The following guest post comes to us courtesy of author Susan Edmiston.

When I recently came across the formulation of the Ninth Precept as “Not Being Angry,” I was puzzled. As a longtime Soto Zen practitioner and co-author of a book on anger, I had always been familiar with the precept as, “A disciple of buddha does not harbor ill will.”* Suddenly I understood the ongoing disagreement I’d had with Leonard Scheff, my coauthor on The Cow in the Parking Lot, A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger about whether anger—and the violations of Right Speech associated with it—was ever permissible. Perhaps he was hearing a different precept in his head – the stricter, more blanketing not-being-angry. And, indeed, when I looked up the writings of Robert Aitken Roshi, from whose Diamond Sangha Len’s Buddhist group was descended, I saw that his formulation of the precept was “No Indulgence in Anger.” Was the underlying question whether the Ninth Precept concerned anger in general, or more pointedly, hatred?

Many Buddhist writers had commented on these questions. I remembered particularly Reb Anderson, an abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, stating the precept the way I knew it in his book Being Upright, and commenting: “This way of expressing the precept certainly has great merit . . . The way I understand the precept using these words is that if you become inappropriately angry, then you are committed to not holding such anger in your heart.” However, he says, when he was involved in translating the Essence of Zen Precepts from the classical Japanese, “it became quite clear that this precept is more accurately translated as, “A disciple of Buddha does not become angry.”*

Anderson Roshi reconciles this difference by discussing the difference between arhats and bodhisattvas. “There are those who, in order to attain the highest personal liberation, vow never to express either anger or desire . . . We call such venerable beings arhats, with a feeling of utmost respect, and bodhisattvas honor and revere their wonderful attainments.” The root meaning of arhat, he explains, is “one who burns away or dries up all passions and defilements.” But, he continues, “The arhats’ concern for personal enlightenment . . . transcends anger and desire, but It lacks great compassion. “Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, vow to do anything that will realize the greatest welfare for all beings . . . This bodhisattva precept means not to be angry when anger is inappropriate, and to be angry when anger is appropriate. Anger is definitely part of human life; the question is how to live with it in a way that is beneficial rather than harmful.” Anderson Roshi subordinates the Ninth Precept to the three pure precepts of Mahayana Buddhism in the context of “refraining from all evil and practicing all good.”

He gives the example: “If someone asks for our help or requests some good deed that is difficult or inconvenient for us, we might not want to comply . . . We might even feel irritated and imposed upon, and become angry at the person for asking us to do some wholesome deed.” This would be inappropriate anger. “If on the other hand, someone were to offer a reward for committing some unethical act that was easy and convenient . . . we might not feel angry when, in fact, anger would be appropriate.”

He also values “righteous anger.” If anger arises when we experience or witness injustice in the world, “it is no longer personal anger,” he says. “It is the energy and activity of all beings, and it is appropriate and beneficial.” And he sees merit in a moment of rage or harsh speech that enables awakening. “Once someone became angry at me and expressed this anger with fierce and fiery energy. It was appropriate, because it woke me up from my inattention to my own conduct . . . I understood how rage can be beneficial when it comes at a moment when we can understand its deep meaning and wake up.”

Robert Thurman, also, disagrees that anger is “completely destructive, unjustified in any circumstance” and that we must manage it out of existence – “we must all become saints and can somehow become ultimately perfect, superhuman.” He too makes the distinction between one’s own isolated peace and the well-being of others. “I disagree with resignation from anger when turning to the question of what is Nirvana? What is it for? Is it just for one’s own isolated peace? Are there not still other beings in the world? Will your Nirvana destroy the world of pain of the other beings? . . . Is there not a good use for fire . . . to burn away the suffering of others?

“Anger when bound up with hate overwhelms the reasonable person with a painful vice-grip and uses him or her as a slave or tool to injure or destroy. . . It is never useful, never justifiable, always harmful to self as well as others . . . But fortunately it can always be controlled, restrained and ultimately prevented, avoided and transcended. The slave of anger can definitely free him- or herself . . . Then the raw, neutral energy of anger, the searing flame of fury, the power of “the peaceful atom,” can itself be a power tool . . . We will wield that fire with wisdom and turn it to creative ends.”

The Tibetan tradition offers an additional note of complexity. In fact, as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, notes in Healing Anger, the Tibetan word for hatred and anger is the same, “zhe dang.” However, he says, “I feel that it should be translated as ‘hatred,’ because ‘anger,’ as it is understood in English, can be positive in very special circumstances. These occur when anger is motivated by compassion or when it acts as an impetus or catalyst for a positive action. In such rare circumstances, anger can be positive whereas hatred can never be positive. It is totally negative.”

He then goes on to make a further distinction: “[I]n the Mahayana sutra vehicle, because the primary aim of a Bodhisattva practitioner is to be of service to others, there are certain exceptions allowed in regard to the negative actions of body and speech. However, no exceptions are allowed in regard to the nonvirtues of the mind because there is no possibility of mental nonvirtues being beneficial.” The mental state of anger “brings about a very ugly, unpleasant physical transformation of the individual. In addition, when such intense anger and hatred arise, it makes the best part of our brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong and assess long-term and short-term consequences, become totally inoperable. It can no longer function. It is almost as if the person had become crazy.”

In my research of those who used the stricter formulation of the precept, “not being angry,” or “not indulging in anger,” I found that those teachers were descended from Maezumi Roshi, who had combined elements of Soto and Rinzai Zen as well as the Sanbo Kyodan school, or as in the case of Aitken Roshi had received transmission from the latter. But when I went back to the source, I found that the sutra which gives the precepts as recognized by the First Buddhist Council c. 460 B.C.E. states: “A disciple of the Buddha shall not harbor anger or encourage others to be angry. He should not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of anger.”

* San Francisco Zen Center chooses to write “buddha,” with a small “b,” defining it as “the quality of awareness and those beings who embody it.”


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