Hello, my name is Cheryl, and I am your co host for the Handful Of Leaves podcast. If you’ve been tuning into our past episodes, welcome back. And if you’re new thanks for joining my co-host, Kai Xin and myself, and welcome to the Handful Of Leaves community. It amazes me everyday how the podcast has been growing organically, super cool!
In today’s episode, Kai Xin and I discuss the notion of being a good and bad person in both the secular and Buddhist context. As a self rated 5 out of 10 decent human being, this episode was super fun to record as we challenged each other’s perception of what’s good, what’s bad, discuss whether keeping precepts actually make you a good person. Stay tuned to the end, where I talk about the crazy experience that made me wish I was an angry person.
And as always enjoyed the episode and I hope you take away some practical wisdom for happier life.
Let’s start off today’s episode with some crazy situations.
Would you rather kill one man with your own hands or kill one thousand Innocent people with a button?
Next question, squeak game friends, this is for you. Would you rather play a game honestly with a 50% chance of death, or lie and manipulate so that you win and walk out alive?
All these options aren’t great. And whichever you choose, there is no absolute right or wrong. And you can definitely justify your answer as the better option given the dire circumstances.
In the same line of thought, good and bad, isn’t exactly black and white. We often identify a good person based on the actions and condemn people who do evil deeds. But does doing a bad deed, make one bad person? Join me as my co-host Kai Xin and I start this episode by reevaluating our perspectives of what society deems as a bad person. Let’s begin.
Kai Xin 02:19
I observed that generally society can be quite harsh on those who have caused harm to others or assaulted others to say that you’re such a bad person, how could you do this? You deserve retribution. You deserve punishment, sometimes to the most extreme extent. And I’m wondering whether that’s right, or can we look at the circumstances that caused them to do nasty things.
For instance, some people might commit crime because of a very poor upbringing, or perhaps they have suffered a really traumatic childhood, and they’re acting a certain way as part of a coping mechanism. And it’s not all the time that they would be able to keep their defilements at bay, or to control their emotions or certain harmful thoughts, so they don’t act on them. So I’m just wondering whether we can see that side of them, rather than painting them to be 100% bad person, we also recognise that they are people who also need help.
But I think there needs to be a line that is drawn to say that there are certain things that are just bad, you cannot justify it as ‘no, it’s not the person’s fault. Maybe the person’s upbringing’. Because there are so many people who have bad childhoods. Not all of them turn into murderers, some of them turn into really inspiring people.
So, I think the moment you allow, like the person’s conditions to justify the behaviour that is not that good. Because it takes the responsibility away from the person and the fact that their actions have caused very traumatic and scarring consequences to the victims that they have preyed on. And it’s not that it’s unintentional, perhaps sometimes, you know, for example, in you know, the peeping tom, the person was seen in the CCTV, going around trying to find a victim. So it’s very intentional. It’s well thought out and well planned. So you can’t say that the person, you know, had the freewill to not do it, but, but the person eventually did it and knowing that it could cause harm, they still went with it. So, I think that is when we see something as bad and it shouldn’t be even given a chance to say that ‘nah, it could be okay’.
Kai Xin 04:29
I think the difference is, whether we see what is good and what is bad based on the behaviour or based on the person. Let me rephrase it.
I think I know what you mean. You’re trying to like, de personalise the action from the person. Is that correct?
Kai Xin 04:49
Yeah. So it’s not to say that a person who murders is a murderer for life, because that’s just one part of his or her life. And, of course, I understand what you mean by, we shouldn’t kind of take the responsibility away from them or use it as like an excuse to say that, ‘okay, that that’s fine. Everything can be like, you know, a passing.’
We can still take corrective action to say your actions are not wise, and it’s not moral. But it doesn’t make you a bad person. What is bad was your action and how you executed it. The moment when we say that, because you did a bad thing, hence you’re a bad person, I think it becomes very dangerous. There is no room for rehabilitation. And people kind of just go into the vicious cycle. And we’re not addressing the root cause of why the person even did the bad thing in the first place.
I guess. My question is, why would the person deserve kindness?
Kai Xin 05:48
Let’s say a serial murderer, who kills like 16 people with all the women and I don’t know, brutal, brutally cut people up all that they have done in their life, like the sum of their experiences, of course, they’re more more than that, but generally the theme of their life and sum of the experiences is just causing terror and pain to others and all the victims and their families and generations to come.
So, why would they deserve forgiveness when their victims didn’t deserve to get a chance at life?
Kai Xin 06:22
I feel like it’s two separate thing. We can look at the famous example of Angulimala before he became a monk, he was a serial murderer. But it was also because of conditions.
Okay, he had the intention to harm other people. So, he was taught by his teacher in order to show dedication and faith, he has to collect one finger from every person, and then he went on a killing spree such that people felt so terrorised. But when he met the Buddha, the Buddha felt that yeah, this person deserved equal amount of kindness, it’s just deluded.
And I think the thing about the Buddhist practice is to see that at the core of everything, every one just wants some form of happiness. Some people are able to find a skillful way around it, some people got distracted by unskillful means, but what we want is all the same. And if we know that actually deep down, we’re all suffering, then why can this person deserve the same amount of care, kindness and love than us?
And it would become very hypocritical of us to say that this person is going around to harm, to terrorise, but when it comes to, how should we then treat this person, we punish. Then, we justify our acts, because of the bad acts they do. But what does that make of us? Then it becomes a vicious cycle, right? Because the reason why they did bad, let’s say they go on a killing spree and they justify it with ‘Oh, somebody harmed me before’. It’s like the Joker movie. Like the Joker is really, really sad and a really depressed person. And he went on a killing spree because nobody cares about him. And when he goes on a killing spree, that’s where he got the care and attention. I mean, was he happy? He wasn’t? Does it justify his act? It doesn’t. But to harm him, then, wouldn’t that be the same? Because it’s like, oh, yeah, this circumstance then justifies us doing harm, we should kill this particular person. Then, to what end do we cause harm?
Okay, I understand the aspect of extending compassion, because you do see that there is still a person who is hurting behind all the vicious acts that are committed and trying to address that person through healing and through compassion. But in a very realistic world, resources or compassion is very limited. Very few people have unconditional compassion, right? Unless you’re very, very well practised and things like that.
So in that case, with limited amount of resources, why wouldn’t you then concentrate the helping to those who have been hurt such as the victims and their families? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to help the victims heal and show up as better people than to spend our resources and limited amount of compassion on the evil people who might not even turn good. Because, you know, there are so many cases of people going to jail, and they come out and commit the same crime again. Of course, there are a lot of factors, right. Like they just do not know how to go into the society again but at the essence of it, they still continue to hurt people.
Kai Xin 09:35
Yes, it’s wise to use our limited amount of compassion and shower it on the right people. Then, it comes to the definition of who should we prioritise.
It doesn’t mean that if a person has done an evil deed, they are not ready to change. If one is ready to listen to the teachings to practice the teachings, then this person is ready to be trained. I think in the in the chantt, we also talk about the Buddha trains those who wish to be trained. Who wishes to be trained, it’s not determined by whether he or she is a victim or a culprit.
Again, back to the Angulimala example, he was ready to be trained. And the Buddha managed to touch his pain deeply. And he actually became enlightened afterwards, he still had to serve his kammic retribution, which some people call it. He was stoned
to death while going on alms round, because people like was just so hateful, but he accepted it.
But for us to say that the victim because they are the ones that are hurting, hence, we should prioritise them, I’m not so sure whether there is a right way to define it. Of course, I think it’s up to individual to see who to care for and how to care. But I don’t think it’s justifiable to say just because somebody else has caused harm, they don’t deserve love.
I see your point. And it just reminded me recently, when I saw pictures of Ukrainian doctors, actually tending to Russian soldiers. I think if it were me, to be honest, like, I would probably have so much hate towards the Russians if I am a Ukrainian. And I wouldn’t even bother giving medical supplies or medical treatment to the Russian soldiers.
So, I think sometimes it’s about putting aside your views and just acknowledging as hard as it is, to acknowledge that there is still some humanity behind the person who perhaps is very wretched and terrible. And for your own sake, I guess extend them some compassion, because maybe anger does you no good or does more harm than good?
Kai Xin 11:53
I’m not sure whether I interpret it correctly. Are you saying that personally, you don’t feel like you have the capacity to actually extend the compassion to people who are causing damage? But if it’s possible, you do want to see the humanity in them?
Yeah, I think so. I think I would be too attached to my views. And in a sense, having a very us against them mentality. And that will come anything, my compassion and ability to extend them any help. But if I want to be the doctor, and it’s just my task, then maybe it’s just something very mechanical, that I will just do then. And I will do the minimum to fix the person and then say bye.
Kai Xin 12:37
I hear you, I think it’s quite a tall order for everybody to extend compassion to every sentient being on the planet. And we have to recognise our limited capacity. And also, I think, don’t stretch ourselves. Because sometimes it can backfire and become compassion fatigue. Example, you want to help a person who has done an evil deed, but then the person doesn’t change, and doesn’t turn over a new leaf.
It can be very, very frustrating in the process, because there is expectation of wanting the person to change. And when it doesn’t go according to plan, there’s a lot of attachment. Just like wanting to help the victim, there’s also attachment involved.
So, I think it’s about recognising that having attachment, it’s completely normal. We can not help those whom we don’t think deserve to be helped. Or that I don’t have to act on my impulse but it doesn’t also mean that I have to shower everyone with love.
Wow. Okay, you are quite next level compassionate.
Kai Xin 13:38
I feel I learned I learned a lot about myself. I’ll be so angry people like you like they have caused harm to me.
I don’t know how do you still have that perspective of wanting to be kind of still being able to see them deeper beyond the stuff that they do to you, if that make sense? For example, like the act of unkindness that’s been done now, that would literally cloud my entire perception. So, I don’t know how you see through that.
What are the practical tips to become as wholesome as you Kai Xin?
Kai Xin 14:17
Okay, so disclaimer, I think theoretically, I can say all these.
But when it (bad things) actually happens, I am not so sure.
I actually learned a lot from Dr. Gobor Mate who helps people to overcome addiction. Nobody wakes up and say, ‘I want to be a bad person’, or ‘I want to start harming other people’. It’s all really based on causes and condition.
I think that perspective helped me a lot to see the human in them. Also, learning therapy helps me to uncover that actually, a lot of the negative mind state is a protective mechanism. Some people might act very violently because maybe in their childhood, this is how they survive in order to protect themselves. Some people might be addicted to something, because that’s also how they cope, in order to feel validated in order to feel whole. But as they grew up with more tools and more social support, they don’t shed the earlier versions of them. Then, how can we reprogram our mind to say that, hey, actually, those, those mental states don’t serve us anymore, and are causing more harm than good.
And some people when they do that, if they they’re not psychopaths, they would feel guilty about it, really. And every time when they fall back, it’s actually a very painful thing for them to go through. Because it’s like they want to break off the cycle, but they can’t it’s like hungry ghost: They need help from others, but they can’t receive the help. And they are just suffering a lot.
So, if you’re able to see other people’s suffering, then I think it really changes the whole perspective of why they’re even acting in a certain way.
Kai Xin 16:15
Maybe I should share one story. There was a teenager who’s very, very rebellious, who has a lot of anger issues. The teenager saw a lot of different counsellors, and then they keep trying to counsel him on what he should or shouldn’t do, gave him a set of guidelines, and educated him on the consequences, etc. But it didn’t work. It got really out of control.
Then, this teenager was assigned to this therapist. And, you know, what was the first thing she said to him? It’s not about what he should or shouldn’t do, not even about why he was doing this or that?
She said, ‘You are a very hurt child.’.
And immediately, the teenager broke down.
Finally, someone understood him. Because he couldn’t get the care and attention he wanted, he was very rebellious and doing all the nasty things so that the attention can be placed on him. Deep inside, he just wants to be listened to, and he wants somebody to understand him.
So, when the therapist said, ‘Yeah, you’re a really hurt child’, it really tore down the barrier and the wall. Then, he started to be very vulnerable with the therapist, and they managed to make things work.
I thought that was a really inspiring story. Because there’s a reason for how people are behaving. And if it can really see through it, they’re just another human being.
And a lot of times, like you mentioned, all the acting out is just really a desperate plea for others to say, ‘I see you are suffering and I validate that.’.
Kai Xin 18:05
When we see how we deal with our family members, even our parents, it seems like there are emotional baggages passed down. They are treating us a certain way because their parents treated them a certain way, and that leaves a certain imprint.
These are just causes and conditions. So, nobody should be labelled as their actions. And I think a very beautiful part about Buddhism in terms of anicca, is that there’s always room for change. And then with anatta, we can reflect that the other person is not the behaviour.
What’s confusing me is that there is this ideal I know, theoretically, in Buddhism, unconditional love is the highest thing that you should aspire to. And I think I am having the kind of cognitive dissonance of, in reality, I personally would want to slap that person in the face. But theoretically, I know that as a Buddhist, I should be not doing these kind of things.
Kai Xin 19:06
Hang on. Can you repeat that again? Why do you feel like as a Buddhist, you shouldn’t?
Because as a Buddhist, you always learn about what is wholesome and what is unwholesome and how, in having an increased in unwholesome things would cause your own suffering. Theoretically, right?
I have not practised enough to understand that experientially. It’s kind of like you know that is the rule and that’s what you shouldn’t do.
So, when I am thinking that, ‘Okay, I’m annoyed at that person. I know that being annoyed would just increase my suffering.’. But I just feel so much annoyance, and it’s in me and that’s where the cognitive dissonance is: I should, I shouldn’t but I’m feeling it, but how?
Kai Xin 19:52
The reason why I asked you to repeat it is to understand the intention behind. You feel like you shouldn’t because you know the negative consequence of it. It doesn’t just harm yourself, but you would also harm others. I think that’s from a very wise place.
But when a person say, ‘I shouldn’t do this because other people told me so.’, then I think it can cause a person to suppress the emotion, the anger, and eventually hit a tipping point where everything explodes out of proportion.
So, if we constantly think of the drawback of acting on some unwholesome thoughts, I think slowly we can adjust and recalibrate. And it’s also about knowing when to pull the plug and get out of the situation isn’t it? Because we are not saints. So it’s okay to complain, it’s okay to feel angry. Or rather, not that it’s okay. But it’s natural to have all this unwholesome states because we are still work in progress.
You mentioned that it it’s not okay. Is it really not okay?
Kai Xin 20:58
It’s not okay, when you’re doing it without knowing the drawbacks. And you’re doing it just because other people told you so. It doesn’t stem from a place of understanding and wisdom.
Right! Just following blindly?
Kai Xin 21:11
Yeah! It’s like a child. If you ask the child, ‘hey, can you stop screaming?’ Or ‘Can you stop being so naughty?’ Then, there seem to be 1001 rules, which can make the the child feel very suffocated. And to a point where perhaps, if the conditions are lined up, the child will become very rebellious. Because, they might think, ‘I’m an adult right now, I can do whatever I want.’ Because all these while they were feeling so controlled.
It becomes very unnatural for the person to actually follow those guidelines. But when we follow guidelines because it stems from a place of understanding and wisdom, it becomes second nature.
For example, when a child screams, you may say, ‘Hey, darling, don’t scream. You know, it would disturb the neighbour and we want to be considerate.’ And then, the child will learn, ‘okay, I want to be a considerate person’, rather than telling them don’t do this and don’t do that without any rationale.
Tying that a little bit to precepts as well, you mentioned that they are guidelines. And I think because they are guidelines, they are things that you should experience for yourself as to how they can bring about more wholesome consequences to your life.
I’m actually an advocate of asking people to drink, to push the boundaries and know for themselves what the consequences are. When I was in university, everyone was drinking (alcohol). At that time, I was also experimenting because I grew up as a Buddhist and I knew about the fifth precept, and that drinking is something we shouldn’t do. But I didn’t know it experientially.
I didn’t know what it really means to lose your mindfulness or do stupid things when you’re drunk. Until I experienced that, then, through experiencing that I realised that it didn’t make me a happier person. When I wake up the next day, my problems are still there. So, I have my problems plus a very bad headache.
From there, I start to toe the line and say, ‘okay, maybe I can drink a cup. Would that be okay?’ And then again, I start learning that when I drink one cup, I would start to lose my mouth a little bit. It’s not helping myself, it’s not helping others. Then, I started to draw the boundary and try not drinking at all and see how that works. Do I show up happier? Do I have more genuine and more meaningful conversations with my friends? Yes! Then, this is where I start to, really I guess, embody the precept and really understand that it will serve you well, if you protect yourself and your protect your own dignity.
Kai Xin 23:44
So you’re deliberately choosing to keep the precept because you experienced the drawbacks.
But that’s because I allowed myself to experience and toe the line and understand for myself, what works and what doesn’t work. And I think that’s so important. Because a lot of times when we learn about the precepts, it’s in a form of ‘don’t do this. If you do this, then you’re not very mindful, you’re not very wholesome, etc.’. That’s the kind of narrative at least I grew up with. Or being in a lot of Buddhist circles, I see that as a result of it (the precept) being been taught that way. A lot of my Buddhist friends who drink one sip of alcohol would think that they are not good.
Kai Xin 24:24
I think everyone grows spiritually in a different way.
It’s kind of like parenting. Some parents would say, ‘oh, yeah, just go and fall down. I tell you not to touch the kettle, if you want to touch the kettle and get burned, then that’s fine. Through the experience, you will learn what not to do and what to do that is for your own benefit and good.’.
However, I feel like we do need to draw the line and constantly reflect on negative consequences because there are certain things that we do that can really be very detrimental. It’s unlike alcohol, where you get a little bit tipsy, and maybe you do something foolish. But what about breaking the first precept, i.e. no killing?
Of course, we don’t go around killing human beings, especially in Singapore. I don’t think people are even daring to do that. But we do see cases on the newspaper (where killing happens) out of anger out of a lot of jealousy, etc. So then, can we say, ‘yeah, just, you know, go around killing until a point where you understand the drawbacks.’. You can’t, because it’s just just crazy.
So, to what extent do we say it’s okay to try in order to see it for yourself? And to what extent do you just look at all these cautionary tales and say, don’t get near?
To me, the average person doesn’t have the intention to kill unless you are psychopath where from childhood you just really can’t control that desire to hurt people, or, you just have that lack of empathy.
I think in general, most people would have some sort of conscience. Lying feels a little bit bad, stealing feels a little bit wrong, and obviously killing is a big no, no.
So, I think it’s more about the practical aspects where things are considered normal in the generic society, such as drinking. And to certain extent, I think, sexual misconduct as well. The idea of cheating seems to me to be more and more acceptable in generic society in a sense of ‘Oh, everyone’s doing it. So whatever.’.
Kai Xin 26:46
I think it again goes back to what do we want in life and out of this experience.
You talked about cheating. To some extent, if we if we think about in the past, it’s okay for people to have multiple partners, right? It’s very normal. What is the purpose of keeping the third precept of not having sexual misconduct? And how do we define sexual misconduct?
I hear from one of the Dhamma talks that it’s really all about being faithful, and respecting another being. So, if your partner is okay with it, they don’t feel like the respect is being breached, and if you have multiple partners, then it can be fine.
But you also have to be accountable or responsible for whatever consequences. You know that there might be a potential scenario where one party can be jealous, or there’s a lot of attachment. If you know what’s going to pan out, and you’re willing to take the consequences, then go ahead.
But it would be foolish, if you kind of just blindly do it just because everyone else is doing it. Eventually, you will cause yourself harm and you will hurt other people.Then this goes against the whole Buddhist concept of being peaceful.
But I think it’s very interesting to dive a little deeper about the idea of being peaceful and not causing harm and hurt to others. To a certain extent, you can’t control that you could be the kindness person, you put say things out of good intention, and people might still get hurt, or because of whatever reason, they’re still agitated.
So, how much should we care about not harming people? Perhaps it’s in the context of speech only. Maybe actions are very obvious example if you punch someone you will feel pain. When it’s speech, then it’s a bit iffy because it’s where feelings are involved, and you can’t really control other people’s feelings, and they may just be put for whatever reason even when you say things out of the best intention and phrase things in a very gentle way.
Kai Xin 29:00
Number one is have we tried to execute the good intention skillfully and tactfully?
Then, once we have done that, we don’t have to be very caught up with the outcome and the results. So interestingly, there is a sutta that talks about Right Speech.
Just having good intention is not good enough. You have to find the right timing, and the way you say it has also got to be pleasant to the ears, it has to be factual, and it has to be beneficial. So, it’s not just about good intent. Because a lot of times or most of the time, people don’t know what you’re thinking. Unless you articulate your good intention, it’s never known.
Let’s just give a very classic scenario. Let’s say parents like to nag. They have good intention. They ask, ‘Have you eaten? Why do you come home so late?’. As a child, you will feel irritated. Why is that?
On the other hand, if a parent is really concern about the kid’s well-being and say, ‘hey, you haven’t been eating well, and you have been coming home late. I am concerned about your health. I’m concerned about your safety.’.
When you just come home as a child and you’re really tired. Imagine the hearing nags about whether you have eaten or why haven’t you showered, etc. It’s not the right time!
Could you (as a parent), find a proper time, and in a peaceful manner to say, ‘hey, you know, I’ve noticed that you have been coming home later than usual, what is going on? I would have really love for you to come back earlier, because would make me less worried.’. That (the comment) becomes very constructive.
So, I think it’s how it’s being executed. It’s not always just about the intention. Does that answer your question?
Yeah. And I think that also segways into defining good.
Well, you mentioned that good can be defined as a combination of the intentions, the actions (how it’s being executed), and the result of the person receiving it in a positive way.
So then, I would like to hear your thoughts about whether any of these three parts, right that intention, action, and result, does any of them carry a heavier weight? Are we defined more by our thoughts or our actions, or the results of our actions?
Kai Xin 31:22
Definitely not the results, because results are based on the conditions and the seeds we planted. And there are a lot of things such as circumstances that are beyond our control. Hence, I don’t feel that what’s good is defined by the results.
From a logical standpoint, I would place more emphasis on intention, because that would guide my actions. You know, they always talk about how the mind is the forerunner.
So, if I don’t even have a good intention, then how is my action going to be good? It’s of course going to go sideways. But if I have a good intention, then I can try to train myself in how can I manifest this good intention with a right or tactful behaviour.
I think the reason I asked was because last time, a lot of Asian Buddhists in particular, would 放生 , which is releasing animals in captivity to let them be free and go back to the river.
So, they would go and buy all the fishes on the market and they would release them into whatever river. The intention was very good, very kind in that they wanted to reduce the suffering of these animals. The action is also very good. But the consequence is that all these fishes end up being caught by the same person who sold them. Meaning, this act was increasing the trade of the fishermen who were selling the fishes. The outcome was very foolish, but the action and the intention was very good.
So I’m just wondering what is the merit of this. Would they get actually get good karma from this or bad karma from this?
Kai Xin 33:06
First, karma is something that is very complex. And it’s not transactional: because we do this, then it’s bad karma. Karma can be heavy or light or neutral. And some would ripen immediately, some would ripen very late after (either this life or next life). So it’s complex. To me, that is my interpretation.
I think it’s very important to have the right intention, because that would leave a mental imprint, and that is something that a person would bring to the next life. Then, I think the question isn’t so much about whether is it okay to release fishes. It is okay to release fishes. But I think the right question should be on how can we do it more skillfully, and to see the holistic picture?
Compassion is always encouraged to be accompanied by wisdom. In the past, I used to think that 放生 is very good. But once I found out that the same fish would be caught by the same people at the Kelong, and that they would make a trade out of it, which is very bad karma for them, then if I want to 放生, or if I want to release animals, there must be certain set of criteria.
First, where am I getting this animal? Are they doing it as a business?
Second, the place that I would release these animals, can they actually survive? Because not every fish that we put in the ocean can survive the condition.
Third, does the place allow people to release the animal? Because sometimes it can cause disruption to the ecosystem, and you’re actually causing more harm.
Once all these set of criteria is checked out, then I can do the act, knowing that the result is going to be good. So, I think it’s about having the wisdom that comes with it (the act).
It’s kind of similar to the situation where people ask you for money at the MRT station. Do you give? I have so many scenarios where I got scammed before. And in the past, I didn’t no such thing as compassion with wisdom. I was just compassionate. And I don’t know what they did with the money. Some of them might either use it to gamble, to buy cigarettes, to buy alcohol. I felt very, very bad, because I’m actually supporting that unwholesome lifestyle.
But is it for you to judge. Going back to the point that they could have been affected. Such as the reason that they need to buy alcohol is because of their conditioning and they do not know how to get better resources to help with their pain and suffering. So is that for you to judge?
Kai Xin 35:41
It’s not for me to judge, but I can be more discerning in how I offer them support.
Offering money is not the best support. Let’s see if they they want money to go and see a doctor. Why don’t I ask them where the doctor is and I can go with them. If they were to ask money for food, then why can’t I take the extra effort to buy food for them, rather than just conveniently giving out cash?
Because to some extent, in terms of the heart that you place to it (act of giving), it’s easy to give money, but it’s always more difficult to put in the effort and time. So, if a person were to go the extra mile, it’s actually good for both parties. No judging involved is just being more skillful.
Yeah, I agree. So what I hear you say is that, before we extend help, we have to always take a step back and look into the larger picture, and to understand the context. And if you do have awareness that your help could potentially contribute to certain unwholesome activities, try to see how you can meet the person in another way and help them where they need it perhaps even more.
Transitioning into the topic of looking at anger. Generally, anger is small and unwholesome state of mind, right? Hence, it is kind of portrayed more with a negative stroke of light. But is anger always bad?
Because sometimes anger is required to bring about changes to institutional injustices, for example, like Black Lives Matter, racial injustices. Or even in Malaysia, people were very angry with the corrupt practices in elections. Then, the anger brought about a lot of peaceful protests and brought about a lot of change to the to the final leader of the 2020 elections.
So, you could be very unhappy as an individual but if collectively that anger brings about a good change for the larger picture, is there a possibility that anger could be good?
Kai Xin 37:50
Do you think that there’s a possibility that it could be good?
I think it’s a very tricky question because there’s no clear answer on this.
On the individual level, obviously, anger is not good, because you just don’t feel that great. You just feel negative etc. And that usually spills over to other people. But I think if we look into the motivation of the anger, and what it aims to achieve, it could be good.
So if there is a certain kind of anger that is inclusive, which is based on the premise that one is not free if others aren’t free, and it targets more of kind of like injustice, as it targets more at the suffering that is happening. That can be used for social change, right? The aim is good, and the consequences good.
So I think that should be fine. I think anger could still be appropriate.
But it’s a very thin line because usually when you don’t control anger, you can very easily cause harm, and thereby regretting afterwards. But if you you are able to contain the anger in a way that respects the humanity of the wrongdoer, like want to mentioned about seeing the person behind the act, and focus the outcome of the anger and directing it towards creating a better outcome, then that’s okay.
But if if you use it to blow your own ego or the example of politicians, to get more limelight and get societal support, then, of course, it’s not that great.
Kai Xin 39:26
I do agree. In fact, I read this article on Lion’s Roar, talking about the wisdom of anger.
And the article it talks about anger when it comes to wanting to do justice, this anger stems from compassion, because you see that others are in pain, and you want to do something about it.
There is a quote, or like a line by this author, Melvin. He said that in its pure awakened form, when it’s not driven by ego, anger brings good to the world.
And I think that’s where the thin line comes in. We have to always assess when we are trying to do justice. Maybe we are participating in a particular campaign, you know, we are an activist, always assess, whether whatever the you are doing right now, is it constructive in creating a better outcome. Because that’s why we started (activist campagins), such like Black Lives Matter.
Or when we talk about global warming and trying to get people to be a little bit more conscious or mindful of how they consume products, boycotting companies that have certain malpractices, those are all good intentions.
But when it starts to be driven by ego, and we lose sight of the outcome that we are trying to achieve. Then, we will start seeing a lot of riots that take place and people start taking other people’s lives, and then they feel righteous about it, or they can create a lot of damage, thereby moving further away from the goal.
So, to me personally, I feel that if the anger is driven by compassion, we have to balance it out with the three other Brahma Viharas, which is sometimes translated as the divine abodes.
So, we have compassion, we have loving kindness, we have equanimity and sympathetic joy. And when we have compassion for others, we really feel the pain. And sometimes it can be very intense. We have to balance it out with equanimity and to say, ‘ I can take all these actions in order to create good results. But I’m not emotionally invested in the results. I just invest my emotion in planting the seeds.’
Then, the loving kindness part can come in: reminding ourselves that every being deserves happiness, that deep down, we are all suffering. Dukkha (Dissatisfaction), Anicca (Impermanence), Anatta (Non-self). So, all these three are the universal characteristics of our existence.
And when we are able to see that, then I think it would tame the anger and doesn’t let it slip over to the other side where we want to punish, or we want to cause harm to another being. That’s because we recognise that, this being also deserve love and that we are equal in that sense. So it (loving-kindness) balances out the anger.
And then the last part is sympathetic joy. It is the ability acknowledge that it is okay if somebody else is not as emotionally invested in certain causes as we do. And they could be leading very happy and peaceful life.
We should feel that they don’t deserve to be happy when the world is on fire. Because it’s really tough to be able to be peaceful amidst all these chaos. So, I think that’s where we have to keep our ego in check. It’s not just compassion, we need all the other three. That’s how I view it.
Yeah, that makes sense. And I think it’s, it’s so important because I think the moment we don’t balance all the four divine abodes, sometimes anger would cloud our entire judgement and takes the centre stage instead of the issue that you’re trying to solve. And when anger takes the centre stage, more often than not, violence and pain will just increase.
Kai Xin 43:49
I think to some degree it also about having faith in karma, cause and effect.
I know some people would say that all these people who are doing evil deeds seem to get away with it and lead a very good life. Then, we feel even more angry, because it seems like they are not impacted by their actions.
But if we have faith in karma, and also rebirth, or let’s say if you don’t believe in an afterlife, it doesn’t mean that if a person doesn’t get tangible retribution, they are not being punished by their acts.
Were they happy when they were committing those acts? On the surface, it might seem that they are happy, but deep down, they can be very insecure, they can be very lonely. And you would realise that they don’t die being a very peaceful person.
I think just that itself, at least for me, I think that brings a lot of comfort. Rather than questioning why all the good people seem to die earlier, or good people get all these consequences and feel very unjust about this, and start to feel that life is kind of very unfair, and get into a depressed state, feeling helpless, like nothing is worthwhile… for me, I would think that it’s all about the mental state.
Do you live a peaceful life? Do you die peaceful?
Only the person who is leading their life would be able to be truthful to themselves.
And we always chant the verse: We are the owners of our karma, heir to our kamma, born of our karma. They (people who do bad) don’t need us to punish, we can take corrective actions, but karma is fair all the time.
But also don’t go to the other side whereby you rejoice when the bad person experience their kamma retribution. Because that’s also a form of defilement.
Kai Xin 45:43
I’m wondering whether you have any personal anecdotes to share?
I think the reason why I brought up anger as a vehicle for change is because it relates to how I might not have enough courage to stand up for the LGBT community, which I’m a part of.
I recall a time when I was interning, towards the end of the internship, my manager said certain things that made me felt very unwelcomed and unvalidated in the company. The essence of the message was that ‘you’re not really welcome. We’re tolerating you because the company is liberal.’.
At that moment, I shrank and wish I could disappear and get out of the person’s view. And I felt angry at myself for feeling so. Because I wish I had the courage to tell him that what he said was unacceptable, and he shouldn’t have said those things to me. So, I wished I had more anger, or more rage in order to react and retaliate, rather than feeling small, be passive and run away and avoid the person forever. That’s why I’ve always thought that maybe having a little bit more firepower would be good in my life.
Kai Xin 47:08
I get what you mean, because there’s a strong energy in anger. And maybe it’s a little bit different from courage. But in my opinion, I feel that you could have achieved the same outcome with more courage, but maybe anger is the one that can propel you to take action.
I feel that anger would have propelled me to have the courage. Anger would have driven that courage to speak up. But because I felt more of ‘ I’d rather disappear, I’d rather go into a hole’, I didn’t raise this to HR, I didn’t complain.
I think I just told a couple of friends and focused more on ‘okay, how do I find peace? How do I find confidence in myself and tackle the problem from there’, which I felt that that is good and it is important, but it doesn’t contribute to preventing the same thing from happening to another person.
Kai Xin 48:04
If you were given a second chance, how would you have responded differently?
I think it’s hard because instinctively, I would always go back to myself first, I will always see how I could work on the inner happiness in the sense that how I move on, how would I be psychologically safe or how can I provide that safe space for myself, rather than externally. So, I think it’s also about considering effecting certain changes externally could help other people.
Kai Xin 48:40
I do agree that you don’t have to take it all upon yourself. And to what extent do you want to step up and just tell the person this is not right, and to what extent do you keep it in and just deal with it alone?
Personally, I do think that there is a sweet spot.
We can pull the person aside and say, ‘Hey, whatever you say just now, it didn’t make me feel welcomed. And it would have been helpful if you were to do X, Y and Z.’, rather than retaliating in front of everybody and shaming that person, which can cause a lot of hate and it might also backfire.
So, I think it’s about finding that balance and doing it skillfully because I don’t think it’s right to just absorb all the pain by yourself.
Would you have stepped up if you saw another person going through the same scenario right before your eyes?
Yeah, I think I would have.
Kai Xin 49:30
Then why don’t you give yourself that same amount of compassion?
But I think it’s also because it comes with a lot of baggage. Speaking on behalf of the LGBT community, first, you already need to have enough confidence in yourself about your identity being okay. Because of the kind of Asian upbringing where it’s unacceptable and the society thinks that it is not okay.
I already do not have that confidence in the identity in itself. So it does not help when other people are being negative to you, because there is this little voice inside of myself that says, ‘What if they’re right?’.
There is that kind of doubt that says that they could be right that I shouldn’t be welcomed.
Kai Xin 50:23
It is not right to exclude anybody because of orientation or colour or anything. I think it’s not right to cause harm to others.
Ah~ I’m feeling emotional.
Kai Xin 50:36
I’m not sure. Before it even gets to that stage, how do you feel people around you can offer support? And how can you build up that courage within you such that in the future, if the same thing were to happen again, you can respond (well)?
I think the funny thing is that I felt a lot of comfort when people were angry on my behalf. So I was telling this to one of my colleagues, and she was all like raging about this, feeling that it’s unacceptable, and wanting to get the person into trouble.
I really appreciated the anger.
Kai Xin 51:13
Was it because you feel cared for?
I feel validated more than care.
I feel affirmation in my identity that I am okay. I am accepted. And that the person who is being mean is the one that’s the outlier. So I feel accepted. So I do appreciate the anger.
Kai Xin 51:33
Cheryl, you are accepted by me, by all of us.
Kai Xin 51:40
Would you feel acceptance and validation without people getting angry on your behalf? Would it have been different? Or is it because they became the proxy, because you don’t find that confidence and courage to be angry and to step up, and when others were to do so, they are sort of acting on your behalf?
I think it’s the proxy thing. I feel like if someone were to comfort me and say, ‘Oh, it’s okay’, I wouldn’t have felt the equal a sense of relief after.
I think it was really the anger that helped me process my emotions. But I really like how you termed it as a proxy, filling the gap where I didn’t feel the courage to even feel that.
And interestingly, feelings and emotions have rules, right? For example, when we go to a funeral, we’re supposed to cry. When you go to a wedding, you’re supposed to feel happy for the person or inspired. And sometimes, our true emotions get blurred, because we are trying to abide by the rules or feelings in a certain way, about things, about people, and situations.
Kai Xin 52:56
And why do you say that? Do you feel like people are being bullied? Hence, the rule is be angry.
Yeah, I think how I connect it is that if it’s an appropriate emotion, then I feel validated. If it’s not an appropriate emotion, I would feel like ‘do you actually empathise or understand?’.
Anger could actually bring about change and sometimes anger could be a good thing. But we also need to talk about how to be skillful and manage or will it effectively, right. So you could perhaps get in solidarity with others, create goals and plans to achieve certain kind of justice, and stick to it. Because Anger is an emotion that is very strong, high energy. If you don’t stick to it, you can end up going to like break people’s window or things like that. And I think most importantly, is to be careful to not become the perpetrator that you are fighting against.
What what do you think is the opposite of anger?
Kai Xin 53:55
I wanted to say compassion. But anger can be a manifestation of compassion.
I was thinking peacefulness. Because anger is very chaotic and peace is very calm.
Kai Xin 54:13
Why do you ask that question? What’s the flip side of anger?
Because I feel that a lot of people associate peace with passivity and inaction. But just as anger can be used as a force of change, and good change, peace can also be used as a vehicle for action and productivity.
I just wanted to share the example of Thich Nhat Han, who is a peaceful activist. Especially during the war time in Vietnam War, he trained a lot of young monks and young people to help out in the war, using very peaceful methods.
But at the same time, he did a lot of things. They went into areas where there were a lot of victims of war to build hospitals, schools, health centre, essentially just helping them out. And I think the key concept here that he shared, which really inspired me was that when you’re trying to help people who are already in so much pain such as refugees who have lost their families, they have lost their limbs, and they are probably also losing their mind, if you also lose yourself in panic and fear, you cannot help them. But if you’re able to maintain that sense of stability and kindness within you, then you can really meet them where they need to help in. It (peace) could not just be a few for good action, but it could even make help much more effective, when a person comes from a clear state of mind.
Kai Xin 55:52
I agree. A lot of times people kind of misinterpret being peaceful to not doing anything or equate it to staying in your own world. I don’t think that’s the case.
I think the challenge is about understanding. Because peace itself seems to not carry as much energy. You know, when you think of a peaceful person, you don’t really imagine them to be very driven, very action-oriented. It’s more associated to them sitting in a cave, contented, laid back. They might be proactive, but it’s just not with the same amount of drive and eagerness that you can see tangibly in their expression or in their behaviour. And I’m not so sure whether that impedes what gets executed?
I disagree, though, because being mindful doesn’t mean you, you need to slow down. You could be in a rush in a chaos, but you are aware of and mindful of the chaos, and that’s where the calm and peace comes in. It’s like being in the centre of the tornado. It’s peaceful inside. I watched certain videos of people flying through a tornado where everything is happening (chaotic), and once they reach the vortex, it is so calm.
So, I disagree in the sense that being peaceful would mean that the efficiency reduces the impact reduces. I think peace just gives you the ability and sanity to do things faster, and to stay over the long term. So more sustainable in terms of your energy, and perhaps the influence that you have over other people as well.
Kai Xin 57:39
I do agree that it’s a lot more sustainable.
In fact, base on my personal experience, talking about mindfulness meditation, I can be really busy in the day, but if I’m mindfully busy, then I don’t feel burnt out, as compared to aimlessly doing doing my tasks.
In terms of whether peace would influence people better, that I’m not sure. I feel that there seems to be some draw when a person has a lot of bodily energy. And it shows in the way they speak. Example, they speak louder. When they try to lobby for votes or for support, it’s always in a very energetic sense, versus ‘oh, life is all good.’ You know, it’s just a very different vibe.
Or you can look at the corporate context, usually people who gets the most votes, or gets the most support are the loudest people in the room.
Sadly, that’s the case. The one who talks the loudest or bang the most drums.
Kai Xin 58:48
Which I think sometimes then, certain camps of people would feel that it’s a little bit ineffective or foolish to do things peacefully, because it’s not effective.
Then that’s where we need to separate the performance and the action. It is similar to effective marketing, right? For example, this podcast is very peaceful. But to get to people, we need to drum up on the marketing aspect of things, publicise it with snippets that are high energy, like reels. So, it’s how you package it. But inside, you still need to maintain that sense of peace.
Kai Xin 59:26
Provided that a person can be really advanced and dissociate the action that is done versus the mental state within. I think it’s quite inevitable that people are drawn to causes that are angled in a way that connects with the emotional piece.
Kai Xin 59:52
So we are driven by pleasure and pain. An example would be if I were to write a campaign to say that all of this hurt that a person has caused, or a particular organisation has caused, it’s gonna incite a lot of negativity because of the intensity of the pain that was painted in the storyline, as opposed to writing it very objectively to say, Okay, this is what is done, let’s come and lobby and campaign, I think people wouldn’t see that it’s something that it’s very severe. And in terms of taking action, some people might prioritise other causes that seem more important than this, because this doesn’t seem too significant.
So, I think it’s inevitable that people are drawn to others who are more charismatic and more vocal about the negativity and causes that are driven by anger. And it’s really up to the leader who is spearheading the campaign to ensure the community that is helping, in the process stay wholesome. So there must be certain guidelines, to say, ‘Okay, we want to fight for justice, but never ever fight for justice in this, this, this and that way, because it will be out of line, and it will be untrue to what we want to do.’.
So, I’m not so sure whether there are ways to actually educate the general public to do in a more tactful manner. So the hook can still be packaged with a lot of anger, driven by compassion, but then the execution would then a little bit more, you know, peaceful, and then balance it out with the three other pure divine abodes that I’ve mentioned earlier on.
it’s tough to find that balance in real life, I feel.
It’s very hard, definitely very hard to find that balance. So I think who you surround yourself with is super important. If you know you are surrounding yourself with bloodthirsty people, then obviously a fight is going to break out and all of you encourage each other in that sense.
So, make sure you do have people in your circle who counters your perspective and offers a balancing view to to ensure that hey, maybe you need to take a stop and reflect on your intentions. Are you getting ahead of yourself with your ego and feeling very attached to what you’re doing? Or have forgotten why you started feeling angry? Or why are you even putting yourself to change certain things?
So, yeah, make sure that you balance life out.
Kai Xin 1:02:42
To kind of an off this episode or this chat. I’m just wondering, what what are some of the key takeaways?
Broadly, a key takeaway would be to not jump to conclusions so fast, and to always allow for opportunity to dig a little bit deeper into the specific scenarios, the context. And why that is important is because we can then find the right course of action to take and appropriately behave in a way that takes care of ourselves and still be able to come up with appropriate change to the wider system.
Kai Xin 1:03:27
Thanks for the reflective chat.
Hey, there, thanks for listening to this episode. Our takeaway is that there’s really no absolute definition of what is good, what is bad, and we should never judge others preliminary based on the snapshot of their actions. Instead, we should try to seek to understand the full picture. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t stand up for what is right. It’s about doing it in a skillful way. Well, the world is filled with so much uncertainties and sometimes it can feel like a really dark place. So, let us bring the world with more goodness by restraining our thoughts, speech, and action, such that we don’t cause ourselves harm, as well as others whom we interact with.
Never underestimate the power of kindness, because every drop of kindness can create a ripple effect to change the world. We wish that you can be kind to yourself and kind to others.
In this episode. All the views that we have discussed are purely ours and no harm was intended. While a huge part of this episode, it’s about discovering the good in people who have done bad deeds, by no means are we invalidating the feelings experienced by victims.
Regardless of the situation. If you or anyone you know are in need of emotional and psychological support, please do reach out to somebody seeking help is a sign of courage, not a weakness. You can find various helplines in the show notes.
Once again, thank you for listening to this podcast. If you have benefited from this episode, please give us a five star review would really help us in terms of the algorithm to get to more people. And if you have any feedback in terms of how we can do better, please also let us know via our telegram channel. I hope to see you in the next episode. And meanwhile, stay happy and wise!
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Resources and useful links:
- Book – In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Dr Gabor Maté
- Angulimala sutta – The Serial killer who became enlightened
- 4 Brahma Viharas / Sublime States/Pure Abodes
- Right Speech
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