Anger & Ignorance

When I was at the Garrison Institute for the Contemplative Care retreat, my Zen teachers Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellsion gave brief Dharma talks on the themes of anger and ignorance.  Tonight I’d like to share an adapted version of their words:

In his reflections about anger, Chodo quoted the comedian Phyllis Diller: “Never go to bed mad.  Stay up late and fight!” Even after becoming an ordained Zen priest, Chodo says that he often wakes up feeling angry and depressed. He is open about having numbed himself with drugs and alcohol for the first 35 years of his life, until AA meetings helped him free himself from addiction 28 years ago. We all have our own experience with anger, shame and aversion. According to Chodo, anger is a compulsive way of acting that hides the complexity of our feelings from us. When it arises, anger tends to surge hot and fast.

With mindful investigation, we can see how anger is a form of resistance to life, and we can take refuge in the full range of all our emotions. Often we notice that beneath angry feelings lie the fear and shame of making mistakes.

Instead of getting caught up in dramatic stories of who said or did what, we can practice simply being with whatever arises until we realize, “I know what fear feels like.” Kindly curiosity and investigation leads to healing.

The poet Tony Hogan describes bathing his elderly mother, who was a difficult person for him to love: “If you are lucky in this life, you will get to help your enemy.” Chodo recalls the words of Reb Anderson, “Practicing patience is the antidote to anger.” There is no need to fix our inner turmoil today. We can trust that daily sitting practice gradually changes us. We are fortunate to have found this Dharma path, and we learn that having a lifelong practice takes the pressure off of having to arrive at any specific goal. The understanding that one more day is gone from our precious human life helps us not to take for granted the countless blessings of our allotted moments on earth. A senior Zen priest, Norman Fischer, confides, “I want to feel the pain of living amidst humanity—not retreating into a cave.”

In his reflections about ignorance, Koshin quoted Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism: “If you think that your awakening will come at any other time, you are creating suffering for yourself. If you look for the Buddha outside yourself, you are creating more suffering.” Koshin points to subtle forms of suffering reflected in lack of attention and futile wishes, “If only….” Many of us suffer from the delusion that “it doesn’t matter if I’m here or not.”  Koshin reminds us, “Right now, how you are is affecting everyone around you.”  In a careful, ongoing way, we need to learn what connects and what disconnects us from ourselves and others. Whenever we cling to ideas of “me” or “mine,” with fixed notions of the self, we are preventing ourselves from entering fully into the flow of life. We don’t want to be like Narcissus, who was so self-absorbed and in love with his own beautiful reflection that he was unable to care for others.

Static, unchanging views about other people shut down the heart and isolate us from differences that could enliven us. In our sitting practice, we can witness the waves of “now” arising and passing away. We learn to face the fear of “not knowing” in advance how life will unfold in any moment. As our heart of compassion opens, we learn to care tenderly for ourselves and others.

During the past week, I have been sitting at the bedside of a dying patient at Omega House hospice, witnessing him gradually letting go of life.  Watching waves of sadness arising and passing away in my heart, I observe how this African American man is drifting in and out of consciousness, reconciling himself to dying at 58 years of age. Fully inhabiting the present moment, he is no longer defined by past struggles with heroin addiction nor by memories of living as a prisoner in jail or as a homeless person on the streets of Houston.

As he reconnects with his innate Buddha nature, my friend’s face looks childlike and innocent. He has relinquished feelings of anger about past grievances, and he has overcome ignorance about grasping to hold onto life as it slips away. I sit quietly as one of his students, gratefully learning lessons about how to die with dignity and integrity. May we all be open to such wise and authentic teachers.