- morning in the wilderness -
I was conducting a class the other day when the topic of “anger” came up for discussion. For the most part we usually think of anger as being a barrier on the path of the spiritual journey - bitterness against others and a desire to seek revenge inevitably causes suffering. The Buddha wisely teaches:
Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal
with the intent of throwing it at someone else;
you are the one who gets burned.
As our discussion the other day progressed, I also came to realize that “anger” is not always a spiritual barrier. Anger can (and often does) lead to destructive aggression but there is a kind of anger that can also lead to enlightened wisdom. The problem is that we only have one English word for “anger” and yet there are several ways of understanding what anger is all about. In fact, as I see it, there is even such a thing as Holy Anger.
Anger is energy, and when this energy is used to defend and assert a self-important ego, the energy turns into aggression "against" others. This is the kind of anger that blocks the path to enlightenment. But that very same energy can also be used to wake up compassion on behalf of others - the energy of this kind of anger motivates us to stand up, raise a fist, bare our teeth, and say "NO" to all that is self-indulgent and unjust.
I recently read this insightful description of the kind of anger that leads to enlightenment:
In its awakened form, anger brings good to the world.
It is the energy that inspires great movements for freedom and social justice.
It helps us to be honest about our own foibles
and to show a loved one how they are damaging themselves.
It is a vital part of every spiritual path,
for before we can say yes to enlightenment
we must say no to self centeredness, injustice and aggression.
I think about the many “fiery prophets” depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures who angrily raised their voices on behalf of those who had no voice, speaking out on behalf of the poor and needy, boldly raising their fists against the kings and rulers of their day who wielded their power by trampling on the lowly.
I also think about Jesus who is often pictured as meek, mild and serene; but there were also times when Jesus was consumed with a holy fury. He angrily lashed out against the temple authorities who said long prayers but showed no compassion for the needy, calling them all "a bunch of hypocrites." Many times, Jesus was an advocate who angrily raised his voice on behalf of those who had no voice.
In our own time I think about social prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. While he opposed the use of violence, he was consumed with a holy anger against any who would hoard and hog the table of life while barring others from an equal place.
I have often thought that there is too much anger in the world today, and in one sense that's true; but in another sense maybe there isn't enough anger. There is far too much aggression used "against" others, but perhaps far too little anger exhibited on behalf of others. Maybe we need a lot less aggressive anger and a lot more holy anger not just in the world in general but in our own personal lives.
It’s interesting to me that most world religions invite adherents to both “affirm” and to “renounce,” to say “yes” to compassion and to say “no” to self-centeredness and aggression. A while back I saw these two “renunciation questions” that pretty much summarize what is usually asked of the followers of major world religious traditions:
Do you renounce all desire to possess people and things for your own use?
Do you renounce all envy, violence and injustice against others and against the earth?
It takes the concentrated energy of “Holy Anger” to answer these questions with passion and then to live out the answers in the way of everyday living. It takes the energy of a different kind of anger to say “no” to selfishness and to stand against violence and injustice. And, of course you don’t have to be a religious believer to hold onto this different kind of anger.