Right Anger and the Path to the End of Caste

by Alan Senauke

kilaya wrathful

And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right viewright resolveright speechright actionright livelihoodright effortright mindfulnessright concentration.

— Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

The Buddhist precepts speak our moral code, flowing from and leading to liberty, equality, and fraternity. The precepts’ instruction regarding anger is not to suppress it or pretend that our anger doesn’t come up. The instruction is not to “harbor” anger and ill-will. Our awareness of anger allows us to turn and put it to use. This is the transformative power of the Buddha’s precepts. When we see violence, harm, and evil, then anger readily rises. This is where the rest of the Eightfold Path comes in. Instead of retaliating in anger, returning violence for violence, we practice Right Anger, using the Path’s tools for understanding and inquiry — right viewright resolveright mindfulness, and right concentration — in order to engage in the liberative work of right effort, right action, right speech, and right livelihood. The path is complete. May all beings be free. 

Earlier this year Buddhist Peace Fellowship invited several teachers to offer engaged Buddhist commentaries on the Four Noble Truths. These Truths, the Buddha’s great discovery, can be characterized in this way:

1. What is the Nature of Suffering?

2. What is the Cause of Suffering?

3. What is the End of Suffering?

4. What is the Path to the End of Suffering?

But they can also serve as a broader tool for social analysis:

1. What is the problem?

2. What is its source or cause?

3. What is its purpose? Or, what would its end look like?

4. How do we get there?

 

For this series (Parts 12, and 3) I chose to draw on my experience with India’s new Buddhists. This movement grows from the work of the visionary 20th Century leader B. R. Ambedkar, and continues as a modern and transformative force among India’s former “untouchables.” In this fourth essay in the series, I would like to consider the Path and propose an as yet un-named element of the path: Right Anger.

This notion — Right Anger — will leave some Buddhist heads shaking in disbelief, but consider recent news from India. The October 15 Times of India reported the following from India’s northern Bihar state.

In a barbaric incident, a group of four upper caste men on Wednesday burned alive a Mahadalit boy just because the latter’s goat had entered the agricultural field of one of the assailants.

The incident occurred at village Mohanpur under Karakat police station in Rohtas district on Wednesday afternoon when a village strongman, Kumkum Singh, and his three associates forcibly entered the house of one Jiut Ram and set the latter’s 15-year old son, Sai Ram, afire after pouring kerosene oil on him from a can. The boy’s only crime was that his goat entered the farm of Singh a few hours earlier. The boy was earlier thrashed black and blue by Singh and his associates. The boy somehow managed to run away to his home, but the assailants followed him.

Bikramganj SDPO Ashok Kumar Das said the victim had sustained 90% burn injuries. He was rushed to Bikramganj for treatment, but died soon after being admitted to a government hospital.

 

Three days later, India’s Business Standard provided further context for a wave of caste-based atrocities in Bihar, which is among the poorest states in India. The atrocities include arson, gang-rape, and murder — crimes which often go uncharged and unpunished.

Mahadalits, the poorest of the socially marginalised in Bihar, have been targeted by powerful feudal forces which have the full support of opposition BJP to defame and destabilize the government led by Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit himself, the head of the organisation meant for the community’s welfare has said.

“It is unfortunate but true that suddenly there are reports of a rise in atrocities against Mahadalits in Bihar. Mahadalits have become soft targets of powerful feudal forces with the backing of BJP to defame and embarrass the state’s first Mahadalit chief minister,” Bihar Mahadalit Commission chairman Uday Kumar told IANS in an interview.

“The powerful feudal forces are not ready to digest the fact that a Mahadalit is the chief minister,” he added.

 

You can find such stories every day on the back pages of India’s newspapers. Anger is appropriate in the face of evil. The anger of those directly victimized by caste violence, and the anger of those who care about the rights and well-being of all people. But such stories are nothing new. A June 2014 op-ed in the New York Times speaks to the vulnerability of Dalit women.

For much of India’s history the lower castes, especially the Dalits (once known as untouchables), have been routinely raped by the landowning upper castes…An analysis of Uttar Pradesh’s crime statistics for 2007 by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties showed that 90 percent of rape victims in 2007 were Dalit women.

 

Though women are targeted on the basis of gender and caste, for more than two thousand years men, women, and children have been victimized as the lowest of the low within a rigid and hierarchical caste system that, despite constitutional and legal protections, still sees a quarter of India’s population as less than human. India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) documents crimes against Dalits and Tribal Peoples — those most grievously oppressed — in their own category. These crimes are vastly under-reported, “but even so the figures for 2012 are revealing: 651 cases of murder, 3,855 cases where people were hurt, 1,576 cases of rape, 490 cases of kidnapping and abduction, and 214 cases of arson.”

In the face of rape, murder, discrimination, and brutality, we should be angry. For the sake of all beings. Anger simply arises and it calls out for further investigation. Is anger by definition a “defilement,” a manifestation of delusion? Or might it be at once the cause and the fruit of other aspects of the Eightfold Path? In Pali, each step on the Path —samma ditthi or right view, samma sankappa or right intention, samma vaca or right speech, and so on — is characterized by the word samma, which is conventionally translated as “right” though never as “righteous.” Samma has a rich range of meanings including: proper, complete, thorough, full. In this case we might have a newly compounded term, samma kodha, which means something like proper or appropriate anger. That is, anger at violence, oppression, and injustice by which suffering beings impose on other beings. For Dr. Ambedkar and for the movement that has emerged from his activities, anger may very well serve to point the way to refuge in the Buddha’s way, and to all the other steps along the path.

The Mahayana schools of Buddhism, originating in India and spreading to China, Tibet, and elsewhere through Asia, have highly developed pantheons and iconography of wrathful deities. These dharmapalas are protectors of the dharma and guardians of all Buddha realms, so their charge is to subdue the unruly passions of mind as well as any external threats to individual or social peace. They are usually understood to be Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who have assumed a fierce and wrathful form for the sake of saving sentient beings.

In Healing Anger, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s commentary on the 8th Century India sage Shantideva’s teachings of patience, anger is contrasted with hatred.

…“anger” as it is understood in English, can be positive in very special circumstances. These occur when anger is motivated by compassion or when it acts as an impetus or catalyst for positive action. In such rare circumstances anger can be positive whereas hatred can never be positive. 

A striking example, which turns on the very notion of patience, is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Written by Dr. King to Birmingham’s “moderate” clergy in April of 1963, in the midst of a bitterly contested campaign of nonviolent protest against segregation, I can think of no clearer expression of Right Anger. In the passage below, Dr. King succinctly lays out his method.[1]

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In accounts from India, in what we see taking place in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Bay Area killing of Oscar Grant, in the caste, race, and religious violence that thousands and thousands face every day, what is the right response, the liberative impulse? We must have a moral response, one that provides refuge for all beings. In his essay “Buddha and the Future of His Religion,” Dr. Ambedkar writes:

It is not enough for religion to consist of a moral code, but its moral code must recognize the fundamental tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity. Unless a religion recognizes these three fundamental principles of social life, religion will be doomed.

 

The Buddhist precepts speak our moral code, flowing from and leading to liberty, equality, and fraternity. The precepts’ instruction regarding anger is not to suppress it or pretend that our anger doesn’t come up. The instruction is not to “harbor” anger and ill-will. Our awareness of anger allows us to turn and put it to use. This is the transformative power of the Buddha’s precepts. When we see violence, harm, and evil, then anger readily rises. This is where the rest of the Eightfold Path comes in. Instead of retaliating in anger, returning violence for violence, we practice Right Anger, using the Path’s tools for understanding and inquiry — right viewright resolveright mindfulness, and right concentration — in order to engage in the liberative work of right effort, right action, right speech, and right livelihood. The path is complete. May all beings be free.

[1] I encourage you to read the whole text of King’s letter and browse through his collected writing.

AlanSenauke1Hozan Alan Senauke, a world-renowned voice in socially engaged Buddhism, is a Soto Zen priest, folk musician, author, poet, and leader of Clear View Project.

Currently leading Clear View in offering Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change, Alan is a former Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a founder of Think Sangha, and member and leader within the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.

Along with his Dharma sister Maylie Scott, Senauke received Dharma transmission from his teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1998 during a ceremony at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

 

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