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Ming Zhen Shakya

Talk given to the Nan Hua Zen Buddhist Society

Aug. 11, 1998

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Reverend Chuan Cheng, Candidates for Ordination, Congregation members, and Friends:   Tonight I'd like to talk to you about anger and its emotional partner, pride.

In Zen we believe that the Gates of Nirvana are guarded against us by two of our own psyche's gods...or, as we call them, following Jung, "Archetypes or Personifications of Instincts."

The Greeks, in particular, recognized these strange emotional forces and called them Olympian gods. And so in our head we all have a pantheon of psychological gods... one for sexuality, one for motherhood, one for heroics...and so on. When we project the god of love upon someone, the result, as you might expect, is that we fall blindly in love.... "blindly" because we never see the object of our affection as he or she really is, but rather as the wonderfully divine creature that we have projected onto him or her. This is true of anyone or anything to which we experience an attraction or aversion. We are blind to its true qualities --or lack of them. All such attachments are conditional, and when conditions change or are not fulfilled, we usually become disillusioned and regret our affection or enmity.

But the two gods we're concerned with tonight are the Persona and the Enemy Shadow. Anger is merely the emotional tool used by the Shadow just as Pride is the emotional tool of the Persona. These two gods or Archetypes stand both inside and outside our psyche. The Enemy Shadow stands outside because he acts like our protector. He becomes suspicious and fearful and is quick to show anger and contempt. The Persona stands outside because he is the mask we wear... the way we intend that others should see us... our self-image. When we engage the Persona we are blind to ourselves, to what we really are.

All the gods or Archetypes, as Jung pointed out, literally have minds of their own... minds which regrettably are not terribly bright. The Enemy Shadow, for example, can have a bad experience with one member of a race or nationality and then look with fear and loathing upon all members of that race or nationality. And the Persona, well, the Persona actually believes that the qualities of a possession magically adhere to the possessor; so that the person who owns a million dollar home is a much better person than a person who lives in a trailer park.

Now, for as long as we have our Persona Mask safely on we are usually quite comfortable. We know how to act; and we are proud of being - and here you may fill in any blank - doctors... police officers... professionals of some kind... or parents of the world's most beautiful and talented children.

But when that Persona identity is damaged or removed... when we no longer can maintain the role we are so used to playing, when we're embarrassed or when we come home at night and are no longer police officers or doctors or when the kids grow up and leave us, we become quite uncomfortable. We don't know how to act, to adapt to that strange environment in which people see us as we are and not "in character" as they say in drama. We are "unmasked" or "out of uniform" or, as we see in dreams, quite naked. We can't resort to old stratagems, that old 'bedside manner' or authoritative pose.

We depend upon our pride to lead us. Pride is a kind of flashy drum major who prances down the street ahead of our little parade. He looks at the crowd with his head held high... so high that he simply doesn't see that enormous pothole he's about to step into and lead us into. And so, in the Bible, Proverbs warns us: Pride goeth before a fall!

The Enemy Shadow is an instinct which truly operates in the cause of self-preservation. If we feel threatened by a person, the shadow's instinctive response is to kill that person. That's an efficient way to remove the threat. The shadow says, "Oh, he makes me so mad I could kill him!" But the Persona says, "Hold on a minute... you can't kill a human being! You'll disgrace me! I can't have a murderer hanging on my family tree! Do something else!" So the Shadow reaches an acceptable compromise. It reduces the threatening person to a sub-human state... the Shadow chooses an animal - often one that steals our food - that may be killed not only with impunity but with honor. And so when we are angry we say, "You rat... you skunk... you snake... you bitch... you louse."

Zen requires that we give the person back his humanity and deal with our anger directly. In point of fact if we want to get anywhere in the spiritual life, we have to shed our ego and retire our persona and shadow.

But they do not want to retire. And so the great struggle begins. How do we deal with anger? Let's start with the worst: the anger we feel in response to insult.

Insult is a wound to our pride, our Persona. Oddly enough the only way we think we can heal that wound is to inflict an even great wound upon the person who embarrassed or insulted us. This, of course, explains our difficulty in accepting blame for our own errors.

One of the finest opening lines in all literature is the one that Edgar Allan Poe wrote to open his short story "A Cask of Amontillado." The narrator begins: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I bore as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."

Poor Fortunato. He might have injured the narrator by borrowing something that he didn't return, or promising something that he didn't fulfill, or running over his dog in the driveway. We injure each other in a variety of ways and, like the narrator, we get over it. We deal with it as best we can.

But then Fortunato made the mistake of adding an insult to those injuries, i.e., he damaged the narrator's pride, his sense of self-esteem - and that was another matter. So how did the narrator heal his own wound by doing even greater damage to Fortunato? Well, Fortunato was also a proud man... he fancied himself a great connoisseur of wine and the narrator was easily able to play this chord of vulnerability and, like a Pied Piper, to lure Fortunato down into his wine cellar where, having bricks and mortar ready, he walls him up alive.

Shakespeare also demonstrates pride and anger's dynamic duo: He lets the duplicitous Iago provoke Othello to jealous rage, by saying, seductively, "He who steals my purse steals trash; but he who filches my good name robs me of that which enriches him not, but makes me poor indeed." This... from Iago of all people..

The Persona is by definition a proud god and does not like to be humiliated or impoverished.

And so, we always look for a way to make ourselves proud of ourselves. We seek out and if necessary invent moral distinctions between ourselves and others. If, for example, we are discussing someone else's crimes and misdemeanors, we'll find subtle differences between our conduct and the other fellow's. We find that dividing line. We say, "That man is a terrible man! He beats his wife indiscriminately. ... I beat my wife, too, but I at least make sure she deserves it before I strike her."

We should think about that "I, at least..." the next time we criticize someone. Find that dividing line and then erase it. We also ought not confuse kind with degree. Murder is not parking in someone else's parking space... though it very well might be the provocation for it.

And we have to be careful about calibrating differences of degree. The man who murders only five men is not that much better a man than the one who murders six.

We should also think twice before damaging a person's reputation. If we follow the Rule of Right Speech we won't be able to gossip. We know, or ought to, that our negative comments will be exaggerated and get back to our victim... and then he'll have something even more insulting to say about us... which, of course, we'll have to defend against. On it goes... Yes, we know that there are two ways to win a race: either we can run faster than our opponent or we can fix things so that our opponent runs slower than we. But damaging someone else's reputation is a nasty way to win. There are better, more constructive attitudes to take.

I once heard Paul Hogan, of Crocodile Dundee fame, discuss Australia's national successes. He said, "We had two models to choose from: We could have followed Britain or the U.S. In Britain, on a cold day, when a poor man stands on the street corner and sees a rich man go by in a Rolls Royce, he snarls and says, "Some day I'm going to drag you out of that car and show you how it feels to stand and shiver in the cold!" But in the U.S., a poor man who sees a rich man go by in a Rolls Royce says, "Some day I'm gonna have a car like that!" We Australians chose to follow the American model."

And this is the model we Buddhists ought to try to follow, too. In our daily lives, we ought to best our opponent because we do better. We ought to try to rise on our own merits - not try to appear higher because of our competition's demerits which, incidentally, we usually spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to establish. Sometimes it's just like crime... we read about a man who concocted the most elaborate criminal scheme and we say to ourselves, if he had put those brains to honest use, he'd have made a fortune.

And if we think we're better than our opponent and he still wins, we ought to show some grace... some good will. At the very least we should try to remember those times we were shown favoritism or were just plain lucky.

Anger is sometimes dangerous. We shouldn't think that as long as we don't bury someone alive down in our wine cellars we have nothing to worry about. Anger on the freeway, for example, can be a terrible killer.

As we've noted, the Persona and the Enemy Shadow conspire to shield the ego. But there's some strange biology involved in this. Man is a hunter... he has to eat.. and nothing will advance the cause of self-preservation more than eating. In order to eat, we have to kill, and in order to kill we have to catch and in order to catch we have to pursue. This instinct is in us. We are programmed to act this way. But where can urban man indulge this instinct... where can he, a couch potato, vent the aggression that the hunter in the wild can release every day in pursuit of his dinner? Where? The freeway, of course. The freeway brings out the predator in us. The freeway is the place where urban man becomes Lord of the Hunt. (And if we think the Persona is not involved in this, try to explain the taking of trophies without the emotional input of the Persona's pride.)

On the freeway the car in front of us is the prey. We have to cut him out or head him off... we tailgate or "track" him - the verbs are the same. If his velocity does not exceed the posted speed limit by more than ten miles an hour, we spring into action. We have to overtake him... to win the race. Well, why do we have to get in front of him? What's the point? Think about it. There are millions of cars ahead of us on that freeway.

So getting angry at the car in front of us is usually just a way to experience the emotion of the hunt, to stalk our prey. The pretext is usually "the need to hurry". We have to indulge in this bloodsport because "we're late for something." But this chase... this sport can be so exciting that we will deliberately make ourselves late so that we can indulge in it. When our clocks tell us we should leave now... to get to our destination on time... well, we'll hit the snooze button... or we want to watch the latest Taco Bell commercial... or see the finish of a football game.. it's 64 to 7 in the 4th quarter... but any reason is a good one. A Zen Buddhist ought to carry a hammer and any time he feels "hurried" he ought to hit himself on the head until he figures out why he so mismanaged his time that he has now got to hurry. He needs to crack open the excuse and reveal his true motive.

So what do we do when we find ourselves angry? As Zen Buddhists we are required to remember all of the times we did something foolish or injurious or said something sarcastic or insulting. Maybe we got away with it and maybe we didn't. We can't just forget about the times we got away with it... and then express our contempt for the person who didn't get away with it. We also cannot take the opposite attitude and say, "Well, I had to pay for my mistakes, let him pay for his!" And then proceed to be judge and jury in whatever trial we care to put him through in our mind.

Which brings us, finally, to the most powerful way we have of getting over anger and insults to our pride: We get inside our adversary's mind and, as if we were defending him in a trial, we account for the conditions and the state of mind he was in when he insulted us.

In our manual, the 7th World of Chan Buddhism, I give an old Buddhist technique for doing this. Every religion has more or less the same technique. Tonight I'll give you Judaism's version. A version of this version was made famous by that great Russian writer Solomon Rabinowitz who wrote under the pen name Sholom Aleichem - which means "Peace be with you." Rabinowitz wrote about the lives of his fellow Russian Jews and also about the persecution they endured during the pogroms at the turn of the century.

A rag picker and junk man named Vanya Tzvi has died and now must face Judgment Day's trial. He looks very out of place as he sits in the defendant's chair. He is grimy and his clothes are tattered. God majestically sits on the Judge's bench with a panel of splendidly arrayed citizens of heaven in the jury box. An angel for the prosecution will accuse Vanya Tzvi of various offenses, enumerating the reasons why he should not be admitted to heaven. An angel for the defense has the difficult task of explaining away those accusations and giving reasons why the defendant should be allowed to enter the sacred precincts.

If the defendant loses, he's barred from heaven and we all know what that means.. But if he wins, ah, then he is given anything his heart desires... mansions... jewels ... servants... friends... delicacies or amusements of every kind. Heaven is a very nice place.

But this is serious business now. The prosecuting angel rises and addresses the court. "You know this man, this Vanya Tzvi. Even if you've never seen him before, you know him. You know him because every Jewish community in Russia is cursed with such a man as this. You see him in town every day, picking through the trash. He lives in squalor in some shack usually by the garbage dump. People mock him. And the reason he is a curse is that people who are prejudiced against Jews are able to use him as the exemplar of his people.

"Because he does not bathe and his clothes are filthy, they call him a Dirty Jew. And then innocent Jewish children, immaculately dressed, must suffer the taunts of being called Dirty Jews. Their parents worked long and hard to keep clean homes and clean food and clean bodies and souls. And they, too, must suffer these insults.

"And because this Vanya Tzvi is lazy and didn't care to go to school and is therefore such a spectacle of ignorance, they call him a Stupid Jew; and because he doesn't care to have a decent job, they call him a Lazy Jew. And the most scholarly and industrious Jewish citizens are labeled stupid and lazy... because of him.

"Oh, Vanya Tzvi may not care what names he's called; But others care and it hurts them and it is unjust that they should suffer because of the shame he brings."

On and on the angel for the prosecution went. And Vanya Tzvi sank in his seat. It didn't look good for him.

The prosecuting angel continued. "He didn't care to live among his people, he preferred the company of stray animals... like himself... who scavenged the trash dump to see what they could find free for the taking. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury," he concluded, "a Chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It is incumbent upon every member of a minority, a minority that is subject to the prejudices of the majority, to consider how his actions might reflect upon every other member of that minority. He must care about the welfare of others and conduct himself accordingly! And now, now this man wants to come here and live amongst those very people he spent a lifetime disgracing. No! Bar him from this sacred place for he does not deserve to be here."

Everyone stared at Vanya Tzvi. He shielded his eyes trying to avoid the terrible looks that were being hurled at him.

Then the Angel for the defense stood up. He cleared his throat a number of times.. "huh hmm... huh hmm" and when he finally spoke he asked, apropos of nothing, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" The jury members looked quizzically at each other and Vanya began to wonder exactly how hot hell really was.

"Well", demanded the angel, "Which came first? The chicken or the egg? Did Vanya Tzvi reject Jewish society or did Jewish society reject Vanya Tzvi? Did he go to live in a garbage dump because he preferred to live there or did he live there because his people preferred that he did not live with them? He was born into a good family like theirs. So why did he leave?" Now the angel had their attention. The jury began to listen.

"Did I hear the prosecuting angel speak of care?" he asked, shaking his earlobe. "We know Vanya Tzvi's story. Let's see where "care" figured in it. When his mother's lungs filled with disease and she lay helpless in bed, who cared to cook and clean and look after her? He did. No one else cared. And he was just a little boy but he cared.

"When his father was suddenly killed in a carriage accident, who cared to pay for the funeral? No one. It took years before Vanya could buy him a headstone!

"And Vanya's mother? Who cared for her when she lingered as a consumptive widow. He did. Vanya Tzvi did. Other children went to school but he stayed home to care for her. He had to go to the garbage dump to find wood to burn. He had to beg food from grocers. They gave him vegetables they were going to throw in the trash anyway.

"Then he found a way to earn a little money. He'd repair some of the things he found in the trash and he'd sell them... to pay the rent and buy the food and pay for his mother's medicine. He had no clean clothes... he had only the clothes he wore every day. Who cared to wash his clothes or give him new ones, or to give him pencil and paper and books and a little instruction? No one.

"Yes, he was dirty and uneducated, and when he was a teenage boy and his mother finally died, people didn't care to have him live in their houses or to associate with their children. So he buried his mother and he went to live in a shack by the town dump. And who were his friends? The dogs and cats that were abandoned by the good people of the town. So, those who had plenty did not care to care for the animals they turned out on the street. But he who had little did care... and he took the animals in.. and shared with them what little he had."

Now the angel for the defense was cooking.

"Whom has he hurt in his entire life? When," he demanded to know, "when it was necessary that someone care, did he fail to care? And now we must hear that he is not fit to sit at the tables of his neighbors here in heaven. Who deserves more to be here? If care is our standard of judgment, no one deserves to be here more than he!"

With enormous disgust that there should even be a question of Vanya Tzvi's qualifications, the angel for the defense sat down.

It took the Jury only two minutes to decide in Vanya's favor. God agreed completely with their verdict. A Choir of heavenly Angels burst into song.

And God said to Vanya, "Rise, my son. Welcome to Heaven. Now tell me what is your heart's wish. What is it that you most desire?"

And Vanya Tzvi thought and thought and then said, "Please, Lord... if every morning I could have a hot roll....with butter..."

And it is said that at that moment a great hush fell over the courtroom, the celestial choir fell silent and even the music of the spheres could not be heard. Then the stillness was broken when an angel gasped to see a tear roll down God's face.

And this is the lesson we must learn... we must give each other back our humanity. We must see the world through the other person's eyes. We need to replace pride with humility. We need to replace anger with compassion. We need to seek the Buddha in each other, in each one of us, for we too must one day face a critical Day of Judgment; and the Angel we've got representing us may not be quite so good as Vanya's. 


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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