Anger and Anger Management in a Buddhist Context
By Dr. Ari Ubeysekara
Anger is one of the core human emotions that can act as a useful survival mechanism from certain threatening situations in daily life. Almost every human being is bound to experience the emotion of anger some time or other in their personal life, at work and in social situations. Anger is a physical and mental response to an actual or perceived threat of any intensity that may exist at the present time, although it can also occur in response to an incident that may have happened in the distant or recent past. In addition to an actual or perceived threat, anger can also manifest in situations that may be perceived as disappointment, frustration, annoyance, injustice and any form of loss. It is neither right nor wrong for one to feel anger and be angry, however it may become a problem depending on what one does mentally, verbally and physically and how it is managed. While anger most commonly occurs in relation to other people, it may also occur in relation to oneself or even in relation to in-animate objects, events and situations.
Anger can express itself in different forms ranging from mild irritation to a violent rage and/or verbal and physical aggression. Anger can manifest in verbal aggression in the form of shouting, screaming and making threats and in physical aggression in the form of harming others or one self or in throwing, breaking and destroying objects and property. In some people anger can often lead to aggression with disastrous consequences including physical injuries and even death but it should be understood that anger and aggression are not the same. In fact aggression may be an outcome of anger. Anger can negatively affect one’s rational thinking and lead one to act in impulsive ways that one may regret later. On the other hand, when anger is managed and expressed well it can bring positive results in certain situations. For example, anger towards certain social injustices can lead individuals or groups of individuals to campaign against them and achieve positive results. In most circumstances the real reason for the anger is not in fact the person, object or the situation that is seen as the source of anger but how one interprets it depending on one’s thinking pattern at the time of the incident and/or one’s previous experiences.
Anger as a problem
Although many people may not consider their anger as a problem, it can become a problem in certain people. The following list of characteristics indicates whether one’s anger has become or is becoming a problem for oneself.
- Anger is easily triggered
- There is no real trigger for the anger or it is out of proportion to the trigger
- Anger becomes intense quickly
- Anger tends to persist longer and longer
- Anger occurs more frequently than earlier
- One gets angry in inappropriate situations
- One gets angry with inappropriate people
- Loss of control leading to aggression towards oneself, others or property.
- Anger is affecting one’s physical and mental health
- Anger is affecting one’s work and occupation
- Anger is negatively affecting one’s family and social relationships
- Anger is causing behaviour leading to breaking the law.
Anger can lead to mental health problems
Chronic and intense anger, particularly when frequently suppressed, has been recognised as a contributory factor for the following mental health problems.
- Poor self esteem
- Self harm
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders
- Increased drug and alcohol consumption and abuse
Anger can lead to physical health problems
During an episode of anger, a surge of the hormone adrenaline in the body causes a state of arousal that prepares one for the “fight or flight” response. This can lead to certain physiological and physical responses such as increased respiration, increased heart rate, increased muscle tone, feeling hot, sweating and dry mouth. Frequent episodes of intense anger as well as suppressed anger are known to contribute to the following physical health problems.
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol levels
- Coronary heart disease
- Gastro-intestinal problems like gastritis, ulcer and heart burn
- Chronic headache
- Low immunity leading to infections
- Skin disorders
Factors affecting anger control
Certain factors both internal and external can affect one’s ability to adequately control and manage anger as follows:
- Temperament including irritability, unreasonable expectations, poor frustration tolerance and the need to be a perfectionist
- Family experiences of expressing anger
- Disruptive family background
- Social and cultural background
- An aggressive role model
- Domestic, occupational and social stresses
- Alcohol and drug related issues
- Anger can be a symptom of an associated mental disorder like anxiety, depression, psychosis, obsessive compulsive disorder, personality disorder
Anger in Buddhism
According to Buddhist philosophy, anger is known as dosa in Pali language and as dvesha in Sanskrit language. Anger can take many forms such as ill-will, aversion, hatred, resentment, animosity, annoyance, hostility, malice, irritation, etc. which can occur in varying intensity. According to Buddha’s teachings, anger is one of the three unwholesome roots causing unwholesome mental, verbal and physical actions leading to suffering and continuation of the cycle of birth and death (samsara) :
- Greed (lobha)
- Anger or hatred (dosa)
- Delusion or ignorance (moha)
In Abhidhamma, the doctrine of the higher teachings of Buddha, anger or hatred, is described as one of the 14 unwholesome mental states (akusala cetasikas) :
- Delusion or ignorance (moha)
- Lack of moral shame (ahirika)
- Lack of moral fear (anottappa)
- Restlessness or distraction (uddaccha)
- Greed (lobha)
- Wrong view (micca ditthi)
- Conceit (mana)
- Hatred or anger (dosa)
- Envy (issa)
- Stinginess (macchariya)
- Remorse (kukkuccha)
- Sloth (thina)
- Torpor (middha)
- Sceptical doubt (vicikiccha) ref:(1)
Anger or aversion is one of the seven dormant tendencies or latent mental defilements, “anusaya dhamma” which will give rise to mental defilements of greed, hatred and delusion when the conditions are right:
- Latent tendency of craving for sense pleasure (kamaraganusaya)
- Latent tendency of aversion (patighanusaya)
- Latent tendency of conceit (mananusaya)
- Latent tendency of wrong view (ditthianusaya)
- Latent tendency of doubt (vicikicchanusaya)
- Latent tendency of craving for becoming (bhavaraganusaya)
- Latent tendency of ignorance (avijjanusaya)
Anger or ill-will is also one of the five mental hindrances (pancha-nivarana) which can obstruct the spiritual progress in both concentration and insight meditation:
- Sensual desire (kamacchanda)
- Ill-will (vyapada)
- Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)
- Restlessness and worry (uddaccha-kukkuccha)
- Sceptical doubt (vicikiccha)
These will be suppressed by attaining deep absorption states or Jhana in concentration meditation (samatha bhavana), while they should be completely eradicated by attaining wisdom through insight meditation (vipassana bhavana).
In Buddhist teaching ill-will or anger has been described as one of the ten fetters (samyojana) which are the chains or shackles that bind the sentient beings to the continuing cycle of birth and death:
- Personality belief (sakkaya ditthi)
- Sceptical doubt (vicikiccha)
- Attachment to rites and rituals (silabbata paramasa)
- Craving for sense pleasures (kama-raga)
- Ill-will (patigha)
- Craving for birth in fine material world (rupa-raga)
- Craving for birth in formless immaterial world (arupa-raga)
- Conceit (mana)
- Restlessness (uddhaccha)
- Ignorance (avijja)
When a Buddhist disciple follows the Noble Eight-fold Path in order to attain Nibbana, the liberation from all suffering with the ending of the cycle of birth and death, these ten fetters need to be eradicated on a gradual basis through the four noble stages of Stream Entry (Sotapanna), Once Returner (Sakadagami), Non-Returner (Anagami) and Arahathood. On attaining the stage of once returner the fetter of ill-will will be weakened while it will be completely eradicated on attaining the stage of non-returner.
Anger or ill-will is among the ten unwholesome or unskillful actions that Buddhist disciples are advised to refrain from:
- Killing any living being
- Sexual misconduct
- False speech
- Slanderous speech
- Harsh speech
- Idle chatter
- Wrong view
In several discourses of Buddha’s teachings, negative aspects and consequences of anger have been clearly described. For example, in Kodhana sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya (collection of the Buddha’s numerical discourses), seven dangers that an angry person may come across, which would be pleasing to the enemy, have been described:
- Will become ugly and miserable
- Will sleep poorly suffering from pain
- Will not be successful or prosperous
- Will lose rightly earned wealth
- Will lose reputation
- Will lose friends and relatives
- Will be reborn in lower realms or hell following death. ref: (2).
In another sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, Buddha has compared an angry person to “a log from a funeral pyre burnt at both ends and fouled in the middle which serves neither as firewood nor as timber, so is such a wrathful man”. ref: (3)
In the Lekha sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, Buddha has described three types of persons in relation to anger.
- An individual like an inscription in rock; Gets angry often, which stays for a long time
- An individual like an inscription in soil; Gets angry often, but the anger does not stay long
- An individual like an inscription in water; Remains congenial when spoken to harshly and roughly.ref:(4)
Ven. Buddhaghosa, the 5th century Buddhist commentator, has noted in his book Visuddhimagga, a quote attributed to Buddha “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned”.
Control of anger in Buddhist teachings
One of the eight elements of Noble Eight-fold Path is the right thought or right intention, Samma Sankappa. This is one of the two factors of the division of wisdom (panna). Buddha has mentioned three right intentions one of which is loving kindness:
- Right intention of renunciation against the wrong intention of desire
- Right intention of good-will or loving kindness against the wrong intention of ill-will
- Right intention of harmlessness against the wrong intention of harmfulness
In the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, the verse 222 says “When anger arises whoever keeps firm control, as if with a racing chariot, him I call a master charioteer, any one else a rein holder only”.
In the twin verses of the Dhammapada, Buddha says “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me, in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease, in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease”.
“Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time, hatred ceases by loving kindness, this is an ancient and eternal law”.
Akkosa sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya (collection of the Buddha’s connected discourses), states that when Buddha was insulted with harsh and rude words by a brahmin called Akkosaka Bharadvaja, using the simile of a householder having to take back the food offered to visiting guests who refused to accept it, Buddha did not retaliate or accept the insulting words so the brahmin had to take them back. ref: (5)
In the Aghata pativinaya sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, Buddha has described five different ways of getting rid of anger towards a person:
- Maintain loving kindness
- Maintain compassion
- Maintain equanimity towards the person
- Avoid being mindful of it or paying attention to it
- Concentrate on the fact that the person who caused the anger by some deed is the owner and the recipient of the fruits of his actions or kamma ref:(6)
In the Aghatavinaya sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, Ven. Sariputta describes five ways of subduing anger towards someone:
- When someone shows bodily impure behaviour but pure verbal behaviour, pay attention to the purity of verbal behaviour and ignore the impurity of bodily behaviour
- When someone shows impure verbal behaviour but pure bodily behaviour, pay attention to the purity of bodily behaviour and ignore the impurity of verbal behaviour
- When someone shows impure bodily and verbal behaviour but occasional mental clarity and calm, pay attention to occasional mental clarity and calm and ignore impure bodily and verbal behaviour
- When someone shows impure bodily and verbal behaviour and does not show occasional mental clarity and calm, do whatever one can for him out of kindness and sympathy hoping that he will develop pure bodily and verbal behaviour
- When someone shows pure bodily and verbal behaviour with occasional mental clarity and calm, pay attention to pure bodily and verbal behaviour and occasional mental clarity and calm ref:(7)
In the book The Elimination of Anger (1994) by Ven. K. Piyatissa Thera, eight ways of dealing with one’s anger have been described as follows:
- Recollect Buddha’s teachings in relation to anger
- Try to find some good mental, verbal or physical qualities in the other person and value them ignoring the negative qualities
- Think that the other person has spoiled his mind by doing something wrong to you. Should you be foolish enough to imitate him and spoil your mind too?
- The mind and the body of the other person as well as yours change from moment to moment. So, both of you are different people now. What is the use of retaliating against a different person now?
- The wrong done to you is a fruit of your previous bad kamma and if you retaliate you will perform even more bad kamma which will come after you
- Buddha in his previous lives as an unenlightened person experienced extreme hurt and harm inflicted by others. He tolerated them with loving kindness without any anger, so why can’t you do the same?
- The person who wronged you now may have been your mother, father or another relative who loved and cared for you, or even sacrificed life for you, in the past lives
- Instead of anger practise loving kindness which has eleven benefits as described by the Buddha ref:(8)
Loving kindness meditation
Loving kindness is the first of the four contemplations known as immeasurables, sublime states or brahma vihara in Pali language.
- Meditation on loving kindness (metta)
- Meditation on compassion (karuna)
- Meditation on sympathetic joy (muditha)
- Meditation on equanimity (upekha)
Referring to the type of loving kindness one should develop towards others the Buddha has mentioned in the Karaniya Metta sutta that “like a mother who protects her only child with her own life, so should one cultivate immeasurable loving kindness towards all living beings”. ref: (9)
According to Buddhist teachings, the best antidote to overcome feelings of anger, aversion, hatred etc. is to develop loving kindness which can be practised as a form of meditation known as metta bhavana. Though loving kindness meditation can be practised as itself, often meditators practising other forms of meditations find it helpful to practise loving kindness meditation at the end of a session of concentration or mindfulness meditation. Loving kindness is one of forty meditation objects used for developing concentration. It is said that the loving kindness meditation helps the meditator to develop concentration fairly rapidly.
In the Mettanisamsa sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, Buddha has described the eleven advantages that one will experience as a result of practising loving kindness meditation:
- One sleeps happily
- One wakes happily
- One sees no bad dreams
- One is dear to humans
- One is dear to non-humans
- One is protected by devas
- Fire, poison and weapons cannot harm one
- One’s mind easily concentrates
- One’s appearance is serene
- One dies with an un-confused mind
- Following death one is reborn in Brahma world ref: (10).
Loving kindness meditation can be practised in any posture as long as the body can remain relaxed and comfortable in that posture. However, meditators who are used to practise other meditation techniques such as concentration and mindfulness prefer to practise it in the sitting posture. In loving kindness meditation one first directs loving kindness towards oneself because, according to the Buddha there is no one else in the world who is dearer to one than oneself. Also, unless there is loving kindness within oneself it could not be directed to others.
Loving kindness meditation can begin by reciting verses like,
“May I be free from enmity
May I be free from ill-will
May I be free from suffering
May I be happy”
One can also recite the following verses instead.
“May I be safe
May I be well
May I be happy
May I be peaceful”
One could recite the verses that one is comfortable with and while reciting the verses it is important to mean and feel what is intended in the verses. The process of directing loving kindness and positive feelings towards oneself and others can be facilitated by using certain techniques such as visualization, reflection and verbalization. In visualization an image of the person or the picture of positive qualities and actions performed by the person concerned can be brought up until positive feelings appear about the person. In reflecting, one could reflect on the positive qualities of the particular person or the positive actions of that person. In verbalization three or four phrases mentioned above that will reflect the positive feelings to be sent could be repeated.
Once loving kindness is firmly established within oneself it can then be directed towards others in one of the following ways:
1. Having directed loving kindness towards oneself first, it can then be directed towards other people in the following order either by mentally visualizing their image or by reflecting on their qualities
- Start with a benefactor, a person one likes and respects like a spiritual friend
- Next, extend it towards a person one likes and loves like a trusted friend
- Next, extend it towards a neutral person one does not particularly like or dislike
- Next, extend it towards a person one dislikes or has some difficulty with.
- And finally to all living beings
When choosing others to direct loving kindness it is advisable to choose only living people and not to choose a person one is physically attracted to as it may lead to a feeling of lust.
The same verses used to direct loving kindness to oneself can be altered and used to direct loving kindness to others.
“May you be free from enmity
May you be free from ill-will
May you be free from suffering
May you be happy”.
“May you be safe
May you be well
May you be happy
May you be peaceful”.
2. Having directed loving kindness to oneself first, then instead of focusing on any specific individuals, one can direct loving kindness to all beings living in the ten directions, South, South East, East, North East, North, North West, West, South West, above and below of the universe.
3. Having directed loving kindness to oneself first, then one can direct loving kindness to all living beings in an expanding order of geographical locations. This could begin with all beings in one’s residence, and then extending it to one’s neighbourhood, village or town, county, state or province, country, continent, whole world and the universe.
As it has already been mentioned anger is a normal human emotion experienced by all human beings. However, unless it is managed appropriately it can lead to negative effects not only on oneself but on others as well. In addition to personal distress, remorse and guilt, chronic, intense and suppressed anger can lead to both physical and mental ill health. It can also lead to damaged family and social relationships as well as work related problems and in fact anger can negatively affect practically every aspect of one’s life one way or the other. According to Buddhist teachings, in addition to all the other negative effects, anger can also lead to a negative spiritual outcome and act as an obstacle to spiritual progress. Gautama Buddha, during the 45 years of spiritual teaching, has described in detail the causes of anger, its negative effects and practical methods of managing it in several of His discourses. According to Buddhist teachings loving kindness is the perfect antidote to anger. Loving kindness meditation is becoming more and more popular among Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, both in the East and the west with numerous research studies proving its positive effects on one’s happiness and well being.
“May you be safe. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be peaceful”
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 1993, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, , Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, Kodhana sutta, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.
- The Elimination of Anger, Ven.K.Piyatissa, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), November 2013.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, Lekha sutta, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 1999, Akkhosa sutta, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, Aghata pativinaya sutta 1, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, Aghata pativinaya sutta 2, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.
- Ven. K. Piyatissa 1975, The Elimination of Anger, Bodhi Leaves 68, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
- Karaniya Metta sutta: Good Will, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), November 2013.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, Mettanisamsa sutta 1, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.