Should We Be Angry About Injustice?

Here’s a quote some of you may have heard before:

“If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

There is something intuitively appealing about this quote, but from a Buddhist perspective, it’s very misguided.  Instead, the meditative path teaches us to relate to injustice with two primary qualities: equanimity and compassion.

Equanimity is an inner balance born of the deep recognition that it is what it is.  Curiously, some old Buddhist texts state that the “near-enemy” of equanimity is feeling inner balance because we are oblivious to the true severity or danger of a situation.  In other words, true equanimity starts by clearly acknowledging, “this is injustice, this is unwholesome, this is something that needs attention.”  

But upon seeing this, we stay firm and rooted.  We don’t let ourselves be overcome with anger.  And if anger should arise in us anyway, we don’t lather on more self-hate and anger towards our anger!  We don’t even try to suppress our anger or pretend like it’s not here!  Rather, we greet our anger too with equanimity and compassion.

So why not be angry?

If you pay close attention, you’ll notice you actually suffer quite a bit when you’re in the throes of anger.  I heard a metaphor recently that being angry was like holding a hot coal in your hand in order to throw it at someone — it may touch them for a brief moment, but it’s burning your hand much worse.  And if you should toss that hot coal, it tends to have destructive consequences on relationships and the world.

Of course, the common counterpoint is that people find “red energy” in their anger.  They get motivated by anger, and it’s the fuel source they rely on to take meaningful action — to stand up to oppression, to speak out against injustice, or to hold their ground when someone is being abusive.

However, anger, revenge, resentment, and/or hatred are some of the most toxic and inefficient fuel sources available, like brown coal They might get us to take action, but they create all sorts of other problems in the process.  In contrast, dharma training teaches us to find motivation from compassion — a much more “environmentally-friendly” fuel source, like the most refined renewable energy.

Compassion is the essential corollary to equanimity.  We begin by clearly seeing the injustice, but rather than being overcome with sorrow or anger, we remain balanced and grounded, able to see that it’s like this now.  And, rather than slip into indifference and apathy, we step into compassion; the part of us that says, “what can I do?  how can I help?  where would it be best to take action?”

Compassion is the shade of love that wishes beings to be free from suffering, as much oneself as others.  And just as it would make no sense to say someone is generous if they never gave anything, it would likewise make no sense to say someone is compassionate if they never did any compassionate actions.

In other words, compassion isn’t just warm fuzzies in our psyche — rather, it’s an incredibly powerful fuel source that leads to wisely considered, real-life action.  And, just like renewable energy vs. brown coal, its impact is going to be cleaner, purer, and longer-lasting than one motivated by anger and hatred.

Speaking to something very similar, when asked if she was angry about all the social injustice in India and the world, Mother Teresa responded, “Why should I expend energy in anger when I can expend it in love?”

Add all this together, and a more Buddhist version of that initial quote might read,

“If you’re not equanimous+compassionate, you’re not paying attention”