Friday, April 15, 2011
Buddhist theory states that acting out of anger or other destructive, selfish impulses creates suffering, both directly through the results of the action, and indirectly by reinforcing these unskilful patterns of behavior in yourself and others. Conversely, acting out of compassion or other unselfish impulses paves the way to transcending suffering, again both directly and indirectly. In Buddhist jargon, acting unskilfully creates akusala kamma which, when it matures, creates more unbeneficial states of mind, which push you to more unskilful actions, and so on. And vice versa.
Ergo, to make the world a better place, avoid acting unskilfully and act skillfully, thereby reinforcing skillful behavior in yourself and others, and letting unskilful behavior wind down. Simple enough.
Only it's not, when you try to apply it.
Anger is destructive. It should be avoided. Sometimes it can be. Only, then we never know about it. Anger was avoided. Beneficial impulses predominated. Akusala kamma was not generated. The question of what to do with anger never came up.
When the question does come up, it's too late. Anger has not been avoided. It's there, demanding action. Like a red-hot ball of iron in your throat. Swallow it, and it'll burn you up from the inside. Spit it out, and it'll burn the Earth. Then what?
Everybody carries a load of akusala kamma, which means that everybody has a lot of those unbeneficial impulses coming up all the time. They have to be dealt with somehow. But how? "Just let them go" is great advice, but, again, not exactly easy to apply. Perhaps it isn't even possible to "just let them go." Whatever we do in an unbeneficial state of mind is unskilful, even if what we do is "nothing."
What's more, we're not in this alone. When my unskilful behavior intersects your akusala kamma it will often trigger unskilful behavior in you, which will trigger more unskilful behavior in me, and so on: together, we give the karma wheel a great big heave. No wonder running off to sit all by yourself in a cave for a decade or three is so popular among would-be arahants.
When people figure this out and try to practice it, something unpleasant often happens. Instead of letting go of the unbeneficial and only acting on the beneficial, we tend to repress the unbeneficial. We never allow that akusala kamma to mature; instead, we bury it and try to avoid it, pretend even to ourselves that it isn't there. Then it bubbles up in some other and often more insidious way, in action that we may even think is skillful, but is really caused by that buried unbeneficial state of mind. Rather than face the anger, I pretend it's not there; pretend that I'm the kind of person I want to be, or you're the kind of person I want you to be.
I think a great many of our problems comes from this turning away.
Maturing kamma is a messy business, and I don't think there are any magic solutions to completely get rid of the mess, even if there are particular medicines that work, to an extent, against particular poisons.
The upshot is a particular pattern of unskilful behavior. Covert aggression. Exhortations to "abandon the ego" and "let go," to become a Zen zombie floating above it all, like a corpse in a river. Resolution avoidance by walking away from conflicts. Hidden vices. Things left to fester, sometimes for years, until they explode in a fountain of pus. I have a hunch that many of the Zen scandals that have been plaguing the scene lately have to do with this pattern, and I think I can see it playing out in a small way among a quite a few Buddhists.
If I do something to piss you off, you have a choice. Your palette of options depends on your internal state. Your karma. If you have a lot of kusala kamma – i.e., you've worked hard at reinforcing skillful patterns of behavior – you may find a genuinely skillful way of acting, something that allows us both to resolve whatever akusala kamma caused me to do whatever I did to piss you off, and whatever akusala kamma of yours manifested in your getting pissed off. I believe that's what's known as 'enlightened behavior.'
A lot of the time, you and I just don't have what it takes. Skillful action is out of sight; out of reach. Instead, you're left with a set of unattractive options to choose from.
You can cast aspersions on my ancestry.
You can walk away and go meditate, for a half-hour or a week.
You can try to pretend that you're really not pissed off, to yourself even.
You can engage in fierce but civil debate attempting to prove I'm wrong.
You can call me a mean poopie-head.
You can write a hatchet piece about me on your blog.
You can troll me on mine, anonymously or not.
You can hire a hitman to break my knees.
All of these options are action arising from an unbeneficial impulse. They all create more akusala kamma. Buddhists often seem to prefer the ones that don't involve open aggression: walking away, suppressing the anger and trying damn hard to act civil, and so on. While it's obvious that some of those possible behaviors are more destructive than others, I'm not at all certain that those passive options are less destructive than some of the active ones.
There's a particular truth in anger. It's indicative of kamma maturing; a chance to resolve that bad stuff and really get over it, rather than just burying it again and carrying it along. But how to express the truth of anger without being destructive about it? Is it even possible? Are we doomed to solitude, trying to work out this kamma in bubbles of our own?
If genuinely skillful behavior is out of reach, out of the remaining options I have a strong preference for behaviors that lead to resolution over behaviors that avoid resolution, even if the cost includes a measure of open aggression.
Put another way, if I piss you off, I would prefer that you call me names or engage me in debate to prove how I was wrong, rather than walk away and dedicate your next round of zazen to me. That way, we can bash heads and get it over with, and then maybe make up and be friends again—or, perhaps, discover that we didn't like each other all that much after all, which is OK too.
But please, no hitmen. I'm a dreadful coward with a low pain threshold.
Thanks to Nathan of Dangerous Harvests for the post that sparked this one.