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The error of retribution
Much of natural human behavior is based on reciprocation. Friendship is reciprocated, our economy is based on the principle of mutually agreeable exchange. It is not surprising that our natural response when someone harms us is retaliation. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is a pervasive ethic to this day. Much of American criminal justice, not to mention foreign policy, is based on retaliation.
Nonetheless, Buddhist ethics is different. Recall that generosity is not pure if some kind of payback is expected, and an equal exchange is two missed opportunities for merit-making. Harmlessness is practiced toward all living things across the board, just as mental qualities of of renunciation and kindness are not selective.ii We don’t exclude some as not deserving of our practice. This makes our practice simple: our job is to embody generosity, harmlessness and kindness toward others in all circumstances, regardless of how they behave. Their practice is their own, ours is our own; we cannot do it for them.
The Dhammapāda wisely states in this regard:
Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By kindness alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal. (Dhammapāda 5)
Hatred is both cause and result of abuse. Where hatred is alive, bringing more hatred to bear only adds fuel to the fire. Yet foolish people think and behave this way. Kindness is that which seeks benefit and is therefore most capable of correcting disharmony.
He practices for the welfare of both,
His own and the other’s,
When, knowing that his foe is angry,
He mindfully maintains his peace. (SN 11.4, SN 7.2)
The famous simile of the saw presents one of the strikingly gruesome of the Buddha’s images. Through this vivid image the Buddha challenges us to give up the error of retribution even under almost impossible circumstances.
“Monks, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching.” (MN 21)
We should, in brief, bend over backwards in our effort to maintain harmony even in the most adverse conditions.
Anger, a kind of hatred, is our great retributive emotion and one of the primary and most immediate conditions of disharmony. Anger has no wisdom; it knows only one thing. Yet many of us are so afflicted by anger that ridding ourselves of its grip becomes a primary focus of our practice. In one of the Buddha’s discourses he describes three kinds of persons: The first is like a line etched in stone; he gets angry and anger persists for a long time. The second is like a line etched in the ground; he gets angry, but his anger erodes quickly. The third – and this is what we should aspire to be – is like a line etched in water; even if spoken to harshly he does not anger, but “remains on friendly terms with, mingles with and greets,” the one who would make the first two types of people angry. (AN 3.132) The last has a mind most conducive to harmony.
We reserve our most virulent anger for fellow humans. We do not, for instance, generally get angry at gravity or rain, no matter how implicated these may be in our personal hardships. Yet even a hint of disregard or an unskillful word from a human can put us into an instant rage. Anger also has a tipping point, past which the object of our vexation becomes dehumanized, demonized, becomes – at least temporarily, for this same person might, paradoxically, at other times be one of our dearest friends – a source of irremediable evil, rather than a conditioned complex of pleasing virtues and vexing faults like the rest us. This is the great delusion anger evokes.
Anger is a conditioned response that can be unlearned as a part of purification of mind. However, there are also a number of reflections or thought experiments that many find useful in this regard. The Buddha suggests that we put ourselves in the shoes of others (SN 55.7), fully recognizing our common humanity, our suffering, our desire for happiness. He also points out, in view of anger’s kammic implications, that in responding by anger we are doing to ourselves just what our most ill-intentioned foe would want for us (AN 7.64).
In the end, we should be able to echo Sāriputta’s lion’s roar, spoken to the Buddha:
Just as they throw pure and impure things on the earth – feces, urine, spittle, pus and blood – yet the earth is not repelled, humiliated or disgusted because of this; so too, Bhante, I dwell with a mind like earth, vast exalted, and measureless, without emnity and ill will. (AN 9.11)
This is how we learn to harmonize in a disharmonious world.