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Food Stamps and Political Anger: Can Buddhists Be Angry?

In a recent column for the New York Times, Paul Krugman called for readers to “get really angry” at House Republicans for sponsoring a bill that would cut off food stamps for 2,000,000 people. He points out that food “stamps” (now credit cards) are needed more than ever during our jobless recovery. He then reveals that Representative Fincher of Tennessee, an active proponent of the bill, has received millions in farm subsidies over the years. Krugman ends his article by reiterating that “this is a time to get really, really angry”.

Of course, “getting angry” presents an obvious problem for Buddhists. After all, anger – under the name “hatred” (as in “greed, hatred, and ignorance”) – is one of the three poisons that blind us to the interdependence that we call Buddha Nature. For this reason, most Buddhists try hard to avoid getting angry.

So what is a Buddhist to do, when confronted with an injustice that naturally inspires righteous indignation? Behind this question is another, broader, question: should Buddhists avoid politics altogether, since adversarial politics are full of political anger?

Here is how I – a socially engaged Buddhist layman – process my own political anger. I am not pretending that I have eliminated anger, political or otherwise. Nor am I saying that this is a solution for you. I am simply describing, how far my own “eye of practice can see” (Dogen Zenji’s phrase) at the present time.

Protesters in Alaska, 2011.

Since I know that one in five American children are below the poverty line – a higher percentage than the general population – this bill would presumably disproportionately deprive children of food. That fact, together with Mr. Fincher’s blatant hypocrisy, is enough to make me angry – maybe even “really, really angry”.

Then I remember that there is nothing so tempting as righteous indignation. Nothing is more self-indulgent (ego-driven) than believing you are indisputably occupying the moral high ground. Such a feeling is self-deceiving; it conceals the fact that you have divided the world into saints and sinners, with you and your kindred spirits as the saints, and your adversaries as the sinners.

I also recall that Buddhist teachers who have written books on anger (including Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, Robert Thurman, and Ven. Thubten Chodron) have all said that, like pain, anger is one of our body’s signals that something needs our attention. The obvious next step for a Buddhist is to give openhearted attention (i.e. mindfulness) to the thing that is bothering us.

This is the tricky part. What is it that is bothering us? In this case, we are tempted to answer that it is “those Republicans” who are bothering us. But this simply labels them as “enemies”. If this attitude persists, anger will turn into hate, a more stubborn or “sticky” version of anger that develops a whole ideology to perpetuate itself.

No, what is bothering us is not “those people”, but our own anger. The proof of this is that if we felt no anger, we would not be “bothered”! So our mindfulness reveals that our supposed “enemy” is actually our own anger – in other words, a part of ourselves! In the early stages of our Buddhist practice, we abhor getting angry precisely because we don’t want to encounter a part of ourselves that we don’t particularly like.

So how do we solve this conflict within ourselves? Simply forbidding ourselves to get angry will never succeed. Instead, by admitting that we are currently angry, we open a gate of compassion for ourselves. By accepting ourselves as normal human beings subject to strong emotions, we create the condition in which our visitor (in this case, anger) feels acknowledged and is free to leave.

In my own Zen tradition, this process is represented by the koan, “When guests come, you should receive them!” That is, when unwelcome emotions visit you, just host them (i.e. host yourself) with common courtesy until they leave.

This process is also represented by the parable of the Buddha continuing to receive occasional visits from his old adversary Mara after his enlightenment. Each time, the Buddha offers Mara tea and sympathy, much to the dismay of his as-yet-unenlightened attendant Ananda. Each time, once his right to be there has been acknowledged, Mara leaves the Buddha in peace. (Tara Brach uses this parable beautifully in her wonderful book, “Radical Acceptance.”)

What happens after we acknowledge the right of our anger to exist? Only then can we see that our anger is blocking any truly helpful response. Only then are we free to take compassionate action. In the present case, we will see that it is futile to fight AGAINST Republicans as people. Instead, we must fight FOR poor children who need food. We can join organizations dedicated to this issue. We can protest in good faith to those that oppose us, expressing our humane values. In short, we suddenly can see our way forward on our path as Buddhists in a democracy.

[Update: On June 21, the New York Times reported that the bill in question had been voted down by Republicans who felt the cuts to food stamps were not enough, and by Democrats who felt that they were too severe. Since a lot of money is at stake, the bill will be brought up again in some form. Please join me in writing to Representative Fincher of Tennessee expressing your concern for poor children, with a copy to John Boehner, Speaker of the House.]

Comments (9)

  • Bezi

    great question. I spent a decade-plus as a perpetually outraged militant MC. Got me some genuine props at an artistic level. Never really translated into actions that were measurably meaningful. Oh, it brought me out for some enraged marches and rallies, impassioned speeches I listened to and made, etc. Okay – I helped to contribute to a collective statement of some sort, to fatten a crowd estimate. But going to meetings with a giant sociopolitical chip on my shoulder -even though I never wilded out the way some other impassioned activists did – never proved to be particularly fruitful. After Vipassana gave me a blissful peak experience that changed permanently my perception of reality, what used to make me angry made me… something closer to ‘sorrowfully frustrated’. Something about that textural emotional context made clearheaded decisions on what I really believed easier. I think it’s really true that anger clouds judgment.

    To keep it one hunnit, I do experience moments of anger. Honestly, more clarity emerges from them than overt action. They’re enfolded into dzogchen. Most of my productive effort comes out of either euphorically inspired hope, ‘spontaneous’ outbursts of creativity, or sorrowful frustration.

    We’re in pretty bizarre times tho’ so we’re definitely still checking it out…

    I think you nailed it. “Those” people, our “enemies” – these types of formulations cause anger. There’s something dangerously seductive in righteous indignation. It’s the precursor to “us” vs. “them” dualism the Awakened one implored us to be be mindful of. I’m good + they’re bad = conflict – one equation guaranteed to be correct.

    Similar to what you pointed out Nhat Hanh, Thurman et al have said ~ in my experience anger is part of… a kind of highly sophisticated psychosomatic language which, with some distance (the kind you get during meditation), reveals itself as not the source of suffering but a symptom, a marker, a signpost pointing to something subtler. But fundamental at the same time: probably all the more so because it’s so well hidden. I’m reminded, in the case you’re referencing, that Repubs are suffering from their lack of understanding of another person’s predicament, and / or they’ve been duped into accepting ideologies inconsistent with their own self interest, a’la Thomas Frank’s important and provocative “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” Reading that book cleared up a LOT of things for me. Rank and file Repubs routinely vote against their own best interests due to elaborate emotional manipulation, resulting in support of highly emotionally charged cultural issues, by political operators fearing for their own skins, at the behest of corporations fearing the discontinuity of their profitability, etc…

    OY. So much FEAR…

    When this reality hits, I dunno. My heart kind of softens. We’re ALL caught up in some hustle trap. And when it does, relaxation of tension allows for new flexibility, movement and creativity. It’s a good system!

    All this said… I have to add, it’s unmistakable that when cars get flipped over, windows get busted and dumpsters get set ablaze… ish starts happening. Changes. Definitely not always for the good, but stuff gets done. This kind of intersects with the anarchism discussion. Every moment engenders a variety of tactics. Every tactic has its positive and negative ramifications…

  • Jeff

    Letting go of anger feels so right in my personal life, dealing with family, friends, coworkers, even drivers that cut me off on the freeway. But I have to say that if my kids were going hungry because of some slimeball politician like Fincher, I’d be mad as hell, and I wouldn’t appreciate anyone who was well-fed, no matter how well-intentioned, telling me not to be indignant about it.

    I think there is such a thing as righteous anger. I feel it when innocents are slaughtered and brutalized by imperialist wars, when youth of color are imprisoned for crimes that would draw community service in the suburbs, when corporations are willing to rape the planet for profit, …well, I don’t have to preach to the choir here.

    On the other hand, Chris, you are right that blind, seething hatred is poisonous and self-defeating. One great thing about the BPF forum is we can think and talk about incendiary subjects without (usually) flying off the handle. When I confront heinous, mercenary crimes against humanity such as you describe, I get outraged but not enraged. It sharpens my commitment to work for justice and against a system that perpetuates oppression. “Don’t get mad, get active!”

    Until we Buddhists are widely known for our unswerving frontline dedication to the fight FOR poor children, we can’t expect their families to respect us for our tranquillity. Thanks for bringing up this important topic.

  • Jason Wu

    “Then I remember that there is nothing so tempting as righteous indignation. Nothing is more self-indulgent (ego-driven) than believing you are indisputably occupying the moral high ground.”

    Thank you so much for writing this. I agree with Jeff in that being told not to be indignant about a personal suffering by someone else who is not encountering the same issue in their life would make me extremely angry. I admire your (Jeff’s) ability to feel so much compassion for those who suffer and to be able to understand and envision their suffering on a very deep level. However, upon some personal reflection, I realized that I have also done the same – become so engrossed in my own personal struggles that I reacted against those who were well-intentioned and willing to share the burden with me. Those sentences that I quoted here have humbled me and helped bring clarity to my own actions and reactions regarding my spiritual journey – particularly in helping me remember moments in which I thought I “understood” and reminding me that it is a neverending quest of not understanding that will help me cultivate a life driven by my values. Considering I am working in the social sciences and am constantly exposed to similar types of “political anger” driven by systemic social injustices, I really must thank you (and the existence of this website) again for the reminder to acknowledge my reactions but to not mindlessly react.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    This is a challenging subject to work with, and I appreciate both Jeff and Jason’s comments above a lot. It seems to me that it’s vitally important to acknowledge that anger and outrage are prime motivators, often driving people to step out of their comfort zones and/or despair and resignation to become part of change agent groups. That this energy is dangerous, but also can be harnessed and transformative. It doesn’t have to be an “enemy obstacle” to be avoided at all costs, even as it’s probably not what you want your work to be driven by over the long haul.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that privileged Buddhists rarely acknowledge and give space to any anger or outrage, and tend to skill to some sort of active transformation (often with a slight tag of shaming or moralizing attached to their message). I chalk this up to a variety of factors, including a lack of understanding of how systemic oppression feels on a personal level, as well as a discomfort with anger/outrage all together. There are subtle straight jackets of calm and faux equanimity amongst the convert American Buddhist community that play out in all sorts of ways, but definitely make discussions about social action difficult. And reinforce a general lack of social action and “engagement” from the community as a whole.

    I’m much less prone these days to getting outraged at every injustice I see in the world (and they seem endless). However, this came not through some effort to remain calm or nice, but through years of practice and experiences in activist and protest settings that made it abundantly clear to me that sustained outrage leads to the kind of suffering (bodily and mentally) that can destroy you. Diminish your ability to be involved, maintain your voice, and possibly get something done in the world.

    But the process of seeing this really can’t be short-circutted. Each of us goes through it on our own time-frame, which can be moved along somewhat by practices like meditation and studying Buddha’s teachings, but ultimately will unfold as it does. I still feel like I have work to do when it comes to anger, but it can’t be about suppression or denial. It’s got to be about awareness, honoring what’s present, and letting it breathe enough to transform into beneficial action.

  • Bezi

    “Then I remember that there is nothing so tempting as righteous indignation. Nothing is more self-indulgent (ego-driven) than believing you are indisputably occupying the moral high ground.”

    man is that ever true

    *shaking head*

  • Jeff

    Getting back to Chris’ example of depriving children access to food, why do we have qualms about occupying the moral high ground in opposing this? How is it self-indulgent and ego-driven to be angry about a deliberate policy of mass malnutrition? Are the ethical issues that difficult to sort out?

    Maybe it’s the word “anger” that puts us off. I would suggest that a warm disturbance in the cool poise we cultivate and an implacable determination to resist are appropriate responses to vicious, ongoing, ideologically “justified” crimes against humanity. I agree that political work fueled by constant simmering fury will be incapable of adapting to changing circumstances and certainly toxic to the enraged activist. Detachment from emotional turmoil is as essential for effective organizing as it is for spiritual growth. But indignation does not always lead to blind hatred, nor does it invariably cloud judgment and poison the soul.

    What concerns me is that in seeking to extinguish the spark of outrage and deny moral certainty in order to preserve a sense of politically neutral harmony, Buddhists will themselves succumb to tepid self-indulgence and remain largely irrelevant to social struggle, except for charitable volunteerism and isolated “meditation-protests.” How ARE we actually fighting for the children?

    The fact is that poor and working people do have enemies, whether we Buddhists want to avoid that term or not. While we may all be complicit to some degree in the systemic ills so well described on this site, there are people who, like real-life vampires, are materially nourished by the suffering and exploitation of others and do everything in their power to defend and expand these evils (of course, one could say that despite their vast riches and inescapable influence over us, they are also hurting themselves, and perhaps some small measure of compassion for the international ruling class is not totally absurd). I hope that Buddhists, whether mildly angry or simply acting out of deeply felt interconnectedness, will begin to feel that an injury to one is an injury to all and (calmly) join in the collective efforts to bring control of our lives and health back into our own hands. We don’t have to wait for our emotions to settle down before getting involved.

  • Bob

    Jeff; your comments are spot on brother!

  • Vinnie Tan

    Definitely we will have anger no matter what happens. But the choice of controlling our rage or not is our choice. Think of it this way, when we show our anger, it does not benefit anyone at all. It will only make the situation worst in some instances. Or even worst, that uncontrolled anger that we have may make us do some actions that would let us regret later in life. Why should we act in actions that we do not want just for that moment? Shouldn’t we control it so that we would not cause any harm in any way?

    This is article records the teaching from Buddha telling us about anger. http://blog.tsemtulku.com/tsem-tulku-rinpoche/inspiration-worthy-words/anger.html

  • Jeff

    Buddhists don’t necessarily have to get angry about injustice, but they do need to get busy to change injustice. What concerns me is that our major focus is on the anger itself. Once that emotion has been defused and we’re calm again, it’s easier to “let go” of any desire to right the wrong.

    Maybe it’s a good thing that we still get upset when politicians try to eviscerate the food stamp program if it spurs us to protect and nourish our children. Of course, Representative Fincher and his well-fed cronies would prefer that our only reaction be to restore our inner tranquility.

    When I see thousands of smiling, peaceful Buddhists standing shoulder to shoulder with oppressed peoples who are struggling for decent living conditions, I will join you in discarding the last vestiges of my indignation. Meanwhile, I’m simply going to try to channel the anger into action.

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