Once upon a time there were two clans in ancient Japan that had hated each other for generations. They no longer remembered why they hated each other, but each new member born into the family was taught to disdain and rage against the presence of the other family being in the world. In this generation the two eldest sons decided that they would kill the other once and for all, so as their armies fought it out on the plains they hunted each other alone, along a river deep in the canyons that bordered their lands. They had each other in their sights, but were on opposite sides of the river. They shouted insults and obscenities at each other, all the while making their way down the river, where it narrowed, looking for a sandbar where they could cross over and finally kill each other. As they drew closer and closer to each other they could taste their anger and hate like vomit in their mouths and both prayed the same prayer: O God if my enemy kills me, at least let me deal him a mortal blow before I die.
They strode into the water in full battle armor and made their way towards each other. When they found themselves within yards of each other in the swollen torrential waters, trying to keep their balance and brace themselves for the fight, they suddenly heard screams and cries. A boat with a woman and two young boys, no more than 4 or 5 were in a small craft, flooded with water and hurtling downstream. Immediately they reacted instinctively as samurai warriors are disciplined to respond to the innocent in peril. One shouted to the other. Here catch the rope and stop the boat. The other lunged and found the sandbar that had eluded him before and straining they dragged the boat to the sandbar. They found the woman had already drowned in the water in the boat and the children were near death from exposure. Each grabbed a child, after hauling the boat to the shore and stripping off their armor ran in circles trying to increase their bodyheat to warm the children they tucked tightly under their arms. They sang to the children at the top of their lungs because the children were screaming at this point. Finally, after hours the children calmed down and fell asleep. They tucked them in, buried the mother, started a fire and huddled frozen and exhausted beside it. No one said anything for a long while.
One spoke. You run like a geisha. The other replied. You sing like a banshee. There was more silence. Good thing you had a rope, said one. Good thing you found that sandbar was the other reply. More silence. Then one said: what do you think our families will say when they find out that we finally found each other, came face to face and we didn’t kill each other, or even try to? Long silence. Oh, the hell with them! And the others’ reply was: Exactly my sentiments! Let’s sleep came in unison. The children will wake early and they will be frightened and hungry and going home is going to be the hardest battle we’ve ever fought. More silence. Yes, but we’ll do this one together and stop this insane anger and hate. And they slept side by side, protecting the orphaned children.
It is a marvelous old story of battle and the code of warriors in old Japan. They find out how to become friends even though they have raged against each other as enemies for all their lives. The intervention of those in desperate need drives them together and they find that they are both human, both share the same river, the same life and the same dedication and hopes. A woman dies, two children are orphaned and in sharing the struggle to save those lives, they learn common humanity. And then the real battle begins: to return home, face their own families and stand together to stop the insanity and the stupidity of killing.
Most of us don’t live in this sort of milieu and won’t face our enemies over raging streams, called upon to save the lives of innocents in danger of their very lives. But all of us, each of us alone and as families, races, peoples, nations must deal with the anger, rage and hate both engrained and seeded in us by family and history and the vehemence we nurture as fuel in our own lives.
Anger. Webster’s New World Dictionary says it is “severe distress, hostile feelings because of opposition, a hurt, etc.; ‘to become or make angry’; to excite wrath. A word that is closely kin to anger is rage. It is described as “a madness, a furious uncontrolled anger; a great violence or intensity.” Variations of usage: “ to show violence, force, as in speech or deed; to spread unchecked as a disease; a fad.” It roots are in Latin, meaning furious passion, violent desire or feeling, fervor, excitement, rabies, ferocity or madness in humans. For Christians, it is the second of the seven deadly sins, after pride. It can be a momentary lapse or habitual; singular or practiced with others intentionally. Among counselors, spiritual directors and therapists it is commonly accepted that anger is fear turned outward, when it is not acknowledged or accepted. A good image is our hands: two sides: palm inside and the flat of the hand outside. Inside is our fear(s) and flat of our hand is anger that we use as defense or offense as we perceive we are in danger. In any case, anger feeds, sources and intensifys choices for violence, for murder, war, destruction of the land, environment and harm of others. And in our society, anger is rampant, expressed in sports, greed, racism, the proliferation of guns, the media, advertising, books, even in religious fundamentalism of the ‘christian’ series of the end time raptures/destruction of those not true believers; the abuse of the elderly, children, women, the homeless, same gender people, immigrants, refugees, anyone who does not resemble what is considered mainstream, gangs, and torture in our prisons and overseas, military and mercenary and corporate cultures and of course, war.
How do we look at our angers, deal with them, learn to discipline them, search out their roots, convert them into positive energies and forces, acknowledge them, confess them and transform them, or put them at the service of those who need justice and advocacy without destructive behaviors? There are perhaps two kinds of anger. The first is always destructive and it is fed on fear, self-pity, loathing, outside forces that use it for gain, image, identity but it is never courageous, freeing or creative. It kills communication and eventually just kills everything in its radius: relationships, one’s own soul and others’ bodies. It becomes either the cult of being a victim, or arrogance towards others. The second kind of anger is that of the prophet, or God’s own righteous anger of justice and judgment. It is always practiced on behalf of others, with no personal gain, and often with everything to lose personally; it is creative and imaginative and without violence or harm to others so it is often found in the arts, crafts, music and expression of outrage that is indignant but truthful. This kind of anger is found in Jesus’ actions in the temple, and when he turns on those in power and authority for their hypocrisy and heavy burdens that they lay upon the poor and those they have been called upon to serve and instruct, to lead and to protect. Sadly, most of us, even when we are involved in work for justice, for peace and advocacy for rights can get entangled in destructive anger because we do not look honestly at the rage that sits at the deepest parts of our beings and fuels our lives.
There is a marvelous story/film/DVD called SPRING,SUMMER,FALL,WINTER…SPRING (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, rated R, directed by Kim Ki-duk) I saw it last May in New York and images from the film have stayed with me, questioning, bringing insight, awe, disturbing and pushing me to look at anger. It is basically a story of the Buddhism and the wheel of life: seasons of the earth, of a person’s own life and intergenerational passage. It probes the issues of decision-making, wisdom, failure, violence, anger, sexual attraction and lust, truthfulness and the search for enlightenment. And it carries the weight of what we do and how it affects us throughout our lives, especially if we act without awareness or responsibility for our actions, following our passions and desires. A review in Spirituality and Health Magazine (The Soul/Body Connection, December 2004, pp. 72-73, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat) describes the movie this way.
It is a luminous meditation of Buddhism and the cycles of human life as they are played out in the pristine beauty of the natural world. The images of the monastery floating on a raft capture the transitory and impermanent qualities of the world we live in day by day. Using the four seasons as a backdrop for the spiritual teachings of compassion, suffering, loss, desire, attachment, and transformation works perfectly. …Everyone who experiences this extraordinary film will savor the complex emotions that make life such an exquisite spiritual teacher.
But it will also deeply disturb you. The monk is excited by a young woman who visits and he wants to possess her for himself. Eventually in the spring he leaves the monastery, marries her, but is consumed with lust, jealousy and rage, and kills her. (off-screen) In fall he returns to the old monk who had warned him what would become of unchecked desires as a fugitive, with the police close behind him. He is enraged, angry, furious and in despair. What ensues is the scene that grabbed my imagination and soul. He returns to the floating monastery with the bloody knife in his hand and he does not have to say anything, the older monk, his teacher knows what has happened. He ties him up, hangs him from the rafters in the small temple, lashes him and leaves him there. While the man is caught in his net and hanging the old monk takes his cat, a pure white one with a long lush tail. He cradles him in the crook of his arm and with his other hand uses the cat’s tail as a paint brush, dipping it in the pot of ink, and marking out on the floor boards of walkway of the temple the sutra against anger. He covers the entire area with the characters of the sutra, the prayer that leads to wholeness and peace.
The man is lowered down and with the knife he used to kill his wife he kneels and carves out each of the hundreds of characters that makes up the sutra until his own hands are torn and the skin hanging. In agony he keeps at it, and the police arrive. At the bequest of the old monk, they give him time to finish so that he will regain a level of peace within himself before he is taken to serve his prison sentence. They watch, and the old monk follows slowly behind the man on his knees carving the wood, painting the characters in bright hues of the rainbow. When he is finished and utterly spent from his discipline, his penance and devotion the view from above of the sutra, the prayer in vibrant colors is breath-taking, and somehow liberating. And the man goes to jail for his crime, though in winter he will return to find the old monk dead, and he will take up the legacy that was given to him.
That is pure Buddhism, with its concentration on the necessity to learn from life and karma when you do not, and the impermanence of everything. There are deeply moving moments in all aspects of the film but this need to deal with anger, rage, desire, that destroys is what I keep returning to again and again. The anger/rage and fear we allow to control us inevitably leads to violence that we inflict personally on another or collectively that we use against others. We need a sutra, a prayer, a discipline against rage; a mantra, a devotional practice that converts the destructive energies of our fears, insecurities and angers into energies that are creative and imaginative and that defuse the harm it leads us to commit against others.
There are ancient mantras: “He (Jesus/God) must increase and I must decrease,” the words of John the Baptist. More contemporary: “I am the only enemy I have.” “I have called you enemy _________(the name of the person) and now I call you my friend ________.” There is the Buddhist practice of tonglen, to draw within oneself all the darkness, the evil, the violence, the hate of the world, to hold it close lightly and to breathe it out so that it stops with you.
To mediate on the cross of Jesus, the ultimate practice of nonviolence is to draw into one’s heart all the hate, rage, anger of the world and forgive it, forgive the persons who do it and ask for that forgiveness for ourselves and our collusion with it, and to breath it out with the Spirit that sustains us transformed into clarity and truthfulness. And of course, truthfulness in dealing with anger, rage and its consequences in word and deed begins with confession, with acknowledgement of the evil we do, the injustices we practice, our collusion with evil and even how our lives profit from violence and anger. As Christians we use it all too often in church, in community, in our families and relationships, in our organizations and even in our liturgies. And if we acknowledge it we are not known for doing penance, for seeking to undo what we have done.
A new year begins. Perhaps this year we need to examine ourselves in regards to anger and rage within us and how it seeps out into our world, and become more conscious of bending the arc of the world towards compassion and how to convert our rage and anger into hope and imaginative ways of making peace, or at least to start thinking of how to do this singularly and with one another. Two lines to help us think about who we are and what we are to be follow. “God does not intend us all to be rich, or powerful, or great, but He does intend us all to be friends.” Ralph Waldo Emerson. And this last line from Merton: “There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.” May we begin 2005 turning the bile of our anger and rage into the elixir of compassion and shared resistance against death. The mantra that sustains us is always Pax Christi, Pax Christi, Pax Christi, Amen.