Despite the placid appearance of most Buddha statues and the Buddhist precept against indulging anger, there is a place for fierceness and compassionate anger in Buddhism. Especially when we’re faced with injustice or need to protect others, we may need the energy of anger or fierceness to make ourselves heard. I discuss how respect for appropriate fierceness and anger appears in Buddhist iconography and mythology.
Today, my talk is on the place of fierceness and compassionate anger in Buddhism; particularly as conveyed in Buddhist iconography. I’ll explain why that’s particularly significant in a little bit.
As most or all of you are aware, about two weeks ago on May 25th an African-American man named George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Since then, the United States and the world have been rocked by protest. What we see is an explosion of rage and anger; people coming out to demonstrate that they refuse to accept the status quo. They refuse to accept things going on as they are. This seems very appropriate.
Now, true, some of this has merged into violence, and you can debate whether that’s understandable or not, everybody agrees it’s not ideal. Even when it hasn’t been manifested in violence, there is anger, there is outrage even in the peaceful or nonviolent demonstrations. It looks perhaps like even some substantial change is going to come around because of that kind of expression and that kind of standing up. Ultimately, anger is our impulse to protect, our impulse to protect when we think someone or something is being threatened. It’s a very natural response, but as we all know, if anger is expressed in certain ways, it is destructive. I think most of us have had the experience of acting out of anger and later regretting what we said or did. It is an energy, experience, and emotion that we have a very ambivalent relationship with.
Anger Versus the Spiritual Ideal of Equanimity
In spiritual practice we get many messages that anger is a bad thing. For instance, in my form of Buddhism we have 16 precepts and one of them is do not indulge anger; cultivate equanimity. From the very beginning, the Buddha pointed out that there are three poisons at the root of all negative actions and suffering, and they are often translated as greed, hate, and delusion. Greed is pretty straightforward. Delusion is pretty straightforward. Now, hatred can be translated also as ill will, but sometimes it’s also translated as anger. In some teachings we end up thinking that anger is one of the poisons, one of the three poisons. In addition, throughout Buddhism there is an ideal presented of cultivating some kind of equanimity.
Iconographically speaking, we have the image of the Buddha, the classic image of the Buddha’s very calm and serene face, almost otherworldly. Then there are also other images which are very ubiquitous and popular. One of the most popular Buddhist bodhisattvas is the Bodhisattva of Compassion who early on is called Avalokiteshvara and had a male aspect. Later, as Buddhism moved into China, this bodhisattva took on a feminine aspect and was called Kuan Yin. Later on she’s called Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan. Portrayals of Kuan Yin are, generally speaking, similarly serene and beautiful; making gestures that are graceful and loving. Sometimes she’s even portrayed as having a child on her lap. This image of Kuan Yin, like I said, is the most popular of the Buddhist bodhisattvas.
I’m going to be talking about iconography and Buddhist mythology in terms of bodhisattvas and, in a sense, deities or supernatural beings that populate Buddhism, are shown in statues and paintings, and appear in the Buddhist scriptures. I want to explain a little bit about that: Historically, Buddhists just assumed that the world was full of such beings. It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t that Buddhism was based on the presence or the function or even relating to these figures. Just as Buddhism doesn’t depend on the existence of deities or supernatural bodhisattvas, you don’t have to believe in them. It’s not an essential part of the religion, at least from my perspective. However, it is a part of our tradition and I think there’s a value in this kind of imagery and iconography from a mythological perspective. In that sense, that mythology conveys something true. It conveys something. Even if the details of a myth aren’t literally true, they convey some kind of truth. I’m going to be talking about this iconography as if there’s something to be gained from studying them; that there’s some truth conveyed in their story and in the way they’re portrayed.
Fierceness and Compassionate Anger in Buddhist Iconography and Mythology
Buddhist mythology and iconography is not all sweetness and light, as you may be aware. In episode 56, I already introduced you to a story of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. I’ll tell the story briefly again, so that we have the context here.
Avalokiteshvara uses his supernatural powers to look out over all living beings and he sees how they’re suffering so much and they’re caught in this web of greed, hate and delusion, and his heart just breaks with compassion. He makes a vow to never, ever, ever stop trying to save living beings, and he’s not going to stop until every last one of them is liberated. He adds to that vow that if he should think for a moment of his own wellbeing and salvation instead, he vows that may his head break into a hundred pieces. He goes to work and he works for a very, very long time, eons. Then he looks out over all the living beings again and is horrified to see that the number of suffering beings has not decreased at all, not one bit. He’s so discouraged that the thought enters into his head that he should just give up and liberate himself, and then, of course, his head breaks into a hundred pieces.
Fortunately, the Buddha Amitabha reassembles Avalokiteshvara so he can continue with his work. As he does so, Avalokiteshvara asks, as long as you’re putting me back together, can I have a thousand arms and a thousand eyes so that I can respond to living beings and see them? Amitabha gives him that and also gives him 11 heads so we can look in all directions and absorb all this suffering without being discouraged, and of those 11 heads, one of them is wrathful. 10 of them look just like you would expect with placid Buddha faces, but one is very wrathful with its red face, grimace, and tongue sticking out; it’s obviously wrathful.
The idea is that the bodhisattva is able to be wrathful if that is what is required in a given situation in order to liberate a being. I should make a note that on the web page for this episode, I have links to various images of bodhisattvas that I’m referring to. In terms of images of wrathfulness that appear in Buddhism, many bodhisattvas, including the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, often carry a sword. This is the sword of wisdom that cuts through delusion. What kind of warrior is this wielding swords and wrathful faces?
The Bodhisattva “Warrior”
This is a series of verses attributed to the 13th Dalai Lama from his discourse on the Great Lam Rim. I wasn’t able to find a good reference for it, but it’s repeated in many places. It says:
“The Bodhisattva is like the mightiest of warriors;
But her enemies are not common foes of flesh and bone.
His fight is with the inner delusions,
The afflictions of self-cherishing and ego grasping,
Those most terrible of demons
That catch living beings in the snares of confusion
And cause them forever to wander in pain, frustration and sorrow.
Her mission is to harm ignorance and delusion, never living beings.
These he looks upon with kindness, patience, and empathy,
Cherishing them like a mother cherishes her only child.
She is the real hero, calmly facing any hardship
In order to bring peace, happiness and liberation to the world.”
A Balanced Trio of Buddhist Figures: Samantabhadra (Loving Activity), Shakyamuni, Manjushri (Wisdom)
In Mahayana Buddhism, there’s always an active bodhisattva aspect included in the overall teaching. Iconographically, the bodhisattva that represents a more active, loving activity is Samantabhadra or Fugen. It’s very common on altars or in hangings or in other portrayals for there to be what’s called the Shakyamuni Triad. Shakyamuni Buddha is featured in the middle, to his right is Samantabhadra or Fugen, who is seated on an elephant, and to Shakyamuni Buddha’s left is the Bodhisattva Manjushri or Monju, who’s seated on a kind of a lion, looks like a big, rambunctious dog. On the Soto-shu, the Japanese Soto-shu, school website, this is what it says about Fugen Bodhisattva or the Japanese version of Samantabhadra:
Fugen means “widely” (fu 普) “virtuous,” “worthy,” or “able” (ken 賢). S. Samantabhadra. A bodhisattva who is often paired with Monju Bodhisattva as one of two attendant figures who flank an image of Shakamuni Buddha. In this arrangement, Fugen is said to represent the Buddha’s compassion (jihi 慈悲), whereas Monju represents the Buddha’s wisdom (chie 智慧), those being the two complementary virtues that all bodhisattvas should cultivate.
(8) When paired with Monju, Fugen is the active party, practicing morality and meditation, fulfilling vows (gyōgan 行願) to save all living beings, and appearing in all buddha lands. Monju, in contrast, passively surveys the emptiness (kū 空) of all dharmas and cuts off all attachments to them. Fugen, riding a white elephant with six tusks, attends the Buddha on his right side. Monju, riding a lion, attends the Buddha on his left side.[i]
Monju and Fugen statues are often displayed or sold in pairs. If you go online and search for Samantabhadra and Manjushri (Monju) and Fugen, you often get many images of these paired statues, statues built in the same style. One is Manjushri and one is Samantabhadra. Just a note, these different images, these Bodhisattvas, play different roles and they evolve over time, and they can even stand in for each other sometimes. You might have thought Avalokiteshvara or Kanzeon was the manifestation of compassion, but so is Samantabhadra. If there’s any difference, Samantabhadra tends to be a little bit more active.
This is beautifully portrayed by Taigan Dan Leighton in his book about bodhisattvas called Faces of Compassion. In it he describes the bodhisattvas and their iconography, but he also suggests modern examples of each bodhisattva. He’s not saying that the people that he suggests are perfect saints or anything, but they manifest a lot of that archetypal bodhisattva’s energy. For Avalokiteshvara, he suggested someone like Mother Teresa as a manifestation because a huge part of her service is simply being present with people in their suffering, not turning away from it, listening, and then responding in a very immediate way. Samantabhadra, Leighton suggests, might be represented by somebody like Martin Luther King; someone who is deeply motivated by love and maybe fulfills longer term, more complicated vows regarding liberating living beings.
Fudo, the Immovable One, a Poster-Child for Fierceness
Here is an interesting story, I may not be getting this perfectly right, but this is the mythology that’s been passed down in my lineage. My lineage traces its roots back through Sojiji Monastery in Japan. There are two main Soto lineage head monasteries, Sojiji and Eiheiji. Sojiji, not in its current location but it’s a previous iteration, evolved at a spot that had previously been a Shingon temple. It had been a temple associated with the Vajrayana Buddhism as it manifested in Japan. You’re most familiar with it probably in terms of Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Vajrayana, but Tantric Buddhism also had a presence in China and also came to Japan. In Japan it’s called Shingon. There apparently was a Shingon temple there and then, fortunes changed and it became a Soto Zen temple. When temples were taken over in this fashion in Asia, it was typical to honor the deities or gods or spirits that were previously held in honor with the previous iteration of the temple. You didn’t eject deities. Shingon deity then Fudo Myo-o or earlier iterations is Acala or Achala was present in Sojiji and got adopted into this particular Soto Zen lineage.
Fudo is quite a character. He’s what they call a Dharma Protector. He’s not a god, per say, but he’s a supernatural kind of being. There are many different Dharma Protectors. Fudo means immoveable or removeable one. He is portrayed either sitting or standing on a rock and he’s surrounded by flames. He’s got a really fierce expression on his face, his brow is furrowed, and he’s often portrayed as having fangs sticking out of his mouth, one of them sticking up, one of them sticking down. In one hand, he holds a rope to bind delusions, and in the other hand, sure enough, a sword to cut through delusions. The idea is that he will stand immovable in the midst of hell and in the midst of fire because his vow is strong enough to cut through delusions and liberate living beings. In my lineage, instead of Samantabhadra, we had Fudo on one of our side altars. He was always present in our Zendo.
Take or Leave Images of Fierceness and Compassionate Anger
I feel like these fierce images, Fudo and to some extent Samantabhadra, the wrathful face of Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri with his sword are calling to us to develop some kind of energy, the clarity of a warrior, while at the same time being like that poem from the 13th Dalai Lama. Our mission is to harm ignorance and delusion, never living beings.
The imagery of a sword or a weapon may or may not work for you. We had a discussion about this at my son’s center and somebody pointed out: what would it look like to us if we portrayed Fudo or Manjushri holding a gun? What exactly is being conveyed by this inclusion of a weapon? I do want to say a little disclaimer here that, you know, all of our Buddhist teachings and tools and images are medicine for particular ills. Sometimes a particular teaching or particular practice or a particular image is very useful to us, and sometimes that’s exactly the wrong thing. I invite you to take or leave this kind of imagery.
In terms of the sword, this is metaphorical. Maybe a more appropriate image might be a surgeon’s scalpel. Something that in the short run might do some harm and it might actually cut skin or flesh, but it’s for a good purpose. What is the place of fierceness and anger in our practice given that we know it can be such a destructive energy?
The Dalai Lama on Compassionate Anger
Dalai Lama, in a book called Be Angry, says:
“There are two types of anger. One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having… Anger brings more energy, more determination, more forceful action to correct injustice…
If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. But if we act out of consideration for the other person, if we are motivated by affection and sympathy, then we can act out of anger because we are concerned for that person’s well-being.”[ii]
The Dalai Lama gives as an example of a parent who might raise their voice up at their child or even punish them because they need to stop them from doing something that is harmful or harmful to them. They do so out of concern and ideally, as soon as the issue is resolved, their anger melts away. They’re not angry at their child. They’re manifesting a kind of some energy, some determination. I don’t know about you, but there are certain times in my life when I look back and see that I refrained from expressing anger because I didn’t want to make a mistake. I didn’t want to do anything that I was going to regret. I didn’t want to be seen as a bad person or whatever. I was afraid to express that anger. I kind of held it in or said something. I’ve always stood up for myself, but if you stand up for yourself in a way that’s like, “I’m sorry, could you please you know, I don’t really like…” versus the clarity of anger, then sometimes you’re just not going to be heard. The other person isn’t going to understand what your experience is. They’re not going to understand how important this is. I think it’s very curious. Well, the anger brings more energy, more determination, more forceful action.
Dalai Lama continues:
“Now, what about anger toward social injustice? Does it last for a very long time, until the social injustice goes away? Anger toward social injustice will remain until the goal is achieved. It has to remain.”
We Do Have Power: The Prophecy of the Shambhala Warriors
Of course, this is very relevant to our time. Sometimes we feel powerless if we feel like our anger has nowhere to go or that there’s nothing we can do to bring about change, and sometimes it just feels like the anger, and it just burns us up instead of being this tool to motivate and to bring about change. I wonder sometimes if the skillful use of anger isn’t also tied to waking up to how we aren’t powerless, maybe how our compassionate anger and fierceness can help.
I want to share another Buddhist image of fierceness; this one about the Shambhala Warriors, and this is from a 12 centuries old prophecy from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, as told to Joanna Macy by her teacher:
The Shambhala Warrior
“There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. Barbarian powers have arisen. Although they waste their wealth in preparations to annihilate each other, they have much in common: weapons of unfathomable devastation and technologies that lay waste the world. It is now, when the future of all beings hangs by the frailest of threads, that the kingdom of Shambhala emerges…
“Now comes the time when great courage is required of the Shambhala warriors, moral and physical courage. For they must go into the very heart of the barbarian power and dismantle the weapons. To remove these weapons, in every sense of the word, they must go into the corridors of power where the decisions are made.
“The Shambhala warriors know they can do this because the weapons are manomaya, mind-made. This is very important to remember, Joanna. These weapons are made by the human mind. So they can be unmade by the human mind! The Shambhala warriors know that the dangers that threaten life on Earth do not come from evil deities or extraterrestrial powers. They arise from our own choices and relationships. So, now, the Shambhala warriors must go into training…
“They train in the use of two weapons. The weapons are compassion and insight. Both are necessary. We need this first one [compassion] because it provides us the fuel, it moves us out to act on behalf of other beings. But by itself it can burn us out. So we need the second as well, which is insight into the dependent co-arising of all things. It lets us see that the battle is not between good people and bad people, for the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. We realize that we are interconnected, as in a web, and that each act with pure motivation affects the entire web, bringing consequences we cannot measure or even see.
“But insight alone… can seem too cool to keep us going. So we need as well the heat of compassion, our openness to the world’s pain. Both weapons or tools are necessary to the Shambhala warrior.” [A Tibetan Legend, https://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=236]
You can see that this prophecy also includes that balance between insight, or wisdom, and compassion and action. We’re motivated by compassion, motivated to take action, because if some living beings are threatened, then anger, the desire to protect is what arises. We need that energy. We need that determination and clarity to go into the corridors of power, as warriors, to dismantle these weapons. You need fierceness, compassionate anger and immovability, not immovability physically in terms of not taking action, but immovability in terms of our determination and our vow.
Learning How to Manifest Compassionate Anger
How do we actually do this? How do we actually tap into and awaken and allow this kind of fierceness and compassionate anger but not have it turn poisonous, not have it start centering on ourselves, not have it start centering on other people anger and hatred toward other people, but toward ignorance and actions? I think it’s useful to talk about it and to study it and to learn about the teachings and contemplate the iconography and all that, to get the juices flowing, to challenge us, to bring up these questions, but ultimately this is something that we discover how to do in our own direct experience. We end up being too cool and turning off our compassion, maybe with some rationalizations instead of being righteously angry, but then, maybe we get too righteously angry and caught up in it. It’s something that we learn how to do. It’s like, riding a bike. Somebody can explain to you how you’re supposed to ride a bike, but until you just physically do it, you don’t know how to do it.
Similarly, this is inviting us to find a way to manifest, to honor our fierceness and compassionate anger in a positive way. The Dalai Lama describes meeting with refugees from Tibet and hearing their tragic stories of loss and persecution and despair. He describes feeling great sadness and anger on their behalf. Yet, in another moment, he’s feeling equanimity and even laughing. I think this is very, very fascinating because I think a big question for all of us is: How do we honor anger but not always be angry? He says,
“This is not an emotional switch I turn on and off. That meeting and this moment are connected. I can experience the sadness, suffering, the absurdity, and cruelty of this world. I can share in others’ pain and groan with them. I feel the same anger and outrage. But in the present moment, that anger motivates me to find the causes of suffering in the world and to work harder in my own religious practice, so that I can confront that suffering directly and enlighten humanity.”
Acala Vidyaraja: Photograph from the remarkable Buddhist art collection at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore. This image was originally posted to Flickr by Anandajoti at https://flickr.com/photos/64337707@N07/34343125994. It was reviewed on 13 June 2017 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.
[ii] Dalai Lama. Be Angry (p. 27-30). Hampton Roads Publishing. Kindle Edition.