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Transforming violence with compassion

Cover of magazine article showing a portrait of Venerable Chodron smiling.

Originally published in Dharma Drum Mountain's magazine Humanity, Issue 446: Venerable Thubten Chodron shares how she worked with anger before and after ordination. She shares her thoughts on how the genuine problem that we have to deal with is the root of suffering that underlies the manifestation of anger, and how compassion can transform anger and hatred. She also shares how she has participated in marches in support of positive social movements and maintains a nonviolent stand, demonstrating the Buddhist principles of compassion and wisdom.

Dharma Drum Mountain’s magazine Humanity (DD): Before you ordained, and during your training as a monastic, what matters caused you to blow your top? How did you resolve your angry emotions at the time?

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Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I got mad when things didn’t happen the way I wanted them to. My self-centered mind thought my way was always the best way, my ideas were always the most accurate, and so forth. I was an elementary school teacher and when the children didn’t do what I wanted, I got angry. I had been socialized not to let my anger out, so unless I was with a close friend and could vent with that person, I bottled my anger up. Before I met the Buddhadharma, I had no tools to deal with my anger.

Nonetheless, until I became ordained, I thought I didn’t have a big problem with anger. As a young monastic, my teacher sent me to a Dharma center in Italy to be the spiritual program coordinator and director of a group of macho Italian men who had no wish to listen to an American nun. That’s when I realized I had a problem with anger! I would meditate on Chapter 6 of Shantideva’s Engaging in the Bodhisattva’s Deeds every day to chip away at my anger. But once I got off the cushion and had to work with the men, I would get angry again! It takes time and consistent practice to cultivate the antidotes to anger.

DD: You have studied with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and other eminent masters. What matters did you observe them getting angry about, and how did they manage their anger?

VTC: I never saw my teachers get angry, but I did see them speak very strongly when they were displeased with a disciple’s behavior. They spoke forcefully, their facial expression was one of anger, and it was clear they were not happy about someone’s actions, but their minds were compassionate; we knew they cared about us and about the existence of the Dharma in the world. His Holiness the Dalai Lama didn’t get angry at the communists who took over Tibet, but when monks misbehaved, he spoke very strongly—his words, tone of voice, and facial expression showed that—and it was for the benefit of the Dharma and for those disciples.

One of my other teachers would sometimes speak as if he were joking when he was displeased with disciples’ behavior. I remember one time when he was giving a talk to a group of sangha and lay disciples. The lay disciples were all laughing at what he said, but we monastics knew what he meant and that he wasn’t happy with our behavior.

DD: Buddhism emphasizes compassion; if we have compassion, why do we still get angry? Where does the idea of compassionate anger come from? Please give some examples to illustrate this.

VTC: We may cultivate compassion, but the imprints of anger in our minds are strong, so anger often overpowers us unless we have practiced the Dharma antidotes to anger and apply them at that time.

Although some people speak about compassionate anger, I don’t accept that notion. Compassion and anger cannot be in the mind at one time because they view the object in contradictory ways. With compassion, we can speak and act strongly and interfere when someone is being harmed or when a situation in society is unjust. For example, similar to the way my teachers spoke strongly to misbehaving students out of compassion, a parent might speak forcefully or scream at a child who is engaging in dangerous behavior, such as playing in the middle of a busy road. They do so out of love and concern for the child, not anger.

However, if we allow our mind to become angry, then we are just like the people whose behavior we object to. When I was in a Vietnam war protest many years ago and we were facing off with the police, the man next to me picked up a rock or brick and threw it at the police. I thought, “No, we can’t do that.” Otherwise we are angry and they are angry; in addition both sides are stubbornly thinking we’re right, and both hate the other side. In that case we’re the same as the people were disagree with. Even when we’re protesting or negotiating for a virtuous cause, we mustn’t let our mind get overrun by anger.

But what’s wrong with getting angry if the cause we’re working for is virtuous and will prevent others’ suffering? Aside from creating nonvirtuous karma through malice, harsh speech, and divisive speech, we have to ask ourselves, “When I’m angry—even if I think it’s ‘compassionate anger’ or ‘righteous anger,’ do I think clearly?” To effect social change and even to deal with complex family problems, we must think clearly and be able to see the viewpoint of multiple parties. Can we do that when we are angry? Personally speaking, anger makes my mind clouded and inhibits thinking creatively to communicate with the other parties and form a strategy that will be effective in dealing with the situation.

DD: When great social upheavals occur, Buddhists are often seen as having an indifferent attitude, and not being as responsive as practitioners of other religions. In what way should Buddhists respond to social upheavals?

VTC: Some Buddhists may be apathetic towards social crises, thinking, “As long as the upheaval doesn’t affect me, I won’t do anything.” This is a self-centered attitude, isn’t it? Other Buddhists may think, “I’m not supposed to get angry or if I’m angry, I shouldn’t express it,” and not do anything. Here, someone lacks either the knowledge or the skill to handle difficult situations and keeps quiet.

However, if we truly care about others who are suffering, we can’t remain silent. On the other hand, we abhor violence. So we need to find ways to make our voices for truth and compassion to be heard without allowing anger to intervene.

In 2001, the Taliban announced that it was going to blow up the two large Buddhas in Bamyan, Afghanistan. One was 58 meters high, the other 38 meters; UNESCO had declared them a World Heritage Site. We Buddhists hardly said anything. As a result, statues created with faith in the third to sixth centuries were destroyed. This was a loss for us Buddhists, but it was also a great loss for the world.

I had visited Bamyan and seen the statues in 1973—before I became a Buddhist—and can say from experience that they have a profound effect on non-Buddhists who see them. Why were our efforts to stop this so meager? Were we waiting for some of the international Buddhist organizations to speak up? Or were we thinking that saying anything publicly would make us “bad Buddhists” because we expressed anger? Surely love of the Dharma and the kind wish to protect something of importance to world culture could have motivated us to protest their destruction, speaking about their value and in this way arousing international support.

We may think that passively sitting by out of fear of looking bad or attachment to reputation means that we are calming our anger and avoiding the creation of nonvirtue. That isn’t necessarily true. Our mind could still be enraged, even though we show a genteel appearance. It’s important to remember that the karmic value of an action is determined more by our motivation than by how it looks to others.

When standing up for the rights of self and others, when objecting to unfair policies that keep people from actualizing their potential, we’ve got to make our voices heard. But everyone must choose their own way—a way that feels comfortable to them and that accords with their ability to contribute—to make their voice heard.

Some people may go to public protests, but others will call or write letters to their congressional or parliamentary representatives, others will write letters to the editor for their local newspaper, start petitions, speak in interviews, write magazine articles, talk to their friends, and so forth. Some people will use the arts—producing movies and documentaries on important topics to educate the public. Others will write and perform music—this was very effective during the anti-Vietnam war movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There are many ways to make our voices heard.
Of course voting is extremely important, so some people will work to get certain candidates elected or to help people register to vote. Other people may run for office. We need everyone’s participation in virtuous social movements.

DD: With regard to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in America, the anti-racist social movement, and even the anti-gun and #MeToo movements, and the phenomenon of online hate acts, what is your view on collective expressions of anger? How do we avoid falling into violence, hatred, and such emotions, and transform anger into a force that benefits the world and sentient beings?

VTC: The nonviolent protests in the US have once again highlighted structural racism and police violence toward minority communities. These peaceful protests have drawn support from many sections of society in a way that has not happened in the past. I didn’t sense a lot of anger in those protests; but there was a lot of pain. When people are in great pain, they often express it as anger. Instead of getting mad at them because they’re angry, let’s do what we can to eliminate the causes of their pain. I saw one video of a police chief walking in a protest with the protestors. The protestors were so happy; they felt understood and supported, and there was no violence during that march.

Note: I don’t consider the looters to be protestors, because their motivation is completely different than the motivation of peaceful protestors. The violence began and intensified when the police beat people, tear gassed them, and reacted too strongly. Putting military troops on the streets was not wise—it inflamed the situation and brought violence.

The #MeToo movement was much needed and was very successful in drawing attention to the abuse of women. It forced law enforcement to get involved, made companies create and enforce non-harassment policies in the workplace, and spurred legislators to pass bills to counteract such behavior. Although some women were angry and wanted the perpetrators to be punished; other women were relieved to be able to speak publicly about times they were raped, assaulted, or harassed. They wanted to be heard and to have their words respected, but they were not necessarily angry.

How do we avoid falling into violence, hatred, and such emotions? By practicing the methods the Buddha taught to counteract anger, spite, malice, and vengeance. Most of these methods can be taught to secular people without using Buddhist terms (Read Healing Anger by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and chapter six of Shantideva’s Engaging in the Bodhisattva’s Deeds.) The Social, Emotional, and Ethical Learning project has been developing programs to teach all levels of school children how to work with their emotions. Non-Violent Communication is an excellent program for learning to communicate with others. But learning these things is not sufficient, we must practice them repeatedly.

DD: You’ve published the book Working With Anger to teach people to identify their anger and apply antidotes to it. Yet when the situation calls for it, you also encourage people to take to the streets to express their views. How do we find a path that strikes a balance?

VTC: I do not encourage people to take to the streets, nor do I discourage it. When people take a stand nonviolently in public places—for example in India as exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi, and in the US as exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and others, there can be a powerful impact on society. These activists trained other protestors how to not be triggered by others’ harsh words and not respond to others’ aggression, but to remain nonviolent. Such nonviolent action was very effective, especially in the US when the government responded with violence. When people saw that on television, they were horrified and it woke them up to the needs for civil rights legislation in the US. Similarly the women’s suffragist movement to get the vote shows how nonviolent street protests can be very effective. Still, it’s up to each individual to find the way of speaking up that is suitable for them.

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.