‘If it dominates your life… you are not free’ – What does Zen Buddhism teach us about controlling anger?

Photo: Ayumi Miyano

TheCity.ie’s resident Japanese reporter, Ayumi Miyano, hears how in Western society, the word “Zen” has been used, and misused, for lessons on dealing with the troubles of life.

It appears that there are few people who practice the real Zen teaching of Buddhism while living a peaceful existence. 

I interviewed writer and journalist, Ian Kilroy, the founding teacher of Zen Buddhism Ireland. Also known as Rev. Myozan Kodo, he is founding President of the Irish Buddhist Union. Rev. Kodo also represents Buddhism on the Dublin City Interfaith Forum and a member of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of recognised Western Zen teachers.

Soto Zen is one of the traditional Buddhist teachings brought to Japan from China by Dogen Zenji in the 13th century. 

Miyano: I was really looking forward to interviewing you. The first time I met you was six months ago in a Technological University Dublin lecture room, listening to you speak about journalism. But today, we are going to talk about Buddhism! Firstly, could you tell me about the real meaning of “Zen”? How do you feel about the popularity of the word “Zen” in the Western world to describe true inner peace? 

Kodo: In Western culture, the word “Zen” became very popular in the 1950s among Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In the Fifties and Sixties, alternative hippy culture and counterculture took just the word, got rid of all the real Zen and the phrase went into circulation. This word now has a lot of meanings in the general culture that really have nothing to do with Zen. As a Zen teacher, it’s very interesting because real Zen is quite disciplined – like a lot of Japanese culture: karate, martial arts, tea ceremony. When Europeans and Americans don’t really know much about Zen, they say “I’m going to a Zen place”. In fact, you have to sit up straight and meditate for a half an hour, and they say, “Oh God, that was so difficult, I can’t do that — My mind is going crazy”. So the word “Zen” and real Zen practice is something very different. 

Miyano: I believe some mindfulness teachings are from Buddhist teachings like what Thich Naht Hanh one of the most influential spiritual teachers in the world — teaches us. But there are many other origins of mindfulness teachings as well. Do you think Soto Buddhism and mindfulness relate to each other at all?

Kodo: Modern mindfulness helped many people to deal with anxiety, stress and depression. Of course, it is different to Buddhist practice. Mindfulness is almost like taking one little piece of Buddhist tradition, and taking it away from that, and making them into something new. Buddhism is a religion. It has a philosophy, it has an ethical tradition, it has literature, it has ritual, it has all the other many things that you would expect from a religion. So, mindfulness is different in the way that it takes the technique and applies it to the self whereas Zen is not just really about the self because in Mahayana Buddhism, you have to concern yourself with your own welfare and welfare of all beings as well. 

Miyano: How does the teaching of Soto Zen help people deal with anxiety or anger? And what can people do to practice it in everyday life? 

Kodo: Our mind in the traditional image of Buddhism is what they call “monkey mind” — the mind is always jumping around like a monkey. But wherever we go, our body is with us, our breath is with us. Imagine you are sitting on a bus, you can bring your tension to your toes very slowly. Then to the ankles, and then to the legs, then to the body in the bus. Work your way up to the top of your head, then end with the general awareness of your body, and then let it go. Or you can bring it to the breath, not trying to control the breath, just pay attention to the breath coming into your body and leaving your body. If your tension goes away and wanders off, that’s okay. Just bring it back to whatever you are doing. That’s how you can bring the practice into your daily life wherever you are, even in a very noisy environment, even in the place surrounded by people. 

If you are with somebody who makes you angry, you just have to say, “I’ll go for a walk”, and leave the room until your anger subsides. This is really important.

Miyano: By the way, what is anger in Soto Zen teachings? Is it seen as a bad thing to get angry?

Kodo: In traditional Buddhist understanding, the three poisons are greed, anger and delusion. Anger is one of the three poisons in traditional Buddhist teaching. We realise that anger changes the way we perceive things. An angry person is like someone picking up hot coal to throw at somebody else. Anger damages you as well — It damages you psychologically, emotionally, physically. But anger itself is neither good nor bad. Anger is just anger. It just exists. If it dominates and controls your life, then you are not free from it. Experiencing anger is fine but human beings being controlled by anger is something different. 

Miyano: It is really difficult to notice your own anger sometimes — I lose all control when I am in an emotional situation. 

Kodo: To observe your anger is important. Anger normally comes so quickly, but there is always a little moment before it arises — Before it comes and controls you. You need to recognise its early signs; there is a space of freedom here, where you can choose how you react, to a degree. This is training, really. Also, if you are with somebody who makes you angry, you just have to say, “I’ll go for a walk”, and leave the room until your anger subsides. This is really important. The anger will calm down quickly enough, but words cannot be unsaid so easily.

Miyano: I often hear the word “karma” being used in everyday life. People sometimes use this word to describe a punishment for their bad actions, but what does it actually mean? 

Kodo: The law of karma is to do with actions and consequences. Think about it in a physical way: I drop this phone, it makes a noise, the noise goes out, the air is moved. Karma is unlike Western traditions of spirituality, ethics and morality like in Christianity, Islam, or Judaism which are Abrahamic religions based on the Bible. They have an idea that God punishes or God rewards, but in the Buddhist understanding — karma is seen as more like the law of the universe, it’s like gravity. So, if you go around being horrible to people, that karma will come back to you. And if you are nice to other people, that karma comes back to you. 

Miyano: It seems Buddhism has its own understanding of time. I’ve read Dogen’s teaching on your website then it says he tells you “past is present is future” — can you tell me about it?

Kodo: In master Dogen’s great work “Shobogenzo”, there is a chapter called “Uji” (有時: Being-Time) which is about time and space. Master Dogen teaches that the past cannot be touched — it’s gone. It’s like an illusion, and the future doesn’t exist yet — we don’t know what the future is that has not arisen. So the only reality is right here and now — this is the only reality. But if you examine that reality, what is the present moment? If you cut that moment in two, some of it’s the past and some of it’s the future. So even the present moment cannot be grasped — it just disappears under analysis. So time is like another illusion.

Now we experience time as real because we get born and we get old. But under analysis, you see the time is a kind of an illusion. Ultimately time does not exist. 

Knowing that time is an illusion, it might be possible for all of us to have a distance with ourselves — with the self who was angry at somebody in the past, for example. Tonight, try bringing attention to your body and breath and relax in the present moment.

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