Anger, the Second of the Three Poisons

Last month, I discussed the first of the three poisons, greed. This month, I would like to discuss the second of the three poisons, anger.


Some people think that an enlightened being like the Buddha never gets mad, never gets angry. This is not true. Even the Buddha feels the strong emotion of anger. The difference between the Buddha, or an enlightened one, and ourselves, is that for a Buddha, their anger doesn’t last long. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but in actuality, it is a huge difference. An awakened person feels their anger rising up within themselves, but is able to let go of anger right away, just like letting go of a balloon to float up into the sky.


We unenlightened beings not only feel our anger arise, we hold on to our anger, for days, weeks, months, even years. If you really reflect upon yourself, isn’t there something in your past, something that someone said to you, or did to you, that you are still angry about to this day?


Calculate how long ago it was. Ten years? Twenty years? Maybe even 30 or more years ago. If you stop to bring that memory up in your mind, you feel the anger as if it was yesterday. That’s the difference between ourselves and an awakened person.

I always tell the story about my own episode of holding on to my anger. Once, many years ago, I had an argument with a member. I rarely have had such arguments, but it did occur. He said this, I said that, and it was a heated discussion.


Years later, I was taking a shower. At our home, my wife made a rule that after you take a shower, you have to use this plastic squeegee to wipe the shower stall to prevent the hard water buildup. For some reason, that argument with that member had somehow come back to me and I was reliving the entire conversation. I should have said this or that, but I didn’t. As I was reliving this argument, I was squeegeeing the shower stall. I pressed the plastic squeegee so hard, it snapped in two in my hand! I thought to myself, “What is the matter with me? That was years ago. I am still holding on to my anger.”


Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist master, says that when we get angry, we are like a person who chases after the person who set our house on fire. Instead of chasing after the arsonist, shouldn’t we be trying to put out the fire on our house? That is how we un-awakened deal with our anger. We chase after the person who caused our anger, rather than trying to put out the fire of our own anger.


How does a Shin Buddhist deal with their anger? Is there nothing we can do about it? I recall one story that Professor Shigaraki of Ryukoku University told about a member he had known.


This elderly gentleman was a victim of a mischievous prank by some young boys. As the elderly gentleman was walking along the edge of a rice paddy, some young boys jumped out of the bushes and pushed the man into the muddy rice paddy and ran away. Some years later, one of the boys who had grown older, confessed to the man that he had been one of the boys who pushed him and he apologized. The young man asked the elderly man the question, “I always wondered why you didn’t get mad that day and that you never told our parents?”


The elderly man said, “Oh, I got mad, but then I heard the voice of the Buddha saying to me, ‘They are just boys. Let it go. Let it go.’”


I think that this story illustrates how a Shin Buddhist who has come to receive the heart of the Buddha within their own heart and mind is able to feel anger, but then let it go. Coming to receive the heart of the Buddha, which we call shinjin, in our Shin Buddhist tradition, is the result of deep listening and hearing of the teachings, as well as a life of self-introspection.


It is not easy to let go of our anger, but we cannot hold on to it for decades. Who is the one to suffer from holding on to such anger? We are the ones to suffer. It eats away at us from inside, just like a poison.


Through the Nembutsu, we can receive the power to let go of the anger that we have been holding on to for maybe even many years.


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