Transforming Anger: A Brilliant Sea of Clouds

The Ninth Grave Precept

Do not indulge anger, cultivate equanimity.

In the realm of the selfless Dharma, not contriving reality for the self is the precept of not indulging anger.

Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is a brilliant sea of clouds. There is a dignified sea of clouds. 

Last week at Zen West, we talked about this Buddhist precept that cautions us against the delusion and harmful action that springs from this powerful and very human emotion of anger. Although worded as prohibitory rules, the precepts are fundamentally an invitation into discovery and a new way of seeing. They are not hard and fast do’s and don’ts applied from wisdom outside of you, but something that calls forth, instead, our own natural mind, and an ultimate truth of how we exist in this interpenetrating co-arising reality that we can never fully grasp with our conceptual thinking. Though precepts may at times constrict, they are about a palpable freedom we experience when we let go of small limited views that no longer serve our deepest needs.

I find this ninth precept on anger is one of the most difficult yet fruitful dharma gates to investigate, and interestingly, the only precept that directly addresses an emotion. Anger has a very strong attachment to its object and “contrived” justification from the mind. From mild annoyance to rage, if we look carefully, we can notice our days are often peppered with this “I” versus “you” mentality that gives rise to anger, galvanizing action in the face of threat and comes out as harsh tones of voice, menacing body postures, passive sulking or physical violence. If we look around us we can notice the undercurrent of anger is disturbingly pervasive and becomes resentment and hatred built up over time. The prospect of transforming this powerful energy may seem overwhelming, but to take up this precept earnestly, we just need to begin noticing and admitting our own experience of anger, without judgment. How does it feel in the body? Can we separate out the sensations, the heat and contraction, from the impulses and actions? Can you notice how the mind “indulges” the anger, finding an object to blame, and feeding the anger with judgments of fantasies of getting even? We can notice how we become angry at a concept in our minds rather than the reality of a person or situation.

Notice who really suffers from our anger.

If we can stay with our anger, and not indulge its message to hurt and harm in retaliation, we can often find the more vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness or grief, and begin to take care of the self that feels threatened and doesn’t know the truth of our ultimate belonging. This is not indulging that self, or the anger, but bringing compassion to the human vulnerability, and seeing deeply into the delusion. In Zazen, attending the arising and falling of anger like this, befriending the difficult states of mind, allows us to eventually let go, and utilize the gift of anger, its energy and urge to seek safety, in enlightened ways. Sometimes wrathful compassion looks this way, anger that is in the service of benefiting all beings, and not about being right or getting rid of the enemy. That is truly a powerful approach to work in the world. So this practice is not about cutting off, but being who you are and transforming that anger into something that serves.

If we take one small step in this direction, we take our place in this brilliant and dignified sea of clouds.

~ In gassho,