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Subduing Anger

A compilation of advice about Dharma studies and practice
Advice from Khen Rinpoche Geshe Thubten Chonyi, resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore. These teachings offer valuable advice related to our Dharma studies and practice: how to check whether our practices are Dharma, the need for study and constant reflection on the Buddha's teachings, and how to overcome our afflictions and problems so that we can truly benefit others. Transcribed, edited and prepared for publication by the editorial team at ABC, Singapore.

Daily Reflections is available as an ebook from online vendors.

CHAPTERS
Daily Reflections
i. Introduction and Biography
1. What is Dharma?
2. Studying the Dharma
3. Need for Reflection and Analysis
4. Overcoming Negative Emotions
5. Practising Pure Perception
6. Faith
7. Advice on Practice
8. Precious Human Rebirth
9. Death and Impermanence
10. Overcoming Attachment to the Body
11. Joyous Effort
12. Subduing Anger
13. Generating Bodhicitta
14. Wisdom Realizing Emptiness

Main obstacle to generating a good heart

The main obstacle to becoming a good-hearted person is anger. Anger is the opposite of the good heart and is very harmful. It has harmed us in the past, it is harming us now and it will harm us in the future.

We can see how anger harms us in this life, disturbing our mental peace, making our relationships difficult. But it does not stop there. The results of anger will also harm us in the future as we accumulate very powerful negative karma, which will propel us into lower rebirths in our future lives. Anger harms in the past because all the roots of virtue accumulated in the past are destroyed when we get angry.

Mental unhappiness causes anger to arise in our minds and it arises when:

  1. others create problems for our loved ones and ourselves, or
  2. we and our loved ones are prevented  from getting what we want, or
  3. we see that everything is going well for people whom we dislike.

Is there any point in becoming unhappy with these conditions? It is not going to make our problem disappear. On top of that, it makes us miserable. If matters can be changed for the better, there is no reason to feel unhappy. If we cannot do anything about the situation, again, we have to stop our minds from becoming unhappy since that serves no purpose at all but only generates additional suffering for ourselves. The point here is to keep the mind happy.

For the other party who is creating difficulties for us, our unhappiness does not rid us of this person or make him change his mind towards us. It is even possible that our unhappiness will make him happier.

Some of the reasons we have mentioned can be reflected upon in meditation, which helps us to familiarise ourselves with these lines of reasoning. There is no better meditation than familiarising ourselves with the antidotes to anger. Then, when anger arises in our minds, we can recall them and apply them immediately. Of course, we may not be successful in the beginning, but if we persevere, and with greater familiarity with such thoughts, we will improve.

You should do this on your own by spending some time – maybe 15-20 minutes – thinking about these points in stages, sorting them out in your own mind while reflecting on your own experiences.

Meditation exercise (I)1

First, recall a time when anger or hatred arose in your mind. Did you feel happy or was the feeling unpleasant? When you encounter some problems and you are feeling upset and angry, or there is a lot of hatred in your mind, examine that feeling and experience. Is it good or bad?

It is very obvious when we look at our own experiences. We can conclude that when we are angry, there is a lot of unhappiness in our minds which we neither want nor need. That being the case, we have to think of ways and means to get rid of such mental unhappiness.

It is very beneficial when we have faith in the Buddha’s teachings and the workings of karma. It is obvious that anger disturbs and makes us unhappy. Worse still, anger destroys a thousand eons of virtue that we have accumulated in the past.  It is also obvious that as soon as we are angry, or when the anger has been festering in our minds for a long time, it blocks the generation of a virtuous state of mind, making it very difficult for the mind to be positive and virtuous. Anger also harms us in the future, by causing us to take rebirth in the lower realms. We should reflect deeply on how anger harms us in these different ways.

Next, we examine the causes of anger. What makes us upset – a person, an incident or a situation? As mentioned in the text,2 the cause of anger or hatred is mental unhappiness. Do our experiences accord with what is said in the text?  Is it true that anger is experienced when the mind is unhappy in some way? It becomes clear that first we feel unhappy, then that mental unhappiness leads to anger or hatred.

We then have to examine what is causing our unhappiness. The text points out that the main cause of mental unhappiness is attachment to the eight worldly dharmas. For example, we feel unhappy when someone behaves in an unfriendly or abusive way towards us. Because the “I” or “me” is harmed, we get angry and unhappy.

Let us take as an example the experience of being verbally insulted by someone. We first become unhappy, then anger and hatred follows.  The condition for that mental unhappiness and anger is hearing those unpleasant words.

At that point we should reflect: “The words have already been said. Can my anger change what has already occurred? Sooner or later, my critic will finish what he has to say.” So think: “Are we able to change the situation by remaining angry? Can the insults be retracted if we continue to be angry?” Thinking in this way, it becomes clear that getting angry serves no purpose at all. The insults have been uttered. The words cannot be taken back. Our anger is useless as we are unable to change the situation. Furthermore, our anger only disturbs and makes our minds unhappy.

There would be some purpose to our anger if it could eliminate the situation that is upsetting us. But we can see that is not so. Our anger also has no effect on the other party who is insulting us. Instead, we are the ones experiencing the mental unhappiness and disturbance.

After examining this from every possible angle, the conclusion has to be that anger does not serve any beneficial purpose whatsoever. It only harms and makes us unhappy. Based on this conclusion, we should be convinced that anger is bad for us and be determined not to give in to it in the future: “I must try to stop my anger from arising.” We must remember, “I have to be very careful to take care of my mind, especially when anger is about to arise.”

We should not think like this only occasionally but we should rely on our mindfulness and vigilance all the time. When we become habituated to this way of thinking, together with our application of mindfulness and vigilance, it will become easier to stop anger from arising.

Everything we see or experience seems to exist very solidly from its own side.  Anger arises based on that appearance. At the present moment, we may think there is no way we can curb our anger. It is very difficult to subdue anger completely, but even then we can familiarise our minds with the antidotes, by meditating on some of the points I have mentioned. With greater familiarity, we will definitely be able to stop anger from remaining in the mind for long and even when it arises we will be able to stop it quickly. This is definitely achievable.

If we do not train our minds in this way, we will continue to live with our anger, becoming angrier with each passing day. The days become months, the months become years. When we do nothing about our anger, we spend our whole lives like that.

It will not take you longer than 10 minutes a day to reflect on these points. You should reflect on them daily for at least a week. This is not optional. This is something you must do. After a week, if you find it beneficial, then, of course, you can continue with the reflection. But you must try this out for at least a week. 10 minutes is not a long time. It is your responsibility to put aside those 10 minutes. When you see its usefulness, you will be motivated to do it and you will be able to make the time. But if you do not want to do it, you will not be able to find any time, even if you are not working, and free the whole day.

Some students wonder what our studies have to do with their lives. They do not see its usefulness or benefit. That is understandable. We can study and listen to many teachings, but when we do not reflect on them and try to apply them to our daily lives, we always remain the same. Therefore, we have to critically analyse how our studies can be integrated into our lives. When we do not meditate in this way, the teachings will never benefit the mind. This is my way of persuading you to do this homework.

You may have a lot of daily commitments but it remains to be seen whether the mind changes as a result of merely reciting prayers and doing sadhanas alone. I think it is very difficult for the mind to improve when you simply spend all your time doing prayers without doing any reflection. But when you spend just 10 minutes every day, continuously for, say, a month, thinking about how to stop anger, you will be able to assess its usefulness at the end of the month.

Whether this happens or not depends on you experiencing it for yourself. Please do not misunderstand; I am not saying that you should discard your commitments and stop your daily prayers. Since you have made the promise to do so, you have to continue with your prayers, but do them happily.

Meditation exercise (2)

This is another piece of meditation homework for you to reflect on for the next couple of weeks. Put aside 10 to 15 minutes every day and reflect on the following points. If you can, reflect on all of them in the sequence given. If you do not have the time, then choose and meditate on the points you find most useful.

1. Visualise on the crown of your head your meditational deity and root guru. Remember that your meditational deity is inseparable in nature from your root guru.

2. Next, generate the motivation for doing this practice: “In order to achieve the enlightened state of my guru deity, I must perfect my practice of patience.”

3. Visualise that you are surrounded by all sentient beings, including your enemies who are in front of you, and make a mental pledge: “Even if all sentient beings were to rise up as my enemies, I will not be angry with them.” Making this kind of mental promise is particularly beneficial and helpful if you can sustain this mental commitment for the duration of your meditation session. You can promise to keep this commitment for 10 minutes, a longer period of time or even for a whole day, like the way you observe the eight Mahayana precepts.

4. In dealing with anger, it is imperative to reflect on the faults and disadvantages of anger. It is mentioned in the text, “There is no transgression like hatred.”

Anger not only destroys merits accumulated in the past, present and future but when anger is present in the mind, there is no room for virtuous states of mind to arise. For instance, when we dislike and are angry with someone, we are unable to rejoice even when that person is doing a virtuous action. Due to the presence of anger in our minds, we are unable to see the good qualities of that person. It also becomes difficult to generate positive thoughts towards the people who are close to our object of anger, such as their friends and relatives. It is also said that anger prevents the generation of higher spiritual qualities.

The opposite of anger is the practice of patience. As mentioned in the text, there is “no fortitude like patience.” With patience, we have the mental space to generate positive thoughts even towards our enemies.

5. Anger arises when we are harmed in some way, be it our bodies, possessions or reputation. Focusing on our enemy, we should check (1) whether it is the nature of that person to harm us, or (2) whether that tendency to harm us is adventitious (i.e., not inherent)?

If it is the nature of that person to cause problems for us, then there is no reason to be angry with him. Such anger would be like begrudging fire for having the nature to burn. When you put your hand in the fire, your hand is burnt. It would be foolish to be angry at the fire.

Different people have different natures. If the object of our anger is a troublesome person who usually speaks harshly, understanding that that is his nature, we will be less likely to become angry when he behaves badly. Even if anger arises, we would be able to stop it quickly and not be so bothered. We can see this from our own experience.

We may know that person to be good-hearted but due to certain causes and conditions coming together, he/she gets angry and harms us. This would be an adventitious fault on the part of the person. It would be good to find out why that person is behaving in such a way and not be angry or upset with him.

6. Now focus on ourselves. We want happiness and do not want suffering yet we allow ourselves to get angry with other people. Our behaviour contradicts our wishes and is completely inappropriate.

We are unable to bear being harmed in little ways and become angry, but our negative response means that we are accumulating the propelling /throwing karma for ourselves to be reborn in the lower realms. We destroy our own roots of virtue. We should realise how extremely foolish we are. Why? Because we are choosing to not sacrifice small sufferings to ward off the greater suffering of rebirth in the lower realms. When we endure small sufferings (by not becoming angry), then we do not have to experience the greater suffering of rebirth in the hells. So we need to correct our foolish behaviour.

7. Next, let us focus on our bodies, which are the bases for experiencing the pain of being harmed by weapons and so forth.

Our bodies are as fragile as a water bubble, unable to bear even the prick of a thorn. When attacked, besides the attacker and the weapon he uses, our bodies also contribute to the experience of pain. The very existence of this body lends itself to suffering. If we did not have such a body in the first place, we would not be harmed when attacked. Therefore, both the external conditions and our bodies are equal in contributing to our experience of pain when we are attacked. Since that is so, there is no reason for us to be angry only at the attacker or his weapon.

We tend to place the blame entirely on the attacker and never blame our own bodies. We need to stop thinking like this by understanding that the mere existence of our bodies plays a part in our experience of suffering and pain.

We have looked at some of the ways to weaken anger by focusing on :

  1. our enemies,
  2. ourselves, and
  3. our bodies.

Many reasons are given in the text, but they can be condensed into these three points above.

8. In addition, if you can, reflect on how the enemy has no freedom but is controlled by other factors. He gets angry and engages in harmful activities because he has no choice. But this is not how the enemy appears to us. We see him as being very solid, existing inherently without depending on causes and conditions, and we react by getting angry with him. We can stop this by reflecting on how he does not exist independently but is also subject to causes and conditions. We should see the enemy as an apparition or a dream. As long as the causes and conditions come together for the production of an event, that event will happen.


Notes

1  This meditation was set as a piece of homework to be done by the students.  [Return to text]

2  Chapter 6 of Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds by Shantideva. [Return to text]

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