Monday, September 05, 2005

My Official Buddhist Sermon

Should we be angry about it?

I have had variations on this conversation for years. Since I'm an official, card-carrying Buddhist, I generally take the position you might expect. "We have a right to be angry!" sounds to me like "we have a right to take poison!" I suppose we do -- though I find the language of "rights" increasingly perplexing -- but why would we want to?

But lately I've realized that the question "should we be angry?" is the wrong question. Because people never ask it until they are angry. No one reads the latest news from the Gulf Coast and says, "hmm, I wonder if I should be angry about that?" and cooly decides whether to become angry or not. It doesn't work that way. We're all angry. I've been white with anger, from time to time. Before meditation last night, talking privately with the teacher, I saw his lips compress and his face go taut as he spoke of "those torture camps they set up." This is a man who's practiced for a long time, just coming back from a retreat in India. He doesn't believe anger is useful either. Fat lot of difference that makes.

So let's take the question of "should we be angry?" and just put it on the shelf. Start from where we are.

There are two real questions. One is, "what do we do with our anger now?" My answer to that, is, be aware of it. Don't cultivate it. Don't go looking for more fuel to feed it. Let it drain as it can. Know that it's distorting your understanding of this, and of everything. It always does that.

The other question is, "should we put up with it?" And my answer to that is, certainly not. Somebody should have done something to get people out. And it should not have taken five days for help to arrive. Nothing about being a Buddhist means I have to say that what happened was okay. Some people need to be fired. Some priorities need to be changed. This must not happen again.

Anger may keep us motivated to change things, but it will also be clouding our judgement. We have to stay aware of that. All the objects of our anger tend to melt together in our minds. We will tend to lash out at whoever and whatever we were already angry at. We will tend to uncritically accept stories about their wickedness, no matter how improbable, and pass them on eagerly. We'll want to shout people down, bellow "no excuses!" just when the most valuable and telling explanations are forthcoming. I think it's terribly important not to trust our anger, not to rely on it. It is not our friend.

We're likely to cling to our anger. There's something very attractive about its simplifying fire. We'll want to feed it. We'll want to go scanning the world for further proofs of the wickedness of our enemies, to brood on the misery they have caused, to make sure none of our anger runs away and none of its simplicity is compromised. That is the thing I think we must work hardest against. We can't make the anger go away. Whether we should or not is irrelevant. It's here. But what we must not do is treasure it and try to lock it inside ourselves. When it begins to run out, let it go.

We'll be afraid that our motivation to change things will run out with it. But it won't -- and especially it won't, if we have done some work from the start to keep our intention and our anger separate.

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