A Big Pair of Dharma Balls

A Big Pair of Dharma Balls

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Today, perhaps more than ever before, it is easy to be drawn into what we call the cycle of soap-opera living. Soap-opera living is, unfortunately, rather common. A person caught up in soap-opera living is like a piece of plankton in the ocean that is continuously driven in different directions by the changing currents and tides. Despite being under the impression that they are making independent decisions, people living a soap opera do not have their eyes open enough to be able to truly to take control of their lives.

Individuals living a soap opera are highly influenced by whatever beliefs, behaviours, and pastimes are trending in society. Because the majority of individuals around them spend their time worrying about money, reputation, career, and relationships, the individual living the soap opera believes that they should do the same. If there is an atmosphere of stress at work because of a deadline approaching, or at university because exams are looming, the individual immersed in soap-opera living is drawn into and contributes to this stress. Because others are obsessed with what their friends and peers think of them, so is the person following the path of soap-opera living. They are pulled along by their own unregulated thoughts and desires, and by the thoughts and desires of those around them.

Walking an authentic spiritual path – Buddhist or otherwise – takes warrior-like courage. It takes courage because the spiritual practitioner has to break free of the cycle of soap-opera living when almost everyone around them is consciously or sub-consciously enticing them to remain firmly stuck in it. It takes courage because the spiritual practitioner has to leave behind the world that they have become accustomed to and enter unchartered territory. It also takes courage because the type of warriorship that fosters spiritual awaking requires the practitioner to blend together an attitude of fearlessness, with one of unwavering love and compassion for individuals who choose to remain stuck in the mire of soap opera life.

Leaving behind soap-opera living is easier said than done and should be seen as a life-long endeavour. As people move from the realm of the soap opera to that of awakened perception, there is a tendency for them to continuously try to find reference points or footholds where they feel safe. For example, they may have previously considered themselves a ‘businessman’ or ‘businesswomen’ but now they see themselves as a ‘Buddhist’ walking the path of Dharma. However, in order to progress along the path, the spiritual practitioner should try to avoid attaching labels to themselves. They have to let go of their old self and embrace a new self, but then they have to let go of the new self as well. Eventually, the spiritual practitioner has to find the courage to let go altogether – they have to let go without seeking to reinvent themselves.

Nothing in life is certain and all things change all of the time. If we try to create a ‘fixed self’ under such conditions, we are inevitably going to become unstuck. We need to be able to adapt to, and flow with, the changing conditions around us. From the spiritual practitioner’s point of view, this means seeing the teachings in a completely new way each day. Where the spiritual path once led them to embrace solitary meditation or a life of renunciation, it may at a subsequent point require them to fully immerse themselves in society and relinquish the notion that meditation is something that is ‘practiced’ rather than ‘lived’. Where the path of Dharma once required them to be a penniless mendicant, it may subsequently require them to rule a kingdom. Where it once required them to practise non-reactivity, it may require them – in the interests of compassion – to assume a more wrathful demeanour. Embracing such changes and challenges takes real warriorship as well as conviction in one’s chosen path.

In short, to walk the Buddhist or any other spiritual path effectively, the authentic spiritual practitioner must remain unattached to their current circumstances. They must come to understand that with every breath or footstep taken in awareness, they venture into the unchartered territory of the present moment. In short, being an authentic spiritual practitioner and leaving behind soap-opera living requires having a big pair of Dharma balls. Embracing life itself as the spiritual path and continuously letting go of who we think we are takes tremendous courage. However, with perseverance, this fearless approach to embracing reality yields unconditional happiness and profound spiritual insight. This is the path walked by all those who have attained Buddhahood in the past, and all those who will attain it in the future.

 

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

To Enlightenment and Beyond

To Enlightenment and Beyond

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Most Buddhist practice systems assert that there are various stages on the path to enlightenment. Perhaps the most well-documented example is the Ten Bodhisattva Bhūmis which in Mahayana Buddhism, are understood to reflect ten stages of spiritual awakening – culminating in Buddhahood – that a Bodhisattva (a highly compassionate spiritual being) progresses through. Another  perhaps less known  example is the Four Vidyadhara Levels in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A vidyadhara (which means ‘awareness holder’) is believed to progress through the following four stages: 1. matured vidyadhara, 2. vidyadhara with power over life, 3. mahamudra vidyadhara, and 4. spontaneously accomplished vidyadhara. In Theravada Buddhism, various states of spiritual awakening are likewise recognised, including the state of ‘Arahant’, which is generally understood to correspond to a level of spiritual awakening in which the cycle of samsara (the perpetuating round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth) has been broken, but that is still below the level of a Buddha. In order to arrive at the state of Arahant, Theravada Buddhism (and other early Buddhist schools) assert that the spiritual practitioner progresses through stages of ‘stream-enterer’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘once-returner’ (Sakadagami), and ‘non-returner’ (Anāgāmi).

Although there are numerous systems of thought in Buddhism regarding levels of spiritual awakening, all Buddhist schools appear to accept that there is a state of ‘full’ Buddhahood, which is unsurpassable. The Sanskrit term is ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ (Pāli: anuttarā sammā sambodhi), which literally means ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. There are specific references to the state of ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ in the Buddhist canonical literature (such as in the Astasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra of the Prajñāpāramitā collection), but the term is mostly employed to teach the principle that even when an individual attains a high level of spiritual realisation, there are invariably still subtle levels of ignorance that must be transcended. The state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ is understood to be a state that does not require any deliberate effort or ‘practice’ on the part of the spiritual practitioner.

Our take on the various levels of spiritual awakening and the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ differs from that of many Buddhist scholars and teachers. We accept that there are different levels of spiritual awakening, but labelling these states is not as easy as most people think. Each spiritual practitioner is an individual, and their spiritual journey is unique. Therefore, although there are some common ‘signposts’ that spiritual practitioners may encounter, it is difficult (and unwise) to assign a label to a person’s level of spiritual awakening. Indeed, for the diligent spiritual practitioner, spiritual development happens (or should happen) every moment of every day. Consequently, an individual’s level of realisation in the morning, is unlikely to be the same as the evening.

Our view differs from consensus opinion even more when it comes to the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. We accept that there is a state of Buddhahood, in which all forms of suffering are transcended, and in which spiritual awareness is self-sustaining (i.e., it does not require deliberate effort). We also accept that arriving at Buddhahood, a spiritual being penetrates fully, and abides as, the underlying ‘fabric’ of the universe. However, we don’t accept that there is such a thing as an ‘absolute’ level of spiritual awakening. If the state of Buddhahood reflects the upper limit of spiritual awareness, then logic dictates that there must also be a lower limit of spiritual awareness – a state of absolute spiritual ignorance. Based upon an observation of the life forms around us, it seems improbable that there is a lower limit to ignorance. Taking hatred amongst human beings as an example, it can consume a person’s mind to such an extent that they will harm and kill other humans, only to hate themselves and others more intensely. Perhaps this is what Einstein was referring to when he said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe”.

When a person becomes a ‘stream enterer’ that we referred to earlier, they become a child of the Buddhas, and enter a completely new world. They leave behind a life of living a soap opera and their – as well as other people’s – existence, takes on new meaning. When a person enters the stream that leads to liberation, their ‘wisdom eye’ is opened, compassion takes root in their being, and they begin to emanate spiritual presence. However, a similar thing happens when that same ‘stream enterer’eventually attains Buddhahood. They are born into a completely new way of being and perceiving. In fact, the Sanskrit root of the word Buddha is ‘Budh’, which literally means, ‘to wake up’ or ‘to be awakened’ to a new way of seeing.

When a being awakens to Buddhahood, it is not the case that their spiritual journey has finished. Rather, it has just begun. A Buddha has an inconceivable amount of wisdom and compassion at their disposition, but they have to learn how to apply that wisdom, how to grow with it, and how to transcend it. Buddhahood is a dynamic state; a Buddha is continuously evolving. Therefore, there are young Buddhas, mature Buddhas, and ancient Buddhas. There are Buddhas who are learning how to harness and mould the energy of the universe, and how to best apply it in order to help suffering beings. There are also Buddhas who are primordial, who are ‘masters of reality’, and who ‘gave birth’ to other enlightened beings.

Try not to reduce spiritual development into a system of limits, levels, and labels. For as many Buddhas that exist, there are that many different levels of Buddhahood. How inspiring that there is no upper limit to the amount the mind can expand and awaken. How beautiful that the spiritual journey continues for eternity. How amazing that within every sentient being, there exists the potential to attain Buddhahood, and then go beyond.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Verso l’illuminazione e oltre

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La maggior parte dei sistemi di pratica buddista affermano l’esistenza di varie tappe del percorso verso l’illuminazione. Forse l’esempio meglio documentato è quello dei Dieci Bodhisattva bhumi, che nel buddismo Mahayana riflettono le dieci fasi di risveglio spirituale, che culminano nella Buddità, attraverso cui un Bodhisattva (un essere spirituale altamente compassionevole) progredisce. Un altro esempio – forse meno conosciuto – è quello dei Quattro Livelli di Vidyadhara nella tradizione Nyingma del Buddismo Tibetano. Si ritiene che un Vidyadhara (che significa ‘detentore di consapevolezza’) progredisce attraverso le seguenti quattro fasi: 1. Vidyadhara maturato, 2. Vidyadhara con potere sulla vita, 3. Vidyadhara di mahamudra, e 4. Vidyadhara che è spontaneamente compiuto. Nel Buddismo Theravada, si ritrovano similmente vari stati di risveglio spirituale, compreso lo stato di ‘Arahant’, con cui generalmente si intende un livello di risveglio spirituale in cui il ciclo del samsara (il ciclo perpetuo di nascita, sofferenza, morte e rinascita) è stato interrotto, ma che è ancora al di sotto del livello di un Buddha. Al fine di raggiungere lo stato di Arahant, il Buddhismo Theravada (e altre scuole buddiste dello stesso periodo storico) affermano che il praticante spirituale progredisce attraverso le fasi di ‘colui che entra nella corrente’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘colui che ritorna una sola volta’ (Sakadagami) e ‘Anāgāmin’ (colui che non-ritorna).

Anche se ci sono numerosi sistemi di pensiero nel Buddismo per quanto riguarda i livelli di risveglio spirituale, tutte le scuole buddiste sembrano accettare il fatto che vi sia uno stato di Buddità ‘assoluta’, che è insuperabile. Il termine Sanscrito è ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ (Pali: anuttara Samma sambodhi), che letteralmente significa ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Ci sono riferimenti specifici allo stato di ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ nella letteratura canonica buddista (come nel Astasāhasrikā Prajnaparamita Sutra della collezione di Prajñāpāramitā), ma il termine viene impiegato principalmente per insegnare il principio che, anche quando un individuo raggiunge un alto livello di realizzazione spirituale, ci sono inevitabilmente ancora sottili livelli di ignoranza che devono essere trascesi. Lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è inteso come uno stato che non richiede alcuno sforzo intenzionale o ‘pratica’ da parte del praticante spirituale.

Il nostro punto di vista sui vari livelli di risveglio spirituale e sullo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è diverso da quello di molti studiosi e insegnanti buddisti. Accettiamo che ci siano diversi livelli di risveglio spirituale, ma l’etichettatura di questi Stati non è così facile come molti pensano. Ogni praticante spirituale è un individuo, e il suo cammino spirituale è unico. Pertanto, anche se ci sono alcuni ‘segnali’ comuni che i praticanti spirituali possono incontrare, è difficile (e non è saggio) assegnare un’etichetta al livello di risveglio spirituale di una persona. Infatti, per il praticante spirituale diligente, lo sviluppo spirituale avviene (o dovrebbe avvenire) ogni momento di ogni giorno. Di conseguenza, sarà improbabile che il livello di realizzazione di un individuo al mattino sarà come quello della sera.

Il nostro punto di vista differisce ancora di più dall’opinione diffusa per quanto riguarda lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Accettiamo che ci sia uno stato di Buddità, in cui tutte le forme di sofferenza sono trascese e nella quale la consapevolezza spirituale è autosufficiente (cioè, non richiede sforzo intenzionale). Accettiamo anche che, arrivando allo stato di Buddità, un essere spirituale penetra completamente – e rimane o resta come – la ‘matrice’ alla base dell’universo. Tuttavia, non accettiamo che ci sia qualcosa come un ‘assoluto’ livello di risveglio spirituale. Se lo stato di Buddità riflette il limite superiore di consapevolezza spirituale, allora la logica impone che ci debba essere anche un limite inferiore di consapevolezza spirituale – uno stato di ignoranza spirituale assoluta. Tuttavia, sulla base dell’osservazione delle forme di vita intorno a noi, sembra improbabile che ci sia un limite inferiore per l’ignoranza. Prendiamo, per esempio, l’odio tra gli esseri umani, che può consumare la mente di una persona a tal punto da nuocere e uccidere altri esseri umani, solo per odiare più intensamente se stessa e gli altri. Forse questo è ciò a cui Einstein si riferiva quando ha detto: “due cose sono infinite: l’universo e la stupidità umana; riguardo l’universo ho ancora dei dubbi”.

Quando si diventa una persona, come quella a cui abbiamo fatto riferimento in precedenza, ‘colui che entra nella corrente’, si diventa un bambino dei Buddha e si entra in un mondo completamente nuovo. Si lascia alle spalle una vita vissuta da soap opera e la sua esistenza – così come l’esistenza delle altre persone, assume un nuovo significato. Quando una persona entra nella corrente che porta alla liberazione, si apre il suo ‘occhio della saggezza’, la compassione si radica nel suo essere e comincia a emanare una presenza spirituale. Una cosa simile accade quando un praticante spirituale raggiunge alla fine lo stato di Buddità. Nasce in lui un modo completamente nuovo di essere e percepire. Infatti, la radice sanscrita della parola Buddha è ‘Budh’, che significa letteralmente,  ‘svegliarsi’ o ‘essere risvegliato’ a un nuovo modo di vedere.

Quando un essere si risveglia alla Buddità, non significa che abbia terminato il suo cammino spirituale. Piuttosto, è appena iniziato. Un Buddha ha una quantità inimmaginabile di saggezza e compassione a sua disposizione, ma deve imparare ad applicare quella saggezza, come crescere con essa, e come trascenderla. Lo stato di Buddità è uno stato dinamico; un Buddha è in continua evoluzione. Di conseguenza, ci sono giovani Buddha, Buddha maturi e Buddha antichi. Ci sono Buddha che stanno imparando a sfruttare e plasmare l’energia dell’universo e come applicarla al meglio al fine di aiutare gli esseri che soffrono. Ci sono anche Buddha che sono primordiali, che sono ‘maestri della realtà’ e che ‘hanno fatto nascere’ altri esseri illuminati.

Cercate di non ridurre lo sviluppo spirituale in un sistema di limiti, livelli ed etichette. Così come esistono molti Buddha, ci sono numerosi diversi livelli di Buddità. Quanto è stimolante il fatto che non esista un limite superiore a quanto la mente possa espandersi e risvegliarsi. Quanto è bello che il cammino spirituale continui per l’eternità. Quanto è incredibile che all’interno di ogni essere senziente, esista la possibilità di raggiungere la Buddità, e poi andare oltre.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

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Some time ago, we uploaded a post that featured a vajragiti that we wrote called Hearken to the Dharma. A vajragiti is a type of spiritual song or poem. The Sanskrit word vajra means ‘diamond’ or ‘indestructible’ and the word giti means song. Some of our vajragitis have been spoken or written spontaneously, while others have been written at the request of a particular person or for a particular occasion. Since the post was published, we have received several enquiries as to what some of the terms means. Today’s post provides information on the meaning of these terms, and on the theme of the vajragiti more generally.

Hearken to the Dharma’ is a four-verse vajragiti written in the style of the spiritual songs of certain yogic traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. In essence, it refers to the view of certain systems of Buddhist thought that we are currently in an era in which the Buddhist (and spiritual teachings more generally) are degenerating. More specifically, it refers to the fact that not all individuals who are currently teaching mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism have the ‘right intention’. When people with a selfish intent and who are without authentic spiritual realisation choose to teach meditation or Buddhism, it can result in negative consequences.

It could be argued that by writing a spiritual song such as the below, we are being judgemental. However, we wouldn’t agree with this because it is not judgemental to call a spade a spade. If things aren’t right, sometimes we need to speak up and raise awareness about the issue.

In the below vajragiti, the term ‘two accumulations’ refers to the Buddhist view that spiritual practitioners need to accumulate both spiritual merit and wisdom. Spiritual merit is accumulated by engaging in acts of generosity, patience, loving-kindness and compassion. Wisdom is accumulated by practising meditation, especially insight meditation. Spiritual merit and wisdom are necessary if we want to overcome the tendency of making our lives all about the ‘me’, the ‘mine’ and the ‘I’. Living a life that is always centred upon the ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘I’ is what is meant by the term ‘self-grasping’.

True renunciation’ means that we are no longer interested in mundane pursuits such as accumulating wealth or status. It means that we are aware that death is a reality that we will have to face, sooner or later. When we cultivate true spiritual renunciation, it is a liberating experience. However, it is important to remember that spiritual renunciation doesn’t mean that we turn our back on the world. Rather, it means that because we are free of selfish intentions, we can fully taste, enjoy and engage with the world.

In some Buddhist sutras, the Dharma is sometimes referred to as the ‘Law’. Therefore, the term ‘Law Holder’ means an authentic spiritual practitioner – somebody who has transcended the ego and given rise to a high level of spiritual awakening. A Law Holder could be a fully enlightened Buddha, or it could be somebody who is well on the way to attaining Buddhahood. A person who holds the Law of Dharma embodies and emanates spiritual awareness. They are not necessarily a Buddhist scholar.

In the context referred to in the vajragiti, our use of the term ‘Mara’ invokes the connotations that this term has with the notion of the Devil in Christianity. However, the term ‘Mara’ has several different meanings in Buddhism, which include negativity in its broadest sense. The ‘lower realms’ refer to realms of existence in which there are high levels of ignorance and suffering. The animal world is an example of a lower realm (i.e. when compared with the human realm), but Buddhism asserts that there are realms of existence that are lower than the animal realm (e.g. the hell realms).

The terms ‘View’, ‘Meditation’ and ‘Action’ in the final verse refer to the three components that comprise an authentic Buddhist spiritual path. For example, in the Noble Eightfold Path referred to previously on this blog, each of the eight individual components of the path are understood to be primarily concerned with the cultivation of either: (i) wisdom or a ‘view’ that transcends the notion of self and other, (ii) meditation, or (iii) ethical ‘action’. If each of these three aspects (i.e. wisdom/view, ethics/action and meditation) are present, then a particular Buddhist path can be considered whole and complete. The three path elements of wisdom, ethics and meditation are known in Sanskrit as ‘trishiksha’, which means the ‘three trainings’.

The term ‘three doors’ refers to the three ‘doors’ through which we interact with the world: (i) body (i.e. actions), (ii) speech (i.e. words), and (iii) mind (i.e. thoughts). Finally, the term ‘Mind as all’ refers to a view amongst certain Buddhist schools that existence unfolds within the expanse of mind. According to this view, waking reality is no more ‘real’ than what we experience while dreaming.

Hearken to the Dharma

All you great teachers and meditators,
Who mistake self-grasping and pride for the two accumulations,
In whom true renunciation and devotion never arise,
You, pleasure seekers, hearken to the Dharma that keeps death in mind.

Proudly claiming to be great Buddhists,
Judging others as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,
Spreading doubt and disparaging the Law Holders,
You, Dharma destroyers, hearken to the Dharma beyond all concepts.

Practicing sophistry you deceive the foolish,
Competing for renown like Mara princes,
Dragging your followers to the miserable realms,
You, evil doers, hearken to the Dharma of karmic cause and effect.

For View you delight in ‘self’ and ‘other’,
For Meditation you indulge in scheming thoughts,
For Action you mindlessly vomit through your three doors,
You, delusion revellers, hearken to the Dharma that knows Mind as all.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Can a Buddha become Angry?

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      Given that Buddhahood is frequently described as a state of limitless compassion that is completely free of negative and afflictive emotions, it might seem strange that we have decided to write a post addressing the question of whether it is possible for a Buddha to become angry. However, believe it or not, the answer to this question is not a straightforward ‘no’. In today’s post, we begin by exploring some Buddhist and psychological perspectives on anger and then provide our view on the above question.

Within Buddhism, in addition to attachment and ignorance, anger is known as one of the three root poisons (Sanskrit: trivisa). Anger can be thought of as a form of aversion towards another person, situation, or even ourselves. Because we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that we don’t like or that we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing or sense of self, we quickly want to remove or destroy it so that things return to normal. Basically, anger manifests because we are trying to keep things orderly and under control – people or situations that threaten to disturb or interfere with the world that we have created for ourselves make us feel angry and afraid.

Although in the Buddhist teachings anger is often described as a form of aversion, it can actually also be thought of as a form of attachment. Indeed, the reason we have aversion towards a particular situation is because we have allowed ourselves to become attached to what we deem to represent the ‘opposite’ of that situation. For example, imagine that for some time everything was cushy at work and things were going really well with the career. But then along comes a work colleague who makes us angry and who starts to create problems – it seems that they deliberately go out of their way to cause us trouble. However, if we stop and think about it, the anger and aversion that we experience arises because we have become attached to the idea of everything being cushy and comfortable at work – the perfect environment where we will always be recognised and rewarded for our efforts and where we can swiftly move up the career ladder.

If we didn’t harbour attachments or have unrealistic ideas in the first place, then we wouldn’t become so angry when our plans and ideas are disrupted. Buddhism asserts that a person’s propensity for anger is closely associated with how much attachment they harbour. A person that becomes very attached to their possessions – which in some people’s minds can also include family members, partners, and friends – is likely to be quick to anger. In a paper that we recently published in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, we defined the Buddhist notion of attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth”. As demonstrated by our definition, attachment takes on a very different meaning in Buddhism compared to its use in Western psychology where attachment (e.g., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over mental health problems.

In the same way that the Buddhist root poisons of attachment and anger (or aversion) are closely related to each other, they are also both closely related to the other root poison that we mentioned – ignorance. Ignorance is described as one of the three root poisons, but it is actually the primary cause of each of the other poisons and of suffering more generally. Ignorance in the context that we are discussing it here refers to the extent to which a person views themselves as an independently or inherently-existing entity. The more a person is caught up in themselves and thinks that they possess a definite self, the more ignorant they become – and the larger their ego inflates itself. Thus, aversion or anger is a direct result of attachment, and attachment is a direct result of ignorance or ego.

When a person becomes angry, it basically means that the ego-monkey that we talked about in our last post has decided to raise its head. Although ego underpins all of our emotions and behaviours, this is particularly the case when anger is ravaging the mind. In fact, you only have to look at an angry person and it is as though their ego is trying to burst through their skin. We touched on this in our post on the Top Five Beauty Tips for Men and Women where we made reference to research demonstrating that anger is associated with physiological responses such as contraction of the brow muscles, facial flushing (i.e., turning red), flared nostrils, clenched jaws, increased perspiration, increased heart rate, and general tension in the skeletal musculature of the facial and neck regions.

Anger has a tendency to overrun the mind and body and it is generally accepted by Western psychologists that anger can distort a person’s perspective of a situation and reduce their ability to make wise decisions. As we discussed in a paper that we published in the psychology journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour, in addition to causing people to say and do unpleasant things, anger can also cause people to behave irrationally. For example, a few years ago we were guiding a meditation retreat in the Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales where one of the participants was a middle-aged lady who was very angry because she couldn’t get her mind to relax. Part way through one of the meditations, it became apparent that one of the male participants in the group was a ‘breather’. ‘Breathers’ are those people that breathe really deeply and loudly during meditation so that everybody else can hear them and so that everybody knows they are ‘serious’ about their practice. Anyway, about half way through this particular meditation session, it just became too much for the lady who broke her silence and in an angry voice suddenly shouted out ‘stop breathing’!

The point we have been trying to make above is that anger is a major obstacle to happiness and spiritual development. It is a sign that a person’s ego is very much in tact – which from the point of view of the meditation or spiritual practitioner – means that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. As a general rule, the smaller the degree to which a spiritual practitioner’s thoughts, words, or actions are influenced by ego (and therefore anger), the closer they are to attaining Buddhahood. However, whilst this general rule applies for practically all stages of the spiritual practitioner’s journey, it no longer applies when they have awoken to full Buddhahood.

For a fully enlightened Buddha, the moment a thought or feeling arises in their mind, it is immediately liberated. The Buddhas perceive clearly that all phenomena – including those of a psychological nature – are absent of an intrinsically—existing self. They see that everything that manifests has no more substance than a mental projection or a dream. As it says in the heart sutra, the Buddhas understand that form (i.e., phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form. The Buddhas are not bound by concepts such as self and other, past and future (i.e., time), or here and there (i.e., space). Consequently, their mind is unlimited – it is free of any form of attachment or aversion.

This ability of Buddhas to never become attached to physical or mental objects means that they are free to manifest whatever feelings might be most skilful and compassionate within a given situation. In effect, the Buddhas have uprooted the causes of negative emotions to such an extent, that they are now free to use so-called ‘negative emotions’ as they see fit. Ultimately, the Buddhas are 100% focussed on liberating other beings from suffering. They are overflowing with unconditional kindness, compassion, and patience, but if it is a blast of anger that is required to jolt a person to start truly practicing spiritual development, then it will be duly administered. This is very different than pretending to be angry (e.g., as a parent might do) in order to communicate feelings of disapproval towards another person. The type of anger that we are referring to here is very real – it is primordial anger but there is absolutely no ego mixed in with it. Due to the rawness of this anger and the fact that it is not tainted by ego, it enters deeply and directly into the recipient’s mind and gives them a clear choice in terms of embracing or rejecting the Dharma (truth/teachings).

There are quite a number of examples of enlightened beings using this primordial anger to benefit others. Probably the best known example amongst Westerners is that of Jesus Christ when he over-turned the tables and started throwing the traders out of the temple. Buddhist practitioners might have heard about the 11th century Tibetan spiritual adept Marpa who would even administer a physical beating where he felt it would be of some long-term benefit. Another reasonably well-known and much more recent example is Lama Yeshe who died in 1984 – there are reports that he once got hold of a pick-pocket (i.e., a thief) and gave them a right good shaking in order to make them see sense. There are also examples of Zen teachers becoming angry with their students and in some cases this actually prompted an intuitive leap or a sudden flash of realisation.

For the everyday meditation practitioner such as you and us, anger can make it almost impossible to stabilise the mind and it can significantly disrupt a persons’ spiritual progress. Consequently, every effort should be made to practice patience and kindness and to never act out of anger. However, for the fully enlightened Buddhas, although their very being overflows with joy, wisdom, and compassion, it does seem that they can and do use primordial anger as a very skilful and effective means of teaching. This is quite a dangerous subject to write about because some meditation practitioners or teachers could misinterpret what we are saying and start believing that it is acceptable to be angry. However, given that there are reports of Buddhas exhibiting anger, then it seems appropriate to offer an explanation as to why this might be. Another reason for writing this post is because in the event you are one of those handful of people fortunate enough to meet a fully-enlightened teacher – you’ll be less likely to become all haughty and self-righteous if they decide to give you verbal kick-up the backside!

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Day, A. (2009). Offender emotion and self-regulation: Implications for offender rehabilitation programming. Psychology, Crime and Law, 15, 119-130.

Huang Po. (1982). The Zen teaching of Huang Po: On the transmission of the mind. (Blofeld, J., Trans.) New York: Grove Press.

Novaco, R. W. (2007). Anger Dysregulation. In T. A. Cavell, & K. T. Malcolm (Eds.), Anger, Aggression, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence (pp. 3-54). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending.Corrections Today: Journal of the American Correctional Association, March/April, 48-51.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Wright, S., Day, A., & Howells, K. (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 14, 396-401.

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