What is anger? As Tulku Urgyen taught, a deluded emotion like anger is a movement of the mind not knowing its own nature. Anger is a strong aversion in the mind, reacting to a negative image that the mind has constructed of someone or something, unaware that it is reacting to its own image. We may get slightly or more intensely angry every day, in many little moments.
What are anger’s roots? Anger as we normally experience it occurs when our sense of self and its world feel threatened. Someone does something that makes it hard for one’s mind to maintain its concept of self and its world, triggering a painful mental feeling. With that arises an image of the other person as loathsome, not fully human. The mind then blames the other person for its painful feeling.
It’s important to note that anger is a form of fear. Someone does something, and suddenly the mind feels ungrounded and reacts with anger, trying to reestablish a firm ground by reaffirming one’s narrow sense of self. Anger’s aim is to establish safety in that deluded way.
The problem is that real safety is not found within such self-centered fear and anger. Real safety is available only in the depth of our being, our underlying buddhanature. This deepest nature of our mind has three unchanging qualities: pure awareness, a basic space that pervades all our experience, and a vast underlying capacity of love and compassion. . In those unchanging qualities is the actual source of safety for self and others. To realize this is to recognize our own deep worthiness and potential for inner freedom and goodness, and to recognize the very same in all other persons.
Can there be anger that doesn’t come from the idea of self, that comes from this deeper nature? I think I would ask: Can there be something like what we call anger that is not the expression of a defensive self-protectiveness? I would say yes, absolutely.
Authentic compassion may take confrontational forms that can seem like anger but are not.
What about the feeling that arises when we experience or witness injustice in the world? Would you call that anger or compassion? It could be ordinary anger, or it could be wrathful compassion. But let me say a bit more that will tie back to this question.
Even though anger’s aim is to establish a zone of safety, since anger mistakes persons for its own distorted projections of them, it is out of touch with the fuller reality of everyone, making it unstable and dangerous. Buddhist traditions provide antidotes to anger to remove this danger. These include ways of cultivating love and ways to look past the reified self that drives anger, in order to uncover a safer “ground” in the depth of our being beyond anger’s projections. Such methods help the mind find its way back to the actual ground of safety, which is the unconditioned nature of our mind, our buddhanature.
In many Buddhist traditions practitioners learn to experience themselves as the object of the unconditional love and compassion of the Buddhas. For example, in Tibetan traditions there are practices of refuge, offering, and guru yoga. In Japanese Shin Buddhism, people entrust themselves to the unconditional compassion of Amida Buddha. In such practices, the practitioner is totally embraced by the unchanging love, compassion, and wisdom of those who have previously awakened to the nature of their minds. This helps the practitioner’s mind feel safe enough to relax its grip on the concept of self to which anger fearfully clings. Then the mind doesn’t feel the need to be so angry.
Love and compassion make us feel safe because they express the safety of their source—the deep buddhanature within us, the unchanging inner space of primal awareness that cannot be harmed. By receiving unconditional love and compassion from those who’ve awakened before us, we sense that we too can relax into the very source of such love in the unconditioned nature of our minds, our buddhanature.
How do you tell the difference between anger and wrathful compassion? Wise compassion for others and the courage to confront them in their harmful thoughts and actions may look like anger from the outside, but is quite different. If someone becomes receptive to the deep nature of her mind with its latent capacities of goodness, she starts to sense others similarly in their very being as intrinsically worthy and good. Then her vision of others cannot be reduced to the caricatures of self-protective anger. Her vision of persons becomes more like how a loving mother sees her child, even when he misbehaves, as intrinsically worthy, someone she would never abandon. To forcefully challenge someone for their own sake takes a much stronger, more authentic love than going along with others no matter what they do.
To relate this back to Buddhist practice: to open to our deepest nature, our buddhanature, is to access a power of loving compassion that has the courage to challenge oneself and others on whatever ways we may hide from our fuller potential.
Does this have anything to do with anger at injustice and unjust systems? It’s exactly like that. When people undergo great suffering under oppressive social systems, we may feel strongly connected to those suffering most intensely—for example, those who lack access to resources in countries where a tiny percentage of people control virtually everything. For most people, it seems normal to hate those in charge of such a system. But as we’ve been saying, we must acknowledge that those who maintain such systems do so from their own inner patterns of fear, from their own attempts to establish safe ground for themselves.
The unconditional compassion in the inmost nature of our minds can recognize that everyone involved in such an oppressive system—those most oppressed by it and those ferociously defending it—have the same underlying capacity of goodness, which is distorted by their self-protective attempts to find safety. Authentic compassion may forcefully challenge the system. Sometimes such compassion can take a powerful confrontational form as occurred with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, or Aung San Suu Kyi. But this differs from anger, because instead of aiming to protect oneself or one’s own position against others, it aims to protect all others, by challenging all in different ways. It can challenge those who cling to a bad system to give others
greater freedom. It can challenge those who have been abused to rediscover their great worth and power for good. Unlike self-righteous anger, which hates the “bad ones” on behalf of the “good ones,” confrontational compassion protects all by challenging all differently—those suffering injustices and those inflicting them. It upholds all in their fuller humanity and potential for greater freedom from fear, hatred and suffering.
Many activists see anger as a necessary and motivating force. Is there anything positive about anger? Most who attend my social justice retreats are social justice activists, including teachers, social workers and health-care givers who see a need for systemic change. Many say, “My anger at injustice is what motivates me to work for change. So it doesn’t make sense to me to reject my anger.” Actually, given what we’ve discussed so far, I think there is truth in that. They are saying that anger is not just deluded, that they sense some wisdom in it, and I think that is true. For example, in trying to make oneself feel safe, anger knows that a ground of safety must be findable somehow. That’s true—there is a ground of safety here within the depth of our being, the deep nature of our minds, which we should try to find. Anger also knows there is something terribly wrong that must be destroyed to make things safe. It’s just wrong about all the details. Anger thinks that what’s wrong is another person or group that must be defeated or destroyed to establish dependable safety. That’s a big mistake. What’s wrong is how out of touch we all are from our fuller humanity and underlying potential of goodness. To correct that wrong, something does need to be destroyed, but it’s not other people; it’s the self-centered fixation that has everyone in its grip, which generates individual and social reactions that make things unsafe for all. So I think some social justice activists want to defend their anger because it indeed contains some wisdom, but it is a distorted form of wisdom. If the wisdom in anger could be liberated from its distorted projections, its intense energy could clarify into wrathful compassion.
It seems to me that that’s not what usually happens! Anger usually backfires.
That’s if we maintain anger as our primary motivation. When we do that, delusions of anger hinder and eventually destroy our work. Anger projects images of others that are merely partial, preventing us from knowing more of their humanity and potential. Then
we can't listen deeply to others. We become too defensive, turning people off, so we can't get enough help, which makes us even angrier. With anger and hatred as motivation, we drive people away instead of inspiring and attracting them to our cause; those who do work with us burn out, and we eventually burn out and wind up hating ourselves.
So it sounds like the long and short of it is that anger is not a sustainable motivating force for social action. We need to go beyond the brittle self-centeredness of anger and take the power and energy driving anger to its truer objects. Instead of hating other persons as objects to be defeated or destroyed, we can let our wrathful energy target all patterns of greed, prejudice, hatred, fear and self-protectiveness that have been operative in every one of us, starting with ourselves. To do this is to be given over to the underlying energy of impartial compassion in the nature of our minds. This energy can become ferocious in upholding everyone in their essential dignity and potential.
When Martin Luther King demonstrated against social institutions of racism and economic inequality, his opponents used attack dogs and whips on him and his followers. Yet King repeatedly taught that unconditional love is the key to foundational social change. He taught that we must confront social structures of racism on behalf of everyone, including those supporting such structures. It was never only for the oppressed people. It was also on behalf of those people wielding attack dogs and whips; he made that clear.
This is the essential difference between ordinary anger and wrathful compassion. Ordinary anger is motivated by fear and aversion; wrathful compassion is motivated by love that has the courage to confront people for their own sake. Anger seeks to protect the self, or one’s own self-righteousness. Wrathful compassion seeks to protect all others, by challenging what harms them. The difference is quite clear.