The Buddhas of Outrage
Transforming the shadow side of our human nature
(Taken from a forthcoming book: Vajrapani, clarifying our relationship to power.)
When I consider institutional racism, corporate greed, corrupt politicians, or the damage we are doing to the planet, I can feel a mixture of outrage and fury accompanied by deep feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. The list of outrages that we humans continue to inflict upon each other feels endless, and can on occasion fill me with both rage and huge shame and disappointment at our dysfunctionality as a species. If I begin to think that, as a “good” Buddhist, I should not feel these feelings because they are a reflection of my grasping attachment to self, then I find myself in a serious inner conflict. I am not happy simply denying these feelings or writing them off as wrong or inappropriate delusions or afflicted emotions. I am unwilling to ignore them and hope they go away by being mindful andcompassionate. If I do they will simply become part of my unaddressed, unresolved shadow. Then they can emerge in moments of impotent rage that goes nowhere.
What I have to increasingly acknowledge is that there is a very dark side to our human nature. Despite the so-called advances in science, technology, globalisation and even ecological awareness, something deep in our human psychedoes not easily change. Certain aspects of our contemporary culture are rooted in our collective shadow and have become accepted in modern life because they are not easily faced, and even less easily overcome. We may all be seeking to be happy and to be free of suffering, but the shadow side of our collective psyche seems to endlessly andrelentlessly create the causes for suffering. The expressions of abuse, exploitation, prejudice, corruption and violence persistently continue and we all bear some collective responsibility. None of us live in a vacuum and can claim we are not in some way involved or affected. In the shadow of our human nature is a deep ignorance and self-preoccupation, often rooted in fear and insecurity in an unstable, uncertain world. Sadly this shadow often overrides the extraordinarycapacity for kindness and the consideration of others we also have within each of us.
When I think of these things I cannot help but feel a level of outrage at our persistent human failings. I am a passionate Buddhist, by which I mean a Buddhist with passion, and can feel passionately about these things. Thequestion I may then ask is: where is there a place within my understanding of the dharma for that passion, or the transformation of the potential outrage and feelings of powerlessness that arise?
As I reflect upon this question and on the recognition that part of me feels deeply disturbed and horrified by thecontinual expression of the dark shadowy side of our human nature, what comes to my awareness is something deep within my Vajrayana practice. We consider the qualities of compassion, wisdom and power to be three attributes of the awakened or awakening mind. Within the Vajrayana tradition, these are often personified by three deities that are usually seen as an expression of the qualities of the Bodhisattva arising from the heart of bodhicitta, the desire to awaken for the welfare of others. We are, perhaps, familiar with these three in their peaceful aspect, where Chenrezig is the embodiment of compassion, Manjushri of wisdom and Vajrapani the expression of the power of the awakenedmind. Chenrezig is often depicted as white with
four arms seated with palms together at the heart holding a piece of lapis lazuli, a symbol of his bodhicitta. In his second right hand he holds a crystal rosary and in his second left hand a lotus flower. Manjushri is most familiar in his peaceful red/yellow aspect, where his right hand holds aloft a blazing wisdom sword and his left holds the stem of alotus flower which supports the perfection of wisdom sutra. Vajrapani in his peaceful aspect is seated in what is called the relaxed posture, blue in colour holding in his right hand a golden vajra.
Within the Tibetan tradition, however, Vajrapani is most often seen in what is known as his wrathful aspect. He is a deep blue colour with a strong, muscular body, standing and stamping while brandishing a golden vajra in his righthand with what is known as the threatening mudra, surrounded by a blazing wisdom fire. His face shows a wrathful expression with three bulging fierce eyes and his mouth open and snarling, showing four large fangs. We may be less familiar with a wrathful aspect of Manjushri, where his form is very like Vajrapani, standing surrounded by wisdom fire. His body is black, strong and muscular, with his outstretched right hand holding a blazing wisdom sword and his left holding at the heart the perfection of wisdom sutra. The wrathful aspect of Chenrezig may be more familiar where he is known as Mahakala and is depicted in a variety of different forms, most of which are standing with two or four arms, also black in colour and surrounded by a blazing wisdom fire.
These three wrathful aspects of compassion, wisdom and power feel to me to be extremely relevant at this time in our collective history. It seems that many of us are feeling a sense of outrage at what we see happening in the world, but can also feel impotent to be of much effect. The rapid nature of today’s news media means that we are seldom able to avoid an awareness of the abuses and harm we inflict upon each other and the environment. We are continually reminded of the corruption and ignorance in those that are designated as our political leaders. When I feel outrage at these expressions of our human shadow, what I find inspiring within the pantheon of Buddhist deities is that we have a very natural and powerful channel for the transformation of this rage.
Manjushri in his black wrathful aspect provides an expression of the quality of wisdom that sees through our human nonsense, with a ferocious clarity that asks us to “cut the crap”. At times, when I hear our politicians blustering andposturing around things that seem disconnected and disingenuous, a part of me feels the intensity of that voice that wants to say, “This is bullshit – why don’t you wake up?”. When I tune into the nature of Black Manjushri I feel the potency of a voice that can manifest clean clear wisdom energy. This is no longer anger or frustration; rather itbecome a fierce clarity that sees through the shadowy obfuscation like a laser beam. Manjushri is the embodiment of the capacity to communicate wisdom. He is the personification of the Bodhisattva’s quality of skilful speech and expression that will cut through the darkness of our ignorance with “his dragon-like proclamation of the truth”. In his wrathful aspect this capacity takes on a potency that I feel is needed at this time when we see so much ignorance, dishonesty and corruption in our world.
When we turn to Vajrapani we begin to relate to that aspect of our nature that may feel hopeless and impotent, unableto have any effect upon the things that we see happening around us. Many of us can feel this way in the face of what we see, and choose to either turn away and ignore it because we are powerless to do anything, or feel frustrated andfull of rage. Again we can wonder
how we might find a channel for this rage in a way that can be clear and effective rather than frustrated and impotent. Vajrapani is often described as the embodiment of the power of the awakened mind, and we might see this as the power to effect or to be effective. Many of us can feel ineffective, as though we have limited our capacity to embody our power. When we do this it can easily turn to anger and rage, which is seldom of much help. Vajrapani gives thisaspect of our nature a natural channel to transform our frustration into effective energy. When we emanate this energy we can enable things to happen – not through force or control, but rather because our entire energetic nature is clearand aligned. It becomes free of the ego’s limitation and is connected to the source of our true nature. Then we can affect our world from the power of bodhicitta.
Finally there is the expression of Chenrezig’s compassion manifesting in the aspect of Mahakala. Any parent will know, when bringing up children, that there is a vital need for clear and compassionate boundaries. The difficulty for some of us is that we are kind and caring, but lack the capacity to assert clear boundaries as to what is and is notacceptable. When this happens we will often feel resentment and a sense of being taken advantage of, of being violatedor even abused by others. Mahakala shows us the capacity to say clearly, firmly and with complete compassion for the welfare of both self and other, “No, that is not ok.” He brings a quality of compassionate discernment thatinstinctively knows what is acceptable and what is not. Many of us can feel this very strongly when we see things happening around us that are not acceptable because of the harm they are causing to both the environment and those that live within it. Again we may feel powerless and unable to stand our ground and to express what feels true for us. Mahakala shows us that capacity to embody a wrathful compassion that will not take any nonsense when it comes to the welfare of others. He shows us how to hold and voice those boundaries clearly, and in a way that has compassion and bodhicitta for the suffering of this world at heart, not rage and resentment.
When I connect to these three deities I feel a sense of optimism in the potential to channel my rage and frustration in a way that can potentially transform my situation as well as the world around. What feels important in this process is that these deities embody a way of channelling our emotional energy, our passion, our outrage and the painful sense ofcompassion that can arise as we see the suffering of the world. Our energy has an effect on a level that is not alwaysobvious because it is not a material expression. Within the dimension of sambhogakaya, our energy body is in constantrelationship with the environment. While sambhogakaya is an expression of Buddha nature, in our ordinary lives it is present in the underlying energy of our emotional life and our passion. When our energy can be harnessed and channelled it will affect our environment. The deities I have described help that process to have clarity, wisdom, compassion and effectiveness. We may feel that, individually, this will not have great significance in the world; but if we are able, with others, to harness this energy with the quality of bodhicitta in our hearts, then perhaps we can change the way our human lives unfold. Perhaps we can effect change and wake the world up to a more beneficial and honest way of life on many different levels.
Our human shadow is a reflection of our personal struggle with those aspects of our nature that we feel are unacceptable. Those aspects are often reactive and powerful, but we keep them hidden until something activates them. On a collective level we see this coming out in the way some of us behave: whether it is in bigoted, hateful, aggression towards those that we fear, or in the dark side of the corporate world, or in the corruption and abuse of those in positions of power. We also see it in the callous neglect and disregard for the lives of the poor and thedisenfranchised who have no capacity to free themselves from drowning in the ocean of suffering.
It is in response to these human failings that we need compassion and understanding, but also the capacity to sometimes stand our ground from a place that is a manifestation of wrathful compassion, wrathful wisdom and the power to beeffective. This can be the outrage at the heart of bodhicitta that says, “That is enough, we can do better than this.” Then we may potentially address what can sometimes seem like an impossible challenge - to heal our human species of its painful roots of suffering in the three poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance.