Heaven and Hell

Blending Buddhist and Zen principles into my Druidry is integral to helping me find my personal spiritual path.  There is no monopoly on wisdom, and I find the teachings of both Buddhism and Druidry are universal.

One aspect of Buddhism that I find is often misquoted or misinterpreted is the idea that you push away your feelings, in order to function with a clear mind. What I have found is that within Buddhist training and discipline, you not only feel your feelings more, you also learn more from the feeling itself.

We are not taught to suppress our feelings within Buddhist teachings. Letting go of attachments is what is at the heart of Buddhism. That includes attachments to your feelings.  So, we feel our anger, our pain, our grief acutely – we give ourselves some time and space to truly feel these feelings, to express them if we need to with honour and compassion, and then to let go. It’s not easy to do at first, but not many things in life are…

I can be very quick to anger. But I have learned to try to not to act or react on that anger without truly feeling it first. In some situations, yes, you may have to make a immediate decisions. If you see an animal being abused, you act right away to stop it. However, you can feel your anger but not allow it to control you, thereby allowing you to act appropriately.  Anger can often to lead violence, physical or verbal, which only elevates the suffering in both parties and which resolves nothing. We should act to help each other and all other living beings on the planet.

When I get angry, if I feel I cannot react to a situation respectfully or honourably and I have the opportunity to take a moment, I do.  Taking a walk, or sitting and meditating with the anger is a great tool to use in order to gain a deeper understanding of it.  Learning how your mind works is an invaluable asset to living a life with greater understanding, or compassion.  If I can, I sit with my anger, or grief, pain, suffering and really feel it. I look it over from all sides.  I try to find root causes of it.  I see that anger reflected in others around me. I then place myself in the situation of the person that I am angry with.  Why am I angry with them? What has caused the anger within me?

Buddhism teaches that anger comes from within – it is not something that is bestowed from without. This is seen in the famous Zen story of the monk and the warrior:

The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation, he sat.

Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. “Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!”

At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.

“You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?” replied the monk at last. “You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny. You would ask me of heaven and hell?”

The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk’s head from its shoulders.

“That is hell,” said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent. In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared to risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”


When our emotions control us, when they are the ones that are raising the sword and not our true minds, that is when we are in hell. When we are aware of what we are doing, and in that awareness come to understand the nature of all beings, ourselves included, then we are in heaven.  Acting with intention, instead of reactionary living, is what can make this world a better place.

 My anger can fuel my fire to fight against injustices in the world. It is kept in check, it is a sheathed sword.  I know it is there, but I choose not to use it, instead working with compassion.  It is a conscious choice. Sometimes I fail, and when I do I notice where and how I have failed, and see the opportunity to work with that. I cannot blame others for my anger.  Their behaviour is nothing that I can control. What I can work on is my own behaviour towards them and to making the world a better place.  Giving like for like can be a very damaging thing to do.  When someone hurts us, our first reaction, our first desire is often to hurt them back.  It takes a lot of work to come out of this mindset, a lot of practice.

They say that practice makes perfect. So every time I let my anger rule me, as Thich Naht Hanh said, I am practicing being angry. Every time I practice awareness, mindfulness and compassion, I get better at those ways of being and living.  I know which I would rather aim towards!

2 thoughts on “Heaven and Hell

  1. Well said Joanna!

    Acting unskilfully on anger is never wise. However, anger and those other strong emotions do have a lot of energy. We are never lost for words when we are angry, the precise words seem to flow almost spontaneously, rarely is there writer’s block when we are angry! We find the energy to act when we are angry, albeit often in an unskilful way. An idea in Tantric Buddhism is that these defilements are actually the pure energy of compassion and wisdom, but distorted. Tantra works with these emotions, allowing them to freely flow, in their pure liberated state. See “Rainbow of Liberated Energy – Working with Emotions Through the Element and Colour Symbolism of Tibetan Tantra” [1986] by the western lama Ngakpa Chogyam. Actually it’s very readable and accessible!

    I was listening to a podcast from Gaia House by a Dharma teacher, he was expressing the view that Buddhism has become popular in the west, because it can be used as a coping strategy, it can encourage quiescence and compliance, rather than the urge to bring about change in the world and society. He said that the retreats at Gaia House were normally all booked up, however one on Engaged Buddhism was cancelled, as an insufficient number of people had shown interest!

    Being angry is a universal human response to what we don’t like, and we all feel our anger is right and justified, and so are our responses! I think sometimes we need to work with anger unashamedly, when we see what is being done to this beautiful world and it’s diverse peoples and beings. Damn right I’m angry! It’s time to stop this destruction and injustice. Anger has energy, and can be skilfully used to bring about positive change in the world.

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