Antidotes to anger

Shantideva's "Engaging in the Bodhisattva's Deeds," Chapter 6, Verses 16-21

A series of teachings given at various venues in Mexico in April 2015. The teachings are in English with Spanish translation. This talk took place at Yeshe Gyaltsen Center in Cozumel.

  • Familiarizing ourselves with the antidotes to anger
  • Releasing our present and past anger
  • How to keep a steady mind in the face of suffering
  • Overcoming our habit of blaming others and victimizing ourselves
  • Seeing the good qualities of suffering
  • The four opponent powers
  • Questions and answers
    • Working with anger towards a former partner
    • Why past karma affects our present life
    • Experiencing karma does not mean we deserve to suffer

So, here we are again, still with our anger, huh? [laughter] Anybody get angry during the lunch break? Did you remember to do some of the things we’ve been talking about? Because the trick with this whole thing of reducing our anger is to remember it when we’re angry. And in order to do that, we have to become very familiar with the techniques when we’re not angry. So, that means as we learn the different remedies to then practice them in our daily meditation. If we wait until we’re angry to practice them, they won’t be very strong, and we won’t be able to change our minds. But if we practice them on a day-to-day basis, and look at incidents from the past, and practice thinking in this new way regarding even things from the past, then we can get familiar with all these techniques, and it becomes easier to apply them.

I got a lot of practice at one point in my life. I was working in a Dharma Center once and had a very difficult time with some of the people there. I’ll tell you that story later. It’s a good one! [laughter] But when I left, I went to do retreat, and in my retreat, I just kept getting angry, and angry, and angry, remembering different things that happened at the Center. “How mean they were to me! When I’m so sweet!” [laughter] Well, sometimes. 

In the meditation sessions, when I would get distracted and anger came up, and I would remember something that happened, then I would quickly go to Chapter 6 in Shantideva’s text, and then I’d look up, what am I supposed to do—meaning not what am I supposed to do to the other people, but what am I supposed to do to calm my mind? I got very familiar with this chapter. I calmed down in the session, then I’d get up from my session, get angry again when I remembered another thing, then need to sit down and again meditate on fortitude. And this went on for a three month retreat, actually it might have been a four month retreat, I can’t remember. The thing is, that by thinking about these methods in terms of situations that have already happened to us, we not only become familiar with these new ways of thinking, but we also are able to resolve anger that we’ve been holding onto for a long time. 

Do you have things in your life that, on a day-to-day basis, you don’t think of so much when you’re not angry, but as soon as something makes you remember what your brother said to you twenty years ago, you get furious? It’s very good to think about all these antidotes and apply them to all those situations. Because don’t we have better things to think about than what our brother said twenty years ago? Or when you get even older, then you remember what your mother said fifty years ago. I know when you get even older than that… And so if we don’t resolve all those things from the past, we’re going to grow old to be kind of angry old people. [laughter] Yeah? Who wants to do that?

I was in Cleveland and Chicago before I came here, and I saw one of my cousins who I hadn’t seen in, maybe, twenty-five years, and so we had a very nice reunion. Then she told me how she wasn’t speaking to her brother who was also one of my cousins, and whom I liked when I was a kid. And she told me about the incident that happened. It was some tiny situation that was so ridiculous, but she was holding onto it and not speaking to her brother.

When we were about to leave, she wanted to take some pictures to show to her siblings that she was speaking to, and I was a little bit sneaky, and I said, “Please send it to your brother also.” And she looked at me, and she said, “You asked me, and I can’t say ‘no’ even though I don’t want to.” But I’m hoping maybe it will loosen things a little bit. Because otherwise anger can really make you physically sick sometimes, can’t it? You know when you’re really sick and your stomach hurts and you can’t sleep—who wants to live like that?

Enduring physical discomfort

We’ll continue on. We are on Chapter 16, which says: 

I should not be upset with heat and cold, wind and rain and so forth, in sickness, bondage, beatings and so forth because if I am, the harm will increase.

We can see this in our own lives that when we have some kind of physical pain or discomfort, if we get angry at having that pain or discomfort, then our suffering increases. Because then we have not only the original physical pain, but also the mental pain caused by our anger. Can you see that? Can you remember a situation in your life like that? It’s good to remember that and, since we don’t want to suffer, to not waste our time getting angry at different physical pains.

Instead, we can actually sometimes see the benefit of the physical pain. Some years ago, I was in Tennessee, which is one of the very conservative states in the U.S., and I was invited to speak at a wellness center—for cancer—and so one woman, an older woman there, she said in the group that in one way, she saw the benefits of having cancer because it made her wake up and change her life. She realized that she couldn’t just go on coasting in life; rather it was important for her to apologize to the people who needed apologizing to and to forgive the people she needed to forgive. And so you can see from her way of talking about the cancer that she didn’t have a lot of mental pain whereas other people may have the physical pain or discomfort of the cancer and then get so mad at the cancer or so mad at the universe that they suffer much more. As you sit here being very hot, don’t get angry at the heat. [laughter]

Then, verse 17:

Some, when they see their own blood, they become especially brave and steady, but some, when they see the blood of others, become unconscious and faint.

This is using the example of soldiers and, so, some of them, when they see that they’ve been wounded, they get a lot of energy and they really become very brave, and they want to fight. That’s when they see their own blood. Then other people who are very fainthearted, let alone seeing their own blood, when they see the blood of somebody else they faint and are unconscious. Similarly, some people with a strong practice of fortitude, when they face difficulties themselves, it makes them become very strong and very courageous in order to overcome their anger. Whereas weak-hearted people, even when they see somebody else who is harmed, they just get mad over that and can’t even restrain their anger. We want to be one of the people who have a lot of strength to overcome our anger. We are beings in samsara and suffering is going to come our way.

We have a body that gets old and sick and dies, so definitely we are going to face pain. And even things like other people criticizing us is going to happen. Where can we go in this universe where somebody’s not going to criticize us? One time I was at a teaching—Lama Zopa Rinpoche was giving a teaching—and I think he let us go early that day, so it was probably two in the morning. [laughter] Of course, we had to be back in the hall at six or five the next morning. So, some small thing had happened with one other person that was there, and after the teachings, she really laid into me, blaming me for something that wasn’t my fault! [laughter] And I started to get angry, and then I realized that I have no time to waste getting angry at her because I only have three and a half or four hours to sleep! [laughter] And right now, sleeping is more important than anger. [laughter] 

I also said to myself, “Where am I going to go in this universe where no one is going to criticize me?” Everywhere I go, somebody is going to complain about me, why waste my time getting upset about it? Unfortunately, it was my attachment to sleep that talked me out of getting angry instead of some virtuous reason. [laughter] But it did show me that I didn’t need to give into the anger

Verse 18: 

These come from the states of the mind being either steady or timid. Therefore, I should disregard harms and be unaffected by suffering.

This is just what I was saying; if we can keep a steady mind, then we won’t get so upset when there is physical suffering. Whereas when we have a very weak or timid mind, even the smallest thing we blow up to be enormous. We have a tendency to exaggerate. One day, maybe, you have a stomachache then your self-centered mind says, “Oh no, I think I have a stomachache. I must have stomach cancer. Oh, cancer of the stomach is really horrible. Maybe it’s metastasized by now. Ah, I bet I have cancer all through my bones and that’s why my liver hurt the other day. Oh, my goodness, it must be stage four, and I haven’t written my will yet. I’m so traumatized by this! And it’s so unfair. Why did it happen to me?” Do you see how we take something, and exaggerate it, and then make a big deal? And that only increases our suffering.

You know, I think sometimes of when ISIS was—well, is—decapitating some people, and I ask myself, “If I’m one of those people, how could I keep a Dharma attitude instead of just completely dissolving and crying and complaining and everything?” Have you ever thought about that? I mean, it’s an awful thing to think about, but so often people do experience awful things in their lives that they don’t anticipate. And so I was thinking, rather than get angry, or rather than just completely dissolve in fear, to do the taking and giving meditation. This is one where we imagine taking on the suffering of others and giving them our happiness. And I think if we really do the bodhicitta meditations and see the disadvantages of self-centeredness and the benefits of cherishing others, then we can see this meditation on taking and giving as a refuge for us that can help us through these kinds of difficult times. 

Verse 19: 

Even when those who are skilled are suffering, their minds remain very lucid and undefiled. When war is waged against the afflictions, much harm is caused at the time of battle. 

So, this whole section we’re speaking about now is how to use fortitude in the face of suffering. Here we’re talking about people who are practitioners. When they have physical sufferings, their minds become very clear and undefiled in the sense that they don’t waste their time and energy getting angry or feeling sorry for themselves. They’re completely aware that when you are trying to counteract your suffering and your anger, you may face difficulties. If you’re going to face difficulties, it makes you exceptionally clear and calm.

Have you ever seen how some people, when there’s an accident or a lot of turmoil, they become so calm and clear, and they can really think clearly about what to do in this situation? Whereas there are other people who totally freak out. The people who are freaking out, they can’t help anybody, even themselves. Whereas the people who see, “This is a serious situation. I know there’s going to be suffering,” they can really think clearly and benefit many people. So, we want to be like that one, don’t we?

Verse 20: 

The victorious heroes are those who, having disregarded all suffering, vanquish the foes of hatred and so forth. The rest slay corpses.

Again, using the analogy of a battle, the people who are victorious heroes disregard their own suffering, and they continue the battle. Here, the victorious heroes are the buddhas and the bodhisattvas, and they’re in combat with their own anger, hatred, belligerence, spite, and so forth. And so, they are able to disregard the difficulties of having to face those negative qualities about themselves. They are courageous in facing the difficulty of having to counteract their anger. When you’re angry, it takes a lot of energy to apply the antidotes, and it’s very easy to— according to our usual habit—give into the anger and become furious. But to really counteract that habit of getting angry, it takes certain courage and certain energy. So, like the people who are victorious in the combat against their own anger, have that kind of courage.

Going back to the analogy of the soldier, the people who don’t become brave in battle and fight the enemy, what they do is they kill somebody who is already dead. When it says “They slay corpses” it’s referring to when somebody has already died, then they feel so brave, and they shoot them again. We don’t want to be somebody like that when we’re in the combat with our own anger. And what “slaying corpses” looks like would be completely giving into our anger and blaming the other person for our behavior. Blaming others is kind of our habit, isn’t it? Whenever we’re unhappy, it’s never my fault. It’s always somebody else’s fault. “My mother did this. My father did this. My husband, my wife, my dog, my cat, my boss, the President”—it’s always somebody else’s fault. And we always see ourselves as just sweet, innocent victims, and then here’s all these inconsiderate other people. And we just blame.

If you’re going to deal with your anger, one of the first things you have to give up is blaming other people. But we like to blame other people! Because it really is their fault, “I’m a victim of these horrible people and what they do! [laughter] I have no responsibility in my own misery because I don’t make mistakes! And I didn’t pick the fight! And I didn’t do anything inconsiderate that pushed somebody else’s buttons! I don’t take revenge! I’m just so sweet.” When we think like this, we make ourselves into a victim of other people because if we have no responsibility, there’s nothing we can do to improve the situation. And it’s all their fault. That puts us in a difficult situation, doesn’t it? If it’s always somebody else’s fault then I can’t do anything to improve the situation. All I can do is either yell or scream or suck my thumb and feel sorry for myself. Who wants that? 

Benefits of suffering

Verse 21: 

Furthermore, suffering has good qualities . . .

 I’m just waiting for people to give me a dirty look. [laughter] Shantideva said that, not me! 

Furthermore, suffering has good qualities, through being disheartened with it, arrogance is dispelled, compassion arises for those in cyclic existence, negativities are shunned, and joy is found in virtue. 

This verse is talking about the benefits of suffering. This does not mean that we should go out and look for suffering. We don’t have to; it comes automatically. So, don’t waste your time, and don’t cause yourself suffering. But if you just go on, suffering will come, and you’ll have the opportunity to transform it and see its good qualities.

What is the good that can come out of suffering? If we see the good, and we make some good come out of the suffering then we won’t get angry when we’re suffering. One good thing that comes out of suffering is that we get really fed up with it, and that reduces our arrogance because a lot of times when we have good health, when our career is going well, when our family life is going well, then we get a little bit complacent and even haughty and also arrogant. “Look how good I’m doing in samsara. I got this promotion. I have this status. I got this award. I have a nice family. I’m very attractive and athletic. I’m young and on top of the world!” We get kind of complacent and arrogant about our good fortune. Then suffering comes, and it’s like all the air goes out of the balloon. 

Instead, we should think, “Oh, I’m like everybody else. I face the same difficulties as other people. I shouldn’t go around thinking that I’m somehow special or better than them.” It really puts our feet on the ground. Have you had that experience sometimes when you’ve suffered? All the big bubble of conceit goes boop! And that leads to the next benefit of suffering: we can then have compassion for other people because a lot of times when we’re arrogant, and we’re floating on the world thinking everything is so wonderful, we disregard other people’s suffering and are just apathetic about it. We disregard it and have no compassion. The lack of compassion is a pretty serious weakness in our spiritual practice. Suffering enables us to really understand where other people are at and to really have compassion for them. 

Then, another benefit is we see that our suffering is a result of our own non virtue. And that motivates us to get our act together, to stop creating those negative actions and to purify the ones we have created. So, this particular technique of thinking that our suffering is the result of our own negative karma, I find personally very helpful because it completely cuts the mind that wants to blame other people. And that mind that wants to blame other people is angry and unhappy, whereas when I see, “Oh, this is coming because of me,” then there is something I can do about it. I have to take responsibility for my own situation. This was one of the things that happened to me very early on in my Dharma practice that really changed how I view the Dharma.

I was living in Kopan monastery in Nepal, and I got hepatitis. Hep-A is caused by eating contaminated food, and I was so totally weak that going to the bathroom—remember, I told you about those lovely toilets that we had—and then climbing back to my room required energy that seemed like climbing Mount Everest. And when I went down to the Ayurveda doctor in Kathmandu, there was no way I could walk up the hill again. In those days none of us could afford a taxi, so a Dharma friend of mine carried me up on his back, and I just lay there in the room. In those days it was the old building, so the ceiling was the same as the floor above me. And it was just wooden planks, so when the person above me swept his floor, some of the dirt fell down through the cracks onto me, and I was so sick that I couldn’t even care about that.

And then somebody came in and gave me this book called The Wheel of Sharp Weapons. It’s a book in the genre of thought training. It was written by Dharmarakshiti, one of Atisha’s gurus, so probably ninth, tenth century. One of the verses said: 

When your body is racked with pain and disease, this is the result of the wheel of sharp weapons.

This means that you create the karma, and it comes back to you. Something similar to what you’ve done to others you now experience. And so I all of a sudden thought, “Oh, my goodness. My illness is the result of my own destructive karma. I can’t blame the cook because he didn’t wash the vegetables well enough. I have to accept that this is the result of my actions—probably things done in a previous life—and so I just have to bear this in as good a way as I possibly can, without getting angry at someone and without being a nuisance to other people by complaining all the time.”

That suffering makes us think about our karma, and when we are experiencing something that we don’t like, then we have to think, “If I don’t like this, I’ve got to stop creating the cause for it.” If I don’t like being sick and having this pain, I’ve got to stop causing other people pain in their bodies and harming their bodies. And this is what we call learning from our own experience and transforming suffering into happiness. And if we really think like this, it can produce very substantial changes in us. In other words, we can really change by thinking like this. 

I had another situation happen in my family, an awful situation that I never expected, and I just had to face the fact that I was experiencing this very rotten situation that was emotionally quite painful because I created the cause—maybe not this life, but in a previous life. If I don’t like this result, I better stop creating the cause for it.

That’s a very effective way to transform your mind. And if you mix that together with what we just discussed—“Why am I getting criticized? Because I’ve criticized others”—and you think, “Not only have I criticized many people every day, but also I don’t get criticized myself every day,” so according to the law of cause and effect, I have a lot coming to me. So, I don’t need to create more negative karma, and instead what I need to do is purification practice. Purification practice is very important. 

Four opponent powers

To do a purification practice, there are four opponent powers. The first is to have regret for our misdeed. Regret is different than guilt. Regret just means, “I made a mistake, and I regret it.” Guilt means, “I made a mistake, and I’m the WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD! And I’m never going to be forgiven. I’m going to experience suffering forever, and rightfully so because I’m such an awful, horrible person!” When we feel guilty, who is the star of the show? I am.

So, don’t bother feeling guilty. Guilt is a mental factor to be abandoned on the path. But do feel regret. That’s the first opponent power. The second is to take refuge and generate bodhicitta, and what this does is it transforms our attitude toward whoever it was that we harmed. For example, if we harmed the Holy Beings—the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha or our spiritual teachers—then by thinking of their good qualities, taking refuge in the Three Jewels, that restores the relationship that was broken when we got angry and did something harmful to them. With regular sentient beings, the way we restore the relationship—mentally—is by generating bodhicitta, the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all beings. So, that was the second one.

Then the third is to make some kind of determination not to do that same negative action again. If you can’t really make a strong determination never to do it again, at least make a determination that for the next two days, I won’t do it again. And then after two days, renew it for another two days. [laughter] 

And then the fourth is to do some kind of remedial action. This could be making prostrations, chanting mantra, reciting the names of the Buddhas, doing volunteer work for the community, giving a donation to a charity, meditating on emptiness or bodhicitta—in short, any kind of virtuous action. So, when we know that we’ve created some kind of negative karma, it’s very good to employ these four. And, in fact, the great masters tell us we should contemplate these four daily because most of us create some kind of destructive karma on a daily basis. Suffering invigorates us so that we want to do this practice. 

Then, the fourth benefit of suffering is that realizing that suffering comes from our negative actions and that happiness comes from virtuous actions gives us more energy to create virtuous actions. And it really doesn’t take that much energy to do virtuous things, but sometimes we’re quite lazy. For example, one very nice thing to do is every morning to make an offering to the Buddha. It takes all of thirty seconds, or if you really take a long time, maybe a minute. So, if you have a shrine in your room, then every morning you take out some fruit, some flowers or some cookies or even a bowl of water, and you offer it to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And you do it with a motivation of bodhicitta, thinking that by making this offering, may I become a Buddha who is able to be of great benefit to all sentient beings. 

And because your motivation includes wanting to benefit countless sentient beings, you create an incredible amount of merit. It doesn’t take that much energy. And we can do this even through generosity in our daily life. For example, if you have a friend over for lunch, think, “In the future, may I offer food to all sentient beings.” And not only offering them food—“May I offer them the Dharma.” And so again, because you’re doing something virtuous with the idea in your mind of benefitting many sentient beings, then huge amounts of merit is created. So, those are four benefits—at least four benefits—of suffering.

Like I said, we don’t need to go around creating the causes for suffering, it will come by itself. But it’s very helpful to think this way when suffering arrives. So, let me just review those four again. Through suffering our arrogance decreases. It’s not automatically going to decrease. We have to take it into our mind and make our arrogance decrease. Then, second, our compassion is going to increase. Third, we will stop creating negative karma and purify the negative karma we’ve already created. And then fourth, we will make an effort to create virtue. So, coming to Dharma teachings like you are today is creating virtue.

Questions & Answers

Audience: [Inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Okay, so you really want to be angry! And you want to be angry for the benefit of your ex-boyfriend—so that the woman he was unfaithful with can understand what a rotten, lousy thing he did. My take on that situation is if you have a boyfriend that acts like that, you are lucky that he is gone. [laughter] Isn’t she lucky? Some guy who makes false promises and then goes behind her back and everything—good riddance! You should go to her and make three prostrations and say, “Thank you very much! You took this guy off my hands.” 

A similar situation happened some years ago when I lived in France at the monastery. There was one woman who was new to the Dharma, and she was middle-aged. Her husband had just taken off with some younger woman, and she was devastated. And I said to her the same thing, “You are very lucky because now she has to pick up his dirty laundry. And you are liberated from it.” And I think she thought about it—and other Dharma points—because she later ordained. And she stayed a nun for the rest of her life. She died last year. So, sometimes we really have to thank the people who we think are our enemies because sometimes they wind up helping us.

Audience: Also, in this situation we can think that this situation happened due to this lady’s previous karma.

VTC: It also happened due to her previous karma.

Audience: So there’s no reason to be angry because it was created by the person involved.

VTC: Exactly. So, some time in a previous life, you did something similar, so it’s coming back. 

Audience: Sometimes when there are things that happen, and we don’t know why it happens, if we look at it in this context, it’s very liberating.

VTC: Also, when you think about it in terms of karma, you can rejoice that this difficulty happened, because now the karma has gotten used up and is finished. That karma could have ripened in a very bad rebirth that lasted a long time, and here it manifested, it ripened, as some problem that you can handle, really, without too much difficulty. 

Audience: Why do we have to pay karma if this is a new life, and we aren’t usually even conscious of what has happened before.

VTC: Because there’s a continuity in the person, between the previous life and this life. In this same way, you may have done something earlier in this life that you don’t remember that will bring you a result later on in this life. So, the ripening of karma doesn’t mean that we necessarily remember the specific incident or the behavior. 

Audience: How do you handle anger in this life when you don’t necessarily understand or believe in past lives?

VTC: Well, one way is—there are lots of ways that we’re coming to—another way is just kind of consider the idea of previous lives, and just consider the idea that something you do early in your life can influence the result you experience later in your life. 

Audience: [Inaudible]

VTC: That’s an important point. We can’t say that someone deserves to suffer. That’s kind of mean, isn’t it? And you can’t say, “You’ve got to pay it back.”  Karma is just a system of cause and effect, that’s all. And it works also on the side of virtue. When we create virtuous actions, it ripens as happiness. Does everybody here today have enough food to eat? This is a result of being generous in previous lives. If we look at our lives, we experience so much good fortune already right now, and it’s because of creating wholesome causes, virtuous causes, in previous lives.

Audience: One can often experience anger, and one can experience anxiety, so would that be part of the same phenomena?

VTC: So, you’re asking about the relationship between anxiety and anger?

Audience: If it’s combined.

VTC: They can be sometimes because anxiety, I think, is quite related to worry and fear, and when we’re fearful, we usually feel helpless. And the wrong way to overcome the feeling of helplessness is to get angry. So, sometimes if we worry a lot, if we have a lot of anxiety, we think, “Will this happen? Will that happen? What about if this happens? What about if that happens?” And then we may get angry at what we think is causing this kind of insecure situation. What about other people? Do you see a link between anxiety and anger?

Audience: She says that, for instance, she can feel angry but not express the anger, so she takes that in and feels that it transforms into anxiety and that lowers her energy, so then she can be fearful.

VTC: It’s possible. Sometimes if we’re afraid to express our anger, or we don’t know a way to express our unhappiness so that it can bring about a good resolution, then we can get quite anxious. For that, I would recommend something called “Nonviolent Communication.” Are any of you familiar with it? It originated with Marshall Rosenberg. You can look it up on Amazon. He has some books on it. He really talks about getting in touch with our feelings and our needs and knowing how to express those in a calm, respectful way. And also how to help others identify their feelings and needs and to offer them some empathy. So, these kinds of ways of learning to express ourselves without blaming are very, very helpful. 

Audience: Is anger an emotion or a decision.

VTC: It’s an emotion. We do have a choice whether to get angry or not, but most of the time, we don’t realize we have a choice, and so the anger just arises because the conditions for anger are present. As we become more aware of what the conditions are behind our anger, then we can start creating some space and realize that we don’t need to get angry all the time. We can make the decision in some ways, such as, “No, I don’t want to go there.”

Audience: There’s a kind of music, that when she hears that kind of music, it makes her angry. And she’s been with therapists and psychiatrists, and she’s spoken with a lama, and she doesn’t know what to do. She just hears that kind of music, and she gets angry, so she runs away. What else could she do? She took dance classes with this kind of music to try to change it into something pleasant and nothing works.

VTC: How about saying “Om Mani Padme Hum” to the rhythm of the music? 

Audience: She’s tried.

VTC: Then I don’t know. Maybe do the taking and giving meditation and take on the anger of all other living beings.

Audience: Okay, she hasn’t tried that before. She’s done tonglen before, but she hasn’t tried taking on everyone’s anger.

VTC: Try it.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.