Hurt, Anger, Forgiveness and Acceptance in Zen — A Talk Given By Leland Shields — April 10, 2016

Posted by on Mar 11, 2016 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Hurt, Anger, Forgiveness and Acceptance in Zen — A Talk Given By Leland Shields — April 10, 2016

The National Teacher’s Stone Lion

Case 152, Dogen’s 300 Koans

Nanyang arrived at the front of the palace with Emperor Suzong. Nanyang pointed at a figure of a stone lion and said to the emperor, “Your Majesty, this lion is extraordinary. Please say a turning word.”

Emperor Su said, “I cannot say anything. Will you please say something?”

Nanyang said, “It is my fault.”

Later Danyuan Yingzhen asked Nanyang, “Did the emperor understand it?”

Nanyang said, “Let’s put aside whether the emperor understood it. How do you understand it?”

(Translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori)

This is the fourth talk in a series about the application of Zen mind and Zen practice to our relationships as friends, sangha members, colleagues, family, and members of society. In this talk, I was drawn to a topic I notice in my own experience, and hear about all the time, the koan that is forgiveness and acceptance. I suspect we all know what it feels like when we recognize we really blew it. We let ourselves or someone else down, or hurt someone. Even thinking about it might evoke a cringing, and heaviness. Sometimes all it takes is a memory of something we said or did years ago to bring back that regret. Where is Zen practice while we cringe?

Similarly, I suspect we all know what it feels like to be angry, if not furious, with someone who hurt us or let us down, or misunderstood our intent completely, and is right now dismissing or refusing to listen to the key clarification we are offering. The transgression could have been years ago, but if it still hurts it might also still bring anger now. Where is Zen practice in this anger?

The koan that is forgiveness and acceptance took hold of me when I first started working with cult survivors. When in the religious community they later recognized as a cult, I learned that individuals were taught that their only chance for redemption was through the specific beliefs and practices of the religion. Folks left when they no longer could believe in the religion. But I heard almost universally that what remained when they walked away was the sense of damnation without any belief in redemption. It is moving to me how painful this is for cult survivors, and for all of us that our judgment of self and other can be so deep and persistent. I don’t see this as a flaw. I do see this tendency as a call to address the koan of forgiveness and acceptance.

What captured me in reading this koan was the simplicity of the statement, “It’s my fault.” In our daily lives it can be so easy to respond defensively to a perceived error or event, or to apologize profusely. In the former, we can experience righteousness or indignation, ready to emphatically make sure we are understood. In the latter, the profuse apology, we can easily feel diminished or fearful that we will be rejected for our error. But this is a Zen story that has remained since the Tang Dynasty; Nanyang Huizhong died in 775 CE. There must be more.

I found commentary about this koan that ascribed Nanyang’s “It’s my fault” to indicate Nanyang took responsibility for the Emperor having missed the point. Perhaps it was true that this was the intention of Nanyang, we can’t know – but I find no vitality in this understanding. There must be more.

Anger and forgiveness are inherent aspects of our practice, though we may not focus on them often. We regularly chant Great Vows for All, including the second vow:

Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.

This is our current version after it was changed by Aitken Roshi some years ago. We had used an earlier translation of his from which he replaced “anger,” with “hatred.” The previous version read:

Greed, anger, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.

And before that one was:

Delusion is inexhaustible; I vow to cut it off.

The version I first learned from Eido Roshi’s translation in the 70’s had the second vow:

However inexhaustible my delusions are I vow to extinguish them all.

Over time the emphasis has moved through “extinguish,” and “cut off,” to “abandon.” In this, I perceive a shift from fighting against inexhaustible delusions to choosing the direction of attention. In this shift is a difference of attitude, with abandonment requiring no rejection. And we apparently no longer vow to abandon “anger,” but do vow to abandon “hatred.”

Another sutra we regularly chant is Purification. When I first joined TTS it was titled Repentance, and went like this:

All the evil karma, ever created by me since of old,

on account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

Born of my conduct, speech, and thought,

I now confess openly and fully.

By 2013 the version in our sutra book used the title “Purification,” and included the new second line changing only the word anger, to now read:

on account of my beginningless greed, hatred and ignorance,

Again we’ve moved away from the need to purify and confess our anger, but instead we purify and confess our hatred.

We are Zen practitioners, in a place of practice. And here I am filling the air with loaded, complicated words, like “confess,” “purification,” “forgive,” “anger,” and “hatred.” Remembering that each word represents an attempt to communicate a human experience we all share, but is not the experience itself, let’s be very careful. Remember also that most of these words are already used in our tradition, and in this very room. It is fitting that we find these words in our place of practice, where we have room for all that is, because surely they have places in our lives.

In Ann Arbor I lived by a church that changed the sayings on their marquee weekly. The only one I remember was, “Anger is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat.” I recall this saying for the clear expression of aspects of anger. First, anger is an emotion that can be very unsettling to the one who is angry. Second, we still don’t want the rat in the house. If we are too quick to extinguish, cut off, or even abandon anger we risk losing the message it carried – get rid of the rat! And NOW would be good!

I don’t know what distinction Aitken Roshi made when retranslating from anger to hatred in our sutras. But I do want you to know how I am using the words, and of course I’ll do so with a story. Some years ago my friend Joe and I were to meet at a house he had never been to. I didn’t know the address but described it by which block of a street, and said it was the one with vertical redwood siding. I don’t think about color when giving a description – I’m color blind. I was a carpenter at the time, and thought I was telling him the type of wood siding on the house. When Joe arrived about 45 minutes late, I learned the house was green. He threw a very expressive tantrum, grunting, growling, dropping to his knees, with elbows bent and fists clenched, crying out skyward with his frustration. I was of course apologetic and felt terrible! I was also amazed – he expressed his anger and frustration with absolute abandon, and nothing was directed at me. He was just angry – and for the sake of our vocabulary today, with no hatred. It is with this distinction I will use the words today. I did not feel separate from Joe or his anger – we shared the experience. If he expressed hatred, even briefly, I’m sure there would have been us and them and taking sides, in opposition rather than allied.

I want to speak concretely about practice with anger and forgiveness; to do so I’ll make up an example that is a composite of things I’ve heard and lived. Bobbie and Gene have been very close for a long time and share a living space, and each have areas of a kitchen counter for things they individually use. Bobbie gave Gene a gift of a lovely organizer so Gene could neatly arrange things in Gene’s area. Gene used part of the organizer and put part away, only to return home one day and find that Bobbie had reorganized Gene’s area. Gene, taken aback, complained about Bobbie changing Gene’s system. Bobbie explained that Bobbie was trying to help. Both became heated, angry, speaking hurtfully and being hurt. History arose- why are you always moving my stuff? There is no room for me here! – on the one side. And on the other – Why do you have to get so angry so fast! You didn’t appreciate my gift, putting it away!

I’m trying to paint a generic scene that captures an experience I remember too well. The content – stuff on a counter – is trivial. But the actions represent something not trivial, and very human, tender. Living in moments such as this one, I’m hurt and angry, I want what I say to be acknowledged, I might care for the person with whom I am struggling, but I’m not aware of it in the moment – I need to protect myself. At such moments it’s as if we live in a castle and just put down the portcullis, and lifted the bridge over the moat. We’re safe from invaders, weapons in hand at the battlements. Where is practice now?

Nanyang said, “It is my fault.”

A leaf falls in the water of a quiet pond; ripples spread in all directions. It’s my fault.

Wind blows a leaf free from a tree; the leaf falls on a pond and ripples spread. It’s my fault.

A tree grows near a pond; a leaf’s attachment to the branch weakens with the season. It’s my fault.

In this understanding of Nanyang, there is no resistance, and no separation. I am hurt and angry, closing off the world in my castle. It is my fault. Nanyang need not fall on his sword with shame that he is not more or different, and he need not struggle against another or the world because the other should be more or different. The leaf falls, ripples spread. I’m hurt; I can’t really open my heart mind to listen to you right now. I need safety.

In the ideal, recognizing no separation, and no self other than who I am in this very circumstance, I would wish to feel “Zen” about it – using “Zen” as meaning equanimous – as it is used in the vernacular. Very nice of course. But as we sit behind walls, protecting and attacking, being “Zen” is also present even here. Otherwise we are in the ironic position of lacking equanimity about lacking equanimity.

The simplicity of “It is my fault” can include, “I am hurt and my heart is closed.” “It is my fault” can include, “I am angry and I said hurtful things.” Just the practice of receptivity can be profound. Opening to what is, requires we let down the struggle that we be more. It can also mean the release of struggle that we be less, and accept the risk that we are not worthless.

There is a koan I heard once in which a student asked the master to tell him about impermanence. The teacher explained all things change, we cannot avoid loss. The student said, “Thank you, that’s comforting because I just broke your favorite tea bowl.”

This student missed something here. In acceptance there is still room for sorrow and an apology. We vow to abandon greed, hatred, and ignorance – which is different than vowing to never be greedy, hateful, or ignorant. Confessing openly and fully that I said mean things can purify. To do so asks that we release ideas of self that I do not say mean things, would not, because I’m a caring and thoughtful person. We can’t very well release ideas of self when we protect ourselves behind walls, and we can’t open the gates to these walls without feeling some degree of safety. Here is a starting point to practice. Here is the practice of no-self, in the messiness that relationship can bring out.

“I am not yet ready to open the gates” is a confession too, a recognition of the truth of who one is now. Practice is nowhere other than right here. “I am not yet ready to open and forgive” is another confession to one’s self or to another. This “no-self” we talk about is not a distant concept, it is available in this confession – this simple acknowledgment – of what is.

It is also easy to get lost in what it means to forgive – and that it might not mean the same to me and to you.

Here are some meanings I found for the word, “forgive.” To give up claim for requital. Forgive a debt. Cease to bear resentment. Pardon. Absolve of guilt.

None of these meanings require that we forget. Each of these describes a different experience for the one forgiving, and for the one to whom forgiveness is offered. I could give up any claim of debt while still holding resentment. If still holding resentment I still carry the burden. My practice here continues. While I hold resentment it is a koan that remains for me. There may be a koan for the two of us as well. Has there been open and full confession – acknowledgment, embrace? Or do I or we hold separation? The fact that the koan remains stuck in your throat is not a transgression, and though it may not feel like it, is a gift. Having the koan is vitality in practice. Don’t stop, open to it. Engage it. What is the burden? Who carries it?

The second meaning of the word, “forgive,” was to cease to bear resentment. I might no longer hold the burden if I were to release resentment of something you did that was hurtful. I might release resentment and believe what you did is less than I what I previously expected of you. You might not be satisfied that I could still hold you in low regard with respect to the event. Now taking the third meaning of “forgive,” If I pardon you – or myself – I believe there was a transgression for which I offer clemency. If you are burdened, then there is a koan for you. What are you carrying? Who carries it? There may again be a koan for the two of us as well.

If my conclusion is that you are absolved of responsibility, then I conclude there was no action to forgive in the first place. Absolved comes from the Latin, to set free. If you disagree and believe you transgressed – perhaps expressed hatred or made a mistake that harmed others – you might not find absolution freeing. In this case we would not have mutual understanding or agreement about what occurred. What is the burden? Who carries it? If one carries the burden is there a koan for one or for two?

I shared the koan of Nanyang with Madelon before beginning to write and she offered her perspective. She has found that when faced with the potential for anger or resentment, she recognized that the person did the very best he or she could. By offering that perspective to another she could also do so for herself – she also at each moment did the very best she could. I find in this no need for resentment toward another, and no regret or self-recrimination either. It’s like the story of a person piloting a boat who had the right of way, yelling and signaling to a second boat to move away. As the second boat approached the person yelled louder and felt angrier. When the second boat came close to striking, it became clear that the second boat was empty – The person was yelling at an empty boat! Where is there transgression when there is no capacity that anything or anyone be otherwise?

But talk of capacity inevitably raises the fear of letting one’s self or another off the hook. I said “off the hook” but you may have heard an implied “off the hook too easily.” Again, ours is a practice of joining with what is. “What is” can include sorrow for one’s own error, and thoughtfulness about doing otherwise in the future.” What is” can include protecting one’s self from being in a position to be hurt by another in the future. With compassion and openness to “what is,” there is room for the recognition necessary for purification. Responding appropriately to “what is” can include listening to anger, sorrow, regret, guilt – now what is the appropriate response?

In a recent talk I spoke of Simon Wiesenthal’s experience while still in a Nazi concentration camp. He was randomly taken off a work crew to hear the confession of a young SS officer dying from burns. His face was wrapped and not visible. The SS officer told of shooting Jewish men, women, and children as they fled a building that had caught fire from the grenades he and others threw inside.

The officer said, “Behind the windows of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand the man covered the child’s eyes…then he jumped into the street…I don’t know how many tried to jump out of the windows, but that one family I shall never forget – least of all the child. It had black hair and dark eyes…

Wiesenthal remained silent, unable to forgive the man, but carrying his own choice for years, unable to accept, or perhaps forgive his own choice. The question of his actions became Wiesenthal’s koan. In the book he wrote to work through this persistent question he ended by asking the reader to change places with him in that hospital room and consider, “What would I have done?”

Of all the horror of the concentration camps, Wiesenthal carried this question of his choice for years, chewing it. His silence was a response, but not his only response. He allowed the officer to take his hand, and remained in the room and holding the hand when repulsed by the story. He also visited the young man’s mother after the war, saw his face in pictures, and heard her grief for the boy who was so devout before Germany was swept by the insanity that was Nazism. And he was silent again when he could have told the grieving mother more of what her boy had become.

After Wiesenthal’s story, the book continued with essays addressing Wiesenthal’s question, written by Jews and Christians, artists and philosophers, and survivors holocausts. One of the essays was written by another survivor of Nazi concentration camps, Jean Amery. Amery addressed the fluidity and ephemeral nature of our capacity for forgiveness.

If I had been in such a situation, perhaps I would have been more yielding. Both your intransigence and my magnanimity …would mean nothing to me.

…forgiving or not-forgiving in this specific case is nothing more than a question of temperament or feeling. I do not want to impute any other possible behavior to you, but I can easily imagine that, under only slightly different circumstances you might have forgiven the dying man. Suppose you had seen his pleading and imploring eyes, which may have had more of an effect on you than his rasping voice and folded hands. Or suppose that before that encounter, you had been in contact with one of those “decent” SS men, whom we all knew, who had treated you with a little bit of kindness, putting you in a more tolerant mood…So, then you might have forgiven: in my view it would have meant just as little as your (or possibly my) refusal.

Open to what is, it is my fault. Forgiveness or not forgiveness, it is my fault.

How about for the anger, hatred, regret, grave errors, valid grievances you carry today? How about the anger you felt, feel, and will feel when arguing with someone dear to you – perhaps triggered by something small but having meaning that is penetrating you? I would not presume to give answers. But you can take it as a koan, calling for your response. In Wiesenthal’s and Amery’s responses we see there is not only one way. In grappling with our own koan of anger, hatred, forgiveness and acceptance, there is one way.

When behind the protective walls of our anger, there is a place to begin.

Returning to Purification:

All the evil karma, ever created by me since of old,

on account of my beginningless greed, hatred and ignorance,

Born of my conduct, speech, and thought,

I now confess openly and fully.

Openly, and fully – without barrier to what is, even now.

I’ll finish with a quote of Desmond Tutu written to explain Ubuntu, the principle central to the healing manifest through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.