Thich Nhat Hanh on the roots of anger

In the Buddhist tradition there are 51 categories of Mental Formations. Anger is one of them. Master Thich Nhat Hanh has often discussed this topic in his public Dharma talks; you can find many of them on the Plum Village channels.

In the teachings of the Buddha, as Thay reminds us, “anger can never remove anger; anger can only promote more anger”. This is why it is such an important topic, particularly in a world that all too often acts from a position of anger, without pondering its consequences, or addressing root causes in order to not perpetuate it.

Below are some easy-to-access takeaways from a short teaching by Thay on the roots of anger.

We carry the seed of anger inside us

“If you know what the real roots of your anger are, you can also transform your anger. At first you think that your anger has been caused by the one outside… that something he said or did caused your anger. You don’t know that the main cause of your anger is the seed of anger in you. […] 

“Other people, when they hear such a thing or they see such a thing, they don’t get angry like you, because the seed of anger in them is smaller. The seed of anger in you is very big; that is why you get angry so easily.”

The first thing we can do is accept that the main cause of our anger is the seed of it inside us. Then we must realise that if we don’t deal with our anger, it will spill over and hurt others.

It’s also important to help, rather than punish those who are angry: 

“When someone is angry, he suffers, she suffers. Because she doesn’t know how to handle the energy of anger, she makes people around her suffer, including her beloved ones. And that is someone to be helped, and not to punish.”

Help ourselves to help others

But in order to help others, we need to know how to help ourselves: 

“When you see the suffering of that person, you don’t want to punish him anymore. You know that you have to help him to transform the anger in him. But you cannot help him unless you know how to do it yourself. If you don’t know how to go home to you[rself] with mindfulness… [then] recognise, embrace and transform your anger, [because otherwise] you cannot help the other person to transform his or her anger.”

Buddhist meditations offer us concrete ways of recognising, embracing, calming, and transforming our anger. Having mastered these techniques, we can help those in need.

“Everyone knows that anger is not good for us and for other people. Everyone knows that. But the fact is that they cannot help it. They are overwhelmed by the energy of violence, of anger; that is why everyone should learn the art of embracing anger and transforming it.

“The first step is to learn how to breathe mindfully, to smile to your own anger, and to embrace your anger tenderly like a mother embracing her baby. […]

“We know that when anger manifests in us, we should not do anything, we should not say anything. Because doing or saying something out of anger will bring about negative things that will make us regret later.”

So the best thing to do when anger arises is to take care of it by:

– Practicing mindful breathing and mindful walking
– Not yet talking to or approaching the person we think is the cause of our anger.

Does anger sometimes help?

“[This question] has been asked so many times. In fact, if someone makes you angry, you should not try to suppress your anger because suppressing anger may be very dangerous. Using the energy of mindfulness to recognise your anger and embrace it tenderly is what we should do. Much safer.”

Don’t suppress your anger; use loving speech to talk about it

Using the energy of mindfulness to deal with our anger doesn’t mean not telling the person who caused it. On the contrary, we should tell them that we are angry, and that we are suffering because of their actions. But we should explain this “with loving speech.”

“In Plum Village, we advise our friends to do like this: within or before the deadline of 24 hours, you have to tell him or her that you are angry, you suffer, and you would like him or her to know it. You don’t have the right to keep your anger for yourself alone for more than 24 hours. It’s not healthy!

“You should tell him or her, but in a calm speech. If you cannot do it, you can write it down on a piece of paper. And, our friends, remember: memorise well the formulas. You may like to try it.

“The first line you may write to him is: ‘Darling, I suffer. I’m angry. And I want you to know it. I don’t know why you have done such a thing to me. I don’t know why you have said such a thing to me. I suffer very much. I’m angry. I want you to know.’

“That is the content of the first sentence. If you can’t say it, then you have to write it down. Make sure to deliver it to her or him before the deadline. And you’ll feel better.

“The second line, the second thing you might like to tell him or her, is that you are doing your best: ‘Darling, I’m doing my best.’

“It means: ‘I’m practicing according to the teaching of the Buddha. I am practicing mindful breathing and mindful walking, generating the energy of mindfulness in order to take care of my anger, in order to bring relief. And then I will be looking deeply into my anger to see what the root of my anger is. That is to see whether that is my wrong perception that has created anger, or maybe because of some of your unskillfulness.’” 

Or maybe it has been born out of our lack of understanding and compassion.

Look deeply to find the root of your anger

We can start to do this by looking back and asking questions like: what have I done to her/him? What have I said to make her/him suffer like that?

When the other person reads or hears our second line, the gentle, non-violent, “Darling, I’m doing my best”, it can stir admiration for us knowing how to handle our anger, and may inspire them to practice in the same way:

“You are a person who knows how to handle your anger. You are a practitioner. You don’t react angrily like other people.”

Asking for help and overcoming pride

“And the third line. Very difficult to say or to write down: ‘Please help me. Please help me.’ Because usually when you get angry at him or her, you want to show that you don’t need him or her. You want to prove that you can survive, [that] you can very well survive alone. That is the pride that always goes with anger.

“If you are capable of writing it down: ‘Darling, I suffer. I need your help.’ You’ll suffer much less right away. Even if he or she hasn’t done anything, the fact is that you can bring yourself to write down that sentence, and bring your anger down.”

When the other person gets this message from us, the chances are that they will think deeply about it: ‘What have I done or said to make them angry like that?’ This is another invitation for them to meditate with you.

“I always advise my friends to write these three sentences down on a small sheet of paper, the size of your credit card. And you slip it into your wallet. Every time anger manifests, go home to yourself, breathe in mindfully, breathe out mindfully, and take that paper out and read it. And you know exactly what to do and what not to do. And [then,] you are a real practitioner.

“If you can help your son, your partner, your husband, your wife, your daughter to do the same, that would be wonderful. You are both together on the path of transformation and healing. And you can transform the energy of anger and violence into the energy of understanding and compassion.”

Acting out of anger brings suffering

“When we are angry, we are not very lucid.”

If we are really angry, we shouldn’t do or say anything. We have to communicate our suffering, rather than just using anger to prove something.

“There are those of us who think that the energy of anger can be very powerful… that if you make use of that energy, you will do a lot of things. If people are able to blow themselves up because they have a lot of anger in them, anger is a tremendous kind of energy.

“It’s true that terrorists have a lot of anger in themselves. That is why they can do anything in order to punish. If we are angry and if we use anger as the energy in order to punish them back, we are behaving in exactly the same way.”

Understanding and compassion as the antidote

“The teaching of the Buddha is that anger can never remove anger. Anger can only promote more anger. Only understanding and compassion can put down the flame of anger in us and in the other person. Understanding and compassion is the only antidote for anger. And using that, you heal yourself and you help heal the people who are victims of anger.

“That is why we cannot believe in the benefit of anger, because anger will always bring more anger. Violence will always bring more violence. And in a person-to-person relationship, that is [also] true. In a relationship between one group of people with another group, one country with another country, the same thing is true.”    


You can watch the full teaching below.

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