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Berkeley Zen Center

Lecture by Sojun Roshi

This lecture is reprinted from the August 2003 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

On the Metta Sutra, Part Four

(Continued from last month)

The next line is: "May all beings be happy." This is the wish. To me, this is the heart of the sutra. The rest is like a commentary. It's like the gatha at the end of the Heart Sutra where it says "gate, gate, paragate..." The sutra is explanatory, while the mantra or gatha is expressive. "May all beings be happy, may they be joyous, may they live in safety." If we keep that as the bottom of our practice, and I think we do, then we are always wishing that for everyone and for ourself as well. It's like a guiding principle.

It's hard to convey happiness when we are overwhelmed by anger. Suzuki Roshi often said, "Zen masters get very angry." In one sense he was criticizing them, and in another sense he was saying that there is another side to their anger. He said, "I get angry at you sometimes, but it doesn't mean that I'm angry." In other words, he could use anger, like he would use anything else, but he was not caught or possessed by anger. There is a difference between using anger and being caught by anger, or being used by anger. When we give in to anger, we are used by anger. We're used by our emotions. We can put our strong emotions under the controlling factor of reason. Anger is something wonderful, it's like sex. You can get off on it. You get a rush, and a thrill, and you're completely gone. It can be addictive, like a drug.

If we know how to use anger, we can use it to make a point. At the same time, we must keep the well-being of the other in mind. You can express anger with compassion. When you are doing that, you are, at the same time, protecting the other person. The principle of Aikido is to allow the opponent's anger, or emotion, or aggressiveness, to throw them off-balance, and to make sure they don't get hurt in the process. Not to hurt them, but to protect them. I think there is a lot to be learned from that. You don't see your opponent as an enemy. Even when people are aggressive, your stance is to put forth protection and compassion, and not get pulled off your center.

When you react to someone else's anger, then you fall into that place. You're no longer yourself. So how do you stand your ground in practice? What are you grounded in? If you are grounded in metta, then what happens when someone provokes you? Do you change your ground? If you don't change your ground, then you have to find a way while maintaining your equanimity. That is when it becomes interesting.

Student: If you try to maintain a stance of not getting involved in the other person's anger, sometimes they feel rejected or judged. I have a tendency to stand back from emotions, and if I allow myself to meet the person, with some responsive anger as well, somehow in that meeting it seems to move things a little more clearly to meet them with a certain amount of energy, and then there is more clarity about what their feelings are about.

Sojun: There is a difference between reacting and responding. In reacting we put each other on the defensive and exacerbate the problem. Response, on the other hand, allows us to step back and meet the person in a reasonable way without being turned emotionally. This way you can open up a space for both you and the other person. There are different ways of doing things, and there's no fixed method. It depends on having the right attitude and some intuition. You have to feel it out. The more you practice with it, the easier it is to respond. People sometimes ask, "How do I control my anger?" The best thing you can do is to make controlling your anger a practice. It's easy for me to say "Do this or that," but it may not help. It helps when you practice it continuously. Then, when a situation comes up, you respond appropriately because that's where you're coming from. But just to have an idea about it may or may not work.

In the Buddhist tradition, if you practice lovingkindness continuously, then it can be an antidote to anger because the lovingkindness is so strong that it is a basis. The base is still there even if you become angry. A husband and wife can become angry at each other, but if underneath they love each other, then the anger comes and goes. It's part of life. Everybody gets angry. But if the love isn't there, the anger can destroy everything. Lovingkindness-metta is the foundation of happiness.

(The fourth of several Parts.)

Tassajara, Spring 1995 

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