Anger is in vogue right now. As the saying goes, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. But widespread destructive anger is promoting a culture of divisiveness and fostering uncharitable and judgmental attitudes toward our neighbors, colleagues, relatives, and fellow global citizens. While there is the temptation to say things like “Never before has society been so divided” and to blame the rhetoric of political leaders, social media, viral misinformation campaigns, or other by-products of this internet age, divisive tribalism is nothing new. The conditions for contemporary manifestations may be a unique and unprecedented concoction, but the result is a familiar set of human emotions. Yet it is for this very reason that looking to the Buddhist text tradition on timeless problems such as destructive anger may offer valuable resources for healing contemporary divisions.
Here I will provide an overview of some conceptual resources from the Mahayana Buddhist philosophical tradition for thinking about and dealing with anger, focusing primarily on the Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) by the 8th-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Shantideva. From a literary perspective, Shantideva’s Guide is commonly regarded as one of the greatest works of poetry ever composed in the Sanskrit language. But it is also a theoretical-cum-practical text that is intended to effect a shift in how we view ourselves and the world, moving from a default state of metaphysical confusion and selfishness to one characterized by wisdom and compassion—the state of the bodhisattva. And since anger is viewed as a by-product of metaphysical confusion, as a part of this program, Shantideva argues against both the utility and the rationality of anger.
One way of summing up Shantideva’s approach to defusing the so-called mental affliction of anger in the form of a slogan would be to say “It’s complicated.” In other words, whatever it is that prompts an episode of reactive anger, one thing we can count on is that the situation is always more complex than it seems. Anger tends to latch on to an overly simplistic view that filters our experience through a distorted lens of divisive dichotomies of good and bad, right and wrong, friend and enemy, us and them. According to Shantideva, the more we appreciate the complexity of a situation, the less extreme our views and emotions will be. Specifically, he advises that by analyzing the complex causal history of harmful actions, we can at once defuse our anger while also developing an empathetic understanding that is an ideal guide for responding constructively to perceived wrongs.
What’s wrong with anger from a Buddhist perspective? Why should we think that anger is worth defusing to begin with? After all, according to the American Psychological Association, for instance, anger is (usually) a healthy human emotion. Indeed, anger is commonly regarded as not only healthy but helpful in motivating us to right wrongs and to avoid being victimized or taken advantage of. And it is a widespread opinion that anger in the form of moral outrage is not just morally permissible but morally obligatory in the face of injustice.
According to Buddhist thought, however, anger is classified as a moral vice (papam, apunya). And Shantideva takes it for granted that his intended audience—fellow Buddhist monks—will agree with him that anger is morally wrong, but he sets out to persuade his readers that anger is also bad for one’s welfare, and that any attempt to valorize anger derives from confusion about its nature and function. To see why, let’s take a closer look at how anger is understood in this tradition.
Whatever anger promises to do for us, compassion can do better.
Buddhist Abhidharma texts set out detailed taxonomies of mental states, with two of the most important classifications being wholesome (kushala) and unwholesome (akushala) mental states. These categories connote both welfare and moral value. Unwholesome mental states are mental afflictions (klesha) in the sense that they are themselves forms of suffering, and they are also morally bad insofar as they act as causes for harm to oneself and others. Anger (dvesha) is classified among these unwholesome mental states and is, in fact, singled out as one of the fundamental unwholesome mental states, or three poisons, together with ignorance (moha) and attachment (raga), which are identified as the central causes of the cyclical suffering (samsara) of the sentient condition as depicted in the bhavacakra, the Tibetan “wheel of life” paintings. In this role, anger is represented in the center of the wheel by a snake, a creature that is easily incited to strike at the slightest disturbance. And it’s little wonder that anger, as the inciter of retaliation and vengeance, is viewed as fueling cycles of suffering.
Now, the central project of Buddhism as articulated in the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching, the four noble truths, is to bring an end to this cycle of suffering by eliminating its causes. And since anger is among those causes, we might say that one of the central aims of the Buddhist path is to eliminate anger.
The 4th-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Asanga defines anger in his Compendium of Abhidharma (Abhidharma-samuccaya) as follows:
What is anger (krodha)? It is mental aggression that is a form of enmity occasioned by a present offense. Its function is to serve as a basis for violence, the taking up of arms, weapons, etc.
Anger thus involves (1) the perception of a wrong and (2) aggression toward the perceived wrongdoer, which we might cash out as the notion that it would be good if they suffered some bad consequence, which the contemporary American philosopher Martha Nussbaum refers to as the “payback wish.” As such, anger also (3) functions as a condition for harmful actions.
And as indicated in Asanga’s definition, anger is a species of the mental affliction enmity, together with other related mental states, such as resentment, malice, and cruelty. Asanga explains enmity as follows:
What is enmity? It is aggression toward sentient beings, toward suffering itself, or toward painful circumstances. Its function is to provide a basis for unpleasant states of being and bad actions.
We can now add to our list of essential characteristics of anger that as a mental affliction (4) it is painful by nature, and as a form of enmity (5) it functions as a condition for unhappiness.
One final dimension of the Buddhist account of anger is its relation to ignorance. That anger is accompanied by a distorted view of things in many ways accords with our commonsense notions. When someone is in a rage, we say that they’re “seeing red,” they have “tunnel vision,” or that they’re so upset that they “can’t be reasoned with.” According to Buddhists like Shantideva and Asanga, not only does (6) anger invariably co-occur with ignorance, but (7) ignorance also is a necessary condition for the arising of anger in the first place, owing to anger’s status as a “specific afflicted mental state” (paritta-klesha-bhumika).
Thus, anger is both prompted and attended by a form of confusion that exaggerates and solidifies bad qualities in others and imagines them to intrinsically belong to fixed, value-laden categories—conceiving them to be a rival, a jerk, irritating, or the like, by their very nature—when in fact these kinds of categories are contingent, relative, and conceptually imputed.
With the Buddhist conception of anger in place, we are now in a position to assess its value. In general, if we think that something is good for our welfare, then we think that either it is intrinsically good—that is, it makes a direct contribution to our welfare—or it is instrumentally good—that is, it’s good as a means to something that is itself intrinsically good. Shantideva argues that anger does not contribute to our welfare in either of these ways. That anger is not intrinsically good might be seen to follow from the claim that anger is painful by nature, and that anger is not instrumentally good may be taken to follow from the claim that it is a condition for unhappiness and harmful actions.
Shantideva describes anger as diametrically opposed to happiness and well-being, saying:
The mind does not find peace, nor does it enjoy pleasure and joy, nor does it find sleep or fortitude when the thorn of hatred dwells in the heart.
. . .
In brief, there is nothing that can make an angry person happy. (BCA 6.3, 6.5cd; trans. V. Wallace and A. Wallace)
As Shantideva sees it, anger cannot coexist with mental peace or genuine happiness. When disturbed by anger, food loses its flavor, our favorite pastimes seem empty. Thus, anger is not only painful by nature, but it also inhibits happiness. It does not, therefore, directly contribute to our welfare.
But one might think, anger may not be pleasant, but it’s useful; it’s instrumentally good. Shantideva recognizes the seductive sway of anger, which presents itself as a righteous champion of justice and defender of our self-respect. Anger purports to help us seek what is good for us, though perhaps at the expense of another’s welfare. But in this, anger is a deceiver, Shantideva tells us, who masquerades as a friend but is in fact an enemy whose sole function is to harm us. (BCA 6.8, 6.45) With a famous piece of advice, Shantideva argues against the utility of anger, saying:
If there is a remedy, then what is the use of irritation? If there is no remedy, then what is the use of irritation? (BCA 6.10)
In other words, if there is something you can do to address a problem or right a wrong, then just do it; anger will not assist you in executing it. And anger is no more helpful if there is nothing that can be done; instead, it will only make the situation more painful, or, as Shantideva puts it, “the distress becomes greater.” (BCA 6.16) In sum, he argues that anger is not just unproductive at bringing about our welfare—it’s counterproductive.
Nevertheless, advocates of the virtues of moral outrage may insist that anger is instrumentally good for its indispensable role in both detecting and responding to wrongs.
Shantideva would insist that whatever anger promises to do for us, compassion can do better. As a Buddhist conception, compassion involves sensitivity to the suffering of someone together with the wish that they be freed from that suffering. And given that anger is a form of aggression that prompts harmful actions, it should come as no surprise that compassion is standardly cited as an antidote to the poison of anger. And, to use Nussbaum’s terminology, compassion is also the “substitute attitude” for anger. To see how compassion is an adequate replacement for anger in this view, let’s consider the roles of detecting and responding to wrongs.
Anger is commonly viewed as a moral sentiment necessary for identifying wrongs, a kind of moral antenna for detecting injustice. Though tracing back to Aristotle’s view that the passions enable one to perceive moral value, versions of this claim were developed by British moral sentimentalists of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the Earl of Shaftesbury, Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith. However, in the Buddhist view, not only is anger unnecessary for discerning the moral value of actions, but since anger is invariably attended by ignorance, which distorts the nature of its object, it’s also an unreliable guide to diagnosing wrongs. By contrast, compassion might be thought of as the affective attendant of right view. Moreover, the mental state that signals wrongs like instances of social injustice ought to be attuned not just to one’s own pain but also to the suffering of others. Compassion—which definitionally involves sensitivity to someone’s suffering—is, therefore, perfectly suited to the task.
Still, even if anger is not necessary for detecting wrongs, surely, one may think, it’s a necessary motivating force for confronting them. After all, if we are to “fight” against injustice, then some form of aggression would seem an appropriate attitude for the job. Yet Shantideva would also dismiss the motivational utility of anger, instead recognizing compassion as a more efficacious impetus for corrective action. That’s because, unlike anger, compassion is untainted by aggression and thus will not perpetuate a cycle of harm, and, once again, since compassion is compatible with a correct view, it can yield a more reliable roadmap for responding to wrong. And anyone who doubts the power of compassion as a motivating force need only reflect on the extraordinary lengths that a parent will go to in order to alleviate the suffering of their child. Indeed, in Mahayana Buddhist texts, one natural consequence of the training in compassion that is the way of the bodhisattva is the development of a so-called “special aspiration” (adhyashaya) that cannot bear the suffering of others and idly sit by, but feels compelled to take personal responsibility for others’ welfare.
If metaphysical ignorance is a necessary condition for and concomitant of anger, then correcting this misunderstanding ought to defuse any present anger and prevent its arising in the future. To this end, Shantideva runs a reductio argument on a familiar intuition that says: If an agent who wronged me acted autonomously, it is appropriate to be angry at that agent. (BCA 6.25, 6.31) In other words, autonomy, the thought goes, is a necessary condition for appropriately directed anger. After all, if it turns out that someone was coerced into wronging us, we’d ordinarily redirect our anger to the coercer. However, Shantideva argues that this autonomy condition is never satisfied. No human action is free of the influence of extrinsic conditions; nothing takes place in a vacuum. Instead, every action occurs in dependence on a complex multitude of causes and conditions, which may include anything from the wrongdoer’s education, socio-economic circumstances, how they were treated by their parents and peers, and so on and so forth. Thus, even if this intuition were right and it were rational, appropriate, and justified to direct our anger toward the agent who is independently responsible for wronging us, upon analysis, there is no such autonomous agent to be found. As Shantideva says:
I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause great suffering. Why be angry at sentient beings, who are also provoked to anger by conditions?
. . .
All offenses and vices of various kinds arise under the influence of conditions, and they do not arise independently.
. . .
Thus, everything is dependent on something else, and even that on which something is dependent is not autonomous. Hence, why would one get angry at things that are inactive, like apparitions? (BCA 6.22, 6.25, 6.31)
So, through analysis of the causal history of some wrong, as the agential responsibility is continually deferred and distributed among the countless causes and conditions that led to the act, one’s anger finds no target, no cognitive terminus or resting place, and is thereby defused. Importantly, the outcome of this analysis is not the absolution of moral responsibility. Nor is the affective result a cold, clinical detachment or apathetic indifference. To the contrary, by contemplating the suffering involved in the causal process that results in some harmful action, an empathetic understanding automatically arises. According to Shantideva, just as ignorance promotes anger, the inverse is also true: wisdom promotes compassion.
“Everything is dependent on something else.”
Shantideva reasons that the perceived wrongdoer is, in a sense, a victim of their own destructive emotions just as they may be a victim of external circumstances. And in the same way that compassion, and not anger, is an appropriate response to someone suffering from a physical illness, likewise, compassion and not anger is the appropriate response to someone suffering from mental afflictions such as anger, hatred, or ignorance. He says,
Just as sharp pain arises although one does not desire it, so anger forcibly arises although one does not desire it.
A person does not intentionally become angry, thinking, “I shall get angry,” nor does anger originate, thinking, “I shall arise.” (BCA 6.23–24)
Something may strike you as inconsistent about this line of reasoning. At one and the same time, Shantideva is asking us to view others as victims of their anger and yet he is also exhorting us to control our own anger. Why the asymmetry in how we view our own and others’ anger?
In the case of others, Shantideva emphasizes that due to certain extrinsic factors, they lacked the knowledge, strength, or resources to act other than they did. But in the case of ourselves, if, by virtue of our own set of extrinsic conditions, we have come to understand the futility and irrationality of anger, then we’re in a position to resist it. Thus, in the case of others, we are analyzing their anger and harmful actions from a forensic perspective; it is a pastward-looking etiological inquiry into something that has already come to fruition. Nevertheless, it follows from Shantideva’s line of reasoning that beating ourselves up for a past episode of anger would be no more rational than doing so to others. This etiological analysis might also be applied to ourselves as a means for developing self-compassion. But Shantideva’s emphasis in the case of ourselves is on attending to the future-directed task of determining the best course of action in response to a perceived wrong. And that best course of action, Shantideva argues, never includes anger.
Regardless of whether one accepts Shantideva’s hardline view of anger, most of us would at least agree that there are instances of anger that are destructive to a well-functioning society. And regardless of whether one accepts Buddhist metaphysics, Shantideva’s emphasis on the complexity of the causal factors influencing human actions has become only more salient against the backdrop of our contemporary scientific worldview, taking into account the agent’s genetics, brain chemistry, microbiome, and blood sugar levels, not to mention the content of their curated social media feeds, online news sources, and so on.
Shantideva’s non-transactional, non-punitive, and non-retributive approach to addressing perceived wrongs aims at minimizing suffering based on a holistic, nuanced, and empathetic understanding of individuals and their actions, an approach that promises to help us step outside the cycle of blame and retaliation and into a discourse that promotes reconciliation and constructive reformation. Indeed, despite the fact that there is not even a term in the Sanskrit Buddhist lexicon that precisely maps onto the contemporary Western notion of justice, Shantideva’s writing on anger may offer surprisingly apt advice for leaders of revolutionary justice movements, who, as Martha Nussbaum puts it, need to be “strange sorts of people, part Stoic and part creatures of love.”
This article is adapted from “Shantideva on Causal Analysis as a Palliative for Anger,” a talk given at the 2021 Holberg Symposium in honor of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.