« The Vatican's Rule of Fear: Firing a Bishop to Preserve Truth? | Main | Scholars of Islam and the Media »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Patrick S. O'Donnell


With regard to expressions of anger by Zen teachers (or depictions of wrathful deities in Tibetan thangkas for that matter), and speaking simply as a student of Buddhism, I would think this comes under the heading of “skillful means” (Skt. upāya, Ch. fang-pien, Jap. hōben), a technical concept that first appears in Mahāyāna Buddhism (for those not familiar with this material, Zen is a Mahāyāna tradition, although it has the ritual and metaphysical reticence associated with the Theravāda tradition, a fact I attribute to its having met up with Daoism when it arrived in China). As Michael Pye has explained, “‘skilful means’ is about the way in which the goal, the intention, or the meaning of Buddhism is correlated with the unenlightened condition of living beings,” a concession, in other words, to the fact that we are generally afflicted by states of ignorance and inordinate desire—what in Hinduism is termed māyā—which has, as it were, the status of “provisional reality,” or relative truth. Although the concept appears in the Lotus Sūtra, it is said that “the Buddha himself uses ‘innumerable devices’ to lead living beings along and to separate them from their attachments. Such devices are formulated in terms of the relative ignorance and passionate attachments of those who need them, but they [eventually!] turn and dissolve into the Buddhist attainment of release.” The use of skillful means assume the attributes of “insight” or prajñā and compassion (karunā) on the part of those who resort to them, and thus it would be dangerous for the rest of us to in any way attempt to imitate their employment.

For an introduction to upāya, please see Michael Pye’s Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism (2nd ed., 2003).

Clark West

I see that I pitched my musing right into your wheelhouse! Thank you for such a phenomenal comparative analysis!
The negative reading of anger makes me wonder about the current situation in Japan. My conversations with those who are there right now reveal that there is a lot of anger right now being expressed by the people--at TEPCO, the government, and perhaps more diffusely. I have not had the time to ask my Buddhist friends and teachers how they are responding to this from within their tradition.
I think of the classic figures in Zen, who are not unwilling to give a sharp slap in the face to an unwitting disciple who is not attuned to reality. Though this is not completely congruent with our usual sense of what anger entails, I wonder if such gestures might be re-thought. Certainly in teh Zen monastic context, with which I am most familiar, anger has a very positive role, if not philosophically recognized as such. It is a 'useful means' for the grinding down of egos in the context of daily work, meditation, and prayer.
Thanks again, Patrick, for taking the time to give so much rich thought to this!

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Incidentally, I have a "transdisciplinary bibliography" (less than 200 titles!) on the emotions I will send along to anyone interested. An earlier draft was posted at the Ratio Juris blog.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

The Stoic and neo-Stoic (or eudaimonistic) analysis of emotions (the latter seen in Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, 2001) is, I think, in some respects more philosophically sophisticated than anything found in the Buddhist tradition if only because there is no generic term for "emotion" in Buddhism, despite the analytic approach to specific emotions like anger, fear, unhappiness, joy, and compassion. Intriguingly, both Stoic and Buddhist traditions are "strongly cognitivist." However, in the Buddhist tradition such emotions would be examined in light of the five skandhas (or khandas in Pali) that make up our conventional notion of personal identity: the body, feelings, perceptions, dispositions, and consciousness, and this lends a phenomenologically rich character to the Buddhist discussions of particular emotions, especially inasmuch as they are viewed through the larger lens of dispositional traits or qualities.

Buddhism does share with the Stoic approach an emphasis on the cognitive character of an emotion like anger, in this case, the stress is on its fundamentally "distorting" effects, which work in tandem with inordinate desires. Buddhists tend to see an emotion like anger in wholly negative terms, unlike the neo-Stoic approach exemplified in Nussbaum's theory, wherein anger has the cognitive function of informing or reminding us of something we value or cherish (hence Nussbaum's phrase, 'judgments of value'). In Nussbaum's words, "Emotions view the world from my own point of view of my own scheme of goals and projects, the things to which I attach value in a conception of what it is for me to live well." This probably comes close to what Jody Williams assumes, says or suggests about the motivational role of anger about injustice and violence in her own political work. Because the Buddhist analysis is subordinate to the overall end of transcending the various factors that cause "suffering" and thus lead to liberation, anger is viewed, at bottom, as reflection the powers of both inordinate desire, ignorance (on the case of anger, perhaps best understood as 'hatred'), and delusion. Ultimately its motivational power needs to be sublimated and replaced by both wisdom and compassion by way of ethical practice, meditation, and proper philosophical analysis (as seen in the doctrines of the four noble truths, dependent origination, and the three marks of existence), or the three parts of the Eightfold Path.

A "positive" emotion like compassion is, on the other hand, linked in the Buddhist perspective to proper epistemic qualities, reflecting a right perspective on "the world" and "the self." As Padmasiri de Silva has written, "By the dual process of insight and understanding (pannavimutti [Pali, sans diacritics]) and that of emotional transformation (cetovimutti), there is an interactive pattern; cognitive purification stabilizes emotional standing, and emotional transformation provides the ideal soil for the emergence of insight and understanding." In the early Buddhist tradition as found in the Theravada school, the Four Divine Abidings: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic or altruistic joy (i.e., taking delight in the joy of others), and equanimity (synonymous to the classical Greek concept of sohphrosyne) are both virtues and mental objects for analytic meditation. As sublime meditative states, they are said to assist in gaining insight into the nature of impermanence and the notion of no-self (or the nature of the skandhas/khandas), something that a negative emotion like anger cannot by its nature facilitate.

Clark West

Thank you for sharing this, Michael. I thought immediately of Martha Nussbaum's remarkable writings in Therapy of Desire and elsewhere on the thumotic in both the Stoic and Christian traditions.
Of course it is hard to disagree with the Dalai Lama here, but the question is always, when dealing with the fires of the heart, how much is 'too much'?
The desert monastics had a lot to say about the good and the bad of the thumos-- it might be fun to compare to the Buddhist ascetic tradition...

The comments to this entry are closed.