: a little, frail old lady, who had lost her balance and fallen against you.

Now, what do you think, are you still angry? Or does the anger dissolve in an instant, and now all of a sudden you are feeling compassion for her instead, asking her if you can help her carry her bags?

See how, even as you have the words in your mouth ready to abuse, how quickly, how easily anger falls away– and how instantly it can be replaced with compassion. This happens automatically, no need to force it, no need to suppress it, no need to do anything.

Then how come we cannot do it manually? If we are not happy when we are angry, if we see it eats us up and harms us and harms others, why do we not drop our anger like that, like dropping something that burns your hand, like a drop of water evaporating on a burning hot pan?

Perhaps it is because, even if we theoretically know that anger is not good, when it arrives, we believe in it, we feel we have a “right” to be angry.

A right to be angry

We often hear this said, “I had every right to be angry,” or as a response to hearing someone complain about something that happened to them: “Well, you have every right to be angry!”

What people mean when they say this, is that their anger is “just,”  it is “right,” because others have behaved badly towards them or treated them in a way that is unfair.

In the scene in the train station, when you see the little frail old lady, now you realise that you have no reason, no “right” to be angry – and as you realise that, the anger falls away. But if you were to have turned around to see a person of your own age with a grin on their face saying “Oops, Soorryyy” in a sarcastic voice – then wouldn’t you feel you have a “right” to be angry?

Then would the anger fall away, or would you continue with whatever words of anger you had intended on saying to them? Or perhaps you would suppress it and keep it inside, deciding not to show your anger in words or actions – but it doesn’t mean the anger is gone, for you would still continue, wouldn’t you, to have the memory of that face pop up in your mind throughout the day, each time provoking renewed irritation.

Maybe later you would end up taking your anger out at somebody you don’t like at work, or you would have to find another way to release the tension inside, by ranting about the incident to friends, or going for a run, or talking about it with your psychotherapist. All because at that moment, you had a “right” to be angry.

Are others, therefore, responsible for our anger? Are the others what makes our anger right or wrong? Does the behaviour of others give us a true cause, a right reason to be angry?

Is there any situation where one has a “right” to be angry, according to the Buddha?

In one teaching that the Buddha gave, he said this: “Monks, even if some attackers were to savagely cut you up, cutting off all your arms and legs one by one with a double-handed saw, even then, whoever of you keeps anger inside would not be a true student of my teaching.”

Savagely, mind you.

He says that even in such an extreme situation, one should still have only thoughts of compassion – compassion even for one’s attacker. Why, how come? Let’s look into it.

Where is right and wrong?

When you are angry, you are believing that you are right and the other is wrong; that you are innocent and the other is guilty – is it not so? This is what you mean when you say you are “right” to be angry, isn’t it?

 But you are angry. The moment you are angry you are wrong, you cannot be right.

What is it to be cut into pieces with a double handed saw? Certainly it is physically painful. It involves physical sensations of pain; unpleasant sounds, unpleasant sights. And if you suffer these same things in a different situtation, through an illness – will you feel angry?

No – because the physical experience is not a cause of anger, that is not where there is something “wrong” or something “unjust” – no matter how painful it is. We cannot change what is in the world outside, it’s just there; there will be pleasant things, there will be painful things, and they stay the same whether we are angry or not.

What we can call “wrong”; what we can call “bad” – that exists in the mind, in ourselves, and only there.

The person cutting you to pieces with a double handed saw, are they driven by wrong thoughts, wrong intentions? Most certainly. Perhaps it’s anger, perhaps it’s hatred, perhaps its jealousy, perhaps it’s love of killing… whatever it is, it cannot be goodness.

Supposing it is anger that is driving the other to cut you to pieces with a double-handed saw, and now you get angry with them – what is the difference between you and them at that moment?

 Really, there is almost no difference. In that moment there are just two beings, two bodies and minds with anger driving them, one of them acting on the anger, the other unable to act on it. Whatever good thoughts or good actions you did in the past, they do not make this anger that you now have inside into something right. Whatever is outside you, however painful it is, does not turn this anger from something ugly into something beautiful. At the moment you have anger inside, you are nothing but anger. You are the same as whoever in the world is driven by anger.

The Base of Compassion

One who practices the teaching of the Buddha should understand and see that all wrong thoughts, wrong speech and wrong actions cause harm and suffering. Actually we could take this as a definition of “wrong” -“whatever causes harm and suffering.”  Right thoughts, right words and right actions are what remove suffering and bring happiness.

Moreover, we understand that wrong thoughts, wrong speech and wrong actions always cause much more harm and suffering for the one who commits them, than they do for others.

You do not even need to believe in the law of kamma to see this: that by wrong thoughts and intentions, you cause suffering for both yourself and others, while right and good ones bring peace and contentedness. What makes you feel happier, anger or compassion? What makes you feel more at peace: irritation or patience? What brings you more contentedness, carefulness or carelessness?

 You can easily see for yourself too, that your own wrong thoughts, wrong speech and wrong actions are what creates the most suffering in yourself, and not what others do to you.

What is more painful to think about: what somebody did to harm you – or what harm you did to somebody else?

The wrong action of somebody else towards you that happened twenty years ago – does that keep you awake at night? Or really is it the anger and hatred you feel towards that person which keeps you awake at night, eating yourself from inside?

This understanding, this way of seeing, is the base of our compassion for the one who does wrong: even when it is somebody who is doing wrong to us, even when it is somebody who is cutting us to pieces with a double-handed saw.

We have the choice to look into the mind and remove the anger there to replace it with patience; at this moment, we can choose to keep goodness inside of us and not allow ourselves to descend into anger, hatred, frustration, despair. We can reduce greatly the suffering we would otherwise feel. But this poor fellow with the saw in his hand, he is driven by such wrong intentions and thoughts; he is creating so much, so very much harm and future suffering for himself, such a heap of sorrow for himself.

Seeing it in this way, even the one who is cutting us to pieces with a double handed saw appears just like the little old grandma who fell into us by accident in the train station – a being who inspires nothing but sympathy and compassion. We have no more right to be angry with him than we have a right to be angry with that old lady.

Understanding this point, we should also be careful not to think that just because we are not angry, we should therefore just become a doormat and let whoever wants to cut us to pieces with a double handed saw do whatever they want!

We have to act with wisdom, not only patience, and sitting there and doing nothing, that would not be wise, but stupid. You should not, acting out of anger, punish or take revenge against others, but neither should you let somebody cut you to pieces out of compassion for them (indeed, this would not be really compassionate at all, as you just allow them to continue creating more harm, more suffering for themselves as well as you).

You should not see others as different from yourself, as worse or better. They have a body and mind, you have a body and mind, that can be driven by either good or bad qualities. If they can be be driven by bad qualities, wrong thoughts and intentions – well,  so can you.

You cannot change what you have done in the past, or how others behave. All you can change is what to keep inside yourself in the present moment, you can change how you act and how you think . And if you act with goodness and wisdom, you will end up helping not only yourself, but all the world.

Photo by David Clode on Upsplash.

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