Turning the Power of Anger into Love
A Buddhist Contribution to Social Justice
Springboards for reflection on loving our enemies from Sharon Salzberg,
Robert Thurman, Alainna Collins and Process Theology
see also What if Kindness is the Only True Religion? and Can a Christian be a Buddhist, Too?
Click here for transcript of interview.
Loving the Wrongdoer
"I’ve long been trying to reconcile my concepts of anger as understood in Christianity and as understood in Buddhism. I think Thurman’s example of extreme compassion may be the key. When I was younger, I was taught the notion of righteous anger, which is anger at injustice. When the Bible speaks of an angry God, this anger is not vindictive or vengeful (at least not for selfish reasons) but is anger over the injustice and exploitation that happens within His creation. So I grew comfortable with the understanding that anger is not inherently bad, but can be used as fuel for change. But then as I wander through Buddhist teachings, this understanding is shot down. Anger is inherently bad; it is a poison to the self and to others—in every case. There is no such thing as righteous anger, or good anger at injustice in Buddhism.
Turning the Power of Anger into Love
The hopeful thing for some people who like their anger — and some people do like their anger — the hopeful thing is that energy, a strong, powerful energy of heat force can be ridden in a different way and can be used to heal yourself. It can be used to develop inner strength and determination.
The word love is so loaded and what does it mean. Our fear, of course, is that it means something very passive and complacent and I'm gonna let people hurt me and I'm gonna let them oppress other people, I'm gonna be a doormat. It's a very nuanced and subtle quality. It's very hard to see love as a force, as a power and as a weakness, but that is its reality.
I place my trust in creative transformation. It is the way that the Bodhisattva at the heart of the universe -- God -- helps transform our anger into love. Of course some anger is good, if we don't cling to it. But anger clung to becomes resentment, and it burns us up along with others. God's healing energy in the world -- creative transformation -- can help us turn resentment into love. But in order for this to happen we must cooperate with consciously willing the well-being of others and ourselves. Loving-kindness meditations can help us put the teachings of Jesus into practice, one breath at a time.
Loving our Enemies
outer enemies, inner enemies,
secret enemies, and the super-secret enemy
"When people and circumstances upset us, how do we deal with them? Often, we feel victimized. We become hurt, angry, and defensive. We end up seeing others as enemies, and when things don’t go our way, we become enemies to ourselves.
“Instead of catching ourselves after we first felt angry, we develop a visceral sensitivity to what's happening within us in the moment & through mindfulness, we can shape our reaction right away.”
The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects: We are all connected and we need to care for each other, ourselves included. Buddhists believe this and process philosophers and theologians, influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, believe this. So do many other people. In process philosophy and theology, inter-being refers to the idea that all entities in the universe -- from atoms and molecules, through stars and galaxies, to human beings and God -- include within their very constitution felt relations with other entities, such that no entity is an island unto itself. In the words of Thomas Berry, the universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects. Inter-being is inter-subjectivity.
Kindness is natural not supernatural: Given the reality of inter-subjectivity, loving-kindness is an expression of, not an exception to, the nature of reality. At a deep level we are in it together with all the other beings: creatures among creatures on a small but gorgeous planet. This doesn't mean that we can treat all forms of life equally: we will battle cancer cells in the interests of protecting friends and family; we will wash our faces and kill bacteria; we will flee from saber-toothed tigers; we will eat tomatoes if not cows. As Whitehead observes, life is robbery. Still, kindness is a consistent way of dwelling within, not apart from, the wider web of life; and our calling in life, thinks Whitehead, is to live as kindly as we can for our sake, for the world's sake, and for God's sake. God is a deep Kindness embracing the universe.
Hatred is addictive: It is hard to care for people who harm others in thought, word, and deed, by what they have done and what they have left undone. We speak of them as 'bad people' or 'mean people' or 'enemies.' Think of people who behead people, or drop bombs on them, or rape them. We are tempted to hate them. We have the same temptation with people close at hand who utter hate speech, or who seem greedy and arrogant, or who treat us with disrespect. We are tempted to hate them, too. We may also be tempted to hate ourselves. Hatred has an energy of its own and it is addictive.
Hatred is rooted in suffering: Buddhists remind us that their harmful actions begin with a wound they feel inside themselves. Our harmful actions and intentions begin in the same way. Typically we do not harm others because we are evil but because we are wounded. Truly loving people see beyond the violence to the wounds. They know, with the Buddha, that dukkha - suffering -- is the root of the three poisons: greed, confusion, and hatred.
Jesus invites us to love our enemies: Jesus invites us to love our enemies: those who harm people we love, those who harm innocent people, and those who harm us. He seems to have believed that the very Soul of the universe -- God -- is filled with infinite love and sought to embody this love in his own healing ministry.
Love includes self-love: Some of our worst enemies are inside us. They are those aspects of our lives that lead us to harm others and ourselves. If we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, says Jesus, we must love ourselves as well as our neighbors.
The beginning of love is not affection but rather non-hatred: If we want to overcome hatred, a first start is simply not to hate others or ourselves. Non-hatred is not the same as love, but it is a very good beginning to love.
We need spiritual practices: One value of Buddhism is that it offers practices that can help us do this: breathing meditation and loving-kindness meditation. Breathing meditation helps with non-hatred; the loving-kindness meditation helps with love.
Love has energy: Love is an energy in its own right. It is the intentional willing of the well-being of others and oneself, followed by actions that can help bring about that well-being.
Love includes non-anxious presence: Love has an active side and a listening side. The listening side of love consists of being a non-anxious and listening presence with others. Sometimes it is the most important form of love.
Let's not render unto God what belongs to Caesar: If we believe in God and imagine God as a personal being capable of great anger and hatred; we may be tempted to follow God and feel justified in our own hatred. Religious traditions that imagine God on the analogy of a holy warrior often lead in this direction. In Whitehead's words they "render unto God that which belongs to Caesar."
A different and more loving God: If we believe in God, it may be more helpful to imagine God panentheistically: that is, as a universal and loving Companion in whose life the universe lives and moves and has its being. Thus understood God is akin to a cosmic Bodhisattva as envisioned in Buddhism or a compassionate and luring Friend as envisioned in open and relational theology, of which process theology is one example. See A Different and More Loving God.
The universe is God's body: If we believe in God, it may also help to recognize that what happens in the universe also happens in God, because the universe is God's body. This is called panentheism, which is the idea that everything is inside God even as God is more than the universe, not unlike the way in which an embryo is inside a mother's womb even as the womb and the mother are more than the embryo. Panentheism encourages us to recognize that God "feels the feelings" of all living beings in a loving way. This means that our hatred affects God even as it affects others, causing God pain, and that our love enriches the very life of God.
God loves our enemies: If we think pan-en-theistically, then faith in God lies in recognizing those whom we might otherwise hate are loved God no less than us, which means that God wills their well-being, too. Faith begins with non-hatred and evolves into active love aimed at reconciliation.
God is in the world as a creative transformation of hatred into love: In process theology the presence of God's continuous and active love in the world is called creative transformation. This transformation is the presence of fresh and promising possibilities for wisdom, compassion, and creativity in human life, relative to the circumstances at hand, as given by God and actualized by us. Creative transformation is human agency and divine agency combined: co-creativity. The practice of non-hatred, followed by the practice of love, is creative transformation in one of its most beautiful forms. It is God incarnate in the world, moment by moment. People who believe in God and those who don't can participate in this incarnation. In God there is no jealousy, only love.