Q&A: Working with Anger
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
Does being patient with people who harm us mean being
passive? Must we let them get their way or walk all over us?
No. We can redress a bad situation without
antagonism. In fact, we’ll be more effective in doing so when we’re
calm and clear-thinking.
Sometimes we may have to speak strongly to
someone because that is the only way to communicate with her. For
example, if your child is playing in the street and you very sweetly
say, "Susie dear, please don’t play in the street," she may ignore
you. But if you speak forcefully and explain the danger to her,
she’ll remember and obey.
As a sports enthusiast, isn’t anger good because it
helps you to win the game? Is sports a good way to release
Yes, sports is a socially accepted way of
venting anger. However, it doesn’t cure the anger, it only
temporarily releases the physical energy accompanying anger. We are
still avoiding the real problem, which is our disturbing emotion and
misconceptions regarding a situation.
Yes, anger may help you win the game, but is
that really beneficial? Is it worthwhile to reinforce negative
characteristics just to get a trophy? The danger in sports is making
the "us and them" too concrete. "My team must win. We have to fight
and beat the enemy."
But let’s step back for s moment. Why should we
win and the other team lose? The only reason is "My team is best
because it’s mine." The other team feels the same way. Who is right?
Competition based on such self-centredness isn’t productive because
it breeds anger and jealousy.
On the other hand, we can concentrate on the
process of playing the game, not on the goal of winning. In this
case, we’ll enjoy the physical exercise, the camaraderie and team
spirit, whether we win or lose. Psychologically, this attitude
brings more happiness.
How do we deal with anger when we witness a person
All the techniques described above are
applicable here. However, being patient doesn’t mean being passive.
We may have to actively stop one person from harming another, but
the key is to do this with impartial compassion for everyone in the
It’s easy to have compassion for the victim. But
compassion for the perpetrator is equally important. This person is
creating the cause for his own suffering: he may be tortured by
guilt later, he may encounter trouble with the law, and he will reap
the karmic fruits of his own actions. Recognising the suffering he
brings on himself, we can develop compassion for him. Thus, with
equal concern for the victim and the perpetrator, we can act to
prevent one person from harming another.
We needn’t be angry in order to correct a wrong.
Actions done out of anger may complicate the situation even more!
With a clear mind, we’ll be able to determine more easily what we
can do to help.
How can we help someone who is creating negative
karma by getting angry at us?
Each situation is different and will have to be
examined separately. However, some general guidelines may apply.
First, check up if the other’s complaints about us are justified. If
so, we can apologise and correct the situation. That stops his
Second, when someone is very upset and angry,
try to calm him down. Don’t argue back, because in his state of
mind, he can’t listen to you. This is understandable: we don’t
listen to others when we are in a temper. So it’s better to help him
settle down and later, perhaps the next day, discuss it.
What do we do when people criticise Buddhism?
That’s their opinion. They’re entitled to have
it. Of course, we don’t agree with it. Sometimes we may succeed in
correcting another’s misconceptions, but sometimes people are very
closed-minded and don’t want to change their views. That’s their
business. Just leave it.
We don’t need others’ approval to practice the
Dharma. But we do need to be convinced in our hearts that what we do
is right. If we are, then others’ opinions aren’t important.
Others’ criticisms don’t hurt the Dharma or the
Buddha. The path to enlightenment exists whether others recognise it
as such or not. We don’t need to be defensive. In fact, if we become
agitated when others criticise Buddhism, it indicates we’re attached
to our beliefs – that our ego is involved and so we feel compelled
to prove our beliefs are right.
When we’re secure in what we believe, others’
criticisms don’t disturb our peace of mind. Why should it? Criticism
doesn’t mean we are stupid or bad. It’s simply another’s opinion,
Tibetan Buddhism has many images of fierce deities.
What do they mean?
These deities or Buddha figures are
manifestations of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. Their ferocity
isn’t directed towards living beings, because as Buddhas, they have
only compassion for others. Rather their force is aimed at ignorance
and selfishness, the real causes of all our problems.
By showing a fierce aspect, these deities
demonstrate the need to act firmly and swiftly against our ignorance
and selfishness. Being patient with internal enemies, the disturbing
attitudes, isn’t beneficial at all. We should actively oppose them.
These deities illustrate that instead of being wrathful towards
other beings, we should be fierce with internal enemies like
ignorance and selfishness.
In addition, as manifestations of compassionate
wisdom, these deities symbolically represent compassionate wisdom
conquering disturbing attitudes.
How do we identify our anger?
There are several ways to do this. When we do
the breathing meditation, clearly focussing on the inhalation and
exhalation of the breath, observe what distractions arise. We may
recognise a general feeling of restlessness or anger. Or we may
remember a situation from years ago that we’re still irritated
about. By noting these distractions, we’ll know what we need to work
on. We can also identify our anger by being aware of our physical
reactions, whether we’re meditating or not.
For example, if we feel our stomach tightening,
or our body temperature increasing, it may be a signal that we’re
starting to lose our temper. Each person has different physical
manifestations of anger. We can be observant and note ours. This is
helpful, for sometimes it’s easier to identify the physical
sensation accompanying anger than the anger itself.
Another way is to observe our moods. When we’re
in a bad mood, we can pause and ask ourselves, "What is this
feeling? What prompted it?" Sometimes we can observe patterns in our
moods and behaviours. This gives us clues as to how our minds
What can we do about anger that has been building up
over a long period of time?
It will take a while to free our minds from
this. Habitual anger must be replaced with habitual patience, and
this takes time and consistent effort to develop. When we notice our
anger building up towards someone, it’s helpful to ask ourselves,
"What button is this person pushing in me? Why am I so irritated by
her actions?" In this way, we research our reactions to determine
the real issue involved. Do we feel powerless? Do we feel no one
listens to us? Are we offended? Observing in this way, we’ll come to
know ourselves better and can then apply the right antidote to that
Of course, prevention is the best medicine.
Instead of allowing our anger to build up over time, it’s better to
be courageous and try to communicate with the other person earlier
on. This stops the proliferation of misconceptions and
misunderstandings. If we allow our anger to build up over time, how
can we blame it on the other person? We have some responsibility to
try to communicate with people who disturb us.