Friday, March 16, 2012


“We are what we think.  All that we are arises with our thoughts.  With our thoughts we make the world.  Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.”  - from The Dhammapada (trans. Thomas Byrom).

  My sky has lately been crowded by angry Buddhist birds, blocking out the sun.  Has anyone else noticed them?

       I’d like to say that I’ve been “working on” resolving my own anger for years, but it would be more correct to say that my anger has been working on me.  I use it in my line of work (frankly, it’s an indispensible component of lawyering), but I know it diminishes me because when I’m angry I’m one-dimensional, merely a tool, someone's means to an end.

      I’m not a Buddhist, although I used to carry a copy of Thomas Byrom’s translation of the Dhammapada (Sayings of the Buddha) with me everywhere and I found its words and thoughts inspiring and helpful.  Their quiet strength also fit well into and supplemented my Quaker beliefs, which have been my focus (to the extent I have any) for a long time. 

      Years ago, before we became members of our Quaker Meeting and were merely “attenders,” I remember a funny moment during post-Meeting for Worship announcements when one member said that we had received a letter from another church group who asked if they might come and observe us one Sunday because they were experiencing discord at their church and they knew that peaceful Quakers “had it all together.”  We weren’t exactly the most harmonious bunch at that point, but still it was a good group of mature people with some self-knowledge who basically liked each other and were mostly there for the same reasons.  The laughter that greeted that missive bubbled up slowly and was wonderful to share.  So was (and still is) the New Yorker-style cartoon posted in the Meeting’s fellowship room that says: “I am a Quaker.  In an emergency, Please be silent.”

      The most important use I made of the Dhammapada happened a little over ten years ago during a business trip that, at the time I departed New York for Los Angeles, I strongly suspected would result in the company division I worked for being closed down.  Based on events that were completely outside of my control, I knew that this was inevitable, but I also knew that they would find a way to make the ending as unpleasant as possible.  

   I wasn’t disappointed on that score when the call finally came saying that a meeting had been scheduled in my boss’s office for 10 am the following morning, with no agenda being specified.  I read from the Dhammapada (and probably also from the Bible; sections of the Sermon on the Mount come to mind) before the meeting and reminded myself not to allow myself to become angry no matter what was said, because when you’re angry you’re only angry – you can’t really think, react and plan with any craft or precision and you become totally disabled.  

   My boss was a stunningly beautiful, intelligent and well-spoken Amerasian woman with a nice smile and excellent fashion sense who was completely out of her depth in her industry and executive position.  Fortunately for her (for a while at least), she had been promoted to run an enterprise that was “too big to fail” in its sector, which produced the illusion that her listing ship was in better shape than it was.  



   Her office once belonged to a former boss of mine who decorated it in Italian Stallion Moderne, but it was now transformed into a sort of contempo L.A. Buddhist shrine (this lady had now become, as a result of marriage and trendiness, an early vocal exponent of “Judaism-Buddhism” or “Jew-Bu,” as I’ve seen it referred to on Facebook), complete with bonsai plantings, cream-colored ornamental screens, flowing water sounds and bookshelves filled with art books and novels.  (I really wanted to ask her whether she found much time for novel-reading at work, but stifled the urge.)  


      The end came quickly and was as ugly as I thought it would be.  As the axe descended, I was reminded of the Monty Python skit about the architect who could only design abattoirs and was always thinking in terms of rotating blades, sluices and drainage. But I didn’t get angry and that was helpful at the time.  (Later, I must admit, I became quite angry at times about the events, which was as disabling as it always is.)   Yet as awful as things were for me, when it was over I realized that I was wounded but still living, diminished but not finished.  Meanwhile back in the bonsai aviary, my angry Buddhist bird was undoubtedly flapping and pecking away, cruelly stripping flesh from the next victim’s carcass.


  Now, this was a lone bird.  Years passed before the sky darkened, as it has now, with actual flocks of them.  These covens seem locked in the collective belief that the path to heaven (clearly they assume one exists) is that which is paved with good intentions only, and that all manner of destructive behavior, violent acts and cruel speech can be spiritually remediated by tacking a Buddhist coda to carnage’s end.  

      As Homey the Clown used to put it so well, “I don’t Think so.”

NOTE:  For anyone who has had the patience and kindness to read this far, this excerpt (link) from Thitch Nhat Hahn’s Being Peace might interest you.


  1. I suspect you were very angry during that 10AM meeting, but that is only my speculation. In my experience, anger is the most crippling of emotions. The only solution for me is to say, preferably to the source of it (when possible), "I'm angry because.....". And sometimes I have to repeat the exercise many times (maybe not three times daily). It has made a difference. My flock has diminished. Nell

  2. It's funny. I'm sure the anger was there, but I was pretty controlled and reasonably effective on my own behalf during the meeting, probably as a result of preparing for it as I did. I was usually angry when I was in this person's presence, but I think pretty much everyone in the organization was. She was the only executive I've ever worked with whose presence on company premises resulted in increased security because of death threats. (Seriously - that's a true story.) After "failing up" over a prolonged period, she eventually just failed when her chief corporate benefactor (a worthy man with a blind spot) exited the building. I've gotten better (at this, at least) over the years. Or just wearier. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. The photograph of the bird-dancer by the way is Loie Fuller, a real genius of a performer. Curtis

  3. At first glance, I thought the photo of Loie Fuller was a decaying vulture. Stopped me in my tracks. Didn't even notice there was a person inside. I've never had a boss who received death threats, but I've certainly had some who warranted them.

  4. It stopped me in my tracks also. You should read about Ms. Fuller. She was amazing. The death threats resulted in the addition of security cameras and additional personnel into the workspace. Very odd individual. Curtis

  5. I share your distrust of anger, the sense that it diminishes you. I do a great deal to avoid it. I have to keep reminding myself that it has its place and must be given its due. So I'm sure Nell's right about the "I am angry because..." It's the "preferably to the source of it (when possible)" that's a challenge.

    The Thitch Nhat Hanh parable is great.

  6. Hi. Glad you read this. The bottom illustration, incidentally, is from the Kensington Station tube stop in London. We don't do things that way in NY. Can't report about Philadelphia -- the subway there is FAR too dangerous to travel. Our entire household felled by a Satan Bug. Mystery/Misery Train. Curtis