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Daily Connect: Can You Get Enlightened and Still Be A Big Old Grouch? The Answer is NO

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Some people seem to just be grumpy, angry, mean ole crankypants. Some people who meditate on compassion also seem to be in a consistently bad mood. Even some Buddhist teachers just seem to have dour demeanors as their default factory setting, and seem prone to fits of anger and rage over minor details going awry.

Over a great conversation with meditation teacher Kenneth Folk and his wife last night, we wondered together if it is possible to attain realization, clarify all confusion, and get "enlightened" while still somehow being a grouch worthy of an Oscar. A few Buddhist teachers seem to think it is. Kenneth is a pretty accomplished practitioner, so he seemed a good person to ask.

We seemed to generally agree that the evolution of our personal practices had made us nicer, more considerate, and less likely to be angry as a general truth. Personally, it has gotten much harder to make me "lose my shit" in frustration, so to speak. Which is interesting, because the more leadership responsibilities I get, the more seems to go wrong. I am hoping to go even further down this path of having more and more go wrong and losing my shit less and less often. I'll let you know how it goes.

On the one hand, there's the truth that awakening is not about having certain emotions and losing others. Awakening is a fully stabilized way of meeting whatever arises, no matter what our mind or the world throws at us. But sometimes people take this theory as a bypass, to justify the fact that they are really easily perturbed and are holding onto a rather narrow comfort zone. The truth is that 99% of anger and frustration are not naturally occurring mind-states. Rather, 99% of our bad mood is produced by fixation on our mind, and on trying to make other sentient beings into our personal marionettes.

At the same time, the tradition is full of stories of teachers and masters who got angry, sometimes even violently so. It is also full of stories of teachers who seemed allergic to smiling or saying kind words about others. However, these stories almost always purport that this was not necessarily the master's true personality, just a skillful way of working with students who were committed to him or her and needed to be pushed to let go of their own fixations more.

In general, I would challenge and push back against the notion that freedom from fixation doesn't mean you get nicer and smile more. I think it can and should mean just that. A face covered with a permanent scowl is not the face of the awakened state of mind.

If you are grumpy, you are probably either holding onto or rejecting something that is happening in your mind or heart. And if you are holding on, that fixation is not enlightenment. If you're a grouch, you aren't close to being a Buddha. Just my two cents.

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I've wondered about this!

Hi, Very interesting to read this because, in recent years that I've met several Zen masters or attended talks/zazen, I was surprised to see how sarcastic or arrogant they were sometimes, on a personal level. I've seen this a lot. It wasn't grouchiness, really, or outright anger in one case; it seemed to be an underlying critical attitude or negativity. I knew it was my own assumptions that made me expect something different, but it wasn't easy to deal with. In one case, especially, the teacher clearly made many assumptions about me (based on things said) and made sarcastic remarks (though not in an angry tone, really, just cutting) that seemed off the wall since the teacher didn't know me and what was said didn't apply--and it wasn't about teaching matters; it was more in casual conversation.

Are they enlightened? I don't know. I'm sure they have lots of knowledge and experience, but I guess their path is just different than mine. Other people in the sangha didn't seem bothered, though I never discussed it and I don't attend there anymore. Nice little practice, to not be bothered by it or react but it got to be too much.

Glad to know others think about this stuff.

the use of sarcasm

I think there is definitely a place for teachers to use methods that on the surface look like sarcasm or crankiness. It is in the service of unraveling students' narratives about themselves, and particularly narratives of "goodness," which can be a touchy thing. The sarcasm can sometimes reveal, like a lightning bolt, the masks we wear, and the "spiritual materialism," to use Chogyam Trungpa's famous term, in which a student wants the "goodies" or prestige of leading what they think is a spiritual life, while not being ready or knowing how to just let go into ugly-beautiful realness. The spiritual life is a painful process of taking off masks, not acquiring cool trendy practices that make you look good (ah... sarcasm sneaks in). It can look nasty, but it can be a very effective tool. Our defenses are strong, and breaking through them can require lightning bolts sometimes.

But i think it is very different from a teacher who is truly angry and grumpy - that doesn't make sense to me. A teacher who still has crucial work to do untangling their own unresolved childhood issues and unmet needs can be dangerous and can project their residual neurosis on their students' lives in an unhealthy way. And in the end, it can be very difficult to discriminate between the two forms of "anger" - especially for a beginner coming in.

Re sarcasm-good food for thought

I see what you mean. I thought about whether the teacher was trying to get a point across, on a couple occasions, but it didn't make sense in the various contexts (for example, telling me I'm "too young" to remember something he had referred too--great, he thinks I'm a lot younger than I am--flattering, maybe. I was 46 at that time. But it's hard to have a conversation with someone who constantly cuts things off with comments like that that aren't accurate.). If he thought I was at the center to learn some "cool, trendy new practice to look good," well maybe that was the problem. It's possible he assumed that though I don't know why he would get that impression from me. In any case, it was unpleasant when he spoke as he did, whether to me or others, and I only saw it as thinly veiled anger. I don't think sarcasm is generated in a peaceful person. But Zen masters are people too, with their issues like anyone, and I'm sure his style works great for other people.

it's possible that the

it's possible that the teacher was not that skillful, or working from their own issues, yes...

but i think teachers sometimes say things to offend, knowing they will piss people off, for the very reason that there is value in simply seeing how a student reacts... do your defenses come up? if so, what is that like? what is the feeling there? there is so much to be learned from exploring the feelings that arise: does it poke wounds of insufficiency from childhood or one's relationship with parents/sibs/friends? or is a person used to have everyone like them and agree with them and be nice to them? what happens when the world isn't like that? (i'm intentionally not saying "you" - this is a general statement about what i've observed watching teachers work this way.) Is there a sense of injustice? hurt? annoyance? So much of the good stuff to be found on the path comes from where you find the resistance in yourself. go into it. what is there? it's not that the criticism is necessarily accurate... but the process of being insulted and observing your own reaction can teach you a lot about yourself.

but yeah... it's not for everyone, agreed. and it all depends on the good heart of a skillful teacher.

I follow you

I see what you mean, and I understand that and agree it's valuable to get in touch with what we're feeling, how we react, etc. which is something I've worked on a lot over the years. But what you describe isn't what this person was trying to achieve, I don't think, or at least not skillfully (or at least not in ways that were useful for me--who am I to judge). I remembered some things this person said about himself personally, and I'm pretty sure he has anger issues that he's aware of. Come to think of it, I think he was also pretty new as a teacher.

I've come to the conclusion that I didn't really fit in with the majority of the group, which was a lot of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts (hard stuff), as I found out. Which is fine, and I didn't have any problem with that, but maybe some of the approach was geared for the bulk of the group and I just found myself observing. I mean, I wasn't offended (I never really got to know the guy nor did he get to know me; I never got defensive and explained anything) so stuff he would say just didn't apply, and I would sit there and watch and wonder stuff like wow, where does he get this stuff lol, just kind of puzzled. It made it impossible to talk with him. Well they aren't all like this, fortunately. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

truth and love

after thinking about this a bit, i did want to add that while i've seen teachers use sarcasm very effectively, and have learned a lot from them, i study with a teacher who has a less "confrontational" or sarcastic approach. Interestingly, i feel like her careful observations, presented with compassion, are far more effective at "unmasking" me simply because they are so devastatingly accurate. i feel completely naked when i am with her, and like i could not hide if i wanted to - she sees right through me. and without judgment, and with compassion, takes the masks away, one by one. it is painful, but feels safe and there is a quality of joy at being unmasked, not shame or self-hatred, which can sometimes be the unintended fallout from a sarcastic approach.

in the end, maybe it is a little like finding a partner... maybe we respond best to a teacher who loves us in a way that is familiar from our childhood (we look for a partner who will love us in a way we learned as children to be loved, for better and for worse)? just speculating - i could be totally off base. Maybe people with tough, confrontational parents will respond to a more confrontational, sarcastic teacher? And people with gentle parents will hear truth better in a gentle voice, perhaps.
Either way, love, compassion and truth (a genuine perception of the student) have to be the foundation of any teacher's approach. Like parenting or classroom teaching, it all works - tough or gentle - as long as those elements are there.

Ponlop Rinpoche said

"if you sit every day but are a mean person you are not a good practitioner."

the grouch

Without knowing where someone started, we really can't judge how much his practice has done for his state of mind. Those of us who are wired to feel pretty cheerful as long as we get 3 squares and 6 hrs of sleep a day really are in no position to congratulate ourselves on our spiritual condition.

Great Point

I have to agree with this, though I'm sure that I'm being at least a little bit self-serving. I have flashes of mean and cranky, but I'm basically a happy person, and generally pretty nice. This is coming off of years of depression. So I'm a lot nicer now than I was, but I still sometimes have a difficult time holding things down. I think that part of this has to do with knowing where you are on the journey, but not getting too hung up on that. And that you have to be able to say "I'm angry but I'm going to do something different with it today," or "I'm angry and I'm moving through it, so I'm going to deal and not beat myself up."

Am I enlightened? Probably not. Yet. I accept that I have a couple (dozen) lifetimes to work it out. (I become painfully aware of this when someone cuts me off in traffic.) But I'm so much closer than I was that you'd have to see where I started to get a real sense of that.

Grumpy Zen

Ethan, thanks for taking a stand on this -- it's so much more interesting to talk about Buddhism when someone's willing to state a thesis.  Most of the Zen teachers I've worked with are short-tempered (Enkyo Roshi's pretty patient, of course, but she's an exception in my experience).  Myself, I'm extremely patient.  I've learned a lot from grouches, nevertheless.

I think this is about wisdom and compassion.  They're like two feet.  I can move my wisdom foot forward while my compassion foot stays behind, but there's a limit -- I can't walk all the way down the street with one foot dragging behind.  Similarly, perhaps a cranky Buddhist might have profound wisdom, but that wisdom must be incomplete if he's still flying off the handle, and can't be compassionate towards those who annoy him most.  Perhaps he sees emptiness really deeply, but that wisdom doesn't serve him when someone presses his buttons.

So I guess I agree with you that being less grouchy is a symptom of greater enlightenment.  But I'd throw in two caveats:

1)  I won't dismiss others' attainment just because they're grouchy.  They've probably far surpassed me in other aspects of their understanding.

2)  Some practitioners should work really hard on reducing their anger, but others should go easy on themselves, and spend more time observing themselves really objectively without trying to change themselves.  Depends on where we are.

Just providing a little perspective...

One, u can be enlightened & still be a grouch! If a person's natural disposition is grouchy, he can find all of the enlightenment in the world & he still might not change! Real enlightenment isn't always easy, and I think we should try hard... to remember this! Two, people pick on Oscar The Grough way too much! He's like the Lewis Black of Sesame Street! Nobody complains that Lewis Black is a grouch; they just say he's a funny motherf***er! Same thing goes for Oscar The Grouch! He's also one funny dude! So, people need to stop disparaging Oscar The Grouch! The guy's a-okay in my book! Finally, some people are just grouchy bc they've been hurt by others in life, and so they create this hard outer shell to protect themselves! Deep down they could be a ginormous moosh! Everyone sees how Oscar The Grouch is a grouch, but they forget he lives his life in a garbage can! They don't ask though, how did Oscar end up in that garbage can? What if he had a horribly wretched ex-wife? What if he had a horrible prenuptial agreement? What if this ex-wife robbed him blind when they divorced & that's why he lives in a garbage can?! As Buddhists, I think we should try to be a little bit more understanding! Maybe life's circumstances made Oscar the grouch he is, and all of it would take is a little human kindness to discover & realize the sweet heart he is underneath! ;D


I think about this a lot because I've taken too many improv classes and have always had a knack for saying evisceratingly hilarious things at just the right (or wrong if you happened to be the one being disemboweled) moment. It sort of became something I was known for, a kind of mordant personality badge of honor. But who the hell do I think I am, Dorothy Parker? It's easy to forget that Mrs. Parker also came with a Vicious Circle.

Actually one of the scariest things for me in deciding to become a Buddhist was knowing that I would have to divest my sense of self from being the guy who would always say, "You know what your problem is?!" Because the more baby steps I take along this path, the less I am able to clearly separate myself from others and as a result am less able to justify handing someone's ass to them – I certainly don't like being treated that way.

It's been through shamatha practice that I've been able to see that behind the cutting-remark is a sort of grumpiness or anger (mostly directed towards myself), but behind that is a sort of fear of being vulnerable and exposed, which is actually my natural state. There's also a sense, however, that the energy which my mind manipulates into anger or crankiness is actually an expression of my Basic Goodness; not a shortcoming at all. The challenge for me is to keep the energy and the clear-seeing, which are said to be included in anger and grouchiness, while maintaining enough compassion and loving-kindness for myself and others to not act like a horse's ass in mixed company. Maybe it's possible to practice cruelty-free humor – they were able to do it with shampoo. And when I fuck up, well...I once herd someone say patience is an antidote to anger, too.



In my view, it all goes back to what exactly full awakening is supposed to be.

I think until there is some ability in our present context to define all of the various terms that are referred to -- awakening, enlightenment, liberation, whatever - there will be no clarity about what it entails.

"On the one hand, there's the truth that awakening is not about having certain emotions and losing others."

I think even this much is hard to say categorically, because historically in the Sravaka traditions the Buddha has completely eliminated at least certain emotions. That model might be bogus, sure, but in that case we'll need to recognize that and consciously discard it, and elaborate an alternative.

I like it when you comment.

I like it when you comment. It makes me less grouchy. :)

frustration = fixation

frustration arises when things aren't happening the way you want them to. some frustration is unavoidable -- the computer is supposed to save the document/graphic/whatever you've been working on, not lose it. what's important is how you deal with it. the tech support guy at work asks first: what did you do? which, he once pointed out, is a legitimate question in trying to figure out what to do next. but he asks it in a tone of voice that implies it's all your fault that the computer crashed/won't open a document/is moving like it's got molasses in its circuits.

enlightened people may get angry, frustrated, etc, but I wouldn't expect them to take it out on others. grumpy people aren't working with what's in their minds.

teachers should always be compassionate, nurturing, and supportive. (wink). no, actually, teachers should challenge you to take the leap and look at things that scare you. but there should be a sense that they're challenging you because they believe you're up to it, believe you can do it, and think you're pretty damn cool for being willing to be pushed.

meditating has made me nicer

I swear

Me too!

Nancy, I'm pretty sure I'm much nicer since meditating too.  

You're a grump!

Just kidding!  Ha ha!

As I was walking home today, I started repeating outloud the word "green, green, green," and laughing at various moments, with a now and then wonder at why it seems at my age that when I do things like that I feel like I'm 5 years old, and I really want some other kid around me to keep repeating "green" with me.

I agree with you that there is no fixed state, but that, in general, lightness, calm, and joy arise as an energetic waiting state the more you let go.  The world, even when raining, is beautiful, and this is coming from a guy who just shivered the entire way home because he did not have his jacket, and his feet were wet.

I also think that people my age don't read enough serious stuff.  Go figure. 

grouchy sad face

thanks for this perspective. i agree entirely.

i would add though, that the practice encourages one to meet themselves where they are at. it can be frustrating at times when i "lose my shit". i feel guilty & disappointed. ahhh, judgement! but at all times i try to remain reflective--aware i am losing it & why. i realize that doesn't make it ok, but, it would also be destructive to repress those feelings--pretending i am not bothered/upset--because i would not be honoring the teachings they have to offer.

all this is not to let people off the hook for irrational behavior. however, i struggle at times to let things roll off my back. as i work towards understanding & keeping appropriate boundaries (and not being a people-pleaser) i find i am less available, and don't offer myself as much...which can be perceived as grouchy--sad face.

Totally agree.   My main

Totally agree.


My main point is that we don't excuse our unfriendliness for some psychological or spiritual progress.


i missed that in my initial reading.
thanks for clarifying!


"I am hoping to go even further down this path of having more and more go wrong and losing my shit less and less often. I'll let you know how it goes."

them's words to live by, lol!!  i love this post - thank you.

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