Compassionate Anger and Why it Must Continue

This post is inspired by a blog post on compassionate anger by Sandra Pawla of the How Did it Happen? Blog and a recent post by Tenzin Peljor of the Buddhism Controversy blog

The power of compassionate anger

As Sandra notes in her recent article ‘Get Angry! The Dalai Lama on Compassionate Anger’, the Dalai Lama has spoken about compassionate anger in his books Be Angry and Beyond Religion, Ethics for the Whole World. The quotes she shares in her article are so wonderfully sane and bring much-needed common sense into a Buddhist worldview that usually simply declares anger bad. Thank you, Sandra for writing that helful article. (For a detailed look at the difference between negative and positive anger read the whole article and feel free to discuss it in the comments here.)

“There are two types of anger.  One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful.  Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having.’

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

In assertiveness training, you learn how to recognise when a situation calls for a strong, clear response, and you learn to do that without getting angry. This, like compassionate anger, is using the pure energy of the anger – mirror-like wisdom – to drive your actions rather than getting caught in the destructive/unenlightened side of anger. Assertiveness can look angry to others, but no one other than the person being assertive can know whether they are consumed by anger or driven by the energy inherent in it. Dismissing people as ‘just angry’ is a particularly Buddhist and new age way of discrediting people that speak up about injustice, but those who continue year after year are more likely to be driven by compassionate anger – the other kind is far too exhausting to maintain.

His Holiness also makes it clear that it’s not enough to sit in our caves and meditate, rather that, ‘ When faced with economic or any other kind of injustice, it is totally wrong for a religious person to remain indifferent.  Religious people must struggle to solve these problems.’

When I learned what had happened to people in my sangha, I felt angry, but it was anger infused with a desire to protect the victims, support them in their healing and help make sure it would never happen again.

“To be angry on behalf of those who are treated unjustly means that we have compassionate anger.  This type of anger leads to right action, and leads to social change. To be angry toward the people in power does not create change.  It creates more anger, more resentment, more fighting.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Compassionate anger and the bodhisattva vow

In the early days after the letter by the eight Rigpa students detailing Sogyal’s abuse came out, someone asked me why I was breaking my samaya and making myself a target by speaking publically ‘against’ my lama, and I told her that, as I saw it, such action was part of my bodhisattva vow. His Holiness agrees, and it’s wonderful to find a lama that understands this.

If one is treated unfairly and if the situation is left unaddressed, it may have extremely negative consequences for the perpetrator of the crime. Such a situation calls for a strong counteraction. Under such circumstances, it is possible that one can, out of compassion for the perpetrator of the crime—and without generating anger and hatred—actually take a strong stand and strong countermeasures. In fact, one of the precepts of the bodhisattva vows is to take strong countermeasures when the situation calls for it. If a bodhisattva doesn’t take strong countermeasures when the situation requires, then that constitutes an infraction of one of the vows.’

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

And in this situation, it goes far beyond Rigpa or Shambala. I continue to speak on these matters because of my concern for Tibetan Buddhism. If the lamas don’t address the issue of abuse in Tibetan Buddhism is will, and already is having extremely negative consequences for all the lamas and their sanghas. They are all tainted by association and, for most of them, by not speaking out against abuse.

Why we must continue our vigilance

‘Anger toward social injustice will remain until the goal is achieved.  It has to remain. ‘

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Tenpel had given up writing for his blog, but something happened that inspired him to write again, and it reminds me of why we cannot stop our endeavours until our goal is achieved – which I assume is the same for all of us, to protect people from cults and abusive lamas and to remove abuse and the potential for abuse from Tibetan Buddhism. If we let things pass, we are allowing the situation to continue unabated, and instituting code of conducts doesn’t achieve this aim. Only examining and changing the abuse-enabling beliefs will do that.

In an article called ‘Buddhism is not a Cure for Mental Health Problems – or is it?’ Tenpel raises the issue that even after an abusive guru has been exposed and some response made, the cults of abusive gurus continue to exist and continue to draw in unsuspecting people.

The abuse scandals become history. They fade from the news and people who know nothing about them or don’t care because it was in the past and they believe the organisation has changed, go to the cult’s classes and are drawn in in the same way that all cults draw in their members. No one sets out to join a cult, but these organisations don’t look like a cult. On the outside they are glossy and sweet, and they do offer something of valuable – meditation . People’s first experiences with them are wonderful, and before they know it they have been subtley brainwashed into a belief system that eventually makes them slaves to the guru or gurus the cult follows.

Tenzin talks about an article in The Atlantic called “Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism] where the author goes to one of these cults and writes about her wonderful experience with no knowledge that her writing is promoting a dangerous cult. Tenzin says:

‘I want to highlight some of the dangers. I want to highlight a group which has such a toxic setting, that your mental health might very likely be harmed in the long run if you join this group. The group is the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) – or more precisely, the “Kadampa Buddhism” movement. Yes, the group whose two meditation classes and the good experiences the author had joining these classes formed the beginning and end of The Atlantic article. ‘

So it’s important to keep organisations like Shambala, NKT and Rigpa in the spotlight so people know to stay away, because at the very least they’ll be supporting an organisation that fosters abuse-enabling beliefs, and at the worst, they run the risk of not only being abused themselves but also of accepting the abuse without complaint.

And so the compassionate anger remains and appears as action (such as Tenzin writing this blog post) when circumstances require it, and I hope it will continue until people are safe from dangerous TB groups and their gurus.

(Do read and watch the videos onTenzin’s blog post.)


If you’d like a more private place to chat about your ongoing spiritual path after you’ve left an abusive community, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group. This group is for people who don’t want to talk about abuse, but want to keep in touch and share their discoveries, inspiration and challenges as they move on with their lives.

If you want to talk about abuse, then Rigpa or ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? groupApply via the contact form here, telling us about yourself and why you want to join the group. 

Students from other Vajrayana communities who need somewhere where they can talk about abuse and find survivor support can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  

Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

The Facebook page and You Tube Channel associated with this blog are called Living in Peace and Clarity. Click the relevant link on the side bar to ‘Like’ and ‘Subscribe’.

8 Replies to “Compassionate Anger and Why it Must Continue”

  1. Boy, this is a tricky one. As I read this piece, I completely agreed with its spirit, but found myself tripping up a bit on the notion that questions of “social justice” (cited twice by the Dalai Lama) are things that justify anger. These are complicated issues, and in my experience (and I’ve been around a long time) there are few things as dangerous as a really, really angry person who’s convinced that they’re right about something. People both on the left and the right often come to excuse their own side’s atrocities because they’re sure these things are being done in the cause of a better world for everyone. Instead of “righteous” and self-justifying anger, maybe some clear-eyed and thoughtful analysis and carefully considered action would go a longer way toward fixing things?

    1. You’re right if course. self righteous anger can be terribly dangerous, but that’s not what HHDL is talking about here. The kind of anger you’re talking about comes from a hatred of the perpetrators not compassion for them. Sandra’s blog gives a fuller picture of what HHDL is saying. He’s talking about compassionate anger, anger with a genuinely positve motivation to help (even the perpetrator) as a driving force for change, not the kind of anger you’re talking about where someome gets caught up in their anger AT someome they see as an enemy.

      If you take a carefull look at the quotes, he says it’s not anger that aims to hurt anyone, and not anger towards the people in power, which, he says, creates more anger and doesn’t lead to change. He says, ‘it is possible that one can, out of compassion for the perpetrator of the crime—and without generating anger and hatred—actually take a strong stand and strong countermeasures.’

      So it’s important to know the difference between ordinary anger and compassionate anger and to not generate ordinary anger and hatre. But it’s easy for one to lead to the other. which is why I continually check my motivation.

      1. Hi, Tahlia, and thanks for the clarification! I think that I follow the distinction that you’re making here, but it still seems awfully subtle. Not sure, really, that anger is the best word to use to describe what we’re talking about here, but I’m happy to wait and see if my thinking about all this catches up.

        1. Yes, I think the word is problematic. I prefer the term ‘assertive’ myself as it is strong but without anger. But I understand the use of the word anger here because HH is challenging the Buddhist idea that all anger is bad. Considering how rife emotional repression and bypassing is in Buddhists, I think it’s a necessary clarification to make.

  2. I just bought this book “Be Angry” and I’m a little disturbed because it doesn’t sound anything like the words of the Dalai Lama and I’ve read a lot of his books. In fact, the book is authored by Noriyuki Ueda, who holds the copyright– though the cover of the book makes it look like it’s written by His Holiness. Ueda claims that the book is taken from an interview with the Dalai Lama– on the front cover it says in big print “by the Dalai Lama” and in fine print “as told by Noriyuki Ueda”. He could very well have had this interview, but I question whether or not he is accurately quoting from the Dalai Lama.

    Usually when I read texts from those who have done work interviewing HH and then written a book on the interviews, the format is very different. It is very clear when His Holiness is speaking and what questions he is responding to. The words are clearly in harmony with how HH speaks and writes. In this text, there is no demarcation, no quotes. The language is rough and clumsy and generalizations are made without care. This is too bad because, as Tahlia and Been There have already discussed, this is not a black and white teaching. And the book gets very garbled when talking about when anger is ok and when it is not– whereas in my experience, HH makes it very clear in other instances.

    I’ve only read over a chapter but already it is uncomfortable. For example, His Holiness would NEVER say the second part of this statement from the introduction. It is just not how he speaks and he doesn’t refer to the brain, he refers to the mind: “Generally speaking, if a human being never shows anger, then I think something’s wrong. He’s not right in the brain.”

    And in the first and second chapters statements harshly critical of Japanese Buddhism are made. This is not something I have ever seen HH do, never seen him directly criticize other religious practitioners. I haven’t read past this point because the book makes me nervous.

    After saying this, there are plenty of instances where His Holiness has spoken about the need to take strong action against the actions of a perpetrator, while still keeping compassion for the perpetrator him/herself (as Tahlia has quoted). There are instances where he talks about the need for Tibetans and other Buddhists to be less self-absorbed and get involved in social action. That seems to me to be sufficient, instead of getting involved in what looks like a garbled translation of what he has to say, at best.

  3. So I’ve slept on my last comment and want to revise a little. I think I made the mistake of taking that book to bed as my bedtime read and so I reacted a little quickly and strongly. I have now read a bit more and thought a bit more and here’s what I think.

    I think the quote about the brain could have been spoken by His Holiness, e.g. in the context of a person with no anger at all maybe having a damaged amygdala or something. I was wrong about that statement. I also think that the general thrust of the book is in line with what His Holiness probably said and adheres to, so it still has value.

    However, it is not his direct words and there seem to be some biases, such as the many comments harshly critical of Japanese Buddhism. So it is important to remember who the author is and read with that level of critical understanding (as hopefully we would do anyway).

    1. Hi Joanne
      It’s wonderful that you questioned when something didn’t seem right to you, and then you kept investigating and were prepared to admit you were wrong. That’s the kind of investigation of not accepting things at face value that is so important – and that some of us failed to do adequately while in Rigpa (me for instance!) And being wlling to admit you were wrong or had jumped to conclusions is, I think, a vital quality to have on the path of personal and spiritual development. Thank you for coming back and clarifying. And thanks for the link to the tricycle article. I feel we should be able to trust their research as to their sources.

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