On Women's Anger

Monks in India performing a "lama dance"
This week I have been very angry. In my last post I called several men "shit," and I said that the lineage was "shit." I said this because I have watched so many Buddhist men abuse women, and in particular, last week Noah Levine denied accusations of sexual misconduct. I know that the accusations are true, and so I was filled with rage and grief. Part of me regrets publishing this. Now and forever, the internet will know I called someone "shit." But part of me wants to leave the post, because my anger was valid, and it is so rare that women are allowed to express anger. In fact, after I posted that, several people thanked me for my anger.

They say anger is a poison. When I was in India, I watched exiled monks in a monastery perform a "lama dance" in which dancers ceremoniously "kill" the three poisons-- greed, anger, and delusion.

In the Zen tradition, we take a precept to refrain from anger, or not give rise to anger. People interpret this precept in a variety of ways, but in any event, we are called to in some way control our anger.

In the Dhammapada it says:

"They insulted me; they hurt me; they defeated me; they cheated me."
In those who do not harbor such thoughts, hate will cease.
For hate is never conquered by hate.
Hate is conquered by love.
That is the eternal law.

But hate is not the same as anger. Anger is not the antithesis of love. Black women writers articulate the healing power of anger best. Toni Morrison writes, "Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and a presence. An awareness of worth." Anger often arises to remind ourselves that we have worth, that abused and powerless people have worth. In this sense, anger is useful. It reminds us that we matter, when the world is telling us we do not.

Anger can be connected to love. bell hooks points out that rage is often born of love, that it can be transformed to an act of love. She writes in Killing Rage:

My rage intensifies because I am not a victim. It burns in my psyche with an intensity that creates clarity. It is a constructive healing rage. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that self-recovery is ultimately about learning to see clearly. The political process of decolonization is also a way for us to learn to see clearly. It is the way to freedom for both colonized and colonizer… black activists must show how we take that rage and move it beyond fruitless scapegoating of any group, linking it instead to a passion for freedom and justice that illuminates, heals, and makes redemptive struggle possible.
In The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, Audre Lorde also points out that anger can transform. She writes, "The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth." There is a difference between the will to destroy another and the anger that comes when recognizing injustice or difference. 

There is a great usefulness in rage. I think it is unfair to say that it is a poison. In fact, it may be dangerous to say anger is a poison. As Buddhists especially, we are taught that expressing anger is wrong. We are taught to fear and be ashamed of our anger. I don't think this is useful.

What I will say about anger is that anger is hard to control. In this week I watched anger start as a specific response to Noah's sexual assault and then spread and bleed into all corners of my life, like the watery part of a water-color painting that can't be contained. The initial anger was valid, but it soon took on a life of its own. A few days ago, I bitched out a receptionist at my school for no real reason. After I did that I knew I had allowed my anger to grow unchecked for too long.

Anger is useful, and rage can even be good. Black women writers teach us that rage can be transformed into love and passion for justice. I wish more Buddhists were explicit in saying that anger is valid. I wish we were encouraged to be in touch with our rage as much as we are encouraged to let it go.

But anger is not enough.

Thich Nhat Hanh expresses it best when he says "suffering is not enough." In Being Peace he writes:

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.
In this week of anger, I thought it would consume me. At some point I realized that rage is not enough. Being angry all the time is not a way to live. It is painful. It is hard to sleep, hard to concentrate, hard to find anything good in life. I had to trick myself out of the anger. I sat under trees, looking up at the blue sky. When I passed a stranger on the street, I tried to imagine what they were feeling. I tried to send them kindness.

I tried to be kind with myself.

Women's rage is vast, like a great, underground ocean, and we are afraid of unleashing it. For good reason. Sometimes I think women's anger, if unleashed, would flood the whole earth. I don't know how to control my anger sometimes.

I know my anger is born of love, that my anger is important and good and valid, and I know anger is not enough.


  1. the more personal, the better you write !

  2. Thanks for your writing. I have been trying to see how the community is reacting to the sexual misconduct news, because i haven't been participating in sangha but am reluctant to do so given some reactions online from my local group. This is a thing about people I've been noticing... they WANT to believe things so they do.

    I can understand wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to someone you have known and trusted for a long time. Or, personally, being sympathetic to someone accused if you've experienced a similar pain in your own life. But there's something about his response of denial that struck me as incompatible with the dharma. I totally get that Noah is in an upsetting situation but his words were nothing like what I would expect from a Buddhist teacher.

    So why do many people support his statement or choose to believe a one sided story? They even said it was the job of the legal system and not us to judge people guilty. Well, hey, personally I have to walk around in life figuring out whether my friends, associations, teachers are trustworthy. We should be able to trust each other without having to go to court. Especially within a community that claims to value right speech and compassion.

    I'm actually mainly only writing this response because I've been wondering how the people of your specific generation/age group (like those currently about 18-28) negotiate this massive trend of outrage toward injustice with Buddhist teachings, or just your own mental health. I have a bias as someone's misdirected anger took me off guard and caused me much pain when I couldn't separate my own reaction from the event. So I wonder if I am grinding my axe of if I am truly curious. I do believe that it can hurt people to hold on to anger for very long and I worry about so many people glorifying it for such long period of their formative years. One thing I like about Buddhism is teaching to let it go. (and also understanding that those who cause harm are doing so "out of their own confusion/suffering") but I've been surprised to see and hear that from Noah Levine and refuge because I think they want to attract a younger crowd too. So like... is it the healing they need? Or is it just going to turn them away?

    Well, now I guess... . men like Noah Levine and the others who have done sexual misconduct while preaching against it.. they are doing plenty to turn people away

    1. Hello! Umm.. well, I'm actually 31, soon to be 32, so I'm not sure I can speak to that generation. In my own experience, since I was raised Buddhist and spent my twenties in monasteries, I was never really taught how to express anger. In Buddhist circles, we are encouraged to immediately move to forgiveness and letting go, without actually paying attention to or addressing the hurt. What I am learning too late in life is that anger needs to be expressed, otherwise it turns into resentment or depression. The good news is that there are healthy ways of expressing anger (so my therapist says)! I also think that before forgiveness or letting go happens, you have to actually feel the emotion. Like, how can you let go of anything before you actually have it?

      I do agree 100% that anger doesn't feel good, and I wouldn't recommend it being your default state. I believe we should all work on "letting go" of anger but first we need to a) feel it and b) express it in a constructive way. I think this is basically psych 101, and Buddhism is a slightly different modality.

      And, lastly, I think I am not writing about how we should hold on to righteous anger, but that it can help us get in touch with our own power. I've felt that a lot these days- it has inspired me to connect to women, write petitions, etc. Power and anger are very different, but I think anger sometimes alerts us to our own power.

  3. I went to sit with and listen to Thich Nhat Hahn in DC several years ago. What he said that I’ve held on to most often is something like “when I bring mindfulness to my anger it is much safer than when I leave it alone.” And he has said that mindfulness is not to control or dismiss anger, but to notice it and take care. Our anger is often a response to a boundary being crossed. It shows us we love and feel protective of ourselves or someone else. For so much of my life, my anger was expressed through tears because being angry was frowned upon for girls and women. If we don’t own our anger it will consume us. I think the practice is to turn to our anger and ask it what it needs from us. It is there for a reason. Because we have been harmed and have seen the harm done to others. We are allowed to feel that. And we can work to use that to take skillful actions that will better ensure that we create communities that are more inclusive and less harmful. Thank you for this conversation. ❤️����❤️


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