“Conquer anger by non-anger. Conquer evil by good. Conquer miserliness by liberality. Conquer a liar by truthfulness.”
The Buddha (Dhammapada, v. 233)
In Tibetan Buddhist art there are many images of deities presented in a variety of forms and colors. Some look quite human with beautiful, peaceful expressions, some have human faces and bodies but with extra arms, legs and eyes. They can be seen holding symbolic items such as a particular type of flower or instrument. Then there are other deities that look downright scary. They appear to be a composite of human and beast, and their expressions are terrifyingly fierce. As if one terrifying face isn’t enough, they can appear with multiple heads, fangs and dripping blood. They might be carrying open skulls, wielding swords, wearing a snake draped around their neck and surrounded by flames. Although they appear to be monsters, they are known and revered as being wrathful deities and serve an important function for Buddhist practitioners to remove obstacles to enlightenment. Even if not for enlightenment, it’s a function that we all might be able to borrow some tips from as we navigate the political and cultural tensions at work in our current landscape so that we can bring about an outcome that will benefit everyone.
The fascinating thing about wrathful deities is that although they appear fierce and frightening on the outside they hold only great compassion and peace on the inside. Free of any anger, they serve to represent forces that can help us transform the negativities that exist in our own mind. You see, even though anger feels justified and warranted it is a negative state of mind that delivers only harm and yields no benefit. From the Buddhist point of view, anger is one of the three poisons. The other two are ignorance and attachment. The good news is that every poison has an antidote.
People often feel righteous and emboldened by their anger and so anger becomes a consuming energy that’s very hard to give up. Who wants to give up that kind of power? It’s important to understand why anger is considered to be so very destructive because if you understand its faults then you’ll more comfortably seek to remove it – not repress it— but actually remove it.
The antidote to anger is patience. It’s not the sort of patience that seethes inside while remaining quiet on the outside, but a special sort of patience that has its roots in wisdom–the antidote to ignorance–and that produces a compassionate and peaceful mind even when the required action is one of force.
It is said that there is no worse karma than the karma that comes from anger, and no practice that is more difficult than the practice of patience. So what is it about anger that’s so awful, and how can we incorporate something like what those wrathful deities are doing so that we can transform our own anger into something useful and beneficial? There are many faults of anger that you probably aren’t interested in knowing about if you’re not a Buddhist because for the most part they have to do with your future life. And if you’re not on board with that idea, then you won’t see any applicable meaning for them in your present life. So, even if you don’t accept previous and future lives, it’s common knowledge that anger is a destructive state of mind that delivers a great deal of harm to the one experiencing it. These harms come in the form of health issues, both of the mind and body, such as anxiety, an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, and let’s not forget, an inability to sleep which makes for more crankiness and a weakened immune system. Any amount of anger can easily escalate to a blind rage with unfiltered and reckless behavior that destroys relationships, causes one to inflict bodily harm to another or oneself, damage property, say hurtful things that can never be taken back; the list can go on and it can become quite grisly.
Anger doesn’t show up on your doorstep and announce that it’s come to consume you and make your life a living hell. It’s not an external force that invades you as its helpless victim. Anger arises from within. This is where we can take some lessons from the wrathful deities, protectors who represent a fierce emanation of skillful means and great compassion for those conditions when forceful action is necessary; similar perhaps to a doctor’s compassionate force when setting a broken bone. Truly understanding the role of wrathful deities is much more involved and complex than what I am presenting here, but it is because their purpose intrigues me, and in a way inspires me, that I’ve been thinking about them quite a bit these days amidst the stressful dynamics in the world, my community and among my friends and family.
The Dalai Lama explains that in order for the world to be a peaceful world, each of us needs to begin by cultivating a compassionate and peaceful mind. He reminds us over and over again to recognize that there is not a single human being on the planet that does not wish for happiness, and that no one deliberately sets out to make his or her life miserable. The desire for happiness is one of the things we all share in common, and that unifies all of humanity.
An obstacle to compassion is fear and it stems from the third poison of attachment. Ironically, it is our attachment to a mistaken view of a “self” that is the biggest troublemaker and destroyer of our own happiness. It is called self-grasping. Self-grasping is another topic in Buddhist study and practice that requires more depth to understand than this writing is intended to explore. However, even a little observation of the more subtle workings of life can show you that in truth, none of us exists independently, and no matter how useless you might consider another being to be, there is a co-creative function perennially at work in all of life. Seek to identify that point of connection and find its soft spot, its place of pain. Find it in the one you consider to be your enemy and then, even with just a small degree of compassion you can begin to move mountains. Like the wrathful deities, you can transform the darker energies of anger and hatred into the lighter, more powerful energy of compassion. Don’t worry—true compassion never weakens you, it only strengthens you because your mind is no longer agitated with anger but instead is calm and primed for wisdom.
From this compassionate space of peace, and only from this compassionate space of peace, then go forward, be wrathful, be fierce, be strong, be compassionate and kind.
Janet Kathleen Ettele is a mindfulness based life coach and the author of How Generosity Works, How the Root of Kindness Works, and How Patience Works. Also a musician, Janet brings her background as a student of Buddhist dharma into contemporary practice through her writing, coaching, and her music. https://janetettele.com