Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Buddhist Anger and Conflict

Arun posted an excellent commentary by another Buddhist writer, Dolma, on his blog recently. It takes up the sticky issue of anger, in particular the ways in which Buddhists are stereotyped. Let's consider the following selection:

many individuals, whether they have any knowledge of Buddhism or not, seem to be comfortable with hushing a Buddhist critique. A patronising “calm down,” some poorly recited Sutras, and a “Well, I’ve read Siddhartha.” That’s what we get. Fantastic.

These dismissals truly stem from Orientalist ideologies. Asians are perceived as submissive and obedient, and therefore, adherents to an Asian religion must contain themselves in a similar manner. This is where my anger truly stems from, which is why I feel disheartened when my fellow Buddhists suggest that I’m overreacting. I always welcome discussion on religion, theology and spirituality. However these situations are not respectful engagements, they’re the layering of weary prejudices that are inherently violent. They’re disrespectful to my religion, ethnic community, and to my identity as a whole. In his teachings on anger, the Buddha encouraged us to avoid harmful speech, and to apply lovingkindness where there is anger.

It's important to note that the "positive" stereotyping of Buddhists as "always calm and peaceful" is probably as harmful as the "negative" stereotyping of Buddhists (especially Asian and Asian-American Buddhists) as passive and submissive. I can't tell you how many times I have been praised for my relative calm and ability to act in non-violent manners, and then have that linked to the idea that Buddhists never get angry anyway. It's sometimes subtle. Beginning with sincere respect and appreciation, but then swerving, for example, into muddled thoughts about what "Zen" is. Sometimes, though, it's absolutely not subtle. I get upset. Or speak in a somewhat raised voice about some issue I'm passionate about, and there's shock and confusion.

What's interesting is that over the years, I have ingested just enough of the stereotyping and pressures to conform that I probably don't express anger enough. Although actually, when I think about it, for me it's less about "anger" and more about variations on the theme that get suppressed. I don't consider myself someone who is filled with repressed anger. However, I am a man who is quite passionate about numerous issues, and who feels - sometimes intensely - the suffering of the world. The various oppressions. The injustices. And all of it pisses me off sometimes, and frankly, I think that's a good thing.

Beyond all of that, though, there's the issue of conflict. Because honestly, what people label as anger or angry is often really about the way they experience conflict with others. Something said feels fierce. Or stirs up some old wound or grief. And suddenly the label "anger" comes forth to the rescue. that's it. It's anger. The problem is that sometimes, it's not anger. And even if it is, so what? It's another human expression, one that need not control us or destroy is - and yet, so often ends up doing just that.

Going back to Dolma's post, I recall a conversation over the summer with a Christian guy who was certain Buddhists couldn't do the "hard work" of social activism. That Buddhists "are too passive and individualistically focused" to ever help bring about any significant social change. The levels of obnoxiousness in that conversation went through the roof at times. I spoke about my own experiences and involvements over the years, and the ways in which Buddhist teachings deeply informed that work. I spoke about social movements around the world designed by, and led by, Buddhists of all different backgrounds. None of it seemed to break through. At the end of the conversation, he stuck by his initial assertion that Buddhism is mostly about "individual peace," something he had a vague respect for, but which really didn't register as that valuable in terms of dealing with the big social issues of the day.

Ironically, the similar kinds of commentaries have come from folks within our sanghas as well. And from members of the worldwide online sangha as well.

And yet, the issues with anger and Buddhists are much larger than that which stems from social issues. I have witnessed interpersonal conflicts in my own Zen community that lingered on for weeks, months, perhaps years in some cases, in part - in my opinion - due to the ways in which the stereotypes around what a "good Zen student" is and isn't have saturated our community culture. As one of the sangha's leaders, I have often struggled with how strong and fiercely to present certain ideas I have out of a knowing that we sometimes collectively collapse around conflict.

One of the mistakes that gets made in my opinion is that strong, fierce, and even passionate presentations of views and ideas gets immediately linked to a deep, problematic attachment. Over the weekend, we had a board retreat during which I spoke quite candidly about wanting to keep our sangha in an "urban" environment. Desiring diversity and community engagement, as well as seeing ways in which "deep practice" can be done regardless of "where" one is located, I felt compelled to advocate for staying in the city. At points during that discussion, I kind of wondered if some might have mistook my passion for problematic attachment. Maybe not. I honestly don't know. Part of the reason I kept pushing in the first place was to help unearth what I believe are some unspoken differences about sangha lying beneath the general sense of agreement and consensus we tend to have as a board. And yet, this kind of purposeful, deliberate moving towards conflict could have been felt threatening or troubling because of how intimate conflict seems to be linked with "bad" or "not Zen-like."

Dolma sites the application of lovingkindness when anger arises. Yet, if we are constantly striving to be "perfect little serene Buddhas" within our Buddhist sanghas, how will we learn how to apply that lovingkindness? In all honesty, I have learned more about applying lovingkindness outside of Zen center in the face of anger - others and my own - than within. And sometimes, it's been quite a rough ride exploring different ways to be with and express anger with the teachings in mind. Lay Buddhist communities might need to consider ways they can set up deliberate "laboratories of anger" to help students practice dealing with anger in a safer, more contained setting.

Overall, the way many Westerners view Zen - insiders and outsiders - is broken down into a limited binary. On the one hand, you have the calm, serene monk meditating, studying texts, and perhaps washing some dishes and chopping wood. On the other hand, you have the koan caricatures of Zen teachers making dramatic, sometimes physically violent movements or short bursts of "enlightened" speech. What about all the territory in between? Stories about the abuses under samurai culture, for example, sometimes get referenced and offered as warnings by people who have studied a bit more about Zen. However, there's so much unexplored territory around how conflict and anger has actually been handled by Zen teachers and students throughout the centuries. And obviously Zen is only one of the myriad of branches of Buddhism out there, each of which has their own particular flavor of dealing with anger and conflict.

Whenever I or others online have written about power and sex scandals in Buddhist communities, the gawkers come out in full force. Many of them fellow Buddhists. Which gives me pause. Is part of the collective obsession with these scandals coming from an unspoken desire to somehow come to "understand" conflict through these situations, and then be able to construct "defenses against it" so that we can somehow move on?

Because I don't think there is a moving on really. More and more, I'm seeing conflict as an opportunity to grow and evolve. To awaken even. And sometimes that requires holding on to your views a little longer. Pushing a little harder. Being a bit more "difficult." Being fully human, including at times, angry and even outraged.

I personally feel the world is at a major crossroads. And how we approach anger and conflict will probably make a major difference in terms of what the world is like for our future descendents.


NellaLou said...

It is friction that polishes the stone. Whether the friction is gentle like water eroding a hillside or rough like a sand blaster removing graffiti from a wall. I was quite conflict averse until the value of it became evident. Not that one needs to seek it out, but shying away from it doesn't help. At all.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nathan,

I've always been told to "show up" to my anger, to attend to it, to study it. I've been told that fear is behind my anger and I wonder if that's not true, if fear is fear and anger is anger. I've also been told that if I have a strong emotional reaction to an object to be careful not to "leak."

I just wonder how this helps. I know I'm a lot (a lot alot alot) less violent, but the deep rage is still there. Sometimes attending to it means staying up all night staring at the ceiling.

What do you think?

Nathan said...

I do a fair amount of watching and studying of anger and its relatives. That is a solid practice I think as I, too, seem to be a lot less reactive and violent these days. But there is something about that "not leaking" comment that doesn't sit well with me. I have heard similar teachings and tend to think that they feed into suppression, if suppressing anger and rage are your main strategies. Perhaps for those who regularly blow off without much regulation, such a teaching is really helpful. It seems to me that different approaches are needed based on particular backgrounds - as well as the situation at hand.

Anonymous said...

Not leaking sounds like a pit fall to me, too. I think I understand it under the premise of mind as first cause, everything else as secondary in this vast field of karma, and not leaking meant not watering other's seeds of greed, hate, or delusion.

Nathan said...

Not watering the seeds of the three poisons makes sense to me. And it's also true that sometimes, seemingly "good" or "positive" actions end up triggering those poisons. Even a smile with all the right intentions, but at the "wrong time" can elicit rage from certain people. I'll still go on smiling most of the time because it tends to water wholesome seeds. And that seems to me to be what it's about, aiming in the most intelligent direction and then letting go of outcome.

7 Chakras said...

showing up and studying anger is sometimes really tough. Sometimes it's even heard to make the mental setup for studying the anger when I get excessively angry. But yes, it's a matter of practice. And this practice brings control over anger.