In May 2011, at the Newark Peace Education Summit in New Jersey, the Dalai Lama and Jody Williams—both Nobel Peace Prize winners—debated the role of anger in social action work. The Dalai Lama held that people must have inner peace in order to promote peace in the world. “Too much emotion, attachment, anger, or fear, that kind of mental state, you can’t investigate objectively,” he said. Williams respectfully disagreed. “It’s anger at injustice which fires many of us,” she argued.

As Buddhists, we may tend to agree with the Dalai Lama. But after listening to Williams, a powerful activist for social change, a compelling question emerged: Is anger ever a good thing?

Tricycle decided to ask John Makransky (“Lama John” to his friends and students; he was in fact installed as a lama in the lineage of Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche), a professor of Buddhism at Boston College who regularly leads social justice retreats that often deal with anger. Before talking about anger at injustice, Dr. Makransky says, we need to understand what we normally identify as anger. It is only when we recognize that the source of ordinary anger is delusion and self-centeredness that we can begin to use anger’s powerful energy and wisdom for the benefit of all beings.

—Sam Mowe, Associate Editor

What is anger? As Tulku Urgyen taught, a deluded emotion like anger is a movement of the mind not knowing its own nature. Anger is a strong aversion in the mind, reacting to a negative image that the mind has constructed of someone or something, unaware that it is reacting to its own image. We may get slightly or more intensely angry every day, in many little moments.

What are anger’s roots? Anger as we normally experience it occurs when our sense of self and its world feel threatened. Someone does something that makes it hard for one’s mind to maintain its concept of self and its world, triggering a painful mental feeling. With that arises an image of the other person as loathsome, not fully human. The mind then blames the other person for its painful feeling.

It’s important to note that anger is a form of fear. Someone does something, and suddenly the mind feels ungrounded and reacts with anger, trying to reestablish a firm ground by reaffirming one’s narrow sense of self. Anger’s aim is to establish safety in that deluded way.

The problem is that real safety is not found within such self-centered fear and anger. Real safety is available only in the depth of our being, our underlying buddhanature. Love and compassion are, among others, fundamental qualities of the deepest nature of mind. In those unchanging qualities is the actual source of safety for self and others. To realize this is to recognize our own deep worthiness and potential for inner freedom and goodness, and to recognize the very same in all other persons.

Can there be anger that doesn’t come from the idea of self, that comes from this deeper nature?
I think I would ask: Can there be something like what we call anger that is not the expression of a defensive self-protectiveness? I would say yes, absolutely. Authentic compassion may take confrontational forms that can seem like anger but are not.

What about the feeling that arises when we experience or witness injustice in the world? Would you call that anger or compassion? It could be ordinary anger, or it could be wrathful compassion. But let me say a bit more that will tie back to this question.

Even though anger’s aim is to establish a zone of safety, since anger mistakes persons for its own distorted projections of them, it is out of touch with the fuller reality of everyone, making it unstable and dangerous. Buddhist traditions provide antidotes to anger to remove this danger. These include ways of cultivating love and ways to look past the reified self that drives anger, in order to uncover a safer “ground” in the depth of our being beyond anger’s projections. Such methods help the mind find its way back to the actual ground of safety, which is the unconditioned nature of our mind, our buddhanature.

In many Buddhist traditions practitioners learn to experience themselves as the object of the unconditional love and compassion of the buddhas. For example, in Tibetan traditions there are practices of refuge, offering, and guru yoga. In Japanese Shin Buddhism, people entrust themselves to the unconditional compassion of Amida Buddha. In such practices, the practitioner is totally embraced by the unchanging love, compassion, and wisdom of those who have previously awakened to the nature of their minds. This helps the practitioner’s mind feel safe enough to relax its grip on the concept of self to which anger fearfully clings. Then the mind doesn’t feel the need to be so angry.

Love and compassion make us feel safe because they express the safety of their source—the deep buddhanature within us, the unchanging inner space of primal awareness that cannot be harmed. By receiving unconditional love and compassion from those who’ve awakened before us, we sense that we too can relax into the very source of such love in the unconditioned nature of our minds, our buddhanature.

How do you tell the difference between anger and wrathful compassion? Wise compassion for others and the courage to confront them in their harmful thoughts and actions may look like anger from the outside but is quite different. If someone becomes receptive to the deep nature of her mind with its latent capacities of goodness, she starts to sense others similarly in their very being as intrinsically worthy and good. Then her vision of others cannot be reduced to the caricatures of self-protective anger. Her vision of persons becomes more like how a loving mother sees her child, even when he misbehaves, as intrinsically worthy, someone she would never abandon. To forcefully challenge someone for their own sake takes a much stronger, more authentic love than going along with others no matter what they do.

To relate this back to Buddhist practice: to open to our deepest nature, our buddhanature, is to access a power of loving compassion that has the courage to challenge oneself and others on whatever ways we may hide from our fuller potential.

Maning Mahakala; Tibet, 18th century; Pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art, Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin, C2010.28 (HAR 369)
Maning Mahakala; Tibet, 18th century; Pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art, Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin, C2010.28 (HAR 369)

Does this have anything to do with anger at injustice and unjust systems? It’s exactly like that. When people undergo great suffering under oppressive social systems, we may feel strongly connected to those suffering most intensely—for example, those who lack access to resources in countries where a tiny percentage of people control virtually everything. For most people, it seems normal to hate those in charge of such a system. But as we’ve been saying, we must acknowledge that those who maintain such systems do so from their own inner patterns of fear, from their own attempts to establish safe ground for themselves.

The unconditional compassion in the inmost nature of our minds can recognize that everyone involved in such oppressive systems—those most oppressed by them and those ferociously defending them—have the same underlying capacity of goodness, which is distorted by their self-protective attempts to find safety. Authentic compassion may forcefully challenge the system. Sometimes such compassion can take a powerful confrontational form, as occurred with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi. But this differs from anger, because instead of aiming to protect oneself or one’s own position against others, it aims to protect all others, by challenging all in different ways. It can challenge those who cling to a bad system to give others greater freedom. It can challenge those who have been abused to rediscover their great worth and power for good. Unlike self-righteous anger, which hates the “bad ones” on behalf of the “good ones,” confrontational compassion protects all by challenging all differently—those suffering injustices and those inflicting them. It upholds all in their fuller humanity and potential for greater freedom from fear, hatred, and suffering.

Many activists see anger as a necessary and motivating force. Is there anything positive about anger?Most who attend my social justice retreats are social justice activists, including teachers, social workers, and health-care givers who see a need for systemic change. Many say, “My anger at injustice is what motivates me to work for change. So it doesn’t make sense to me to reject my anger.” Actually, given what we’ve discussed so far, I think there is truth in that. They are saying that anger is not just deluded, that they sense some wisdom in it, and I think that is true. For example, in trying to make oneself feel safe, anger knows that a ground of safety must be findable somehow. That’s true—there is a ground of safety here within the depth of our being, the deep nature of our minds, which we should try to find. Anger also knows there is something terribly wrong that must be destroyed to make things safe. It’s just wrong about all the details. Anger thinks that what’s wrong is another person or group that must be defeated or destroyed to establish dependable safety. That’s a big mistake. What’s wrong is how out of touch we all are with our fuller humanity and underlying potential of goodness. To correct that wrong, something does need to be destroyed, but it’s not other people; it’s the self-centered fixation that has everyone in its grip, which generates individual and social reactions that make things unsafe for all. So I think some social justice activists want to defend their anger because it indeed contains some wisdom, but it is a distorted form of wisdom. If the wisdom in anger could be liberated from its distorted projections, its intense energy could clarify into wrathful compassion.

It seems to me that that’s not what usually happens! Anger usually backfires. That’s if we maintain anger as our primary motivation. When we do that, delusions of anger hinder and eventually destroy our work. Anger projects images of others that are merely partial, preventing us from knowing more of their humanity and potential. Then we can’t listen deeply to others. We become too defensive, turning people off, so we can’t get enough help, which makes us even angrier. With anger and hatred as motivation, we drive people away instead of inspiring and attracting them to our cause; those who do work with us burn out, and we eventually burn out and wind up hating ourselves.

So it sounds like the long and short of it is that anger is not a sustainable motivating force for social action. We need to go beyond the brittle self-centeredness of anger and take the power and energy that are driving anger and direct it at its truer objects. Instead of hating other persons as objects to be defeated or destroyed, we can let our wrathful energy target all patterns of greed, prejudice, hatred, fear, and self-protectiveness that have been operative in every one of us, starting with ourselves. To do this is to be given over to the underlying energy of impartial compassion in the nature of our minds. This energy can become ferocious in upholding everyone in their essential dignity and potential.

When Martin Luther King demonstrated against social institutions of racism and economic inequality, his opponents used attack dogs and whips on him and his followers. Yet King repeatedly taught that unconditional love is the key to foundational social change. He taught that we must confront social structures of racism on behalf of everyone, including those supporting such structures. It was never only for the oppressed people. It was also on behalf of the racists, and he made that clear.

This is the essential difference between ordinary anger and wrathful compassion. Ordinary anger is motivated by fear and aversion; wrathful compassion is motivated by love that has the courage to confront people for their own sake. Anger seeks to protect the self, or one’s own self-righteousness. Wrathful compassion seeks to protect all others, by challenging what harms them. The difference is quite clear.

Embracing Difficult Emotions

By John Makransky

Genuine love and compassion make us feel safe because they express the safety of their source—the natural kindness of our mind’s deepest nature, what Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls “essence love.” In this meditation, we experience emotions such as fear and anger in a field of absolute loving compassion that communicates the innate kindness in the underlying nature of our minds. When we become very familiar with such practice, painful emotions like fear and anger help evoke the compassionate energy in the depth of our being that returns us to our deepest wisdom.

1. Identifying a benefactor from your life. Recall a moment with someone you liked very much to be near—with whom you felt happy, well, safe, loved—such as a moment with a favorite relative, teacher, camp counselor, mentor. A moment with someone, somewhere, that makes you happy to recall, grateful that they were in your life.

2. Receiving loving energy into body and mind. Imagine that person present to you now in that way. Feel the happiness of holding them in mind. Sense them communing with you in the fundamental goodness of your being, your deep worthiness beyond judgment, wishing for your deep well-being, happiness, peace. Imagine their loving energy as a shower of soft, healing radiance that bathes your whole body and mind, every part of you. Explore just opening and accepting that loving wish and energy—receiving its gentle radiance into every part of your body, permitting each area of tension to soften under its touch. Receive this tender radiance into every cell, every drop of blood—every part of you loved in its very being.

Then receive this gentle shower of loving energy into every part of your mind—every feeling of tension, anxiety, frustration, anger, longing, sadness, or joy. Let such feelings arise and be bathed in this energy. Let every thought and feeling, even as it arises, be permeated by this healing energy—every part of you loved in its very being.

3. Releasing the visualization into the innate kindness of our original awareness.
Receive this loving energy into the subtlest feelings of holding on to your self; of holding on to anything at all. Let go of the visualization, release all reference points, and just be merged into oneness with that gentle energy. Let the mind release into its own natural openness. All senses wide open, mind totally open, unconfined, unrestricted. Let this expanse of openness and awareness itself do the knowing, the meditating. Let all feelings, knots of energy, and worry be healed in this space of deep allowing, accepting, and letting be. Let all be touched and healed by the innate kindness and deep acceptance of this inner space of mind.

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