Anger and the empty ground of Zen

by Arthur Wells



This article is in response to the Editor's request: "Please write something about working with anger and with men's violence in relation to Zen practice."

I am grateful for being asked because writing this has helped me to connect a little more the important parts of my life. Sometimes working with anger and violence is like being "in the cave of demons on the black mountain," as my groups of men struggle with our blindness and egotism. I include myself because, although my anger and abuse might be less obvious than that of the men in the group, it is not fundamentally different; nor is my struggle to overcome it basically different from theirs. Yet even this wrestling in the cave of demons, as Hsuan-sha implied, is the one bright pearl that extends in the ten directions, a precious opportunity to practise the Buddha way.

Violence, whether physical, psychological or structural to society, is based on separation between self and others. Here is the connection with the Buddha's truth. Self-centred anger arises in defense of ego and its sense of entitlement, therefore, like each of the Precepts, "Not Indulging in Anger" takes us to the heart of the teaching. In thinking about this it was helpful to go back to Susan Murphy's rich and many-sided article on the Precepts and character work in the first issue of Bright Water. Susan writes: "The practice of Zazen deepens and we find ourselves to be growing exquisitely or excruciatingly sensitive to ethical issues, to the psychic and emotional field of other beings. We agree to be less defended and strategic and more vulnerable, embodied, impermanent, more present.....Buddhism finally trusts everything to the human heart and its ability to grow large enough to contain the world." (pp.28-9) "To have a lion heart you must be eaten by the lion," she writes, although "the idea of killing the ego is itself an egotistical idea; character work is surely the work of intimately and minutely observing the self, just as we are, as an act of letting go; what we haven't fully recognised and accepted, we can't let go of." (p.34)

To show what working with men's violence is about I have reconstructed a dialogue with a group of men on their first day of a Stopping Violence Program. These programs of 48 hours over 15 weeks used to be called Anger Management Courses. The men who are sent to the courses by the courts or by their partners still prefer this description. We suggest that talking about managing anger is euphemistic because it overlooks the purpose of violent rage. Men's violence towards women is not just an instinctive reaction to manage; it is highly intentional, enforcing men's dominance, power and control over women. (When men enter the courses they hold a simpler view, that they become violent as a reaction to stress and provocation.) Similar courses are now run throughout New Zealand. Three Zen practitioners lead such groups in Nelson, while I work in Christchurch.

Jane, my co-facilitator and I were meeting for the second time fifteen men sent to the course to address their extreme controlling tactics towards their partners and children. Two had punched their teenage sons. Several had gone on drunken rampages smashing things around the house and making all kinds of threats, even if they did not hit anyone. Six of these men had put their partners in hospital, while others said they had done no more than push or grab their partners. For all of them, trust was lost and their relationships broken or under threat. After the men had done some work in pairs introducing themselves and talking about why they came to the course, our dialogue was as follows:

Leader: Have you ever seen animals getting angry, like dogs or cats or horses? What's going on? What are they trying to achieve?

Group member: When animals attack people it's in self defense. My dog bit the postman and had to be put down, but this was because the postman was on a bicycle and kids on bikes had been tormenting my dog by riding at him and kicking him.

Leader: Yes, that's a good example. It tells us one purpose of anger - self defence. We might learn even more about the purpose of anger from looking at what the boys on bikes were doing. Maybe your dog barked at them and they decided to terrify your dog?

Group member: Yeah, that would be about right.

Leader: What about horses in the paddock when they whinny and snort and bite or kick each other? What's going on then? What part does aggression play in the social life of animals?

Group member: They are creating a pecking order. It's about which one is boss and which ones get bossed around.

Leader: Like when the rooster pecks the hen, the hen pecks the pullet, the pullet pecks the chicken and I suppose the chicken pecks the worm. It's the same with wild dogs which live and hunt in packs. Their social order is crucial to how they operate. Domesticated dogs need to know that your child is their boss or the dog can attack the child. (Nods from the group.) And horses when they get aggressive with each other are establishing their social order of dominance and submission in the paddock. My sister's donkey always gets to be tail-end-Charlie with whatever horses she has.

Group member: But are we any different? It's the same at work in most of the places I've been, with the boss and the foreman and then the guys who think they know best or have been there longer.

Leader: Yes, are we much different? Animals are simpler so it's a little easier to see. Here is a challenge to test the idea: can you think of a time when you got angry or really nasty and it wasn't about the pecking order?

Group member: For sure, mate. I get angry just from being stressed out and she starts in on me about something from the past that I think she should have forgotten. She just won't let go of the past. Sure, I stuffed up a few times. But shouldn't she be more forgiving? Aren't you supposed to forgive?

Leader: Is she remembering a time when she felt dominated by you? What is it she won't forgive you for?

Group member: Well I didn't hit her and I never have. I pulled her around the room and pushed her against the cupboards and maybe yelled and shouted. But this was because she....

Leader: (Cutting across) Your treatment of her was violent and very dominating. If she feels your treatment of her then still expresses the power relationship between you, she will keep bringing it up.

Group member: But she won't forgive. Aren't people supposed to forgive? Why can't she just let it go?

Leader: Maybe because this whole issue is so important. Has the issue really gone away in your relationship? When you say you want her to forgive, I wonder if you want her to accept your right to frighten her and hurt her and control her when you don't like the way she is behaving? Does your past violence still signal the way you want things between you and her? My challenge to all of you is this: is it a man's role to dominate and a woman's role to submit? Are we not really men if we don't come out on top in an argument?

Another Group member: What you are saying is totally different from my situation. She's the one trying to dominate, screaming and yelling at me and abusing me and throwing things at me. She's the one trying to come out on top.

Leader: And you don't want to let her! Check it out with her - maybe she just wants a relationship of equality with you. If you're using these tactics on the Power and Control Wheel, (intimidation, threats, verbal and mental abuse, isolating her from support, etc.) your behaviour will lead to resistance just like what you are describing.

Group Member: What she does is not just resistance, she's taking power and control over me. She uses those tactics.

Leader: Yes, dominance leads to resistance. Why are us men so surprised to meet with resistance? On the other hand, if I say, "I'm sorry, I think you might be right," I'm giving up my dominance. Can any of us honestly say, "Sure I got angry and nasty, but I was not trying to dominate or get my own way?"

Group member: Aren't I entitled to have my point of view?

Leader: Entitled to have your point of view or enforce your point of view? I hear men say, "I hit her because I wanted to teach her a bit of respect." Is this really respect? Or is it fear? Is the woman meant to creep around on eggshells and always monitor his mood? I hear men say: "I pushed her around a bit to teach her a lesson." What was the lesson? I've seen people hit a dog to teach it a lesson and I think that's training the dog to know its place in the pack. Isn't the real reason men hit women to teach women their place?

At this point, as usually happens in a new group, we had a rush of partner-blaming stories, such as "She screams abuse at me," or "She hit me first," or "I found her in bed with another guy - what would you do?" These responses, if we pause to think about them, reinforce the point. Abusive men deny that their aggression is either on purpose or purposeful: "It was the booze" or, "it was just a reaction," or it was "caused by stress" or the argument "got out of control." Whose control the argument got out of is the real question.

The man who asked, "Aren't I entitled to have my point of view?" came unknowingly close to the point: men's anger and violence against women rest on notions of entitlement. No biological aggression is triggered without a mental assessment of the need to defend a right of some kind, because we are not just animals. Notions of entitlement may look like knee-jerk reactions but they are socially constructed and can be challenged and replaced with better ideas amongst men and women seeking relationships of equality and mutual respect.

It is also true that men attack women out of a deeply felt sense of powerlessness. All abusers are Janus-faced, with one face looking back towards the abuse they suffered in growing up and another face looking towards the abuse they now do to others. This is the dynamic of school bullying and of all pecking orders. There are real reasons to feel sympathy for these men, especially when they choose, despite much experience as victims, to become non-violent and respectful in their relationships. Most abusive men were themselves abused, while many are unemployed or paid inadequate wages. They try to feel powerful by at least dominating their partners and children. It is moving to see them voluntarily humble themselves further and give up violence towards their loved ones.

How does this relate to Zen practice? I have argued that rights and entitlements are social constructs, i.e. social ideas that do not exist in our raw nature. When men change their ideas about their right to power over women they change their behaviour, and not until then. The truth that emerges in Zen experience is more radical still - that there is no self to which to attach our notions of entitlement, "No self whatever," in Aitken Roshi's words, "except a temporary formation of the total environment," (Original Dwelling Place, p.134).

In zazen we experience losing the shallow certainty of a separate self with various entitlements. From the moment we begin to breathe into the hara, our sense of personal boundaries changes. It dawns on us that our separateness is a great con, our own con. A bird calls and separateness vanishes. The sun is hot, the river swirls and it vanishes again. With it goes the sense of a special entitlement to get angry. Our full bows down to the floor have become for me a reminder to drop anger, drop my illusory apartness from everything and everyone. At the bottom of the bow, raising our hands is like lifting up the vision of interbeing of which Thich Nhat Hanh speaks. I feel that I should bow a hundred times, a thousand times, never stop bowing.

These principles have been clear and often stated in the old Zen literature, with stories as striking as the one about Hui-ming who furiously followed Hui-neng (the young sixth Patriarch) to seize the robe and bowl. Smitten by a new realisation, he was unable to pick them up, saying, "I come for the dharma, not for the bowl." There must be many anger stories which would be instructive to bring together.

In Mind of Clover Aitken Roshi tells of how he was cornered at a reception by a Tibetan teacher who asked, "What do Zen teachers say about anger?" His reply was, "Fundamentally, there is no anger, and no one to get angry." The Tibetan teacher gave him a strange look but said nothing. The wonderful chapter that follows belongs specially to our century, a frank and personal discussion about anger from a lifetime of deeply reflective practice. Another fresh nuance of meaning is entitling the Precept "Not indulging in anger." This seems just right. Our experience is that anger comes up, then we have a choice about whether to cultivate it.

Aitken Roshi writes: "In the exigencies of the moment you may not know that you are responding in a self-centred way. It is important to cultivate your own empty ground of action and expression so that you are not blown about by the reactions of others. Then when you come forth with your response, you will learn clearly whether or not you are being self-indulgent, and this can be your whetstone." (p.93) If the whetstone is responding in lived situations, what is the empty ground? He tells us of his own early experience of working with the koan Mu: "Settling into Mu helped me to find a floor that was deeper than my emotions. This was my first experience of the therapeutic effect of proper zazen." (p.89) Perhaps the floor deeper than...emotions is not yet the empty ground. I love the koan, "How do you stop the fighting across the river?" There is no way but through the empty ground, where the fighting is one's own and one is the fighting. Then there is somewhere for compassion to reach out from and solutions to be found - a heart that is no longer holding itself apart from others? anger and pain.

Many Zen teachers, with Aitken Roshi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tetsugen Roshi and Daido Roshi, have urged us to confirm the experience of the empty ground through responding to issues of social justice and environmental protection. One area of social justice appropriate for engaged Buddhists to work for is gender equality. I am especially grateful to Ross Bolleter Roshi for his sensitivity and insightful teaching on this theme.

Men began to respond collectively only in the last fifteen years to the challenge put out ten years earlier by the women's movement. There are really two men's movements: one is the profeminist movement, while the other has a masculinist agenda. The profeminist movement seeks to change men's attitudes to women and treatment of women. Our work with men's violence and against rape and sexual abuse is one response. In New Zealand this work began twelve years ago with voluntary collectives in most of the main cities and centres. Our goal is intimacy and respect for women rather than upholding a separate masculine identity. We aim to be open to hearing women's experience and value the great contribution women make to our lives as mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and partners. We also support women achieving political and economic power.

The masculinist men's movement, which gains more media recognition, aims to buttress male identity. It is a defensive reaction to the women's movement rather than a sympathetic response. One offshoot is the mythopoetic men's movement, in which the poet Robert Bly figures prominently. Bly has led a search through medieval legends and fairy tales to recover a sense of magical masculinity. Received enthusiastically by men, these old stories of kings and warriors, on close examination, show themselves to be restatements of male entitlement to savage and oppressive behaviour, a misogynist view of women (particularly of mothers) and a defence of dominance in the name of instinct. Participants beat drums in the forest, to feel like the "king of the forest" rather than belonging to it or being part of it. (Or, from a Zen perspective, experiencing the forest as oneself). The mythopoetic movement encourages men to be angry with women to experience their male essence, as if it was men's nature to dominate.

The women's movement first made us aware that the personal is political. Every interchange between people implies something about how the power relationship is understood by all concerned. My body language, tone of voice and choice of words express whether my will is to dominate or to accord respect and equality to others. Zen practice encourages such attention to our smallest actions. Discouraging holding onto notions of a separate, essential self, Zen training leads us rather towards uniting, in appreciation and delight, with all that we have imagined to be outside us and different from us. This surely signals an end to the gender war.

©Arthur Wells 1998

No reproduction without the authors permission please.