Going Back to the Sangha and the “Anger” Koan.

With the ensuing birth of my second daughter, Persephone, I am brought back to the reason why I started sitting with a brick and mortar sangha – the birth of my first daughter, Eliza, more than 2 years ago. During my wife’s pregnancy I felt a sudden urgency to connect with my practice in a more structured way; to find people around me that I could practice with on a different, albeit, an emerging level. This wasn’t any stellar event – there wasn’t a massive realization.  No fireworks or choir of angels, no screach of demons or welcoming affirmation of Bodhisattvic compassion. There was neither Zen wit nor pithy commentary.  There was simply the conclusion that a different atmosphere and venue was needed to progress – the need to substantiate my practice – to reflect it against the mirror of a sangha and to see if it gives off light or just a dusky, contorted reflection of my self. 

Practice, whether at home alone or in a group, can begin to melt into the background. Rather than becoming internalized and manifesting itself in daily life; it becomes background noise – static – meaningless repetitive clutter from which an occasional voice is discerned.

My research began online and in the local newspaper with cups of coffee and a notepad. Eventually I located some area sanghas – one Vajrayana, one Theravada and one Zen. I made the requisite phone calls asking about each group’s approach to practice. Was it on a regular schedule? Lay or monastic? Was it completely independent or associated with a larger institution? Mostly meditation or mostly devotional? Large or small group? Cost and Fees? The small niceties were exchanged, the spiel was given and I continued on.

More important, though. was how the people felt to me when I spoke to them. Lucky for me, each group was in the range of what I was looking for. Small, personal and inclusive with only loose affiliations to larger centers or organizations. They were donation-based with no fees. Offered occasional sesshin and community trips. I was taking my time, enjoying this exploration and feeling out each group. I still consider myself lucky in finding so many small, independant sanghas in my area (since that search, two of the three groups have disbanded, leaving the Soto/Rinzai fusion Zen group I sit with the last one standing. Plenty has changed with that sangha, as well; it has since grown and now has a tighter affiliation with a larger center in Colorado). 

This search changed in urgency, though, when I heard some shocking news. A local father threw his 18 month year old across a room due, reportedly, to the child’s constant crying.  The boy hit a wall and bounced into its crib. (“bounced” gives it almost a cartoon-like effect).  Suffering massive head injuries and eventually falling into a coma, the child was rushed to the hospital. 

What brought this into rigid and blaring clarity was that this child was in foster care for most of his eary life while the birth parents were in and out of rehab and jail.  I knew the foster family (I worked with the foster mother) that previously took care of the child and his older siblings. It was just recently that they were required to relinquish the child back into the custody of the birth parents. To witness the emotions that came with the relinguishing of those children was eye-opening (actually more like wound opening and not an old wound that was reopened but a fresh gash). When not two months later this tragedy occured, bearing witness to the pain that ensued completely shattered my perceptions of compassion and pain (then the wound was re-opened). The foster family cared deeply about the children under their care and repeatedly told authorities that they believed the children would be in danger if returned this early after the parent’s release.

At this point, four things became apparent to me: 1) My own emerging fatherhood 2) My own laissez-faire search to prepare myself emotionally and mentally for it 3) My inherit anger 4) The trifecta of the injury of the young boy, the actions of the father and the reactions of those that were affected deeply by it.

I don’t think too many people realized how much this affected me when it occurred. I couldn’t stop thinking that it could easily have been me as that father. The specifics aren’t really that similar since that father was an addict and just recently out of jail and I am neither an addict nor abusive. Rather, I felt a connection to a father that could lose control. Any of us could possible lose control. We all hope that we are not the one that gets frustrated and in a moment of stupidity – does something horrible. Let me be clear, I was never a violent person. I never got into fights or started altercations with people but I always felt that I had an angry and intense edge. In a moment of anger or frustration would it really be that much of a leap from rational to irrational?

The next day when I walked into that little street-side zendo I felt a different approach to my practice. It would require a mental and fearful push to get me through those doors again. I walked in scared, shaken and trying to come to terms with my own responsibilities and the actions of others.  It was (and still is) difficult to approach strangers about something as personal as my practice. But the fact that I would soon be walking into fatherhood – a situation that was completely unknown to me at the time and with which I had no previous experience – pushed me through those doors. I started to sit again, focus, chant and engage others around me for support. I also started to blog.

 The first time I walked into that small strip-mall zendo, one of the lay-ordained members walked up to me and we started to idly chat about why I was interested in starting my practice there. I told her that I would be having a daughter soon and I wanted to prepare myself for the challenges that would soon be emerging. To myself, however, I told the truth. The truth that I wanted to start out of compassion for my daughter out of compassion for that poor child in the hospital. I wanted to start out of the fear that I would be (or could be) as horrible as that man who harmed his child. Even now, years later, that newspaper story haunts me – When I picture the events described in the story, the location looks shockingly similar to my own house. That day I felt as if I were sitting in order to save lives. That day the importance of compassion hit home.

When people liken Buddhist practice to a specific image, you are awash in a torrent of lotus blooms, Himalayan plateaus, somber Zen monasteries and beautiful cultural relics. A river of Chinese mountains, raisin-faced old mystics and venerable nuns pass in a blur. Flapping prayer flags lose their momentum and gold loses its luster when my image is presented – the contorted snarl of momentary rage and the vulgar snapshot of impact as that child hit the wall and fell limp into his crib. 

Now that is my fucking koan. That is why I practice. I shit out Dogen’s words and crumble Hakuin’s koans into a small balls and arc them into waste-paper baskets. 

Ironically, as I was just beginning to sit that day, a lady mentioned that she heard that the little boy in the news had just died from his injuries. Shocked, I sat that day with an intensity than I have not experienced before or since – completely open, sad, vunerable, horrified and angry. In between my sore ankles, burning thighs and weeping mind; I sat for the benefit of one sentient being that morning and have been striving with it ever since.

When I walked out the lady came up to me and commented that she “wished more fathers would sit”. I agreed. The whole concept of “sitting for the benefit of all sentient beings” had a slightly less esoteric ring since that morning.

I wish that other father had sat. It doesn’t matter where or how. It doesn’t matter if he was Buddhist or not. I just wish that father had sat.

But he didn’t and instead he passed this koan over to me.

This horrible, horrible koan.

Swaddled like an infant.


22 thoughts on “Going Back to the Sangha and the “Anger” Koan.

  1. I cried as well. I’m still haunted by an experience I had several years ago walking with an old girlfriend in a peaceful Japanese style garden in our city. It was a beautiful day. Lots of people enjoying the garden. I stopped to look at the pond, and a little boy came up next to me to do the same. He started to play a little bit with a couple of rocks along the edge, and was laughing. All of a sudden, I watched as his father’s hand smashed the back of the kid’s head, almost knocking him into the pond. The boy started howling, the father screamed awful things in our direction, and I stood there stunned and enraged. It took everything to hold myself back from hitting this man, and I’m a student of non-violence who hasn’t hit someone since I was 13 years old. It all happened so quickly, and although I have experienced and/or seen worse, more violent situations, that one stands out – probably because it was so clear how quickly I went from peaceful to almost enraged enough to continue the cycle of violence.

  2. Violence towards children is always devastating to bear witness to.  I felt enraged at the man (boy really) that murdered that infant but I still felt some compassion and sadness because I am fairly sure he had no premeditation to harm.  He just lost control.  That was the truly frightening thing for me to realize.  That it is a matter of every moment that we practice. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Beautiful blog. Something about the last two lines issue brings to mind the tail of the ox that wouldn’t pass through the window when the rest of the ox would. Thanks for allowing us to work on the horrible koan too.

  4. I have two daughters, now 22 and 26. Raising them, I understand the necessity of the spiritual understanding of the darker nature. Jack, I think that you choosing this path is valuable, not just for the avoiding the behaviour that you and every caring parent fears. By being and becoming a more balanced, more mature, more attentive person (the “side-effects” of a spiritual path), you will model qualities for your children that they can aspire to and build from. Being raised in this environment they have a step up towards intelligent, compassionate, rational lifestyles. They will likely see the violent behaviour of adults toward children as well in other situations, but they do not need to see it from their own parents.On the other hand a lot of people do not understand the ordinary technology available to allow a parent to withstand a lot of aggravation. Simple stuff. And Families have devolved to small single generation parent pairs, so a lot of the wisdom and lore of child-raising does not get passed down through the generations. (except now on the web, whatever that is worth)Oldest continuous Secret Society on earth, Mothers raising children. Some of their information will be trash, but some of it, on examination, makes good sense. A simple example that we came across, shared with us by an Italian Emigre grandmother at a bus stop, was the Tsp of Olive-oil daily (she said Tbsp, use your judgment) to quiet the babies stomach, especially for those babies subject to colic. I found later this was the same sort of remedy that the Red Cross begins with to treat people who are suffering chronic starvation, to get their systems used to digesting food again. And even when the baby is well cared for and nurtured and cuddled and loved, they can still get colic, and will scream continuously until they pass out from fatigue. Holding them during this time is crazy-making for the parent, because there is not really a solution, 125 db loud, and nothing they can DO, unless they go to alcohol or narcotics (common nostrums not all that long ago). We used gun-muffs, hearing protection more commonly used on the pistol range. Can hold a baby warm for hours on your chest, and avoid the violent impulses that might arise too easily in the human’s lizard-mind. I think there is a photo somewhere of my oldest asleep on my chest, me with the gun-muffs.Blessings, Jack Daw !

  5. I was 19 years-old, and a new not-ready-for-primetime father, working a job I hated, living a life I didn’t want. My two-month-old daughter was awake and screaming bloody murder at 2:30 in the morning and I had to be at my job/hell at 5:30. I sat with her on the couch rocking her, trying to get her back to sleep. Her diaper was clean, she wouldn’t take a bottle, rocking her was doing no good… on and on she cried! The more she cried the more angry and frustrated I became. Finally, in a lightning flash of rage, I threw her down on the couch next to me. It didn’t hurt her at all. (It was a very thick-cushioned couch.) But within seconds I felt like the biggest (or smallest) piece of crap on the planet. I don’t remember what happened after that. It was a long time ago but the tossing of my daughter has been seared into my brain and obscured all the rest. It freaks me out to think about that. (As it should) What if I had tossed her down to the right instead of the left, and she had hit the floor? What if she had bounced off the cushions and onto the floor? The scenarios make me shudder to think. In a way I’m kind of glad it happened. The revulsion I had for myself and my conduct changed my future behavior. I wasn’t perfect, but I never again ‘lost it’ with her. Ever since that night, whenever I read a story like the one you related, I feel a rightful sorrow, but also compassioin and a twinge of guilt. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” Just sit. Ironically, last year, in a fit of road rage, a man in a truck swerved at my daughter’s car causing her to lose control and subsequently crash, ending her life at 27. They never caught the guy. I like to think that he wishes he could take it all back. I like to think he has learned from it and has become a better person. I wanted to say something about blind rage. But my mind stops at ‘blind’.

  6. @rGyatso Thanks for the comment. I think there is a large unknown when jumping into parenting. At one point families were usually close to each other geographically (or in same house) so wisdom flowed better. Our first daughter would not sleep for the first year. I mean, maybe one 3-4 hour stretch a night and the rest was crying. Nothing alleviated whatever discomfort she felt but the only thing we could do was carry and walk with her throughout the house. To keep myself occupied (and sane) I did kinhin while carrying her or chanted the Jizo Shingon.

  7. Phil, thank you for sharing that story. You have my most heart-felt sympathies for the loss of your daughter. It is a pain that I can only imagine and even then the mind tends to shun away from the thought.

  8. As the English Beat once succinctly said: “It doesn’t have to be a nice day, just the only one you got, and it’s coming ready or not.”Thanks for sharing this powerful bit of Jack Daw, this vulnerable bit of Jack Daw, this empathetic bit of Jack Daw, and most importantly, the loving bit of Jack Daw. Metta.

  9. Jack, picking bits of Jack Daw out of our teeth, why, everyone should have this humbling experience !! We should all have the experience of eating Crow. It keeps us in proper touch with ourselves, and what potential bags of Sh*t we can be. With the minutest sensitivity, it will give us incentive to improve. Path.

  10. I am angry a lot. I hurt the people I love over and over. I practice so I will hurt them less. Even one less time is miraculous. But anger is not my koan. The koan, if I can do it, is anger free. That is the promise of practice. As my teacher reminds me, “It’s the best way to take care of your family.”Thank you for your living practice.

  11. @kmaezenmiller Thanks Karen, I think my koan is "engagement with anger." Not squelching it, ignoring it or tucking it away. Raw, blaring anger is what I look at in zazen. We have tea…   We sit together so that it does not rise unbidden in the moments when my control is lessened. I look to the root of the anger and in that way it is my koan. Of course, when at dinner with Anger, Compassion is alway invited..   Thank you much for your comment and advise. Always appreciated. 

  12. Great post John. Your words hit home as I struggle all the time being a father. My fuse is short sometimes, and I struggle to quell the flame before more than the wick burns down… Thank you for sharing this.

  13. This has touched a raw spot in me, cut away so much fluff/pretense about what practice and sitting is about. I don’t have the words to express it even. Thank you and thank you. I don’t think I will ever sit the same way again.

  14. @myriadthings : Thank you for your comment. I am glad the post touched a nerve and helped your practice.

  15. I remember the first time I contacted the center I would end up practicing in. I called the phone# and a guy answered his cell phone, I think he was washing his dishes lol. I went to the center, and it took me like a week to really start to understand it was a tibetan center. I think I read it somewhere but my mind kind of blocked it out, I was just desperate for dharma lolIt wasn’t the biggest center in the cit or the most popular one. I just thought the people were nice and wern’t too pretentious. Now that I look back, I think thats what happens when people serijously practice for over 20 years and have been through so many ups and downs from practice, I don’t think there’s probably much room for pride and puffing up after that. I wish I only had 1/5th of their humility, maybe I would be a better practitioner

  16. Jack and Phil and Karen – what you have written has deeply impacted me, reading felt like a sudden compression in the chest. I have struggled with anger and rage for years. I used to visualized in my minds eye a photo of a ravaged road I once saw after it was nepalmed in Vietnam, and imagined that much of my life was left, because of my actions, driven by what I would call the drunkenness of anger. Sitting has greatly helped as the thoughts that have passed by my mind have shown me the roots of my anger, from emotional insecurity to jealousy to . . . . I believe that the people closest to me will report that I’ve ‘gotten better,’ and more present, not only from sitting, but from therapy – also from the teachings of Charlotte Joko Beck and Jon Kabatt-Zinn. From both teachers, I learned, that I can rage all I want or need to, as long as that rage stays inside my mind and does not enter any part of my behavior. After sitting and raging inside my own brains, when I open my eyes I am nothing less than shocked that no one sitting around me has any idea of the storm inside of me.In addition, at 58, I am actually learning how to ask in a manner respectful of that other person, for things I want (after I figure out what it is that I want!). An additional learning for me is that it takes a good half-day for the effects of anger and rage to subside, and this period of time, at least for me, is a time I have to be on high alert for the perceptions and emotions that come up, all skewed by brewing anger underneath the surface. Jack I am so grateful to you for opening up this kind of open and honest discourse about such an incredibly important topic. With all the proverbs and dingle-dangle ‘accessories’ of teachings (from incense to statues) floating around, I feel the most learning from an honest discourse. I see this discussion as being particularly relevant in our time, when rage and anger are destroying the world as honest discourse has become, at least in my experience, a rare and fleeting occurrence. In my own aspirations, our children will be better off as we look at ourselves honestly so we don’t unload the same s–t on them, as we had laid on us (or speaking for myself, as I had laid upon me). That takes more than just sitting, it takes sincerity and honesty. Thanks again and take good care,Zach

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