Ill-will, the second hindrance








The Buddha taught that ill-will is a cause of ongoing unhappiness.  The Dhammapada which I quoted form last week goes on to say this about ill-will:

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The Buddha was always consistent on this point, that hatred will only lead to more hatred. The way to peace is to learn to forgive and let go of the thoughts of having been wronged.

In one teaching the Buddha is speaking with a man who has just insulted him. As he walked though a village collecting food for his midday meal the young man shouted at him the equivalent of: “lazy beggar, go and get a proper job instead of expecting us to feed you”. Instead of becoming irate or indigent the Buddha stoped and replied calmly. If he were still consumed with pride and ego he might have replied with something like “do you know who I am,”, or have tried to justify himself and his lifestyle. Instead he simply asked the man a question:

“Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The young man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”

The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”

In this way the Buddha illustrated his principle of non-reactivity. The anger belongs to the person who gives it, if I choose not to pick it up it is left with the other person.

As non-enlightened beings we can not always leave the unwanted gift with the one who is seeking to give it to us. Thus in meditation we may come across the second hindrance, that of ill-will. Whilst it may feel pleasant to feel indignant and right, if we really feel into the experience of ill-will as we meditate we understand why it is compared to boiling water. There is a feeling of the mind bubbling, hot, agitated. It is hard to experience any sense of peace. We are consumed with wanting to see the other suffer, or be put right.

The antidote to anger is loving kindness. Never an easy practice, when it is extended to include the difficult person it can become a real challenge, and also provide real freedom. I remember I first taught loving kindness 27 years ago at the student group I ran at Hull. A teacher who lived in Hull had somehow heard of the group and came along. She was in her 40s and taught art at a local school. When we talked of the difficult person she had plenty of students who could easily go in that category.

At first she struggled with this. It felt she was justified to be angry at their rudeness and disrespect. But she kept holding them with the wish “may you be well, may you be happy”. Simply seeing them as human beings who like her wanted to be safe and well. The first stage of the practice gave her an opportunity to hold her own pain around the experience. She was not denying that she felt upset, but she was also looking at what happened in her mind if she dwelt on such thoughts. Once another has said or done something to harm us it is over as an event. We give it energy by either dwelling on it, or suppressing it and trying to forget it.

In the loving kindness practice we look at what happens when we pick up the unwanted gift and take it in: how we allow the other to continue to cause us upset and distress even when they are not there. By then seeing them as a struggling human being with their own karma, weakness and fears we can instead feel some compassion for them. To speak with anger or hatred shows a heart that is not at peace after all.

After some months this teacher reported back to me that she had started to feel more relaxed around the pupils she had previously been reactive to. She no longer let them annoy her. Simply thinking to herself “may yo use well” when they did something annoying. As a result she noticed her teaching style changed. She became a little softer and less confrontational herself. Then, to her surprise, the pupils she had had so much difficulty with changed. They softened. They started to engage with the class. They were no longer so confrontational.

She thanked me after a little while. She said she had never realised it, but it was how she was being with the children that was part of creating the tension and confrontation she had then blamed on them. Her whole experience of teaching changed and she started to enjoy it again.

The next time you meditate and notice you mind going to anger or ill will notice how it feels. Notice the burning in your chest or belly. Notice the churning of thoughts. Ask yourself: is this a gift I really want to pick up? Reflect on how you feel as a result of picking it up and consider “do I really want to give this other person the power to make me unhappy when they are not even here?”. You may even want to explore how to connect with seeing them a a fellow human being, who just like me sometimes acts in inappropriate ways, who lashes out when frightened or lost in ignorance. Feeling this, one may then have a feeling from the heart of wishing them to be free of whatever suffering is making them act as they do.

This does not mean one denies that someone’s actions were unskilful and wrong. When I was mugged I never thought it was my fault, that I deserved it, or that the man who mugged me was somehow free of any blame. From my belief in karma, I was able to reflect that I did not know why it was that I had this experience – perhaps it was mischance and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps it was pay off for some past misdeed. What I was sure of was that he would have karma for his act. As the passage I quoted last week said:

“If you act with hatred in your heart suffering will follow you as the cart wheel follows the track of the ox that pulls it”

So, it follows that if I then allow another’s unskillful act to cause me to feel hatred, that in turn will give rise to suffering for me.

Instead I spent some months wishing the man well in my Loving Kindness practice. Reflecting on how his actions were his choice and no longer impact on me unless I chose to hold on to them. I considered that what I had lost was a ‘phone and wallet. What he had lost was the ability to empathise and see suffering in another. I also considered what desperate place he must be with addiction or life circumstances that all he could think to do was go out and attack people. I also felt sad as my belief is he will have all of that return to him at some point. As the popular saying goes, “those who live by the sword die by the sword”

It took some months. Over that time I also had to give myself a lot of self-care. Walking home from the station at night I would feel fear every time I heard someone’s footsteps behind me. My heart would race, I would sweat, I would feel the urge to run. For many weeks I took the bus rather than walk, then I started the slow process of making peace with this fear – I was determined the attacker was not going to still control me for weeks and months after the incident, making me change my habit of walking from the station home. I did this with a sense of caring for myself. Noticing if anger at him arose, and reminding myself I was angry at the idea of someone I did not even know. My anger might in a sense be justified, but it only burnt me. As the Buddha once said, holding onto anger is like holding a burning coal. When you see this, the natural thing to do is to open your hand at once and let it drop. Anger burns our heart, so why hold on to it any more than we would hold on to a burning coal?

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