To deal with feelings of anger and fear and frustration, we can start by finding relationality. As the Lakota Indians say, Mitakuye oyasin: “All beings are my relatives.” When I’m particularly mad at George Bush and company for warmongering, I remember that in another lifetime he was my mother, and that even the most evil people were at some point my errant siblings. That immediately takes a certain edge off the anger. 

The second step is to realize that we, too, have the potential to be demonic. Given certain conditions and confusions and insecurities and fears, any of us could do bad things. It might start with an imperceptible change; we wouldn’t think we were being bad—just a little naughty here and there. Pretty soon we would take it too far and be really bad. People can become deluded like that.

Third, we develop real sympathy for the people who are doing harm, because if they bomb people, if they pollute, if they poison the food chain, they will have the bad karma of having harmed so many people.

By taking these three steps—finding one’s relation to all beings, acknowledging the evil potential in oneself, feeling sympathy for the evil person—one gets the strength and energy to be an activist and to try, by voting and organizing, to stop harm caused by others. This is cool heroism: developing a tolerant, deliberate, and wise energy.

People are afraid that if they let go of their anger and righteousness and wrath, and look at their own feelings—and even see the good in a bad person—they’re going to lose the energy they need to do something about the problem. But actually you get more strength and energy by operating from a place of love and concern. You can be just as tough, but more effectively tough. It’s like a martial art.

My wife once met Morihei Ueshiba, the man who founded aikido. After he did a demonstration where he left about seventeen big bruisers on the ground, she asked what his secret was for disarming his attackers without harming them. He giggled and told her, “A long time ago, I realized that every person was just my sister, my brother, my cousin. All those guys lying on the floor are my brothers; you are my little sister! Everybody is just one family.” That’s cool heroism.

To conquer hate, you have to find unshakeable tolerance. The seventh-century Buddhist saint Shantideva was the great master of that. The sixth chapter of his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicharyavatara) is considered to be a special magical precept from Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, for replacing anger with tolerance. The essence is: Why get upset if you can do something about something? And if you can’t do anything about it, then why get upset? Anger, the text says, comes from feeling uncomfortable because something you don’t want to happen is happening, or something you want to happen is not happening. Then you lose your good cheer—your joyousness in just being—and start operating from a place of misery and anger.

When you understand interconnectedness, it makes you more afraid of hating than of dying. But people will not be more afraid of hating than dying as long as they hold the worldview that death is the final conclusion of the self, of all chains of causation and consequence that they could be connected to. That’s the problem for spiritual nihilists, or materialists. You don’t have to believe in future lives to be a Buddhist since Buddhism isn’t merely a belief system. But in the mind—reform practice, if you’re going to deal with your own explosive and obsessive impulses at a really deep level, then the sense of being locked into a potentially endless continuity of consequence—what I call “infinite consequentiality”gives you the power in the moment to find a deeper resource to use against those seemingly uncontrollable impulses. If you take the view that you’re an infinite prisoner of those forces—that if you don’t deal with them now, you’ll have to in future lifetimes—then you will not make the excuse “I can’t do it.” You’re going to have to do it. It’s what Milarepa said: He was grateful he had the awareness of hell—of infinite negativity. He had killed many people with black magic in his youth, before he turned to the dharma, but understanding the dangers of hell gave him the power to become a buddha and escape those consequences.

We all have the potential to be killers; realizing that is the key. Years ago, some academics and I did a study of religious violence. We found that the people who are the most violent are those who are incapable of embracing their own potential for evil. By projecting their shadow, their evil, onto the other, they justify their violence. They think they’re emphasizing their purity, or restoring their purity, by destroying someone else.

If there were a really bad person who was about to launch nuclear weapons or engage in germ warfare, the most compassionate thing would be to have somebody take him out without hurting innocent people. In the Theravada ethic, you say, “We don’t know the real story here. I don’t know whose karma is what, so I can’t get involved.” But in the bodhisattva ethic, if you see someone about to kill a bunch of people, you have to stop him or you’re an accomplice. If you don’t stop him, not only are you letting others lose their lives, but you’re also harming the killer because he’s going to have very bad karmic effects. You try to stop him without killing, but if you have to kill, you do. You get bad karma, too, but because you’re acting out of compassion, not hatred, the good karma will outweigh the bad.

Surgical violence—killing the one to save the many—is part of the bodhisattva ethic. The problem with American-style warfare since World War II is that we’ve relied on carpet bombing—civilian bombing. Civilian bombing is a kind of terrorism in itself, and there’s nothing surgical about it. It’s just blanket annihilative violence. And that produces this terrible blowback of terrorism and people filled with revenge and hatred. It incites more violence, whereas surgical violence had better be surgical—aiming to heal.

So our outer work is to resist and protest and try to maintain clarity and speak out forcefully against the kind of violence that kills so many innocent people. Our speaking Out forcefully will be more effective because we won’t really be angry, we’ll be fierce. We’ll realize that we can get greater energy out of love and joy than out of hatred. Hatred is so off balance. You blow your adrenals in one minute, then you’re shaky and weak. But if you’re joyful, you’ll get an endless source of energy.

This article is featured in Tricycle Teachings: Anger. Subscribers can download the e-book for free here.

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