Anger is Not the Answer
Monday September 2, 2002
On the face of it, Buddhism hardly seems a cheery philosophy, taking as its central tenet the premise that the fundamental nature of our existence is suffering. Like most people, when things are going well, I would much rather focus on happiness than dwell on the sufferings of the world. But reality has a nasty habit of intruding. Love turns to heartbreak, wealth to poverty, health to sickness, peace to war, life to death. We are shocked and hurt to discover that things that once seemed so real and solid turn out to have been mere illusions.
It may be a personal tragedy that brings us to this realisation, or a national or global disaster. We feel helpless and confused, at a loss as to how to deal with our own and others' suffering. It is then that we seek answers. Why did this happen? Was it my fault? Can I do anything to make it better? Can I prevent it happening again? By addressing such questions, Buddhism offers an explanation for how our sufferings arise and a path by which we may transcend them.
Trend analysts say that since September 11, Americans and Europeans have become more inwardly focused. We stay home more, spend more time with our loved ones, consider our priorities in life with greater care. This inward focus is a traditional characteristic of the Buddhist practitioner; the Tibetan term for a Buddhist translates as "insider", in the sense of one who looks within for understanding. This prompts the question of whether a Buddhist analysis can help us make sense of suffering in what seems an increasingly dangerous world.
Buddhists view the world we perceive as an illusion, in which everything is subject to change, growth and decay in accordance with the law of cause and effect, or karma. Tibetan Buddhists depict the workings of this cyclical existence as a wheel showing the chain of events leading from thought to action and its consequences. At the hub, three creatures represent greed, anger and ignorance, the driving forces that keep the wheel in motion, condemning us to an endless cycle of suffering. If we can eliminate these forces by applying the antidotes of compassion and wisdom, the cycle is broken.
Theory is all very well, but can this model help us to come to terms with the sufferings we encounter individually or as a society? It can certainly serve as a tool to remind us that since we are the creators of our own suffering, we also hold the potential for our deliverance.
"When the world seems full of evil," say the Buddhist teachings, "transform all mishaps into enlightenment". This may be hard to accept, but it can relieve our sense of powerlessness and encourage us to take responsibility for our actions.
Psychologists say the outbursts of public grieving following events such as September 11 represent an attempt to recover a lost sense of community. This can awaken our compassion towards others and motivate us to work for a better society. But this can easily turn to mass anger against those we hold responsible. Our tendency is to judge people and events according to subjective notions of "right" and "wrong" and then to enforce that judgment on others. Once a common enemy has been identified, their punishment becomes our "righteous cause". But by surrendering our individual responsibility we create the kind of mob mentality responsible for terrorist attacks.
The men who carried out the attack on the Twin Towers sincerely believed that their mission was a sacred duty. The US sincerely believes that eliminating the attackers' supporters is a sacred duty. In an interdependent universe, such concepts of "us" and "them" are meaningless, counterproductive and dangerous. Buddhism challenges us to rise above anger and extend our compassion to all who suffer, victims and terrorists alike. As Buddha himself said: "Anger is not destroyed by anger, but by love alone."