The Ninth Zen Precept: Not Being Angry
By Nancy Baker
Anger is a natural human emotion; it lasts only 15 seconds.
So said the grief expert Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in an interview I once read. Unfortunately, when the human ego is involved, anger tends to last far longer. One of the most famous examples is the “wrath of Achilles,” the mega-anger that begins Homer’s Iliad and remains a theme throughout the epic. A recent translation calls Achilles’ anger “sustained rage.” It’s the sustained part that’s the problem. But shouldn’t we also avoid, or control, or suppress even the natural, 15-second variety? It all depends. Aristotle tells us that “he who cannot be angry when he should, at whom he should, and how much he should, is a dolt.” This suggests that in certain circumstances, anger is appropriate, justifiable-even necessary. But before we look at what those circumstances might be, it would be good to consider how our cultural and psychological prohibitions against anger can cause us to misuse the ninth precept.
Working with any of the precepts is not about engaging the super ego. The Zen precepts are moral principles in a sense, but they aren’t “out there,” separate from us, to be held up as standards with which to criticize ourselves when we fall short or, even worse, to criticize others when they fall short. Nor are the precepts moral straitjackets for controlling our own behavior or anyone else’s. Instead, they express what the realized person does naturally. As Bodhidharma puts it, “Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the dharma of no self, not postulating self is called the Precept of Refraining from Anger.” Self with a capital S, the Self of Self-nature, is in reality “no self”- Buddhanature, the realm of no separation. But until we reach that stage of realization (if there is such a thing as reaching it once and for all), how do we work with the ninth precept? As with all the precepts, we need to work with it in a way that liberates rather than confines us. And that means not using the precept to reject any part of ourselves. Because anger is so universal, frequent, and varied, it serves as a particularly useful model for this.
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