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.
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.]