It’s a great tragedy that many Buddhists believe that we should not engage in criticism of things worthy of criticism. This has led to many misunderstandings of what is skillful and has pitched Buddhists as individuals who are somehow estranged from the society we live in because of our religion. However, the Buddha allowed for skillful criticism. and often spoke out about governance, social ills, workers rights and so on. Take the Potaliya Sutta AN 4.100 where the Buddha corrects Potaliya’s idea that equanimity is better than praise or criticism:
Potaliya: “Master Gotama, of these four people, it is the person who neither praises those deserving of praise at the right time, truthfully and substantively; nor criticizes those deserving of criticism at the right time, truthfully and substantively. That is the person I believe to be the finest. Why is that? Because, Master Gotama, equanimity is the best.”
The Buddha: "Potaliya, of these four people, it is the person who criticizes those deserving of criticism at the right time, truthfully and substantively; and praises those deserving of praise at the right time, truthfully and substantively. That is the person I consider to be the finest. Why is that? Because, Potaliya, understanding of time and context is the best.”
We also hear in the Sikkhāpada Sutta AN 4.99 that we should practice to benefit ourselves and others by being good ourself and encouraging other people to do good:
And how does a person practice to benefit neither themselves nor others? It’s when a person kills, etc. … and doesn’t encourage others to not do these things. That’s how a person practices to benefit neither themselves nor others.
5And how does a person practice to benefit both themselves and others? It’s when a person doesn’t kill, etc. … and encourages others to do the same. That’s how a person practices to benefit both themselves and others.
In the Firebrand Sutta, a person who practices neither for themselves, nor encourages others to practice, is compared to a cremation log covered in shit that no-one wants!
One of the criticisms levelled at modern McMindfulness (as taught for decreasing stress and increasing productivity in workplaces) is that it essentially puts the burden of all the neoliberal capitalist horrors firmly in the shoulders of the individual to deal with, rather than addressing an unfair system that treats workers poorly, causing stress and fear, and also which undermines the notion of a collective response like unionism, or the idea that we could create broader changes to the workplace and labour market. This has been talked about as essentially weaponising spirituality for corporate gain over individuals wellbeing.
Similarly, Buddhist teachings on anger and hate often put the burden on the individual, and sure, on a personal practice level that’s where the work needs to be done and makes sense. But in terms of social benefit, this will only help to a limited degree, as it addresses the problem on an individual level but not on a social level. Yet we are not hermits living in a forest but, social beings who are part of a society. Dealing with the individual’s personal response is of course important, but does not do anything to help the external situation where, for example, people are harming others.
Although the entire Buddhist path is about coming out of greed, hatred and delusion, maybe it’s important for us to lower our expectations a bit when experiencing anger, to be kinder to our self and towards others and not to get ahead of the stage we are at on our spiritual path. Certainly we shouldn’t get too judgemental or idealistic. After all, anger/ill will is only eradicated completely at the non-returner stage, a pretty high path attainment! Significantly, this is after the fetter of self view is abandoned at stream entry. This makes sense, afterall, so much of anger is tied up with our view of self, me and mine; so once this view is abandoned, anger lessens and is finally eradicated. But this is already a lofty goal! If the spiritual path was a journey to the moon, most of the work is getting into orbit (stream entry), being a once returner is like getting into moon orbit, and being a non-returner is landing on the moon, with the last stage, arahantship the "small step’ onto the surface. Most of us, however, are still reading the instructions for putting our spaceship together. It’s a long journey! So, we should not prematurely expect to be rid of anger, or judge others harshly either, especially when it’s about personhood, and safety. Sure, we need to abandon anger, but we need to do it skillfully, with wisdom, understanding the gratification, drawbacks and the escape.
I’ve heard some Buddhists (and quite well known teachers) minimising things like sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ablism and so on, even minimising domestic violence; telling people it’s their duty and problem to deal with the natural anger and hurt that arises from these injustices, entirely putting the emphasis on the individual to deal with it in their own mind, but not addressing the real world causes. Nor do they condemn these actions which are of themselves bad and unwholesome and worthy of criticism. They say things like: “Don’t take it personally”, using a not self strategy that renders an individual an inert recipient of an allegedly entirely impersonal event, putting the problem firmly on the shoulders of the individual, but disempowering them from asking for real world solutions and implying that spirituality shouldn’t be used to address social problems. Can you imagine telling Jewish people lined up in concentration camps to “not take it personally” , or telling black men shot by vigilantes that they shouldn’t get angry because its not about them? Or people who use wheelchairs that it’s not personal that they can’t get into a building because there is no ramp. What if it was you in one of these situations? How would you feel? No… really…?
If we are not careful, Buddhists can swiftly fall into spiritual bypassing traps of mistaking exaggerated attachment for spiritual progress. Excessive detachment that is only concerned with our own self interest and not concerned with the welfare of others is like the shit covered log in the sutta above. This is a failure of love, compassion and empathy. When spiritual people piously preach about equanimity and detachment towards social issues, it usually comes from a place of relative safety and privilege; essentially it’s them saying: it’s not affecting me, so it’s not my problem. Interestingly, I’ve known spiritual people who perform this exaggerated attachment towards social issues but who get angry and upset about small things, like no sugar in their tea, or a job that wasn’t done their way. So, this detachment is not necessarily a sign of spiritual growth and can in fact cover up real issues people need to work on. That’s why it’s termed a spiritual bypass.
Similarly, when people use emotional numbing, repression and suppression to deceive themselves of their own feelings, it’s also a trap. They think that anger or hate is ‘not spiritual’ and therefore they simply shouldn’t have it. Or they tell themselves that because they do a bit of metta meditation that they are somehow free of anger and hate. This creates a cognitive dissonance, where people can end up projecting an attitude of placidity and love, deluding themselves that they have overcome anger, but they are actually still harbouring rage. I’ve seen people in monasteries who perform this overly pure, full-of-metta smiling facade, only to explode in incandescent rage over a small thing. The danger with this sort of suppression is it is hard for them to reconcile their ‘angry self’ with their ‘spiritual’ version of themseves. If they refuse to see their anger then they will never deal with it. Often, it’s these people who have a deluded sense of their own attainments, thinking that they are more spiritually advanced than others (but just ask their partner or colleagues!) and they preach to others that they shouldn’t get angry, but it’s all projection of how they want to view themself. By denying anger as part of people’s spiritual journey, we lose opportunities to see it, understand it and eradicate it skillfully. By pretending that anger isn’t part of the spiritual path, we end up seeing things like cults or gurus that physically and sexually abuse students, claiming that it is not done out of hate or anger but ‘crazy wisdom’. And people stand by watching and participating.
How is this passivity possible? Because that too has become a spiritual virtue. Shouldn’t people be angry seeing abuse? Is that really a good thing? Is that spiritual? Anger can be a sign that something is not right, that there is something wrong, that we are not okay with this, that a situation is not good. So, if people are told to not react to their own feelings of discomfort, dislike, or anger it can be problematic. Spiritual people often have weak or porous boundaries, or are overly passive allowing others to treat the lie a doormat, or hurt and take advantage of them. This can include abusive relationships, toxic workplaces and other social problems, such as discrimination. Some people like being martyr and think of this as progress, but others are very damaged by these experiences and their spiritual growth is stunted.
It’s difficult to think of the advantages of our modern world without the social movements that arose not accepting the status quo, and often through protest and anger. Without the suffragettes, women would not have access to voting, higher education and work opportunities. Without protests, there would still be racial segregation. Without stonewall riots, we would not have had the gay rights movement. Disabled people, got angry and protested so that public buildings would be made accessible. We benefit from these sorts of advantages that arose out of frustration and anger at injustices or the rule of powerful people; should we be so quick to judge those angry at injustice and protesting today?
Personally I find some of the Buddha’s teachings on dealing with anger slightly problematic. And I think it’s okay to question them. Take the advice given to Ven Phagunna in the Simile of the Saw MN 21
So even if someone strikes those nuns with fists, stones, rods, and swords in your presence, you should give up any desires or thoughts of the lay life. If that happens, you should train like this: ‘My mind will be unaffected. I will blurt out no bad words. I will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate.’… So Phagguṇa, even if someone strikes you with fists, stones, rods, and swords, you should give up any desires or thoughts of the lay life… If that happens, you should train like this: ‘My mind will be unaffected. I will blurt out no bad words. I will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate.’
Is the Buddha really advocating for a monk to stand by in pious equanimity watching on whilst nuns are beaten with sticks and swords, and to do the same if it happens to him, too? Is this just a idealistic teaching pointing towards a goal, rather than actual practical advice? It’s certainly hard to reconcile accepting violence with other aspects of the Buddhas path. It’s worthy of us at least pausing before we use this as a teaching we give to others of how they should react. Just because it is in the suttas doesnt mean we should just resort to the idea: ‘its in the suttas, it must be true and good’, which is so much like people from other religions feverishly pointing to their holy books.
Or take the praise the Buddha gives to Punna in the Punnaovada Sutta MN145, where Punna declares the punishments he is willing to endure, which includes successive levels of abuse from verbal vilification, to having stones thrown at him, being hit, being stabbed and even killed, without giving rise to anger. My feelings towards this sutta oscillate between thinking it’s a comedic piece of well-intended, good natured spiritual one-up-man-ship, or that its a piece of slightly horrifying overzealous missionary fervour. Either way, it doesn’t seem like something to be encouraged does it? Is this literal? Tell a non-Buddhist person about this sutta and they will be astonished to learn that Buddhists are expected to be such fanatical zealots! (Many Buddhists, too!)
Take the advice given to the tree deva in the Dhammika Sutta MN 6.54 where the upset deva whose tree home has been vandalised is taught a brutal lesson by Sakka who destroys his tree completely and then instructs the deva to essentially be entirely acquiescent and compliant, and to just let people come and do whatever they want to the tree. Is this really how we should behave if someone were to come and destroy our home? Is this a lesson prescribing passivity and submission to whatever comes?
Sakka: "Did you stand by your tree’s duty when the storm came?’
Tree Deva: ‘But my good sir, how does a tree stand by its duty?’
Sakka: ‘It’s when those who need the tree’s roots, bark, leaves, flowers, or fruit take what they need. Yet the deity is not displeased or upset because of this. This is how a tree stands by its duty.’…
Simlarly, then, a monastic should be passive and unaffected when faced with abuse:
When someone abuses, annoys, or argues with an ascetic, the ascetic doesn’t abuse, annoy, or argue back at them."
The Buddha goes on to draw a disctinction between the kamma generated by layeople who revile an enlightened being and that of monastics from the same community:
…someone who abuses and insults a single person accomplished in view with malicious intent makes even more bad karma. Why is that? Brahmin Dhammika, I say that any injury done by those outside of the Buddhist community does not compare with what is done to one’s own spiritual companions. So you should train like this: ‘We will have no malicious intent for those who we want to have as our spiritual companions.’ That is how you should train.
I think we need to place these teachings in the context of the time and the individuals being taught. The Buddha knew their personalities and what they needed to hear. He might have used ideas and language that were current and worked in that social context. But perhaps we should be cautious before holding ourselves and others to these idealised standards if it is unhealthy or doesn’t increase our good qualities.
Personally, my favourite teaching on anger is the Lekha Sutta AN 3.132 about letting it go as quickly as you can, which seems much more human somehow, and is also practical and achievable.
Mendicants, these three people are found in the world. What three? A person like a line drawn in stone, a person like a line drawn in sand, and a person like a line drawn in water.
And who is the person like a line drawn in stone? It’s a person who is often angry, and their anger lingers for a long time. It’s like a line drawn in stone, which isn’t quickly worn away by wind and water, but lasts for a long time. In the same way, this person is often angry, and their anger lingers for a long time. This is called a person like a line drawn in stone.
And who is the person like a line drawn in sand? It’s a person who is often angry, but their anger doesn’t linger long. It’s like a line drawn in sand, which is quickly worn away by wind and water, and doesn’t last long. In the same way, this person is often angry, but their anger doesn’t linger long. This is called a person like a line drawn in sand.
And who is the person like a line drawn in water? It’s a person who, though spoken to by someone in a rough, harsh, and disagreeable manner, still stays in touch, interacts with, and greets them. It’s like a line drawn in water, which vanishes right away, and doesn’t last long. In the same way, this person, though spoken to by someone in a rough, harsh, and disagreeable manner, still stays in touch, interacts with, and greets them. This is called a person like a line drawn in water.