The Angry Monk

Zen practice stirs up energy and emotion, and it can be downright ugly

| September-October 2010

  • Angry Monk Image

    Randall Enos /

  • Angry Monk Image

A lot of pissed-off people wind up at our monastery. This place has a tractor beam like the Death Star in Star Wars that pulls in everyone within a thousand-mile radius with four-letter words on the tips of their tongues. Her marriage tanked, he’s got an itch in his brain he just can’t scratch, she’s 45 and smells of cabbage and lives in a small studio apartment and nobody ever calls her back. They all wind up here, sold on the promise that Buddhism can alleviate suffering.

I said “they” all wind up here, but I guess I mean “we.” I recently had one of those moments when, upon the much-anticipated departure of an enemy who, as a Buddhist, I could never quite admit was an enemy, I found myself peering around the zendo and thinking, “Wow, there are no assholes living here anymore.” Whereupon came a sinking feeling: “Wait a minute, there’s always at least one. So if I’m looking around the zendo and I can’t find him—guess who the asshole is!”

Zen practice is good for angry people. The form is tight. It squeezes that deep red heart-pulp, pushing up emotions from way down inside you. A lot of stuff comes up when you do this practice. Zen gets your juices flowing. And with these juices come seeds—the seeds of your behavior, your character, your anger, all flushed out into the open for you to see.

In Zen we learn that human consciousness is an eminently natural operation. You plant a seed, it grows. Similarly, when something happens to you on the outside, in “the world,” the seeds of this experience take root within you, becoming sensations, thoughts, memories—your inner life. Conversely, when something arises within you, some inner experience, a notion, emotion, or dream, then the seeds of this inner event are disseminated on the outside, in the world, through your words and actions. Buddhists call this codependent origination: all things arise together in a mutually interconnected and interpenetrating web of being. “To see the world in a grain of sand,” William Blake wrote. Or as that great metaphysician Tom “Jerry Maguire” Cruise put it: “You complete me.”

Sounds romantic. But what if the seeds at the root of your behavior are the seeds of hate and anger?

A year ago I was walking down a bustling city street with my mentor, whom I love. We got into a fight about something, and I smacked him. It came out of nowhere and was meant to be light. Only it clearly did not come out of nowhere, and it was not light. I can still hear the thwack of my open palm against his belly. There was a long stretch of silence, wherein I should have begged for his forgiveness. But I couldn’t admit to the violence that had just erupted from within me. I couldn’t tell whether I meant it, whether it was real, where it came from, and how it got there.

Mary Meyers
4/1/2011 9:18:09 PM

I have to wonder why rriverstone_3 felt the need to repeat his diatribe 7 times! Talk about arrogance!I absolutely loved this article. People have such pie in the sky ideas about things like Zen, and then find out they bring themselves and their bag of tricks wherever they go! I found myself laughing out loud, and that last paragraph as well as the story of being ready for the blast and being totally disarmed by the smile made me weep. Pay absolutely no attention to Mr. Riverdance or whatever his/her name is, it was a fabulous article! OK, maybe I am sowing some seeds of contempt, but at least I knwo it!! :O)

11/5/2010 9:12:40 PM

I could live on just this for a long while: "But your heart must be quicker than your mind." Thanks.

St Fu
9/28/2010 1:26:57 PM

There is indeed a technology, or, if you prefer, a skillful means, to deal with internal conflict projected out into the world. See, for example, Unformulated Experience ( But, ultimately, it's a process that only ends when you no longer identify with being one of the participants and just watch it.

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