A clean and pure anger

As the military conflict in Ukraine escalated, some Buddhist discussions focused on the ethics of self-defense. The critical question, though, is how to act skillfully as we live our our vows.

Over the past week, the military conflict in Ukraine has been at the top of my mind, like so many in the world. As reports of escalation of military force have dominated the headlines, my heart goes out to all those affected. I hope for cooler heads to gain purchase, and that Russian forces withdraw from the country. And, I hope for all those involved to find a path to end this needless suffering.

Ukranian diaspora in Brussels protesting
Bartosz Brzezinski – Ukrainian diaspora in Brussels protests the Russian invasion

From where I sit, in the Midwestern U.S., it is difficult to know what I could personally do that would have a real, and meaningful impact. We have joined in local gatherings to support the Ukrainian people, and to call for peace. We’ve looked for ways that our donations can help those who are displaced. And, while I don’t think that social media is a particularly effective way to help, we have been encouraged to see the public support for Ukraine, and all of those who are suffering needlessly.

Last week, I also came across some discussions on Reddit, where people were still processing the early escalation of violent attacks. On a Buddhist-focused forum, I found a number of people struggling with the question of how a Buddhist could act ethically, if they found themselves in the middle of the fighting.

It was probably inevitable, really, that this question would surface in these communities. But, I was disappointed to see a number of strong statements, and what seemed to be rigid, inflexible positions. Although, based on other conversations I have seen on Reddit, I probably should not have been surprised.

I was disappointed to see a number of cases where people reached quickly for a justification to condemn anyone who participated (as violating Buddhist principles), or for joining in the fighting. Other voices did acknowledge the complexity of the situation, and how difficult it can be to find the skillful action in the middle of violence. But, I felt that the places where the discussion focused on whether using force (in self-defense of one’s self or one’s country) was “right” or not to be a bit tone-deaf. In many cases, it felt that those commenting were judging the actions of people who were living out a terrible situation (while they themselves were not in any particular danger).

Overall, can we say that force is never a skillful means to deal with a dangerous situation?  I worry about taking that step – to say that I can be confident that force is never appropriate. And I worry that it is all to easy to judge from afar the actions of people who have been thrown into a terrible situation.

When we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict (violent or otherwise), what one does – the specific actions one takes – is less important than how one does it. If we can act from a position of equanimity, of balance, that is the most important point. I was reminded of a quote from Charlotte Joko Beck, reflecting on whether anger could be pure:

Suzuki Roshi was once asked if anger could be like a pure wind that wipes everything clean. He said, “Yes, but I don’t think you need to worry about that.” He said that he himself had never had an anger that was like a pure wind. And our anger is surely not that pure, either, because of the fear that lies beneath the anger. Unless we contact and experience our fear, we will have harmful anger.

Charlotte Joko Beck, “Nothing Special: Living Zen

Often, our actions – and especially our use of force – comes out of our fear, or our anger, and the results can be harmful.

Last week, someone from my hometown posted on social media about an incident at a local store. A man was acting erratically, as they described it, and making a number of extreme political statements. From their description, his behavior did not suggest that he was in full control of his faculties. And, it seemed that he might be a risk to himself or others.

The staff in the store were able to talk with the man, and to deescalate the situation, and the person who posted about the incident praised their ability to stay calm and deal with the situation humanely. We should be grateful for those who have the presence of mind to be able to act skillfully in such a charged situation.

I noticed, though, in the comments on this post, one man described how he would have handled the situation. His recommendation was something to the effect of “two punches to the head, one to the throat.”

I’m glad he wasn’t there, in that moment, to make a delicate situation worse. Force may sometimes be the best option available. But, I also understand that we can find ourselves turning quickly to force out of fear. Or, because we see so many stories around us that glorify solving our problems with our fists.

As we look at the conflict in Ukraine, and in every place that people are suffering under injustice, I hope to be careful about judging their actions. I hope we have the humility to know that the challenges in such a moment are very different from those that many of us are facing.

I hope that in the same situation, I would be able to look past my own defensiveness, my own anger, and reach for the best means in the moment. With the full knowledge that I may be wrong. Or, miss some other open path that is in front of us. That is our vow, is it not? To save all beings?  

As Kōshō Uchiyama’s wrote in “Opening the Hand of Thought,” there are may be times when one acts in a way that is counter to the precepts:

… it’s not enough for a bodhisattva of the Mahayana to just uphold the precepts. There are times when you have to break them, too. It’s just that when you do, you have to do so with the resolve of also being willing to accept whatever consequences might follow.

Kōshō Uchiyama, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” from “The Bodhisattva Vow

The real challenge, though, is to see each situation clearly.

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