Don’t Let Hatred Destroy Your Practice

His Holiness the Dalai Lama takes an in-depth look at how we can work with anger and hatred in our practice.

The Dalai Lama
24 July 2020
Painting by Patty Hammarstedt.

The first verse of Shantideva’s “Patience” chapter, in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, reads:

Whatever wholesome deeds,
Such as venerating the buddhas and [practicing] generosity,
That have been amassed over a thousand aeons,
Will all be destroyed in one moment of anger.

The implication of this first verse is that in order for the individual practitioner to be able to successfully cultivate patience and tolerance, what is required is a very strong enthusiasm, a strong desire, because the stronger one’s enthusiasm the greater the ability to withstand the hardships encountered in the process. Not only that, but one also will be prepared to voluntarily accept hardships that are a necessary part of the path.

The first stage, then, is to generate this strong enthusiasm, and for that what is required is to reflect upon the destructive nature of anger and hatred, as well as the positive effects of patience and tolerance.

In this text, one reads that the generation of anger or hatred, even for a single instant, has the capacity to destroy virtues collected over a thousand aeons. Another text, Entry into the Middle Way by Chandrakirti, states that a single instant of anger or hatred will destroy virtues accumulated over a hundred aeons. The difference between these two texts is explained from the point of view of the object of one’s anger or hatred. If the object of one’s anger or hatred is a bodhisattva on a high level of the path, and the person who is being hateful or angry is not a bodhisattva, then the amount of virtue that will be destroyed is greater. On the other hand, if a bodhisattva generates anger toward another bodhisattva, maybe the virtue destroyed would be less.

When hatred and anger are generated they have the capacity to destroy one’s virtue and calmness of mind.

However, when we say that virtues accumulated over aeons are destroyed by a single instant of anger, we have to identify what sort of virtues are destroyed. Both this text and Entry into the Middle Way agree that it is only the meritorious virtues—not so much the wisdom aspect but rather the method aspect of the path—that are destroyed. In particular, these include virtues accumulated through practicing giving or generosity as well as virtues accumulated on the basis of observing an ethically disciplined way of life. On the other hand, virtues accumulated through the practice of wisdom, such as generating insight into the ultimate nature of reality, and virtues accumulated through meditative practices, wisdom acquired through meditation, remain beyond the scope of destruction by anger and hatred.

The second verse reads:

There is no evil like hatred,
And no fortitude like patience.
Thus I should strive in various ways
To meditate on patience.

Generally speaking, there are many afflictive emotions such as conceit, arrogance, jealousy, desire, lust, closed-mindedness, and so on, but of all these, hatred or anger is singled out as the greatest evil. This is done for two reasons.

One is that hatred or anger is the greatest stumbling block for a practitioner who is aspiring to enhance his or her bodhicitta—altruistic aspiration and a good heart. Anger or hatred is the greatest obstacle to that.

Second, when hatred and anger are generated they have the capacity to destroy one’s virtue and calmness of mind. It is due to these reasons that hatred is considered to be the greatest evil.

According to Buddhist psychology, hatred is one of the six root afflictive emotions. The Tibetan word for it is zhe dang, which can be translated as either “anger” or “hatred” in English. However, I feel that it should be translated as “hatred,” because “anger,” as it is understood in English, can be positive in very special circumstances. These occur when anger is motivated by compassion or when it acts as an impetus or a catalyst for a positive action. In such rare circumstances, anger can be positive, whereas hatred can never be positive. It is totally negative.

Since hatred is totally negative, it should never be used to translate the Tibetan word zhe dang when it appears in the context of tantra. Sometimes we hear the expression “taking hatred into the path.” This is a mistranslation. In this context, hatred is not the right word; one should use “anger”: “taking anger into the path.” So the Tibetan word can be translated as either “anger” or “hatred,” but “anger” can be positive; therefore, when zhe dang refers to the afflictive emotion it must be translated as “hatred.”

The last two lines of the second verse read:

Thus I should strive in various ways
To meditate on patience.

Since the goal is the enhancement of one’s capacity for tolerance and the practice of patience, what is required is to be able to counteract the forces of anger and hatred, particularly hatred. One should use all sorts of techniques to increase one’s familiarity with patience. These include not only real-life situations, but also using one’s imagination to visualize a situation and then see how one will react and respond to it. Again and again one should try to combat hatred and develop one’s capacity for tolerance and patience.

My mind will not experience peace
If it fosters painful thoughts of hatred.
I shall find no joy or happiness;
Unable to sleep, I shall feel unsettled.

This verse outlines the destructive effects of hatred, which are very visible, very obvious and immediate. For example, when a strong or forceful thought of hatred arises, at that very instant it overwhelms one totally and destroys one’s peace and presence of mind. When that hateful thought is harbored inside, it makes one feel tense and uptight, and can cause loss of appetite, leading to loss of sleep, and so forth.

Generally speaking, I believe that the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness and fulfillment. Even from the Buddhist point of view, when we speak of the four factors of happiness, or four factors of fulfillment, the first two are related to the attainment of joy and happiness in worldly terms, leaving aside ultimate religious or spiritual aspirations such as liberation and enlightenment. The first two factors deal with joy and happiness as we understand them conventionally, in worldly terms. In order to more fully experience that level of joy and happiness, the key is one’s state of mind. However, there are various factors that contribute to attaining that level of joy and happiness, ones we conventionally also recognize as sources of happiness, such as good physical health, which is considered one of the factors necessary for a happy life. Another factor is the wealth that we accumulate. Conventionally, we regard this as a source of joy and happiness. The third factor is to have friends or companions. We conventionally recognize that in order to enjoy a happy and fulfilled life, we also need a circle of friends we trust and with whom we can relate emotionally.

Now all of these are, in reality, sources of happiness, but in order for one to be able to fully utilize them with the goal of enjoying a happy and fulfilled life, one’s state of mind is crucial. If one harbors hateful thoughts within, or strong or intense anger somewhere deep down, then it ruins one’s health, so it destroys one of the factors. Even if one has wonderful possessions, when one is in an intense moment of anger or hatred, one feels like throwing them—breaking them or throwing them away. So there is no guarantee that wealth alone can give one the joy or fulfillment that one seeks. Similarly, when one is in an intense state of anger or hatred, even a very close friend appears somehow “frosty,” cold and distant, or quite annoying.

What this indicates is that our state of mind is crucial in determining whether or not we gain joy and happiness. So leaving aside the perspective of dharma practice, even in worldly terms of our enjoying a happy day-to-day existence, the greater the level of calmness of our mind, the greater our peace of mind, and the greater our ability to enjoy a happy and joyful life.
However, when we speak of a calm state of mind or peace of mind, we should not confuse that with a completely insensitive, apathetic state in which there is no feeling, like being “spaced out” or completely empty. That is not what we mean by having a calm state of mind or peace of mind.

If we examine how anger or hateful thoughts arise in us, we will find that, generally speaking, they arise when we feel hurt.

Genuine peace of mind is rooted in affection and compassion. There is a very high level of sensitivity and feeling involved. So long as we lack inner discipline, an inner calmness of mind, then no matter what external facilities or conditions we may have, they will never give us the feeling of joy and happiness that we seek. On the other hand, if we possess this inner quality—that is, calmness of mind, a degree of stability within—then even if we lack various external facilities that are normally considered necessary for a happy and joyful life, it is still possible to live a happy and joyful life.

If we examine how anger or hateful thoughts arise in us, we will find that, generally speaking, they arise when we feel hurt, when we feel that we have been unfairly treated by someone against our expectations. If in that instant we examine carefully the way anger arises, there is a sense that it comes as a protector, comes as a friend that would help our battle or in taking revenge against the person who has inflicted harm on us. So the anger or hateful thought that arises appears to come as a shield or a protector. But in reality that is an illusion. It is a very delusory state of mind.

Chandrakirti states in Entry into the Middle Way that there might be some justification for responding to force with force if revenge would help one in any way, or prevent or reduce the harm that has already been inflicted. But that is not the case, because if the harm, the physical injury or whatever, has been inflicted, it has already taken place. So taking revenge will not in any way reduce or prevent that harm or injury. It has already happened.

On the contrary, if one reacts to a situation in a negative way instead of in a tolerant way, not only is there no immediate benefit, but also a negative attitude and feeling is created that is the seed of one’s future downfall. From the Buddhist point of view, the consequence of taking revenge has to be faced by the individual alone in his or her future life. So not only is there no immediate benefit, it is harmful in the long run for the individual.

However, if one has been treated very unfairly and if the situation is left unaddressed, it may have extremely negative consequences for the perpetrator of the crime. Such a situation calls for a strong counteraction. Under such circumstances, it is possible that one can, out of compassion for the perpetrator of the crime—and without generating anger or hatred—actually take a strong stand and take strong countermeasures. In fact, one of the precepts of the bodhisattva vows is to take strong countermeasures when the situation calls for it. If a bodhisattva doesn’t take strong countermeasures when the situation requires, then that constitutes an infraction of one of the vows.

In addition, as Entry into the Middle Way points out, not only does the generation of hateful thoughts lead to undesirable forms of existence in future lives, but also, at the moment that strong feelings of anger arise, no matter how hard one tries to adopt a dignified pose, one’s face looks rather ugly. There is an unpleasant expression, and the vibration that the person sends is very hostile. People can sense it, and it is almost as if one can feel steam coming out of that person’s body. Indeed, not only are human beings capable of sensing it, but pets and other animals also try to avoid that person at that instant.

These are the immediate consequences of hatred. It brings about a very ugly, unpleasant physical transformation of the individual. In addition, when such intense anger and hatred arise, it makes the best part of our brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong and assess longterm and short-term consequences, become totally inoperable. It can no longer function. It is almost as if the person has become crazy. These are the negative effects of generating anger and hatred. When we think about these negative and destructive effects of anger and hatred, we realize that it is necessary to distance ourselves from such emotional explosions.

Insofar as the destructive effects of anger and hateful thoughts are concerned, one cannot be protected by wealth; even if one is a millionaire, one is subject to these destructive effects of anger and hatred. Nor can education guarantee that one will be protected from these effects. Similarly, the law cannot guarantee protection. Even nuclear weapons, no matter how sophisticated the defense system may be, cannot give one protection or defend one from these effects.

The only factor that can give refuge or protection from the destructive effects of anger and hatred is the practice of tolerance and patience.

Q&A With the Dalai Lama

Q: How do we judge when a strong countermeasure is required and what it will be? Please describe what we can learn from your actions in response to the Tibetan genocide.

A: One of the reasons there is a need to adopt a strong countermeasure against someone who harms you is that if you let it pass, there is a danger of that person becoming habituated to extremely negative actions, which in the long run will cause that person’s own downfall and is very destructive for the individual himself or herself. Therefore a strong countermeasure, taken out of compassion or a sense of concern for the other, is necessary. When you are motivated by that realization, then there is a sense of concern as part of your motive for taking that strong measure.

In terms of the way we have been dealing with the Chinese government, we have always tried to avoid negative emotions. We consciously make it a point not to let our emotions overwhelm us. So even if there is a likelihood of some feeling of anger arising, we deliberately check ourselves and try to reduce that, and try to deliberately develop a feeling of compassion toward the Chinese.

One of the reasons why there is some ground to feel compassionate toward a perpetrator of crime or an aggressor is that the aggressor, because he or she is perpetrating a crime, is at the causal stage, accumulating the causes and conditions that later lead to undesirable consequences. So from that point of view, there is enough ground to feel compassionate toward the aggressor.

It is through this type of reflection that we try to deal with the Chinese. And you are right—one can say that this is an example of how one can deal with hatred and aggression. At the same time, we never lose sight of the importance of holding firmly to our own principles and adopting the strong measures that are necessary.

Often when I counteract hatred, even without feeling hatred myself, it seems to increase the other person’s hatred. How can I deal with this?

I think that is a very good question. In such cases, we have to decide on the spot, according to the situation. This requires sensitivity to the actual context and situation. In some cases, you are right, by taking a strong countermeasure, even without feeling hatred, it might increase the intensity of the other person’s feeling of hatred and anger. If that is the case, then perhaps it is possible to let it pass and not take a strong countermeasure.

However, here you have to judge the consequences of your response to a situation. If it is going to make the other person develop a bad habit of repeating the same pattern of action in the future, which will be destructive in the long term, then it may call for a strong countermeasure. But if taking a strong countermeasure will aggravate the situation and increase the other person’s anger and hatred, then perhaps what the situation requires is a kind of letting go, letting it pass, and not taking a strong countermeasure. So you need a sensitivity to particular situations.

This is analogous to the Buddhist principle that, so far as your own personal requirements are concerned, the ideal is to have fewer involvements, fewer obligations, and fewer affairs, businesses, or whatever. However, so far as the interest of the larger community is concerned, you must have as many involvements as possible and as many activities as possible.

How do we teach patience to our children? How should we react to anger in our children?

It is very difficult to explain in words to a child the value of patience and the importance of it. What is crucial here is to set a good example for our children. If you yourself are always short-tempered and lose your temper even at the slightest provocation, and then you try to teach children, saying, “Oh, you must be patient, patience is important,” it won’t have any effect at all.

As to how you should react or respond to anger in children, it is very difficult for me to say, but many of the general principles outlined in the text that teach you how to develop patience would be applicable, even in those circumstances.

If there is no extreme form of patience that is a weakness, how can a bodhisattva take a strong counteraction?

There may be a slight misunderstanding of what is meant by a bodhisattva. One should not have the impression that a bodhisattva is a very weak person. In fact, bodhisattvas can be seen as the most courageous beings. They are very determined and firm in their principles. Even conventionally, if people do not tolerate having their toes stepped on and do not tolerate being slighted, if they always take immediate action and stand firm, we consider them courageous and strong, to have strength of character. If that is the case, then bodhisattvas are beings who have made a pledge or developed the determination that they will combat the evils that exist in the minds of all sentient beings. In a way, that is a kind of arrogance, but it is, of course, based on sound reason. This type of courageous attitude is in some sense arrogant, but not in a negative way.

If we read the aspirational prayers composed by the bodhisattvas, such as the “Dedication” chapter of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, we find that bodhisattvas have many aspirations that in reality cannot be realized. Nonetheless, they have this kind of vision and aspiration. So I consider them heroes. I think they are very, very courageous sentient beings. I do not consider this a weakness at all. Bodhisattvas have that kind of outlook, and they are definitely capable of taking strong countermeasures when necessary.

When we dedicate the merit from past practices, is it destroyed by present anger or hatred?

If your dedication is complemented by factors of very strong aspiration to attain liberation, or complemented by the factor of bodhicitta, altruistic aspiration, or a realization of the empty nature of phenomena, then, of course, the merit will remain beyond the scope of destruction and will be protected.

Dedication is a very important element of practice in the Buddhist path. We find that in Maitreya’s Ornament of Clear Realizations, when he outlines the proper manner in which dedication should be practiced, he points out that when you dedicate merit, you must have a very strong motivation of bodhicitta, dedicating your merit for the benefit of all sentient beings. In addition, while you do the dedication, you should have clear realization of the empty nature of phenomena, the illusion-like nature of phenomena. Once you have dedicated merit, it should be “sealed” by the recognition that the agent is inherently empty, and that both this very act and the object of your act are also inherently empty. That is what is called “being sealed by the three spheres.” So through these practices, you can protect the merit.

In order for one’s dharma practice to be effective and powerful, it is not enough to concentrate on one aspect of the practice alone. What is required are many complementary factors, the wisdoms, the dedications, and so on. This is particularly true in the approach of the Mahayana path.

—from Perfecting Patience: Buddhist Techniques to Overcome Anger, by the Dalai Lama (Shambhala 2019)

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the US Congressional Gold Medal. Unique in the world today, he is a statesman, national leader, spiritual teacher, and deeply learned theologian. He advocates a universal “religion of human kindness” that transcends sectarian differences. The Dalai Lama is universally respected as a spokesman for the peaceful and compassionate resolution of conflict. He has also been actively involved in bringing together Western scientists and Buddhist meditators, and is a founder of the Mind & Life Institute where such meetings of the minds can take place.