issue 19 winter 02
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Ways to cross the divide

Anger and ill will can evaporate under the rays of pure awareness. Ayya Khema takes a refreshing look at five traditional methods.

We all know how unpleasant anger is, but we find it difficult to let go. So the Buddha's advice can be useful. A discourse on the subject is entitled 'Five ways to overcome anger and resentment' (Anguttara Nikaya v.162):

'There are five methods for conquering anger and resentment. They permit the eradication of every trace of anger or resentment. What are they? If anger arises, this is what should be done: cultivate loving-kindness, cultivate compassion, cultivate equanimity.'

How can we cultivate such feelings in the heat of anger? After all love, compassion and equanimity are three of the four highest emotions. The fourth, sympathetic joy, is not mentioned here, perhaps because rejoicing in the merit of someone with whom we have just become angry is too much to ask. But if we cannot manage any of these three, there is a fourth way, which is: 'Do not pay attention, do not take heed of that person.'

If we accept that sometimes we cannot overcome our anger and resentment, and that we are only harming ourselves, we can at least take our mind off it until the negativity has subsided a little, or the situation has changed sufficiently for us to be able to practise loving-kindness and compassion again.

The fifth method is especially important: 'If resentment arises, one should call to mind the law of ownership of one's actions, namely: “The owner of his actions is he, this venerable one, he is heir to his actions, he is born out of his actions, he is tied to them, finds refuge in them, and what right and wrong he has done will be his heritage.”'

If we become angry with someone because they have done something bad, we should remind ourselves that every person inherits the result of their intentions. The law of cause and effect works in the universe as well as in every individual. Intentional actions will have effects, it is impossible to avoid them. Nevertheless, two people who perform the same action may experience different results. If someone behaves badly, and we are thereby harmed, we easily become angry. In that moment it is important to remember that everyone makes their own way in life and creates their own pattern of cause and effect. How we are today is the result of our intentions. So reminding ourselves of this principle of cause and effect can make it easier to let go of anger.

On a number of occasions the Buddha recommended that we avoid encounters that give rise to anger, especially when our emotions are unstable and easily ignited - just as we should protect ourselves from bad people, wild elephants and jungle thickets. While we should not run away from difficulties, it is perfectly acceptable to admit we cannot handle every situation. We should try to manage circumstances with loving-kindness and compassion, but accept that sometimes we may be unable to cope.

Equanimity is regarded as the highest of emotions, and should not be confused with indifference. Not only does equanimity include loving-kindness, it also arises from insight into impermanence. Things cannot be tomorrow as they are today and any attempt to stand in the way of this process will usually involve suffering. Equanimity means accepting things as they are, so for someone endeavouring to make spiritual progress, it means not creating disharmony by interfering with other people's business.

The next section of the Sutta is a longer explication of the same issue by Sariputta, a leading disciple who often elaborated on the Buddha's discourses. 'There are five ways to overcome anger and resentment...What are these five? If someone is not pure in deed but pure in word, anger and resentment against him should be overcome. If someone is not pure in word but pure in deed, anger and resentment against him should be overcome. Again, if someone is impure in deed and word but from time to time opens his heart to be filled with faith, anger and resentment against him should be overcome. Again, if someone is pure neither in deed nor in word, neither does his heart open from time to time to be filled with faith, anger and resentment against him should be overcome. Again, if someone is pure in deed and word, and time and again his heart opens to be filled with faith, anger and resentment against him should be overcome.'

So Sariputta goes on to illustrate through parables how to get on with each of these types of people, restraining anger and resentment towards them. How are we to overcome anger and resentment against the first type of person?

'Like a monk clothed who beholds rags lying in the street, holds on to them with his left foot, spreads them out with his right foot, cuts off whatever there is of solid cloth, and takes it with him, so with someone who is impure in deed but pure in word, one should call to mind not the impurity of his deed but the purity of his word.'

In the Buddha's day clothes were hand-woven and expensive, so monks and nuns used to wear patchwork robes. If they found pieces of cloth on the road or among rubbish they could pick them up and sew them together. In this parable a monk sees some rags, tears off what he can use, and leaves the rest behind. This is how to think of someone who acts unskilfully but whose speech is skilful: we should disregard the bad deeds and consider only their positive words.

This is not to say we ignore the bad things they have done; we see them but we don't pass judgement, because condemnation always leads to resentment and anger. Little in this world is perfect, so theoretically we could be angry from first thing in the morning until last thing at night. But if we focus on the virtues of someone with whom we have become angry (presumably not without reason) we have the chance to overcome our anger. They may have many bad points and only a sprinkling of good qualities, but we should still direct our attention to the good. It is we who derive the greatest benefit from doing so because inner turmoil just makes life more difficult.

Sariputta now produces another illustration. 'Suppose the surface of a pond to be overgrown with slimy weed and water plants, and that someone overcome by the heat, sweating, worn out, thirsty, and thus in torment, approaches the pond, goes down to the pond, removes the weed and plants at places with both hands, drinks with cupped hands, and then goes on his way. In the same way with a person of impure word but pure deed, one has to contemplate not his impurity in speech but his purity in action.'

So we can set aside the impure words of a person and think of their good, pure actions. Let us remember, for example, occasions when they have helped people, or consider their qualities, and leave what is irritating about them out of the equation. Here is a third vignette: 'Suppose a cow's footprint has a small amount of water in it, and that someone overcome by the heat, sweating, worn out, thirsty, and thus in torment, comes by and sees the water. He thinks, “If I scoop up the small quantity of water in this cow's footprint with my hands or some container, I will disturb it and make it undrinkable. Therefore I will rather go down on all fours like a cow and sip the water, and then go on my way”. And this is what he does. Likewise, with someone who is impure in word and deed but whose heart opens up from time to time and experiences faith, one should not consider his impurity in word and deed at that time. Instead one should contemplate that his heart opens up from time to time and attains faith.'

If this person were to dip his hands or a container in the water it would become muddy and undrinkable, so it is if we think about what is worst in someone, what is ugly in their words and actions &– we get 'stirred up'. As this feeling becomes increasingly unpleasant we find no peace. It is significant that the person in the parable kneels down in order to drink, for we have to understand in all humility that we can find inner peace only when we learn to live with another person's unskilful words and deeds.

But if we are thirsty – representing the inner agitation that comes with anger and resentment – we will accept whatever drink we can find. We put up with what we find objectionable in someone, we avoid stirring it up, and consequently retain our inner peace. The person in the parable does have a drink and we, too, can find something to ease our relations with the person whose speech and action are so annoying. We remind ourselves that they have a heart that opens from time to time and has experienced faith. Moreover, even in regard to their words and deeds, we can recall that such a person has good in them too, so we can make allowances and turn down the heat of our seething emotions.

Here is the fourth parable: 'Imagine a sick man, seriously ill and suffering, walking along a road. He is a long way from any village, and cannot find food or medicine, nor anyone to help him. But then someone notices him and feels compassion, love and goodwill with the thought, “May that man find suitable food and medicine, someone to look after him and direct his course, lest he pass away!” Similarly, towards a person of impure deed and word, whose heart does not open to an experience of faith, we should feel compassion, love and goodwill, with the thought, “May this venerable one give up his bad practice in thought, word and deed, and may he practise good thought, word and deed; and may he not, when his body disintegrates after his death, end up in the lower worlds, on the path of suffering”.'

This parable illustrates how someone will have to face the results of their own actions, and how we can therefore develop compassion for them. If we say or do or intend something unskilful, we are suffering from hatred or greed, as though from an illness. Either we speak or act out of hatred, or our actions or words are rooted in greed. All human beings suffer in this way due to the poison of delusion that, as the Buddha explained, underlies the poisons of greed and hatred.

If greed and hatred can be regarded as illness, the Buddha is the great physician, and the Dhamma, his teaching, is medicine. This medicine may not always taste pleasant but it is guaranteed to cure us. The parable of the sick man who cannot find help is therefore particularly appropriate. We encounter so many people who suffer because of their misdeeds, unskilful speech, and lack of faith, and the only reasonable response is compassion. We hope they will recover from their illness, find inner peace, and thus cease to reap the painful consequences.

The fifth and final parable is more joyful. 'Suppose there is a pond with clear water, refreshing water, cool water, sparkling water in a beautiful location, an exquisite location, in the shade of green trees. And imagine that someone comes by overcome by the heat, sweating, worn out, thirsty, and thus in torment. He steps down into the pond, bathes and drinks from the water. Then he climbs out again, and sits or lies down in the shade. Likewise, with someone of pure deed and word, whose heart opens up time and again and finds faith, we should at that time consider and contemplate his purity in word and deed, that his heart opens up time and again and finds faith. Thus one should overcome anger and resentment against such a person.'

Someone who is pure in word and deed and whose heart opens up time and again is compared to a delightful pond, with clear water, cool and refreshing. Even if we feel hurt in some way by such a person, we can overcome any resentment or anger by recognising that they are a source of bliss for us and for others, and that there is nothing to which we can attach negative feelings, their conduct in life being so pure, and their emotional life so full of compassion and love. The discourse concludes: 'The mind can find peace in someone who in all possible ways gives rise to faith and confidence.'

We can fortify our inner peace by regular contact with someone we completely trust. The Buddha often pointed out how important it is to keep good company and to have noble friends – people who lead a pure life, follow a spiritual path, and can help us do the same. Such a person will see the world differently from someone who is interested only in mundane life, and they can help us to do likewise. However, we need to maintain our trust in such a friend. If our faith in them is shaken, we will find no peace until we can re-establish it.

Anger and our craving to be loved are two sides of the same coin. In each case we have the same underlying difficulty. If someone hurts us, it may express their lack of love, or it could be because they didn't feel well or even that they just don't know how to deal with people. To us, however, their conduct comes across as rejection. If we want love but are not shown any, we will grow sad and then angry.

Love may well be the universal remedy that can make everyone emotionally and spiritually healthy, but this is not the love that is dependent on finding someone loveable. We direct our heart towards love, and when love has become a quality of our heart it no longer matters whether the object of our love returns our love or not. We should recognise that we don't need someone else to love us, as the true source of love is found within. There will then be no need to be angry or even unhappy if someone doesn't care about us. If they are not yet fully able to love, we can feel compassion for them.

So, in casting off anger and resentment, we also have to give up seeking love from others. Then the whole problem is resolved – because anger and resentment cannot possibly arise in a heart full of love. But feelings are fickle and our hearts unstable, and overcoming this instability is one of the most important aspects of spiritual practice. We can win independence from the power of other people's emotions, and from external circumstances generally, by cultivating the inner power of love. Once our hearts no longer give way to those forces, then we truly have a spiritual practice.

Extracted from Come and See for Yourself, Windhorse Publications, 2002