Anger is an ever-present threat in the minds of ordinary beings. In these contentious times, we are tempted more than ever to respond to Book cover: Cultivating a Compassionate Heartinjustice, insults, and numerous harms with harsh speech and anger, our habitual “policy of retaliation.” But does this response bring us the peace we seek? 

Chenrezig, Buddha of Compassion, teaches methods that transform our ordinary minds. The following excerpt comes from Cultivating a Compassionate Heart: the Yoga Method of Chenrezig by Ven. Thubten Chodron. We emailed it to subscribers of the Abbey’s monthly e-Teaching in June 2016. It seemed timely to publish again.

Overcoming a Policy of Retaliation

Chenrezig’s essence is compassion. We can’t become close to Chenrezig or transform our mind into Chenrezig’s if we are angry, jealous, competitive, or resentful of others. Thus, to make our mind into a good field in which the seeds of compassion can grow, the masters recommend that we follow four guidelines for practitioners of the Chenrezig Yoga Method.

Although these four sound simple, they are difficult and may even be considered “ascetic” practices.

    • Avoid insulting others when they insult us.
    • Avoid getting angry when others are angry at us.
    • Avoid beating others when they hit us.
    • Avoid observing others’ faults when they observe ours.

For some people, these four practices are totally opposite to what they have been brought up to do. From the time they’re little, they have been told that when another child hits them, they should strike them back in order to protect themselves and avoid more harm. Our national “security” is based on such a belief. In addition, when someone is angry at us, anger towards them seems to arise automatically in us, and when we’re insulted or our faults are pointed out, we feel entitled to humiliate the other person by making them look bad in front of others.

Does this policy of retaliation bring us the peace we seek or does it escalate the conflict? Even if we trounce the other person and get even, do we feel good about ourselves, or is there a subtle—or not so subtle—feeling of guilt? Sure, we may sometimes feel proud and powerful when we get even, but how much of that feeling is due to an adrenaline rush and how much is due to genuine self-respect? In short, is revenge an effective strategy for solving difficulties among human beings on the personal, national, or international level? These are questions for you to contemplate. Please honestly examine your own life experience.

Transforming Anger in Prison

I work with prisoners, teaching them the Dharma and offering spiritual guidance. Many of them are incarcerated because of anger: they insulted, criticized, beat, and even killed others. I’d like to share with you a few stories that the inmates told me about working with anger and the instinct to retaliate—their policy of retaliation.

Bo wrote:

I’m one of a few inmates allowed to take college courses. A few days ago, I was in my business management class, getting ready to take the final exam, when the woman next to me pointed to the person sitting in front of us, and said, “During the midterm a few weeks ago, I saw her cheating, using some notes she had. That makes me so mad! Does it make you as mad as it makes me?”

“That’s on her,” I replied. “If I let every person sitting in the classroom ‘make me mad,’ I wouldn’t have any time to learn anything. She’s just cheating herself anyway. After twelve years of being incarcerated, very little actually makes me really mad. I try not to give other people the power to make me mad. I’m the one who makes myself mad when I give someone else that power.”

I’ve learned that anger is generated within. It’s not the result of exterior phenomena; it is the result of our response to the things that run contrary to our likes and dislikes. Nothing that anyone can do to me can make me mad. I make myself crazy with anger. It originates inside me.

The world throws many things our way and how we respond to them is the issue. Can we bring the loving-kindness and the compassion that the Buddha taught is inside all of us to the forefront when it is most needed? This can be hard. My anger has suppressed much of my other feelings. It has commandeered my consciousness and has served to increase the pain and sufferings of this samsaric existence.

When we have the option of feeling compassion, love, and understanding, why do we abandon them to dwell in the pain and suffering of our anger? Why do we prefer that at times? It seems we find some kind of twisted sanctuary in our anger. Like a pig in mud, we wallow in it, and it clings to us, sometimes penetrating every pore of our consciousness. Why do we find this weird, dysfunctional comfort in anger? Do we need to be “right” all the time, so someone else must be wrong? Does our pride and arrogance of self have to be placated and coddled every minute?

 I guess there is much about anger that I am only beginning to understand, but I’ve seen that anger is directly related to attachment. The more attached I am, the angrier I become when I can’t get what I want. My anger is a result of having all those attachments.

Method: Meditation on Bodhicitta

To do these four practices of nonretaliation well, we must repeatedly do the meditations for generating bodhicitta. This may be done through following either the seven-point instruction of cause and effect or the system of equalizing and exchanging self and others. Both of these are thoroughly explained in Geshe Jampa Tegchok’s book Transforming Adversity into Joy and Couragewhich I recommend highly.

In addition, patience is a key practice. With it, we’ll be able to subdue the anger that causes us to insult others, get angry at them, physically harm them, and observe their faults. Working with Anger and the sixth chapter of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva spell out methods to subdue our anger in a healthy way. They offer tools to overcome the policy of retaliation.

Copyright Thubten Chodron, 2006. All rights reserved.

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