Sometimes the teachings come to us easily. The truth of impermanence, for instance, is something we can grasp with little effort, at least intellectually. Who can dispute that all things change? And at other times the teachings seem to defy common sense, to contradict the very logic of our experience: When I have been grievously wronged, who can say that I should not be angry? Or that anger cannot motivate me to take an action that is not only necessary but also just? Isn’t it fair to say that I am wired this way psychologically, even biologically, and that anger has its evolutionary purpose?
And yet according to Shantideva, the 8th-century Buddhist scholar and saint, this is precisely where we are wrong: Anger, he argues, is always and without exception rooted in ignorance and invariably harmful, to ourselves and others. Along with greed and delusion, it is one of the “three poisons” at the center of the bhavacakra, the wheel of samsara; and it is, as we discover in Allison Aitken’s “What’s Wrong with Anger?”, the very thing that keeps us from the peace we seek. “Shantideva would insist,” Aitken writes, “that whatever anger promises to do for us, compassion can do better.” In fact, she notes, for Shantideva, compassion is the antidote to anger.
I won’t pretend that anger is unfamiliar to me. Anyone who knows me would laugh at that idea. And I have to admit, I’m a bit torn here. From Aristotle to Hume, the western tradition has valorized our passions, as Aitken points out; and later theories of unconscious aggression and evolutionary biology would suggest that anger, like any of our unrulier passions, is hardwired. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that an 8th-century Indian, or for that matter, the original community that formed around the Buddha’s teachings, had any less attachment to anger or were any less afflicted by it. They dealt with what we deal with now, for our struggles with anger have less to do with our evolving theories about it than they do with the very fact of it. Who can be content who is angry? Shantideva, and here I find no difficulty agreeing with him, would have a simple answer: no one.
Buddhism is nothing if not practical. Whether our afflictions are adventitious or hardwired and merely to be dealt with is of little consequence when we find ourselves in their throes. Anger is its own hell, and what Buddhist practice offers is a way out. Questions about anger’s ontological truth are, in other words, useless to me when I have access to a practice that breaks my attachment to it and alleviates the grinding unhappiness it occasions.
This may seem a bit of a dodge, but it isn’t. I find nothing more tediously painful than the self-righteousness of anger; nothing more distracting, nothing more damaging. As Shantideva wrote, “Any virtuous actions we have created over thousands of eons can be destroyed in one moment of anger.” The good news is that there is an antidote, however you understand anger’s roots, whether you locate those roots in ignorance or in the evolutionary depths of human history.
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