As the war against terrorism rages on and on, it is a particularly important time to take stock of anger. Many people are dying as a result of anger, and many more will die if it’s not understood. Although it is downright difficult to avoid angrily criticizing the president and those who support the war effort, such a response is not necessarily skillful either. According to Vietnamese meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh in his recent book Anger, it’s more useful and healing to understand this powerful emotion than to perpetuate it through sarcasm, competitive language or ignorance. Otherwise, anger can and does kill those who act it out.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that anger is one of the most destructive emotions, and one of the most difficult to uproot. Thai master Ajahn Chah often said that this hindrance was his biggest challenge as a young monk. And although it may take many lifetimes to do so, the Buddha was constantly reminding his disciples that developing insight into anger is a most noble way to spend their precious time.
Thich Nhat Hanh reinforces these reflections and teachings. This book’s eleven chapters and four appendices offer many ways of thinking and relating to the potentially harmful and unskillful behaviors caused by anger. He acknowledges that “cooling the flames” is not easy or even possible at all moments. The energy of anger lurks within us all, and so dealing with this emotion needs to be one of our deepest intentions. If we hold on to our anger as a source of self-importance or self-righteousness, we will miss seeing its insidious nature, which is often cleverly cloaked behind a swelling ego. Self and other are not two separate things, because the suffering, hope and anger of both is very much the same. When someone insults us or behaves violently toward us, we have to be intelligent enough to see that the person suffers from his own violence and anger. But we tend to forget; we think that we are the only one who suffers. When we touch the insight of no-self, suffering is no longer an individual problem; it’s everyone’s. We will refuse to fan the flames of anger toward others or in ourselves because it’s the same. We see that we can’t hurt others without hurting ourselves.
Throughout this book, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a wide variety of specific techniques and tools to cool our anger. One suggestion that particularly impressed me is to give a gift to the person we are angry with. Instead of following the typical impulse to hurt or to withhold, we can practice generosity and letting go. This counterintuitive approach, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, is very simple, and it always works. (Imagine the U.S. giving gifts to terrorists!) Another practice, called “Peace Treaty,” is based on the reality that punishing someone is actually self-punishment, and not a very intelligent strategy. By using intelligence rather than weapons, everyone can participate in the fastest peace treaty: looking within. To help create peace, he provides a detailed outline of reflections and observances for each person or group to follow. Although details can be modified according to special circumstances, invoking the Three Gems for protection and guidance is constant.
Thich Nhat Hanh also teaches that “we have to take very good care of our anger.” Taking care of anger, of course, means always being mindful of it. Insight stops anger. That’s why mindfulness is always our best protection. When mindfulness is present, we are better protected than by “smart bombs,” Special Forces or a missile defense shield. Wisdom and compassion are our truest protection, and they cannot be destroyed. They are timeless, part of our original nature, never threatened or offended by an “axis of evil.”
So start cooling your flames by reading Anger, and pass it along. You never know whom it will reach or when and how it might transform them.