64 - Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything
Special Announcement: Launch of the Zen Studies Sangha

I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people about dealing with fear, anger, and hatred as a Buddhist – our own as well that of others, especially at a time when people are so divided, and doing so much damage to one another. I discuss the Buddhist view of fear, anger, and hatred – what they are, why they arise, and why we end up acting on them even though they end up causing suffering for self and other. Then I’ll talk about the implications of these teachings to our everyday lives.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Nature of Fear, Anger, and Hatred
What Keeps It All Going? Disconnect Between Cause and Result
What Keeps It All Going? Confusion About True Happiness
What Keeps It All Going? Happiness at Someone Else’s Expense
Our Practice: By Non-Hate Alone Does Hatred End
Our Practice: Compassion Is Not Always Nice
Our Practice: Dealing with the Fear, Anger, and Hatred of Others

 

I had planned to make this episode the second in my series about the Brahmaviharas, or four sublime social attitudes. However, given the current events in the U.S. and the world, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people about how to deal with fear, anger, and hatred as a Buddhist – and that means our own fear, anger, and hatred as well that of others. Serendipitously, I’ll actually be mentioning the Brahmaviharas as well, but I still plan to do a separate episode or two specifically examining them as a Buddhist teaching and practice.

First, I’ll discuss the Buddhist view of fear, anger, and hatred. You may think such a discussion is merely an intellectual exercise, but actually its very important for us to understand the teachings and let them permeate and inform our lives. In addition, how we respond and relate to something changes radically depending on how we “frame” it – that is, how we conceive of it and apply language to it.

Then I’ll talk about the implications of the Buddhist teachings to our everyday lives. We can engage the teachings in order to free ourselves of the misery and constriction of fear, anger, and hatred within ourselves, and we can also allow the teachings to shape our actions in the world and make them more skillful and effective as we try to bring about positive change.

The Nature of Fear, Anger, and Hatred

First let’s examine the Buddhist view of fear, anger, and hatred – what are they, and why do they arise?

Basically, all beings seek happiness and avoid pain. This isn’t a Buddhist teaching so much as it’s just an obvious reality. Even an amoeba behaves according this pattern; animate life is pretty much defined by moving toward what nourishes or protects and away from what hurts. This fundamental drive isn’t inherently a problem except that human beings are a whole lot more complicated than amoebas and we tend to get confused about what actually leads to happiness versus suffering, and even what happiness really is.

As I discussed in Episode 59, the Buddha taught that all suffering arises from one or more of three fundamental roots, or poisons: lobha, which can be translated as greed, craving, sensuality, or desire; dveṣa, which can also be translated as ill-will, aversion, hostility, or hatred; and moha, which is a state of belief in something false and can be translated as delusion, confusion, foolishness, or ignorance. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll use the terms greed, ill-will, and delusion for the three poisons.

Fear, anger, and hatred are all intimately related, and they’re essentially different stages of the manifestation of ill-will with delusion mixed in. The arising of these negative states starts with fundamental fear that you won’t get what you need, or that you’ll be harmed in some way. Anger arises as an instinct to protect. Throw in a good dose of delusion – the belief that our well-being is separate from that of other beings, and that clinging to the self results in happiness – and we start “othering.” We think of the people we blame for our misfortune, or those we feel threatened by, and conclude they must be fundamentally different than we are. For some reason (frequently based on superficial differences like race or cultural background) the other is less than we are, and somehow deserves misfortune. This conclusion overrides our natural empathy and compassion and our attitude can harden into hostility and hatred.

In a way, you could argue that fear is a pretty basic emotion and it just arises in us based our perceptions of threat (real or imagined). Similarly, anger is fairly natural when we feel the need to protect ourselves or something we value. Neither of these fundamental human emotions is equivalent to poison of dveṣa. What matters from a Buddhist point of view is what we do with our experiences of fear and anger. Do we practice with them? Question our perceptions? Align ourselves with our aspirations of wisdom and compassion despite our discomfort, and try to find a way forward that doesn’t compromise those aspirations? Or do we retreat into self-protection and let our basic fear and anger develop into the poison of dveṣa, ill-will, aversion, hostility, or hatred?

Unfortunately, many people choose a course influences by the poison of ill-will (and usually greed and delusion will have found their way into the scenario as well).

Now, any action based on the three poisons and any related attitudes will inevitably create suffering. If it’s the basic nature of animate life to seek happiness and avoid suffering, why do people keep acting out the three poisons? That’s a question for the ages I certainly won’t be able to resolve in a podcast episode, but the Buddhist take is that we remain caught up in the poisons for three reasons, and all of them are based in ignorance. (This is why Buddhism so strongly emphasizes the importance of insight, or waking up to reality, but I’ll get into that later.)

What Keeps It All Going? Disconnect Between Cause and Result

First, the consequences of our negative actions are often removed from us in time or space. Unless the suffering we’ve caused appears immediately in front of our eyes, or maybe up to a week or so later, we just don’t get the connection. This is why it’s so difficult to stop engaging in an activity like smoking, or why we can continue to purchase items we know are manufactured in abysmal conditions halfway across the world. An intellectual knowledge of consequences is not at all the same thing as experiencing the pain of severe illness, or the empathic grief of directly witnessing real people working in a sweat shop from which you buy products. If we were somehow able to directly connect the causal action to the painful result, we’d probably recoil from the action in horror.

The Buddha’s first major insight on the night of his enlightenment directly addressed this unfortunate human inability to see causation when the result is too far removed from a cause in time and space. Because of the many years he’d already spent in spiritual practice and meditative discipline, and also because he was, well, a remarkable guy, he was able to see the whole complicated web of causation – the workings of karma – beyond ordinary limitations. In the Pali Canon the Buddha explains how he first settled and concentrated his mind and then he says:

“I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two…five, ten…fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion…”[i]

With this amazing view, the Buddha carefully observed the workings of karma in each of these past lives. Then he expanded his view even further to include the lives of countless other beings. He was able to recognize patterns in this vast web of causation. He saw that the conditions experienced by each being weren’t based on what caste they were born into or what esoteric rituals they performed (main preoccupations of his time), but largely on their own past actions. The results of those actions were profoundly influenced by the actor’s intentions, and each being eventually experienced negative results from negative actions – even if it took a lifetime or two for the results to manifest.

Whether or not you believe some guy named Siddhartha Gautama was literally able to witness the events of countless past lives, the point is that there are some really basic karmic laws operating in the universe. Actions based on greed, ill-will, and delusion lead to suffering. Self-clinging leads to suffering. If it looks like someone’s performing negative and harmful actions and getting away with it – or even enjoying good fortune – this is either an illusion or only temporary. This teaching holds true even if you don’t believe in rebirth. You know the saying, “The thief looks behind the door?” There are serious detrimental impacts to a person’s body, mind, and heart when they allow their actions to be dictated by greed, ill-will, delusion, and selfishness. This may sound like cold comfort when you contemplate someone who’s wreaking great harm on the world, but I believe this teaching is borne out by the evidence whenever you’re able to get such a person to honestly reflect on their actions. I’d be willing to bet there are no truly happy murderers, just for example.

Fortunately, we don’t have to personally experience a vision of the workings of karma over eons in the lives of countless beings – if we’re smart, we can adopt the principles the Buddha (or Christ, or Muhammad) discovered and verify for ourselves that they lead away from suffering toward happiness. As long as we’re aware of our limited ability to connect cause and effect when they’re removed from each other in time and space, we can choose instead to act according to principles discovered by wise people and corroborated by our own experience.

What Keeps It All Going? Confusion About True Happiness

The second reason we keep acting on greed, ill-will, and delusion even though they inevitably lead to suffering is that we get confused about what true happiness is. There’s all kinds of things we might strive for as human beings because we perceive them as rewarding or advantageous, such as pleasure, status, fame, wealth, possessions, power, adventure, physical beauty, sexual attractiveness, or social popularity. We may hold desperately to views that allow us a sense of safety, righteousness, and importance. We do all of this in order to maintain or obtain happiness.

What is true happiness? From the beginning, Buddhism has made the point that true happiness doesn’t depend on any of the things I just mentioned. Pleasure, fame, or a sense of righteousness may temporarily make you feel good, but all of these things are unreliable. They come and go, are in limited supply, need defending, and eventually you’ll lose everything anyway. What kind of happiness is independent of all of these conditional things?

Essentially, this is what Buddhist enlightenment is. It’s seeing through all of our delusions about what makes us happy, letting go of grasping after conditional things, and discovering the peace of liberation. For over 2,500 years, fully ordained Buddhist monks have lived without everything most people think is necessary for happiness. All they own is their monastic robes, begging bowl, and other bare essentials. They don’t have their own home or family. They don’t have sexual relationships. For the most part, they do without all of our usual pastimes and pleasures. And yet… according to the Buddha, in part because they aren’t distracted by conditional sources of enjoyment, these dirt-poor, materially deprived monks can achieve the greatest pleasure a human can know, or Nirvana.[ii]

An understanding of real happiness isn’t limited to Buddhism by any means, of course. Most people at least say they appreciate how “the best things in life are free,” or how it’s your loving relationships that end up being the most important aspects of your life. Or how finding a way to serve is the best reward. But how many of us actually live these ideals? How often do we forget what really matters in our scramble for conditional sources of happiness? It’s this confusion (or forgetfulness) that leads us to act out of greed, ill-will, or delusion. This is what leads people to cheat, steal, and deprive others in their efforts to get more for themselves, even though true happiness is completely incompatible with the three poisons.

What Keeps It All Going? Happiness at Someone Else’s Expense

The third reason we act on the three poisons is because of our fundamental ignorance about the nature of reality, particularly the self. We think our self-nature is inherently existing, enduring, and independent. Naturally, we need to look out for “numero uno,” enjoy whatever advantages we have, and strive to obtain anything we think we need. In a world with limited resources, we’ll probably end up conflicting with others. If we’re good and moral people we try to minimize the harm we do to others, but sometimes we just have to protect ourselves – and if we’re protecting our families, all bets are off and pretty much anything goes. (Note: It may sound strange to talk about protecting our families as protecting ourselves, and it’s not entirely accurate, but family is a unique hybrid of self and other which often motivates us to act on the three poisons and feel fully justified in doing so. Our actions still end up causing suffering.)

Seeing our life and welfare as separate from those of others inspires us to seek as much conditional happiness as we can, even if our actions directly or indirectly mean there are fewer opportunities for others to do the same. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and if you end up white or rich or free or living in a peaceful nation it’s the luck of the draw and you don’t owe anything to others. Add to this view 1) a limited ability to connect cause to effect when they’re separated in time and space, and 2) confusion about what real happiness is, and you have a perfect recipe for the greed, inequality, and lack of compassion that’s manifesting on such a vast scale on our planet.

Of course, Buddhism says this sense that our life and welfare are separate from those of others is utter delusion. Who we are is completely interrelated with everything and everyone around us. Despite appearances, we don’t have an inherently-existing, independent, enduring self-nature somewhere inside us. That’s just something we imagine – a layer of interpretation put on our otherwise dynamic and vital experience of life. We’re actually part of a seamless, luminous reality – and therefore fundamentally not separate from anything or anyone. Someone else’s suffering is our suffering – and if we don’t experience it that way, it’s because we’re ignorant about the nature of reality. The sad thing is, the more we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, the less likely we’ll be able to wake up to the sobering but sublime reality that we’re intimately related to all beings. A selfish existence is a lonely one.

Our Practice: By Non-Hate Alone Does Hatred End

If you’re listening to this podcast, I’m guessing everything I’ve said so far makes sense to you. Even if you don’t quite get the Buddhist philosophy part of it, you probably agree acting with greed, ill-will, and delusion is a bad idea, that real happiness doesn’t come at the expense of others, and that we’re all in this together. But just believing this stuff doesn’t necessarily make a difference in real life, does it? We may still be plagued with fear, resentment, anger, ill-will, and even hatred. And even if we’re not, we’re living in a world were a lot of other people are. What do we do? What are implications of the Buddhist teachings for how we actually live? Of course, there are more answers to these questions than I can possibly address in the rest of this episode, so I’ll focus on a few things I think are essential.

First, let’s talk about our own fear, anger, and hatred. As we discussed earlier, fear and anger arise naturally because we’re human beings, so the question is what we do with them. Here Buddhism is absolutely unequivocal: There’s absolutely nothing to be gained by letting our basic emotions develop into the poison of dveṣa, or ill-will, aversion, hostility, or hatred. Not only does dveṣa impede our spiritual development and poison us from the inside out, it’s not effective for bringing about any kind of positive change in the world. And that’s really why so many of us allow ourselves to hold on to and nurture ill-will, isn’t it? We hope that somehow our resentment, anger, or hatred will stop or at least chastise the subject of our ill-will.

The Buddha said clearly that we’re just plain wrong about this. In an oft-quoted section of the Dhammapada he says:

“Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.”[iii]

Again, this is something most of us realize at some level but find it hard to live by. We witness time and time again how mutual hostility makes situations absolutely intractable, but occasionally someone in the midst of difficult circumstances responds, instead, with sincere goodwill – and sometimes a miraculous change occurs that defuses the whole standoff. These miracles of connection and healing may seem rare and special, nothing to depend on in terms of making positive change in the world, but they reveal the underlying ancient truth the Buddha spoke of: By non-hate alone does hatred end.

Our Practice: Compassion Is Not Always Nice

A wrathful protector deity (Kongôrikishi) in front a Buddhist temple in Japan. (See photo credit)

A wrathful protector deity (Kongôrikishi) in front a Buddhist temple in Japan. (See photo credit)

When most of us hear this kind of recommendation – to respond to hate with non-hate and set aside any ill-will no matter who we’re dealing with – we think it sounds pretty unrealistic and potentially dangerous, but this is because we misunderstand the positive side of what we’re asked to do as Buddhists. Cultivating the Brahmaviharas – goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity – toward all beings counteracts the three poisons, but we sometimes think this means always being nice and accommodating to beings, no matter what they’re doing. This is not at all the case. Even with a heart full of genuine goodwill toward someone, we can, when necessary, take decisive action to stop them from harming themselves or others. In fact, if we refrain from such an action because we think compassion is only about niceness, we fail in compassion for those who will be hurt, and for the perpetrator who will have to live with the consequences of his actions.

According to the Buddhist teachings, if we hold an attitude of goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity toward all beings, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, we will be in the best possible place for helping living beings. These attitudes do not preclude any particular actions taken on behalf of those beings; Buddhist teachings don’t relieve us of the difficult responsibility to make the wisest and most skillful choices we can. The details are up to us, but the recommended basis for all of our actions are the Brahmaviharas, not the Three Poisons.

That said, how do we free ourselves from the Three Poisons and cultivate the Brahmaviharas? How do we overcome the ignorance that leads us to miss the connections between causes and results, get confused about real happiness, and seek conditional happiness at the expense of others? All aspects of our Buddhist practice are aimed at these things. As I’ll discuss in future episodes, there are many targeted practices for cultivating the Brahmaviharas – particularly how to develop a sense of goodwill toward someone when it’s proving extremely difficult to give up our resentment. Our meditation ends up loosening our grasp on our sense of an inherently-existing, independent, enduring self-nature. Our daily mindfulness practice helps us recognize true happiness. The list goes on.

Our Practice: Dealing with the Fear, Anger, and Hatred of Others

But… even if you’re willing to work on overcoming your own fear, anger, and hatred, what about that of others? What can we do about all the people in the world caught up in the throes of greed, hatred, and delusion – people destroying our planet, exploiting the poor, consolidating all of the wealth in the hands of a few, and rabidly fomenting “othering” in the form of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia (to name just a few things)? We can’t make them practice, so what good is Buddhism in this situation?

If we’re going to be able to do any good at all, we have to start with our feet firmly on the ground of reality. In reality, all beings just want to be happy and avoid suffering. People cause suffering anyway because of their ignorance of all the things we’ve talked about today. They aren’t fundamentally evil or inherently different from us, they’re just caught up in the Three Poisons and confused about what real happiness is. An extremely small fraction of humankind has actual mental deficiencies that deprive them of empathy or a sense of morality, and such people should be thoughtfully restrained from harming others and treated with compassion. Everyone else is a mix of good and bad like any of us; the Three Poisons may be behind some of their actions, but the Brahmaviharas may be behind others, particularly actions on behalf of their family and immediate community.

So, our first responsibility as Buddhists, as I see it, is education. This may take many different forms, and only rarely will it be explicitly Buddhist. We want to communicate as clearly and widely as possible our vision of a world ruled by the Brahmaviharas instead of the Three Poisons. We want to share our conviction that we’re all in this together and ultimately not the slightest bit separate. We seek to inspire others to look for true happiness instead of only conditional pleasure or safety. We can do this through teaching meditation, activism, art, our jobs, the way we raise our children, the way we vote, the way we spend our money, and just through the way we conduct ourselves. There’s nothing better than teaching by example.

Approaching change through education allows us to feel goodwill and compassion toward those on the opposite side of an issue from us. We start with their basic humanity and think, “They will be happier for knowing what I have to teach them.” It’s not necessary for this effort to overcome ignorance to turn conspiratorial or condescending. Just think of when Mormon missionaries show up at your door; you may or may not want to talk to them, but you probably don’t blame them for putting themselves out there to sincerely share the good news as they see it.

At times it will also become our responsibility as Buddhists to stand up and demand something changes. Sometimes there’s not enough time to wait until everyone involved is happily converted to our cause; if we’d waited until even a majority of people agreed, we might still have schools and lunch counters explicitly segregated by race. Yet, even when putting our lives on the line for positive change, our actions can be based in the Brahmaviharas and not in fear, anger, or hatred.

Finally, our Buddhist faith can give us the strength and equanimity required to face what’s going on in the world without succumbing to despair. We can rely on an unconditioned and unconditional reality that’s completely unaffected by all the misery we encounter. Different forms of Buddhism describe this unconditioned reality differently: In Theravadin Buddhism it’s Nirvana, complete cessation and liberation that nonetheless is described as the foremost happiness.[iv] As a Mahayana Buddhist I like to refer to a seamless, luminous, lively whole of which we’re all a part, regardless of what’s going on. A Pure Land Buddhist puts faith in Amida Buddha and looks forward to rebirth in the Pure Land where awakening will be possible for all. It may take time and effort to establish your faith in such things, which in Buddhism should be based on your own, direct experience, but it might be one of the most important efforts you make.

 


Photo Credit

Kokawa-dera Temple – Dai-mon Gate – Kongôrikishi. By Yanajin33 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Endnotes

[i] “Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.036.than.html
[ii]Nibbana Sutta: Unbinding” (AN 9.34), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.034.than.html.
[iii] The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations (p. 2). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.
[iv]  The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations (p. 54). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.

 

64 - Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything
Special Announcement: Launch of the Zen Studies Sangha
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