The Dhammapada exploration – part 17: Anger

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Oh yes, Buddhism, so peaceful, so serene, so quiet and harmonious! But is it? And why? That’s what this chapter is about.

221. One should give up anger, renounce pride, and overcome all fetters. Suffering never befalls him who clings not to mind and body and is detached.

Oh. What a disappointment. This isn’t much about anger, it’s once again about giving up and letting go. Bleh!

222. He who checks rising anger as a charioteer checks a rolling chariot, him I call a true charioteer. Others only hold the reins.

The simile is great as usual with good Buddhist teachers, but there’s also a tiny keyword here that’s important: rising. You don’t simply become not-angry and fluffy and happy all the time. No, but from observing your mind so much during meditation and also during your daily routine, you can feel and see when anger arises. That’s where you step in.

It’s not as if you have free choice over how your brain is wired, but once you see it generate that anger, you can choose what to do. You can let it subside. Remember that old clichéd advice, “when you get angry, calmly count to ten”? This is excellent Buddhist advice as well.

Even if those ten seconds don’t make all your anger disappear, you should notice how it gets softened by them. That’s what you can work on, sooner or later the anger itself doesn’t develop such a pointiness anymore to begin with, and that makes it easier to steer.

This is also why the chariot is a great simile. You steer a chariot, but you’re never fully in control. Those horses, they want to go places on their own. If you’re skilled, you can make them do mostly what you want. But you can never control them.

223. Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.

You might think this is all just silly tree-hugger talk, but these things work in the most unexpected places. Consider the story of how a gunman who was set to rob everyone at a party at gunpoint was turned peaceful by just such a non-angry action. NPR’s Invisibilia podcast covered that.

224. Speak the truth; yield not to anger; when asked, give even if you only have a little. By these three means can one reach the presence of the gods.

But don’t give away the very last things you have if it means endangering the future of your household! The Buddha himself talked about keeping good care of your household, about saving money for later.

Yielding not to anger sure is hard. There is a trick in Buddhism sometimes called “literal listening” where you try to hear only the message someone is trying to transmit, only the content, not the voice or the tone. So an angry or passive-aggressive stance is less likely to touch you. If you are skilled at this, you can also expose errors in the arguments angry people make.

Anger is not a good guide in anything, but if you stay calm you can see all the mistakes an angry person might make in a discussion, staying calm might also make you find out more easily what the person is actually saying. Angry people are sometimes not angry about the thing they’re claiming to be angry about.

225. Those sages who are inoffensive and ever restrained in body, go to the Deathless State, where, having gone, they grieve no more.

226. Those who are ever vigilant, who discipline themselves day and night, and are ever intent upon Nibbana — their defilements fade away.

227. O Atula! Indeed, this is an ancient practice, not one only of today: they blame those who remain silent, they blame those who speak much, they blame those who speak in moderation. There is none in the world who is not blamed.

228. There never was, there never will be, nor is there now, a person who is wholly blamed or wholly praised.

So don’t stress too much about becoming the perfect pillar of society without the slightest blemish. You won’t be able to be that. There is no such thing.

This is perhaps important in a chapter like this that stresses self-control so much. You don’t want to become a robot, nor should you.

229. But the man whom the wise praise, after observing him day after day, is one of flawless character, wise, and endowed with knowledge and virtue.

230. Who can blame such a one, as worthy as a coin of refined gold? Even the gods praise him; by Brahma, too, is he praised.

But yes, you can try, you can strive to do praiseworthy actions, to be reflected and wise.

231. Let a man guard himself against irritability in bodily action; let him be controlled in deed. Abandoning bodily misconduct, let him practice good conduct in deed.

232. Let a man guard himself against irritability in speech; let him be controlled in speech. Abandoning verbal misconduct, let him practice good conduct in speech.

233. Let a man guard himself against irritability in thought; let him be controlled in mind. Abandoning mental misconduct, let him practice good conduct in thought.

234. The wise are controlled in bodily action, controlled in speech and controlled in thought. They are truly well-controlled.

This is a series of articles I’m doing on one of the basic Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada. Read the rest of the articles in this series.

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