Before I begin, I’d like to invite everyone in the tri-state area to the screening of Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen tomorrow (Wednesday May 21, 2014) at 6:30pm at Drexel University in their URBN Annex screening room. That’s at 3401 Filbert St (corner of 34th and Filbert Street) on the West side of Philadelphia, PA. The Facebook event is at this link. I will hang out and do a Q&A afterwards, sign books, sign body parts, sign bass guitars, sign bad checks and generally schmooze.
Also, I’d like to thank everyone who made the events I did this past weekend in Ohio such a massive success. The benefit for my friend Logan Firestone raised more than $2000 to help with his medical bills. In spite of everything, Zero Defex played a great set if I do say so myself (and it isn’t just me in the band, so I can say that). The screening of Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen at the Cleveland Buddhist Temple the following night was a grand time too. A lot of very cool people came out for that. Finally, the meeting I had the next evening at the Akron Shambhala Center filled me with great optimism that what I proposed that night would actually come to fruition. More on that later.
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I can tell by some of the comments the last post received that I ought to clarify a few things. It seems that a number of people thought I said the wrong things about anger and that I was violating the ninth precept, “Do not give way to anger.” This made me think I ought to address a matter that may be only tangentially related to that post.
I think that there are two related but quite different things we call “anger.” What I’m going to call Type 1 Anger is what the Oxford Dictionary defines as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.” It’s an emotional response. Some synonyms for Type 1 Anger are acrimony, rage, enmity, and fury.
The precepts warn us against giving way to this emotional response because, in most cases, it does not help anything. It makes us more likely to behave in violent and hurtful ways. But even when it doesn’t do that, it makes it very difficult to see things clearly, think reasonably and act sensibly.
But the word “anger” is often used to describe something else. For example, one might say that Martin Luther King was angry over the way African Americans were treated in America.
In this case, the anger we’re referring to is not an emotional response. I’m sure MLK sometimes got heatedly emotional about some of the terrible things that were done to people because of their race. But the kind of “anger” that really fueled the Civil Rights movement wasn’t emotional. It was a clear understanding that something was very wrong and needed to be put right. Furthermore, the need to put things right was urgent, and so decisive and immediate action was necessary. I would call this Type 2 Anger.
There is a relationship between these two things and often they get mixed together and difficult to distinguish. But the precept is about Type 1 Anger and not Type 2 Anger. I think a lot of those of us who try to practice Buddhism get confused and think it’s about both.
Here’s an example of how I did that in my own practice. I started studying Buddhism in the early 1980s when I was still a member of Zero Defex’s first incarnation. In those days we were known as an angry band, though people often commented on how nice we were off stage as compared to our ferocious presence when playing. Probably the biggest issue we were angry about in those days was nuclear proliferation and the very real possibility of a global nuclear war before the 1980s were over. People forget how close we really came to destroying the planet, not in a matter of decades through global climate change, but literally in a matter of minutes through the massive deployment of atomic weapons.
After a few months or a year of Zen practice and following the break-up of the first version of Zero Defex, I recall being in a conversation with a few people and my teacher Tim McCarthy. The subject of the nuclear arms race came up and I said something like, “I used to be angry about that. But I’m not any more.”
Tim gave me an incredulous look that I can still picture in my mind now and said, “Well I sure am!”
I was so stunned by this that I still remember it decades later. I said what I said to try to impress my teacher with my developing understanding of the dharma. I believed that it was my duty to eradicate all anger from my consciousness and to remain serene and passive even in the face of the potential destruction of the planet I lived on. With his very simple and direct statement, Tim forever changed my way of thinking about that.
We need to learn not to give way to Type 1 Anger, that emotional feeling of rage and hostility. But Type 2 Anger is important. If Buddhism was about eradicating the rational, non-emotional forms of “anger” that lead to things like the Civil Rights Movement, I would want no part of it. Certainly one could say that the Dalai Lama is justifiably angry at the treatment of Tibet by the Chinese. But this is not emotional Type 1 Anger. I don’t even think that “anger” is the proper word for what I’m calling Type 2 Anger. I’m hard pressed to find any other word for it, though. It wouldn’t matter if I did, anyway, because people will still use the word “anger” to indicate both forms.
Whether you believe my post was an example of Type 1 or Type 2 is up to you. I won’t try to justify it. Don’t worry. I do not think I am the Martin Luther King of car rental rights. But I do think it’s important to distinguish that there are two different things that are called “anger.”
I wrote an article a few years ago called Kill Your Anger about my understanding of what anger is and how to deal with it. The entire article appears in my book Sit Down and Shut Up, but there’s a long excerpt on line you can read for free.
An important fact to understand about anger is that it happens to everyone, even practicing Buddhists. The precept says not to give way to anger. It doesn’t ask us not to ever become angry. That would be ridiculous. It also does not ask us to be passive in the face of things that are clearly wrong.
One aspect that tends to get lost in discussions about the appropriate Buddhist response to anger is that there are both internal and external ways of dealing with it. It’s often assumed that Buddhists do a whole lot of internal work so that they become somehow immune to anger and other negative emotions as if they’d been inoculated against them. If a Buddhist practitioner gets upset this is seen as evidence that either they have failed to do their work properly or that the work itself is really just a scam because it is obviously ineffective since it doesn’t work perfectly every time.
Those outside the practice often fail to notice how much of our work is external. That is, we learn what our external triggers are and develop strategies to avoid them. This is why monks often live in monasteries, which are specifically designed to protect those that live in them from emotionally stressful situations. But even in the outside world we tend to steer away from situations that are likely to cause us to react.
Nishijima Roshi was interested in developing real world Buddhist practices. He wasn’t a great fan of Buddhist monasteries, even though he was a fan of Dogen who founded Japan’s biggest monastery. He taught his students to train in the real world and discouraged us from becoming full-time or even long-term monastics. He went so far as to limit his own sesshins to four days maximum because any more than that, he said, “tends to remove us too much from daily life.”
When life intrudes and anger arises this is not evidence that we have failed. Watch what happens. Is it a little better than what would have happened before you started meditating regularly? Then you have not failed nor has your meditation been an ineffective waste of time. Maybe things didn’t go perfectly. But keep on practicing and next time things will get even a little bit more better.
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On May 21, 2014 at 6:30pm, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen will be shown at Drexel University in Philadelphia! I will be there the do a Q&A afterwards.
Sometimes a movie is made to tour.
Are you interested in seeing HARDCORE ZEN with your local community? Would you like Brad Warner to speak at your university, meditation group, or personal guests?
Now you can have both. The film will screen at a location at your discretion. Simply contact email@example.com with the following specifics: your location, contact info, and potential date for the event.