Meditation: Fierceness, Anger and Authenticity, by Lama Catherine Jetsun Yeshe
We live in a culture of anger, so how to address fierceness? It is an aspect of the human character played out daily on the television news and through the ‘twitterverse’ in ways that are often harmful and destructive. Western society has reacted to this rage with laws and philosophic or religious constraints that all tell the same message: ‘anger is bad’. Yet we are fascinated by it and impelled to observe its action in the books that we read and the movies and TV that we watch.
In Olympic sport, we praise its positive use, celebrating the determination that fierceness brings to a skier rocketing down a mountainside or the strength of a Paralympic athlete who overcomes incredible odds to excel.
Sometimes fierceness is needed to defend ourselves or to help defend others for whom we are responsible. In the relative world of the ego, learning to stand up for oneself and others is a vital part of declaring who we are and what we stand for. If we cannot do that, we are liable to be ignored or run over. Much harm has been done here, especially to women who have historically been trained to step back and let others stand in the limelight. It is the mark of the dying patriarchy in the Western world that so many women are excelling in all fields.
Fierceness has always played a part in spiritual training, whether it is through the shout of the Zen master or the meditation practice of the many wrathful figures made famous in Tibetan Buddhism. They are designed to wake us up, though sadly, they have often been misused or misunderstood.
Authenticity must be a part of spiritual unfoldment. The first and most important step is to turn fierceness towards our own hindrance patterns, once we have identified them. Rigorous self-examination and self-honesty should form part of our continuing practice, for the hindrance patterns (called kleshas or nafs) grow back in ever more subtle forms. When we know that spiritual practice refines our consciousness and our conduct, we sometimes need fierce determination to continue on a meditation path that seems to have no material gain and requires long hours away from social interaction.
After committing to considerable personal work, we begin to learn how fierceness can be used in our interaction with the world. Taking a breath before speaking; learning to not write to someone in anger; these actions begin the journey. When we can calm the turbulent waters of our emotions yet see that strong action is required, we can begin to correctly use fierceness to help others. This cannot arise properly from any state other than the open heart. Finding our way to correct someone else needs to issue from a deep aspiration to help another or to protect another from harm. The heart needs to be open and we need to be vividly aware of how interlinked we are with others. Unless we can do that, we should step back and stay silent, for there is a karmic cost to strong words and actions that may re-bound on us and create more suffering.
Learning to understand the force of the fire element can seem frightening, especially to those who think the spiritual path is all about sweetness and light and never feeling anger again. Yet we need to understand this force that causes so much carnage on this planet.
Acknowledging our own rage, frustration and dissatisfaction from the safety of the meditation seat is both humbling and purifying. Doing this alone, without a teacher, counsellor or a sangha to support and encourage a person is perilous. Self-destructiveness could be the result and is, most definitely, not the point.
We need to experience for ourselves that all things are shifting, changing, evolving and dissolving. Negative emotions are like dark clouds that obscure the sun and colour all thoughts, words and actions. When positive, emotions are clouds that contribute to a beautiful sunset. Growing this wisdom mind can occur alongside facing one’s fierceness. Forgiveness for oneself and for others must be part of the journey. That does not mean condoning harmful behaviour by oneself or another. But it is the start of the transcendent perspective, that all things on heaven and earth are transient and essentially empty in their own nature.
Catherine Rathbun received her traditional teaching name, Lama Jetsun Yeshe, from Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, a lineage master of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, in 2002. She taught meditation at York University (1989 to 1997) and is the founding teacher at Friends of the Heart, a meditation centre in Toronto. With a background in dance — she was a member of the National Ballet Company of Canada from 1962 to 1963 — and a modern dance career in England (1967-69). She is the author of Developing the World Mind and Clear Heart, Open Mind, and is currently working on a new book called Waiting for Truffles: Meditations for Daily Living.