I know how easy it is to sit around during this election year and smolder in rage. I have years of personal experience reading newspapers or listening to news while the urge to violence hijacks my mind. Getting wind of the latest degradation to decades-old environmental legislation or another slash to health care and education is sure to get me steaming. I have entertained countless fantasies of moving to another country (and that’s the tame end of things). But in spite of my anger, rage, and disbelief, I have a commitment to try not to hate, or at least to try to temper my hate with a little bit of compassion and understanding. Why? Well, I think it’s the sane way to be—and my dharma practice demands it.
To this end, I’ve concocted a set of reasons that I use to remind myself not to hate our government. These reasons are by no means meant to disempower me or prevent me from acting. What they do instead is provide an antidote to my bitterness. They serve as practice instruction to see how wide I can open my heart. They provide a Buddhist twist to counteract my habitual tendencies so that I can ultimately respond to perceived injustice from a healthier place.
1. Hatred Hurts.
The Buddha taught that hatred is a form of suffering. He said that holding hatred in the mind and heart is like tightly clutching a hot coal in your hand—guess who suffers? You can experience the burning quality of hatred by examining your own mind. What does your mind feel like when it is filled with love? Most likely you feel connection, spaciousness, openness. What does it feel like when your mind is full of hate? Probably you feel disconnection, pain, and separation, all accompanied by some good old self-righteousness. Dharma practice is about the development and cultivation of skillful mind states—no matter what the situation. This is not to say difficult mind states don’t arise unbidden, but which ones do you want to hang on to? What kind of mind do you want?
2. No One is Eternally or Inherently Anything.
Buddhist teachings remind us there is no essential “self’ that lasts or is inherent. This person we are hating is not always this way, has not always been this way, and may act very differently at other times. And within each of us lie the seeds of change. When I can remember this, my clinging to blame can soften. I am reminded of the Buddhist tale of Angulimala, the murderer who wore a garland of 999 fingers around his neck to commemorate the brutal death of each of his victims. When the Buddha saw that the murderer’s mother was to be his thousandth victim, he intervened and, with a single teaching, converted this evil criminal into a fully enlightened being, albeit one who still had to accept the karmic consequences of his earlier actions. It’s an interesting teaching tale of the potential for change within each of us.
3. We’re That Way, Too.
No one corners the market on greed, hatred, or delusion. These mental states are inside all of us. When I’m in the middle of a heated argument, I sometimes point out to myself that I’m filled with anger, just like the person I’m mad at. We may not have the degree of anger we see reflected in the violence in the world. We may not have the power to do damage on the level of a world leader. But for anyone who has ever sat down to observe the mind, it’s clear how plentiful the three poisons are in there. We all might have the capacity to do anything, given the right circumstances. When dire circumstances in Rwanda in the 1990s turned neighbors and dear friends into murderous enemies and rapists, one expert from Human Rights Watch stated: “This behavior lies just under the surface of any of us.” Remember the famous Milgram experiments at Yale in the 1960s, where subjects administered harmful electric shocks to actors posing as cosubjects, simply because authority figures instructed them to do so? It could be us. In fact, it is us.
4. We Don’t Know For Sure Who Is Right.
This is a hard one to stomach, but it’s true. How can we possibly know? We can hold long-cherished ideals, bur the truth is, since we are not omniscient, some of what we believe may be wrong. Review your own political history and ask yourself whether your beliefs have changed over the years. Many of my currently pacifist Buddhist friends were once part of militant revolutionary organizations using violent means for social change. According to basic Buddhism, one of the greatest forms of suffering is attachment to views. No matter what the view, if we are attached, we will suffer. The dharma invites us to rest in not-knowing, to tolerate the discomfort of a mind with no firm ground. It asks us for a more flexible mind that might be open to other views. From this place, can we soften our critique of the thing we hate? Sometimes when I’m really mad I say to myself, “Diana, maybe in some way they’reright. You just don’t know for sure.” And it’s true, I don’t. This does not mean I can’t develop discriminating wisdom that allows me to keep seeing clearly, and acting on my insights. I just try not to hold on to my views so tightly, especially the views that make me see others as enemies.
5. You Can’t Fight Karma.
Buddhism teaches that acts that cause suffering to oneself or others are rooted in an ignorance of karma. According to teachings of karma, unwholesome actions lead to suffering in this life or the next. Even if you don’t believe in rebirth, it’s a safe bet that ignoring karmic laws will take its toll and lead to suffering in this life, not to mention the next. From a Buddhist perspective, the act of hating can only bring the hater unhappy results in the long run. So hating is just not a good idea, karmically speaking.
Also remember that if your enemies are acting in unskillful ways, they will probably suffer quite a bit down the road. The tremendous compassion His Holiness the Dalai Lama feels toward the Chinese is striking. His compassion comes from understanding karma, knowing that the suffering the Chinese military has caused the Tibetan people in these fifty years of cultural genocide has already had and will continue to have pretty scary results for the Chinese. Rather than filling with rage and revenge, his heart goes out to them.
6. Through Understanding Will Come Compassion.
One reason we hate is that we don’t see the full force of the other’s situation. When I can’t feel compassion—whether I’m fighting with my partner or listening to a news item on the radio—I can ask myself, “What is it I don’t understand?” The more thoroughly we can understand the source of pain-causing actions, the more we personalize the supposed evildoer rather than being caught in projection and assumption, which generally breed more misunderstanding and hatred.
When you see someone acting in a way that’s upsetting you, stop for a moment and imagine being that person. Imagine the streams of causes and conditions that led to this very moment and that particular behavior. Bring to mind the person’s early history and training, the levels of fear and ignorance inside them. Remind yourself of the structural violence under which this person grew up—racism, classism, unexamined privilege. Bring to mind an entire culture that has likely validated the action.
Start small—say, with your anger at a coworker—and expand the inquiry to political figures and ultimately social systems. Keep in mind that the point is not to minimize their actions nor to excuse them, but to foster an investigation—based compassion that softens hatred.
7. Hatred Will Never Cease With Hatred.
As the Buddha taught in the Dhammapada, hatred will never cease with hatred, but only through nonhatred will hatred cease. We will reap what we sow. The Buddha uncompromisingly advocated the development of skillful mind states such as love, compassion, and generosity as true antidotes to their unskillful opposites. My own experience in years of meditation has shown me that whatever qualities I practice, those qualities increase. If I want to be more generous, I need to practice generosity. If I spend a lot of time on obsessive worrying, more worries are sure to come. The Buddha likened this phenomenon to filling a bucket a few drops at a time—one day we look down and the bucket is full. What do we want in our bucket?
Thich Nhat Hanh’s term “being peace” speaks to this principle. It invites us to link ends and means in our activism (and in whatever we do in our lives). What would a protest look like that didn’t replicate the structures it was fighting against? A. J. Muste, the longtime radical activist, said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” If we want to have a vision of a better world—free from hate, violence, and destruction—where else do we start except with ourselves?
Sound daunting? Perhaps, but take this list as a mental experiment to practice and reflect on. Study the results in your life and activism and you’ll see that these explorations won’t result in inaction. We may fear that if we’re too good-hearted, we will be ignored or taken advantage of, and the political crisis will continue unchallenged. But there is a big difference between loving our enemies and letting them get away with their wrongdoing. We can hold these principles and practices in mind and still act on behalf of justice, peace, equity, environmental sanity. What would the world be like if we acted from a place of compassion, open-heartedness, and a willingness to maybe kind of sort of love the enemy? It’s an amazing thought…..
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.