08 February 2008

The Anger Eating Yakkha

Browsing through the Pali Canon one often stumbles upon wonderful little oddities. This story from the Samyutta Nikaya leapt out at me while I was looking for something else. It is a story told by the Buddha to the bhikkhus while staying in the Jeta Grove...

Once an ugly yakkha sat himself down on the throne of Sakka, Lord of the Devas (also known as Indra in Vedic mythology). The various devas were appalled by this gauche behaviour and started to grumble and complain. But the more they grumbled and complained the more the yakkha became handsome and comely, more and more graceful. Confused the devas go and find Sakka and tell him what has happened. And Sakka said to them: "that must be an anger eating yakkha! ".

Sakka goes to the now handsome and good looking yakkha, arranges his robe over one shoulder, kneels down on his right knee and with his hands raised in greeting. Then three times he repeats: "I dear sir, am Sakka, Lord of the Devas." As he spoke thus, the yakkha became smaller, and more ugly. He got more and more ugly, and more deformed until he disappeared completely! Sakka then gives voice to these verses:
I am not one afflicted in mind,
Nor easily drawn by anger's whirl.
I never become angry for long,
Nor does anger persist in me.

When I'm angry I don't speak harshly
And I don't praise my virtues.
I keep myself well restrained
Out of regard for my own good.
Isn't this wonderful? The sutta is not much longer than my summary, and most of that is repetition. The structure of this sutta is much like an Udana - a prose story followed by two pithy gathas with a simple message. The moral is simple and straightforward - it echoes many other texts which advise on how to deal with anger. One thinks for instance of the lines from the Metta Sutta which enjoin us never to wish suffering on another even though we are angry. As far as I know this is the only occasion when an "anger eating yakkha" is mentioned in the Canon.

It brings to mind the Dhammapada verse (v.5) :
Anger never ceases through anger
Anger only ceases through love
This is an eternal law.
We could see the anger eating yakkha story as a parable illustrating this principle. The way to diffuse anger is not to meet it with anger, but to see that anger feeds on anger. If we meet an angry person with anger we escalate the situation. It's hard to be around an angry person and feel safe though - angry people can be unpredictable and even dangerous. I find I just want to get some distance between me and an angry person. If I'm responding to anger with anger then this is perhaps the best strategy. Words said in anger are often regrettable. Sakka proclaims that he keeps himself well restrained, that even if he does become angry he does not allow anger to persist.

In Tantric Buddhism emotions like anger are considered to be part of the path. Anger is related to Wisdom, is transformed into Wisdom through practice. The advantage of this approach is that it recognises the energy involved in anger, and how it can be harnessed in pursuit of our spiritual goals. However I think one needs to be very careful with this approach. One might attempt to justify unskilful behaviour on the basis that anger is "just energy" for instance. If we go around acting out anger then that is not going to help anyone, and indeed will hurt other people and ourselves. In early Buddhism anger is seen as aversion to some experience which one does not want to have. It is better to allow the experience to happen and cultivate equanimity towards it. I prefer to err on the side of caution in the case of anger and find the early Buddhist approach more helpful.

SN 11.22. Bikkhu Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. [1 vol. ed.] Boston : Wisdom. p.338-9. [= PTS S i.237f.]

image: blogs.cisco.com (tweaked)
Related Posts with Thumbnails