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 1, 2, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 view, right resolve, right 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.
 I encourage you to read the whole text of King’s letter and browse through his collected writing.
Hozan 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.