The Wisdom of Anger

If you know how to use it, says Melvin McLeod, the energy of anger becomes fierce and compassionate wisdom. Even the buddhas get angry about injustice.

Melvin McLeod
15 August 2018
The protector Vajrasadhu, painted by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
The protector Vajrasadhu, painted by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Used by permission of Diana J. Mukpo.

Is anger an empowering and appropriate response to suffering and injustice, or does it only cause more conflict? Is it skillful or unskillful? Does it help or hurt?

With so many bad things happening in the world these days, there’s a lot of debate about the proper role of anger. The answer may lie in the fundamental distinction Buddhism makes between anger and aggression.

According to Buddhism, aggression is one of the three poisons that drive our suffering. Even a brief moment of reflection on our own lives, our society, and human history will confirm that aggression is the greatest cause of destruction and suffering.

As with the other two poisons—ignorance and passion—what defines aggression is ego. Aggression is the energy of anger in the service of all we define as “self,” ready to attack anyone and anything we deem a threat. But when anger is released from its service to ego, it ceases to be aggression and simply becomes energy. The pure energy of anger has wisdom and power. It can even be enlightened.

Temple guardian at the entrance to Horyu-ji temple in Nara, Japan. Photo by Liza Matthews.
Temple guardian at the entrance to Horyu-ji temple in Nara, Japan. Photo by Liza Matthews.

The Buddhas Are Angry

The buddhas are not just the love-and-light people we like to think they are. Of course, their enlightened mind is grounded in total peace, but in that open space compassion spontaneously arises. It has many manifestations. One is the pure energy of anger.

Anger is the power to say no. This is our natural reaction whenever we see someone suffer—we want to stop it. The buddhas say no to the three poisons that drive injustice. They are angry about our suffering and they will happily destroy its causes. They aren’t angry at us. They’re angry for us.

Traditionally, it is said that the buddhas’ compassion expresses itself through four types of energy. These are called skillful means, the different ways wisdom and compassion go into action to relieve suffering.

First, the buddhas can pacify, helping suffering beings quench the flames of aggression, passion, and ignorance. The calm and pacifying buddha is the one we’re most familiar with, whose image brings a feeling of peace to millions around the world.

But sometimes more is needed. So the buddhas can enrich us, pointing out the wealth of resources we possess as human beings and healing our inner sense of impoverishment. Then, if need be, they can magnetize us, seducing us away from the suffering of ego to the joy of our inherent enlightened nature.

In its pure, awakened form, when it is not driven by ego, anger brings good to the world.

Finally, there are times when the compassionate thing is to destroy. To say “Stop!” to suffering. To say “Wake up!” to the ways people deceive themselves. To use the energy of anger to say “No!” to all that is selfish, exploitive, and unjust.

In its pure, awakened form, when it is not driven by ego, anger brings good to the world. In our personal lives, it helps us be honest about our own foibles and have the courage to help others see how they are damaging themselves. On a bigger scale, anger is the energy that inspires great movements for freedom and social justice, which we need so badly now. It is a vital part of every spiritual path, for before we can say yes to enlightenment, we must say no to the three poisons.

The energy of anger is an inherent part of our nature—we can no more have yes without no than light without dark. So we need a way to work with the energy of anger so it doesn’t manifest as aggression, as well as methods to tap its inherent wisdom. We need a profound understanding of where aggression comes from, how it differs from anger, and a practical path to work with it. That path begins where all healing begins.

First, Do No Harm

Most of us aren’t physically violent, but almost all of us hurt other people with aggressive words and harsh emotions. The sad part is that it’s usually the people we love most whom we hurt. We can also acquiesce in or implicitly support social evils and injustice through our silence, investments, or consumption habits.

Buddhism, like all religions, offers guidelines to help us restrain ourselves. We may not like rules and limitations, but the morals, ethics, and decorum taught directly by the Buddha are guides to doing no harm.

The principle of right conduct applies to acts of body, speech, and mind. Guided by the inner attitudes of gentleness and awareness, we monitor what arises in the mind moment by moment and choose the wholesome, like peace, over the unwholesome, like aggression.

Buddhism teaches helpful meditation techniques so we are not swept away by the force of conflicting emotions like aggression. These techniques allow us to take advantage of the brief gap in the mind between impulse and action. Through the practice of mindfulness, we become aware of impulses arising and allow a space in which we can consider whether and how we want to act. We, not our emotions, are in control.

The protector Fudo statue. It is a person sitting in front of flames.
The protector Fudo (12th- century Japan). Chala Vidyaraja (Fudo Myoo). Japan 1000-1100. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundahe Collection B60S146+. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of SF.

I’m in Pain, You’re in Pain

Without excusing or ignoring anything, it’s helpful to recognize that aggression is usually someone’s maladapted response to their own suffering. That includes us and our aggression. So caring for ourselves and cultivating compassion for others are two of the best ways to short-circuit aggression.

We are suffering beings, and we don’t handle it well. We try to ease our pain and only make it worse. The practices of mindfulness and self-care give us the strength and space to experience our suffering without losing our stability and lashing out. And when we are targets of aggression ourselves, knowing it may come out of the other person’s pain helps us respond skillfully.

Without Suppressing or Acting Out

Fear and shame distort the basic energy of anger and create suffering. We fear that intense emotions like anger will overwhelm us and make us lose control. We’re ashamed that such “negative” emotions are part of our makeup at all. So we protect ourselves against the energy of anger by either suppressing it or acting it out. Both are ways to avoid experiencing the full intensity of emotion. Both are harmful to ourselves and others.

What we need is the courage to rest in the full intensity of the energy inside us without suppressing or releasing it. This the key to the Buddhist approach to working with anger. When we have the courage to remain present with our anger, we can look directly at it. We can feel its texture and understand its qualities. We can investigate and understand it.

What we discover is that we are not actually threatened by this energy. We can separate the anger from our ego and storyline. We realize that anger’s basic energy is useful, even enlightened. For in its essence, our anger is the same as the buddhas’.

Discovering the Wisdom of Anger

We have the same power to say no that the buddhas do. Traditionally, it is said that the enlightened energy of anger is the wisdom of clarity. It is sharp, accurate, and penetrating insight. It sees what is wholesome and unwholesome, what is just and unjust, what is enlightenment and what is ignorance. Seeing clearly, we lay the ground for action.

In our basic nature, we are enlightened and our anger is really wisdom.

We all experience the wisdom of anger when we see how society mistreats people. When we have an honest insight into our own neuroses and vow to change. When we are inspired to say no to injustice and fight for something better. This wisdom is a source of strength, fearlessness, and solidarity. It can drive positive change.

If Buddhism offers us one piece of good news it is this: in our basic nature, we are enlightened and our anger is really wisdom. The confused and misdirected aggression that causes such suffering is just temporary and insubstantial.

When the energy of anger serves ego, it is aggression. When it serves to ease others’ suffering and make the world a better place, it is wisdom. We have the freedom to choose which. We have the power to transform aggression into the wisdom of anger. There is no greater victory, for us and for the world.

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.