Anger and Social Change

I have the good fortune of having Facebook Friends who are more knowledgable and more experienced than me about activism and social change. The fact that we disagree about the means to achieve objectives that we have in common has challenged me to articulate an (unpopular?) point of view about anger as a force for social change.

Alex Himelfarb specifically, has written on his blog and on Facebook wall about anger as a motivating force for social change. As he points out, many people are disenfranchised, impoverished, dis-empowered and simply angry that their political systems and representatives have betrayed them. I too have felt betrayed – in particular by the Liberal party for reneging on its 2015 electoral promise to enact proportional representation. And I have felt angry about this betrayal as well as about the inaction by governments globally to deal with the climate crisis, not to mention the social inequalities among disenfranchised populations within countries and among countries.

So our reactions to ethical and social problems in society are not very different. We self identify as being in the “progressive camp”. Our differences are about “anger” as a motivation for changing things.

There is no doubt, that as a matter of sociological fact, Alex is correct in saying

Anger has in the past been an important force for building and expanding democracy, when those excluded from power and opportunity joined together in solidarity.

He also says:

Anger is always risky but can also be constructive, providing the impetus to overcome inertia and the inevitable resistance to transformative change.

In contrast, Alex says, there are ‘moderates’ who deny the existence of this anger and offer compromises. Think Joe Biden.

Alex cites recent psychological research on anger and political activism by Brett Ford at the University of Toronto showing that there is a correlation between anger and action for social change.

The conclusion of this research is that

…effective emotion regulation like reappraisal may be beneficial in the short-run by helping restore emotional well-being after upsetting political events but may also be costly in the long-run by reducing the potential for productive political action. [1]

The logical inference is that a social activist needs to harness anger (it motivates change) and couple it with “hope for a more just world in which people live in harmony with one another and nature” and “great things can happen” (from a Facebook post by Alex).

Again, Alex writes

it’s time to expand our perception of what’s possible, to stop denying or delegitimizing anger, but channeling the understandable anger in service of a national mission to tackle real challenges rather than invented ones and building a more just and sustainable future.

My perspective on Anger is that it is not a beneficial or trustworthy emotion. It is born of the pain and suffering we experience and see others experience but if it is the motivating force for action, the action will be imbued with the very energy it is trying to dispel.

However, anger should not be denied or repressed. It is a real human response – along with fear, indignation, anxiety, despair and a host of other emotions.  These responses must be acknowledged and understood. From the point of view of an individual’s consciousness, we would say – these responses need to be held in awareness.

But the “legitimization” of anger might be another matter. If legitimization means that anger should be viewed as a beneficial force, I disagree.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the first of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings – Reverence for Life makes this point:

We see the suffering caused by the destruction of life, and we undertake to cultivate compassion and use it as a source of energy for the protection of people, animals, plants, and minerals. The First Precept is a precept of compassion, karuna — the ability to remove suffering and transform it. When we see suffering, compassion is born in us.

The key in this passage is that understanding the suffering in ourselves and in others is the source of compassion and that compassionate action can relieve suffering. Compassion for suffering arises from being attuned and sensitive to our own suffering and the suffering of others, therefore it is necessary to remain in contact with it:

It is important for us to stay in touch with the suffering of the world. We need to nourish that awareness through many means — sounds, images, direct contact, visits, and so on — in order to keep compassion alive in us.

Nhat Hanh is inviting us not to avert our attention from suffering in the world – we have to face it, to see it, to recognize it. It takes courage because it is often hard to witness.  Watching the suffering caused by climate change is hard enough. But there is also the ignorance and greed of people and corporations who regularly and consciously commit crimes of dis-information and cruelty that aggravate and perpetuate this suffering it is sometimes unbearable.

The Nhat Hanh continues:

… we must be careful not to take in too much. Any remedy must be taken in the proper dosage. We need to stay in touch with suffering only to the extent that we will not forget, so that compassion will flow within us and be a source of energy for our actions. If we use anger at injustice as the source for our energy, we may do something harmful, something that we will later regret. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that is useful and safe. With compassion, your energy is born from insight; it is not blind energy.

Alex references the Marxist philosopher Gramsci who

warned that these in-between times were ripe for morbid symptoms, for monsters who use and amplify fear and anger.

Not only do demagogues and hate-mongers [Bannon / Lepen (father or daughter) et al.] stoke fear (e.g. of immigrants / refugees) and anger (e.g. against the establishment “swamp”) but they also rely on the self-righteous anger of the left (e.g. to start impeachment proceedings against the 45th president of the United States) to fuel the motivation of zealots on the right. It’s a never-ending cycle of polarization and extremism that triggers paranoia-fuelled violence (viz. the mass murder of Jews in a Pittsburg synagogue or of Muslims in a Quebec mosque).

Thich Nhat Hanh continues:

It never helps to draw a line and dismiss some people as enemies, even those who act violently. We have to approach them with love in our hearts and do our best to help them move in a direction of nonviolence. If we work for peace out of anger, we will never succeed. Peace is not an end. It can never come about through non-peaceful means.

To the political activist “Peace is not an end.” must sound like a mysterious Koan. What it means is – Peace can be the result [of an action], but only if that action is also the means by which it is performed. How something is done conditions both the results of that action and how people respond to it.

This view can easily be misconstrued as advocating a “wet-noodle” kind of attitude: “whatever shall be, shall be” or “don’t worry, be happy” or even “we need to just accept things as they are”. Not at all. The entire subject-matter of Buddhist practice – at the individual level but also at the social level – is to bring about the end of suffering by witnessing to it and bringing it to an end with love and understanding. It is an act of compassion to (fearlessly) stand up against racism and oppression to be a (peaceful) peace-activist (as Nhat Hanh himself has been all his adult life) and to bring about justice and equality.

In his statement of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings Nhat Hanh encourages his disciples to do their best “to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may […] threaten our safety” and that “members of a spiritual community, we should […] take a clear stand against oppression and injustice” as well as to “strive to change the situation [of oppression and injustice], without taking sides in a conflict.”

By not taking sides, not holding to fixed views, not being oppositional (“them” and “us””), the Buddhist social activist can bring about freedom and equality, and peace and reconciliation by cultivating the conditions that are favourable for their manifestation.

From this perspective, non-violent resistance and activism is not only a question of restricting our actions to do no physical harm, it also has to do with cultivating compassionate intentions for those actions.

[1] Ford, B. Q., Feinberg, M., Lam, P., Mauss, I. B., & John, O. P. (2018). Using reappraisal to regulate negative emotion after the 2016 US Presidential election: Does emotion regulation trump political action?. Journal of personality and social psychology.

May 26 – June 16: Meditation and the Gentle Art of Letting Go

I will be teaching a series of 4 evening classes at the University of Ottawa Center for Continuing Education entitled “Buddhist Meditation and the Gentle Art of Letting Go” on May 26, June 2, 9, 16, 2015 and there are still some places available. It is possible to register from the web site:

The course focuses on the Anapanasati Sutra: the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Although participants are not necessarily expected to have taken the earlier introductory course (see the previous post) some previous meditation experience will be helpful. Each two-hour session will include two guided meditation periods that run from 30 to 45 minutes, and participants will have time to ask questions about their own meditation practice.

Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation @ University of Ottawa

Laureen Osborne will be teaching a series of 4 evening classes at the University of Ottawa Center for Continuing Education entitled “An Introduction to Buddhist Meditation”  on April 21, 28, May 5, 12, 2015 and there are still some places available. It is possible to register from the web site:

Laureen Osborne is a Buddhist teacher. She has been a practising Buddhist in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh for over ten years. She has taught a workshop on mindful eating. Her other passions include a love of dogs and vegetarianism. She has worked as an editor, writer, and seminar speaker and is the author of four books including a cookbook titled ‘Vegetarian for a Day’.

Retreat with Monastics from Blue Cliff Monastery, Ottawa May 8-10, 2015

A retreat with monastics from Blue Cliff Monastery is being held in Ottawa in May 2015.

Please go to  for registration and details


Peace and Healing is in Every Step

A Retreat with the Nuns and Monks of Blue Cliff Monastery

in the Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh

May 8 – 10, 2015
St Paul University, Room L120,
223 Main St, Ottawa Ontario, K1S IC4

Meditation Course @ U. Ottawa Nov. 25 – Dec. 16, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 9.07.59 AMI will be teaching a series of 4 evening classes at the University of Ottawa Center for Continuing Education entitled “Buddhist Meditation and the Gentle Art of Letting Go”  on November 25, December 2, 9, 16, 2014 and there are still some places available.  It is possible to register from the web site:

Thich Nhat Hanh’s New Translation of the Prajñāpāramitā (Heart Sutra)

It is not often that a great Zen master offers generations to come a radical re-translation of a sacred text.

This new version of the Prajñāpāramitā is now on the Plum Village web site, along with Thay’s explanation for why he wrote this new translation.

To appreciate the greatness of this new translation, there’s nothing quite like reading it side by side with the previous one:

Heart of the Prajñāpāramitā
(Plum Village Chanting Book, 2000)
The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
(Plum Village Web Site, 2014)
The Bodhisattva Avolokita,
while moving in the deep course of
perfect understanding,
shed light on the five skandas
And found them equally empty.
After this penetration he overcame ill-being.
while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.
Listen, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness,
emptiness is not other than form.
The same is true with feelings, perceptions,
mental formations and consciousness.
“Listen Sariputra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.
Listen Shariputra,
all dharmas are marked with emptiness.
They are neither produced nor destroyed,
neither defiled nor immaculate,
neither increasing nor decreasing.
“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Immaculacy,
no Increasing no Decreasing.
Therefore, in emptiness there is neither form,
nor feeling, nor perceptions, nor mental formations, nor consciousness.
“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.
No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.
No form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,
no objects of mind.
No realms of elements (from eyes to mind consciousness),
The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena
which are the six Sense Organs,
the six Sense Objects,
and the six Consciousnesses
are also not separate self entities.
no interdependent origins and no extinction of them.
(From ignorance to death and decay).
The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising
and their Extinction
are also not separate self entities.
No ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path.
No understanding, no attainment.
Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,
the End of Ill-being, the Path,
insight and attainment,
are also not separate self entities.
Because there is no attainment,
the Bodhisattvas, grounded in perfect understanding,
Find no obstacles for their minds.
Having no obstacles, they overcome fear,
liberating themselves forever from illusion
and realizing perfect nirvana.
Whoever can see this
no longer needs anything to attain.
Bodhisattvas who practice
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
see no more obstacles in their mind,
and because there
are no more obstacles in their mind,
they can overcome all fear,
destroy all wrong perceptions
and realize Perfect Nirvana.
All Buddhas in the past, present, and future,
thanks to this perfect understanding,
arrive at full, right, and universal enlightenment.
All Buddhas in the past, present and future
by practicing
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
are all capable of attaining
Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.
Therefore one should know that perfect understanding
is the highest mantra,
the unequalled mantra,
the destroyer of ill-being,
the incorruptible truth.
A mantra of prajnaparamita should therefore be proclaimed:
“Therefore Sariputra,
it should be known that
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
is a Great Mantra,
the most illuminating mantra,
the highest mantra,
a mantra beyond compare,
the True Wisdom that has the power
to put an end to all kinds of suffering.
Therefore let us proclaim
a mantra to praise
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha.

Why is the “Present Moment” a “Wonderful Moment”?

A question that often arrises with Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” is this: what if the present moment is not a wonderful moment – what if it is one of great difficulty or pain or anguish?

The first thing to say is that this phrase does not mean “don’t worry, be happy” – at least not in the sense of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman.  There is no denying that there is suffering in life.

However this phrase of Thay is an assertion that suffering can be transformed – that happiness is possible and that it is possible right here and now. I experience “the present moment is a wonderful moment” to  be true because the awareness of the moment is wonderful, not because whether what is happening in the present moment is pleasant or unpleasant.

Thay often suggests “enjoy your non-toothache” and encourages all his students to remember that “we already have more than enough conditions to be happy” (see the 7th Mindfulness Training in the 14 Mindfulness Trainings reproduced below). In the 7th Mindfulness training Thay’s encourages us to touch the “wondrous elements…[available] in all situations”. But for me, the most wondrous element of every moment is the awareness of this moment. And every moment of awareness has that element in common with every other moment, regardless of what is happening in it.

The ability to be fully aware of the present moment is also the ability to be “non-discriminating” between the experiences we like (because they are pleasant) and the experiences we don’t like (because they are unpleasant). Awareness is non-discriminating because awareness does not want to get and does not want to reject, it just is aware, and accepting of everything that manifests.

No Mud, No Lotus

Thay has often also said “no mud, no lotus”. This can be understood in at least two ways. One is: “without the mud, there can be no lotus”.  Thus, if you want the lotus, you have to accept the mud because it is necessary for the lotus. This is often a difficult teaching to really practice sincerely because some muds can be quite difficult to bear and the incentive to bear with them is the promise of the lotuses (in the future). So Thay emphasizes that we learn to focus our mindfulness on all the wonderful lotuses that are there even when there also appears to be a lot of mud at times.

Many other meditation teachers also give the instruction, for example, that when a pain in the body arises during meditation – that the meditator should focus on a part of the body that is pleasant or neutral to encourage the development of mindfulness of the experience of the “pleasant” (or neutral) phenomena in the body that is available.

Another meaning to “no mud, no lotus” is: true happiness requires neither mud nor lotus. Or to put it another way, true happiness encompasses both mud and lotus and does not depend on them being beautiful or not beautiful.

True happiness is rooted in awareness which is only happening in the present moment. This is why happiness is possible in every circumstance. The real “joy” in the enjoyment of our tea, our breathing and our non-toothache is the joy that springs from the light of awareness itself.

The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment

Aware that life is available only in the present moment, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or cravings, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to be aware of what is happening in the here and now. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, in all situations. In this way, we will be able to cultivate seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness. We are aware that happiness depends primarily on our mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that we can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy.

Gratitude for Cecile Kwiat

Dear Cecile,

I few weeks ago I learned that you are no longer with us – in body anyway. It had been 15 or 20 years since we had spoken last, I think.  On Salt Spring Island, if I remember correctly. It seemed like the perfect place for you – soft delicate clouds amid the pine trees and near the gentle sea.

Thank you for being one of my spiritual guides – your no-nonsense, down-to-earth, the-dharma-is-everywhere teachings will stay with me. Like the time I chided you for being a smoker – how could a Dharma teacher smoke cigarettes after all? You said it made you more ordinary – less other-worldly, perhaps.  Like the way you reached out to children by playing video games with them.

My favourite moment with you was in Ottawa at the beginning of my journey.  I asked you – “what’s the point of practicing mindfulness”: what good does it do, I wondered.  You instructed me to close my eyes and then proceeded to whack me on the head with your moccasin slipper. “Pay Attention or There Will Be Harm” was the title of that short Dharma lesson.

Perhaps your kindest and most compassionate teaching was the time I was really struggling at a retreat with you – I was striving and striving and not getting anywhere and my body was in pain and it all felt quite pointless and hopeless.  Your instruction to me was: “take your car, drive down the road to the nearby lake and go for a swim”.  I remember that swim vividly – particularly the soothing love of the water on my body and the disolution of the boundaries of “me”.

Whenever I read the Aghata Vinaya Sutra (Anguttara Nikaya 5.162) that image and experience comes to mind.  The Sutra ends with this passage:

“My friends, suppose that not far from the village there is a very beautiful lake. The water in the lake is clear and sweet, the bed of the lake is even, the banks of the lake are lush with green grass, and all around the lake, beautiful fresh trees give shade. Someone who is thirsty, suffering from heat, whose body is covered in sweat, comes to the lake, takes off his clothes, leaves them on the shore, jumps down into the water, and finds great comfort and enjoyment in drinking and bathing in the pure water. His heat, thirst, and suffering disappear immediately. In the same way, my friends, when you see someone whose bodily actions are kind, whose words are kind, and whose mind is also kind, give your attention to all his kindness of body, speech, and mind, and do not allow anger or jealousy to overwhelm you. If you do not know how to live happily with someone who is as fresh as that, you cannot be called someone who has wisdom.”

Thank you for being this lake of kindness and compassion, Cecile. I am grateful that I had the wisdom to have you as a companion on the path.

Thank you.

Love – Andre

Mindfulness in the Mainstream

g9510.20_mindful.inddYou know when the practice of mindfulness has entered into the mainstream of North American culture when it has been given the Time Magazine front cover treatment. This Time article follows in the footsteps of Mindfulness Is A Useful Business Skill in Forbes Magazine (late November 2013) and the New York Times essay Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention (in early November 2013).

The Huffington Post offers an explanation for Why 2014 will be the Year of Mindful Living which shows, among other things, the following Google Trends map on the search term “mindfulness”:

In short, mindfulness is trending.

I found the article in Time rather unsatisfying mostly because it portrays mindfulness as  a “coping strategy”, a “survival skill” and a “key to success” to be used for personal advancement. This isn’t in spirit of how Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is taught, in my experience. The journalist also describes Jon Kabat-Zinn as someone “selling meditation and mindfulness to America’s fast-paced, stressed-out masses”.

I had always thought that Mindfulness was about helping to alleviate suffering! Or cultivating happiness, kindness, love, compassion and generosity.

Buddhist teachers and writers have been worrying about the popularizing of mindfulness for months.  In June 2013 David Loy and Ron Purser wrote a provocative article in the Huffington Post criticizing the corporate appropriation and commercialization of “McMindfulness”. In this article they say:

Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context …  [decontextualizes] mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics [and this] amounts to a Faustian bargain.

It’s a compelling argument. Mindfulness, when taught exclusively as a “stress reduction” technique – while undoubtedly valuable – is limiting both to the student and the teacher. The key to real happiness is not only mindfulness but a lifestyle that supports it and an understanding of its broader purpose beyond its service to the self.

The McMindfulness article concludes:

One hopes that the mindfulness movement will not follow the usual trajectory of most corporate fads — unbridled enthusiasm, uncritical acceptance of the status quo, and eventual disillusionment. To become a genuine force for positive personal and social transformation, it must reclaim an ethical framework and aspire to more lofty purposes that take into account the well-being of all living beings.

I hope they are right about the fate of mindfulness as a corporate fad. But I also feel quite sure that one need not start out the practice of mindfulness with the well-being of all sentient creatures foremost in mind. My own practice began as a “mental hygiene” practice and evolved over many years into a transformation of lifestyle and world-view.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a reassuring counterpoint to worries about McMindfulness trends in his January 2014 interview You Have the Buddha in You in the Shambhala Sun:

We don’t have to worry whether meditation is being misused to make money. Meditation can only do good. It doesn’t just help you calm your own suffering. It also gives you more insight into yourself and the world. If your business is causing environmental problems and you practice meditation, you may have ideas about how to conduct your business in such a way that you will harm nature less. When you experience the wisdom brought about by meditation, then naturally you want to conduct your business in a way that will make the world suffer less.

So don’t worry about whether meditation is serving a wrong cause. It can change a wrong cause to a good cause.”

Thay is right: any amount of mindfulness anywhere is better than none.

Nevertheless, I think there is a middle way. While mindfulness can transform a wrongly motivated intention to practice, starting out with the motivation of greed – be it for attainments or self improvement – may not be the most helpful way to start off.  But neither is it necessary to begin with the desire to free all sentient beings from suffering. Most people’s initial motive for practicing mindfulness is usually to be free from one’s own suffering – and that is a perfectly valid Dharma Door. Maybe greed is too – but only, I suspect, if you have a great master to help you be free from it.  Otherwise, I expect, it will be a tricker journey.