Returning anger with anger is evil.
Don’t return anger with anger.
Not being angry is always better than being angry.
— Samyukta Agama
The Origins of Anger
Anger is one of the three basic “poisons” discussed by the Buddha. Ignorance and greed are the other two. Generally, these three poisons operate together. They feed off each other, justify each other and create the conditions that lead to their malefic reappearances. They create the karma that binds us to the lower awareness typical of this saha world. These three poisons sometimes are also called “the three fires” because they make our minds burn and rage with ignorance like a fire out of control. Sometimes they are also called “the three diseases” because they bring harm to sentient beings and force them to remain long within the cycle of birth and death.
The Abhidharmakosa and the Vijnaptimatratasiddhi Sastra both say that anger is a condition in which the mind roils with trouble and cannot find peace because it has turned its back on wisdom and its claws against others. Anger comes in many forms; resentment, hatred, jealousy, cruelty, abuse, and taking delight in the misfortunes of others. Anger has many names and many forms, but essentially it is always caused by a deluded belief that the illusory self has lost control over something that is important to it. This loss of control produces an ignorant rage during which we attempt to restore whatever equilibrium we thought should have been there. If this rage happens in the moment, we call it anger or fury. If it burns more slowly over a longer period of time, we call it hatred or jealousy or resentment. The cause is always the same; the illusion has been threatened and rather than learn it elects to harm.
The Buddha said that anger was one of the Five Hindrances. The Five Hindrances are moods or states of mind that make it difficult for us to learn the Dharma. They are anger, desire, drowsiness, excitability and doubt.
The Buddha also said that anger is one of the Five Envoys of Stupidity. The Five Envoys of Stupidity are greed, anger, ignorance, pride and doubt.
Buddhism recognizes three basic kinds of anger:
Anger for no reason. This form of anger arises within the mind even though nothing has come from outside to provoke it. This kind of anger grows out of seeds already planted within the alaya consciousness.
Anger with some reason. This form of anger arises after someone has done something to “cause” it. This kind of anger is produced when a seed of anger in the alaya consciousness is stimulated to grow by outer conditions.
Dialectical anger. This form of anger arises when someone disagrees with us. It is produced in the same way as anger with some reason.
Anger is a form of suffering peculiar to the desire realm (Kamadhatu). In the Rupadhatu (form realm) and Arupadhatu (formless realm) there is no anger.
Anger is distinguished from greed in that anger is a form of revulsion created by something we do not like while greed is a form of attraction brought on by something we do like. In this limited sense, and in this sense only, greed can be said to be “better than” anger. Greed at least has some positive components while anger generally has none at all.
Anger as Transgression
The Avatamsaka Sutra says, “Of all forms of evil, there is none worse than anger. A single moment of anger can be an enormous obstruction to growth.”
The Fayuan Zhulin says, “Anger causes the loss of all goodness as it causes the beginning of all evil. Anger ruins the joy of the Dharma, steals the goodness of the mind, and forces the mouth to say terrible things. Anger is like the blade of an ax.”
Anger is one of the greatest obstructions to the successful study of Buddhism. Anger is a form of passionate ignorance. It is hard enough to learn when we are simply ignorant, but how can we ever learn if we are passionate in our ignorance? Only a quiet and receptive mind can learn. A mind raging with fire only burns its own fuel. For this reason, the Buddha often counseled his followers to beware of anger. All of us must learn to control and overcome anger.
The Sutra of Bequeathed Teachings says:
Anger can ruin all good practices and it is not soon forgotten. It is attractive neither in the present nor when viewed later as something belonging to the past. When anger begins burning out of control like a raging fire, protect yourself and do not let it consume you. Like a thief this fire will take away everything you have. There is nothing worse than anger.
The Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra says:
Anger should be thought of as the worst of all transgressions. It is the worst of all the Three Poisons (greed, anger, ignorance). Of the ninety-eight defilements, it is the most stubborn. It is the most difficult mental disease of all to cure. A person in the midst of anger, cannot see what is right; he understands neither the difference between good and evil nor the difference between helping and hurting. He has lost control of himself and begun to fall toward the hell realm.
The Saddharma Smrty Upasthana Sutra says that anger is like a poisonous snake, like a knife blade, like fire. The sutra says that wise people should do all they can to overcome anger.
The Bodhisattvabhumi Sastra says that anyone who is often angry will almost certainly fall into one of the lower three realms of existence (hell, hungry ghosts, animals). If they are reborn in the human realm then they will suffer both of the following two problems:
They will often be victims of other people’s fault-finding and criticism.
They will often be troubled and bothered by other people and they will find little or no peace in their lives.
The Cure for Anger
Anger is a form of energy. The most basic way to cure anger is to see it that way. Remove all labels from it and disentangle it from all stories or excuses about why it is there. Seen purely as energy, anger is more easily put in perspective and controlled. Another way to control anger is to consider times in the past when you were angry. What do they matter now? Did they really matter then? After enough time has passed, recalling anger is like recalling the heat of a fire. There is a memory but no feeling.
The Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra says:
Overcoming anger brings peace to the mind. Overcoming anger leads to a mind without regrets. Anger is the source of the poisons that destroy goodness. All the Buddhas praise one who has overcome anger. When anger has been overcome, there no longer will be any anxiety.
The Saddharma Smrty Upasthana Sutra says that one who overcomes anger is loved by all and is delightful to see. His mind is calm, his face is pure and he is trusted by everyone. Once anger has been overcome, the sutra says, it follows naturally that one will be successful in upholding the precepts and in controlling fear, passion, criticism, harsh speech, and a tendency to complain or be bitter about one’s life. Overcoming anger is the source of much goodness. The merits that accrue to anyone who has overcome this vice lead to good circumstances in this life and a good rebirth after this life is over.
The Mahayana Samparigraha Sastra mentions five ways to overcome anger:
Contemplate that since beginningless time you have been connected with all sentient beings in the universe.
Contemplate the transience of life. Who is there to be harmed and who is doing the harming?
Contemplate that only the Dharma is real and that there is no such thing as sentient beings. In this light, how can there be any such thing as harm?
Contemplate that all sentient beings must suffer. In this light, why would anyone want to increase the suffering of another?
Contemplate that all sentient beings are your children. Why would you want to harm any of them?
When all is said and done, compassion is the single best method for overcoming anger. The bodhisattva must learn to “be compassionate for no reason and to see all beings as being of one body.”
If anger rises and you desire to harm another being, already you have harmed yourself far more than him. And that is why you must often think on compassion; for compassion keeps from rising all thought of anger, evil and pain.
— Meditation on the Three Contemplations Sutra