I have always known anger, which is something I admit without shame. And over the past seven years of practicing Buddhism, I’ve observed that Buddhist theology has a contentious relationship with anger. My first experiences with anger began in elementary school—perhaps even in pre-school—when I first had a taste of what it meant to be Black in a primarily white space as an intelligent and ambitious girl in a space that prioritized the advancement of white boys.
As I grew into Black womanhood in the United States, the burden of anger carried an additional layer of stigma as it was feared and despised in comparison with that of my white female classmates. Frequently, I’d experienced the anger of white girls and women hidden under the cloak-and-dagger of white femininity, expressed in violently passive ways in order to preserve a superficial facade of softness and docility. My own anger, in response to the humiliation, trauma, and disregard of my personhood, was a threat to those who benefited from the delusion of the passivity of Black people and women.
Expressing my indignation was a reminder to both my transgressors, and to myself, that I am human; I feel, I yearn—I exist. This reality contradicted the narrative that many of my white peers had developed and so it was met with fury. They didn’t recognize the roots of their rage because they were unaware that their sense of safety, peace, and privilege came at the expense of my own humanity and dignity. When I affirmed my own personhood, I was challenging a status that they had taken for granted. They were protecting a position, status, and privilege that never belonged to them in the first place.
As I’ve grown older and delved deeper into my meditation practice, that anger has not dissipated. At times, my awareness of it grows more acute as I sink into a body that is the recipient of daily violence based on my gender, race, and sexual orientation. I’ve learned not to bargain with it or diminish it in the ways that my own being is already diminished by American society. Instead, I embrace it for what it is—grief. Rage is simply unprocessed grief not allowed to flow in any other direction because of the structures around it (i.e., systemic inequality). This acceptance has been a crucial step in honoring my own humanity.
I’ve not read many Buddhist texts that look kindly on embracing anger. Most of the wisdom I have received from Dharma talks, teachers, and readings has intellectualized the consequences of Black embodiment, reducing our reactions to our experience as a delusion that impedes the cultivation of bodhicitta. When I have heard bodhicitta referenced in Zen Buddhism, some teachers have described it as an intention, while others have referred to it as action. Simply put, bodhicitta is the practice of cultivating enlightenment “motivated by great compassion for all sentient beings, accompanied by a falling away of the attachment to the illusion of an inherently existing self.”
I have reflected on the difference between self and personhood since systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia operate by annihilating personhood, thus holding the “self” hostage and unable to fully “fall away.” (There are philosophers, such as Harry Frankfurt, who argue that being human is not a necessary condition of being a person—any being can be granted personhood once treated with dignity, respect, and mutual recognition.) Wherever there is an overabundance of self, ego flourishes. And where ego thrives, compassion has no room to grow.
Compassion, as Buddhism defines it, is “the willingness to bear the pain of others.” It is fundamentally based in empathy, which ought to inspire a person causing harm to reflect. But the test of compassion comes when the will to be compassionate to another conflicts with the desire to be comfortable. Without acknowledgement and acceptance of anger, how do we cultivate compassion? If we are unable or unwilling to bear the pain that contributes to the rage of Black women, then how can we compassionately alleviate their suffering?
Across the world, Buddhism is a very male-dominated tradition. Within the US, it is occupied primarily by white people—people who have neither responsibly engaged with their own “ancient twisted karma” nor with the consequences of a system from which they benefit. Many white Americans feel that their privilege is not their fault, which they mistakenly take to mean that it is not their responsibility. Consequently, they evade responsibility out of ease, such that Buddhism becomes divorced from the context in which it is practiced.
Anger can give us a lot of information about our own wounds. For example, becoming angry about being ignored by a restaurant waiter can be a reflection of a wound from feeling unprioritized as a child. Compassion is more than a theory, compassion utilizes presence to honor when others have been, and continue to be, harmed.
Neither Buddhism nor its American disciples are blank slates. I’ve observed white Americans treat Buddhism like a canvas on which they project their purity fantasies while evading the consequences of their own passivity, using mindfulness as either a relaxation tool or a means by which they can perpetuate the “white savior complex.” In other words, bodhissatva vows become another means of serving one’s ego under the guise of “serving those who are less fortunate,” many of whom are poorer, darker, feminine, and so on. The cultivation of genuine compassion requires a commitment to honesty with ourselves.
Breeshia completed her BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University and received her MA in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago. She also completed training as a Zen Buddhist chaplain via Upaya Zen Center. She currently serves as a Buddhist hospice/palliative care chaplain in LA County. In addition to providing spiritual counseling to patients, she uses her training as a reiki master teacher to offer touch therapy to alleviate trauma and grief.
In the evenings, Breeshia is either writing or using her experience as a birth doula and end-of-life caregiver to encourage those who are in major transitions to be open to what grief can teach them about desire, career, life, and relationships.