If I were a character in a novel, undoubtedly my fatal flaw would be anger. For me, the struggle is in finding ways to healthily release my anger. Thus, I take a great deal of interest in exploring new books on anger as I’m always happy to learn more about working with one of my greater challenges in life.
It’s an amusing paradox that a book about anger could create a level of frustration, almost anger, in its readers, yet that was my experience while reading Freedom from Anger: Understanding It, Overcoming It, and Finding Joy by Venerable Alubomulle Sumanasara. While I read the first 15% of the work, I assumed this was a self-published book by a young twenty-something atheist Buddhist who was certain he foolishly knew all the answers to the world’s problems. His condescending and omniscient tone was a huge turn off for me. Imagine my surprise upon Googling the author and finding his Japanese Wikipedia page. He’s a 70 year old Buddhist monk whose works have sold over 100 million copies if the awkward translation is correct. To say I was surprised is an understatement.
I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that Sumanasara and I have very different belief systems around anger. He presents his system with a moral certitude of being right, yet certainty about being right is something he addresses within the work as an underlying cause of anger. As I continued reading, I was able to think of countless examples where his belief system did not hold up to real world challenges. For example, the author contends that anger and love are opposing emotions. He strongly argues that anger is a choice and that we can refrain from it. However, I have found that love is not a choice. We can fall in love unintentionally (also known as unrequited love), sometimes even in situations where we don’t want to such as with an unavailable person. If love and anger are opposites, then it would stand to reason that anger is not a choice. Just as love is an emotion that we can choose to deal with in different ways, some appropriate and healthy and others far less so, anger is also an emotion that can be both used and misused.
The author seems as though he lives in a world of moral absolutes. He believes that everything is worth being happy about in life, and therefore there is no justification for anger. However, I can very easily think of evidence to the contrary. For example, a young child killed in a drive by shooting while innocently walking down the street is not something to be happy about. In Sumanasara’s system, the only other emotion is anger. Is this not a situation when anger instead of happiness is justified? In my belief system and those of many others, anger is not wrong, especially when it brings about positive change. Anger is a natural human emotion that we are meant to feel. In this case, if the anger about the child’s death brings about gun control legislation or increased mental health support in the community, then the anger has served a purpose to motivate and bring positive change. However, if the anger served to fuel revenge and more violence, it would not have created that positive change and the anger would have been problematic.
Despite his graduate studies in Buddhism, Sumanasara seems to be lacking in knowledge of basic psychology regarding anger. Sumanasara gives an example about a person getting extremely angry after experiencing failure when making a new recipe. Most American therapists would take that example and offer the suggestion that the anger about the recipe was actually misplaced. When many of us get overly upset about something rather trivial such as a new recipe that is a failure, it’s usually a sign of other repressed emotional issues underneath which we are manifesting in anger when we can no longer repress our frustration. Such an idea seems foreign to Sumanasara.
The author also contends that we get angry because we believe we are right. While there are times when this is true, I believe that overall, this concept oversimplifies anger far too much. I believe many of us become angry because we've been raised in a society that models anger and angry behavior. We simply don’t know how to work through our frustrations in other ways. Not all examples of anger can be traced back to a desire to be right.
As I read the book, I began thinking of it as Vulcan Buddhism. Perhaps I have been watching too much Star Trek with my kids lately, but Sumanasara seems to function under a belief system where emotions are illogical: He believes that anger can be controlled by logic. However, we are humans, and we are not fully logical. We are also emotional. Our emotions, both positive and negative, are an integral part of our being. Sumanasara thinks that if one takes the position of not having emotions, then one won’t have anger. Yet I read through this work, I kept wondering how many unresolved psychological traumas Sumanasara must be repressing in order to live what he is preaching. Repressing anger only creates toxicity in the body. Even if we don’t want to, oftentimes we need to feel our feelings so that we can process them.
Sumanasara also harps on the idea that other people’s anger destroys our happiness. Using his arguments, however, if we were strong individuals who had control of our emotions, then this wouldn't be an issue. We would not let anyone else's anger create anger in us. From my viewpoint, this is statement from someone making himself a victim because he states that he can't be happy when someone else around him is angry. This is not a statement of someone who feels responsible for his own emotions or has them under control as he asserts is fully possible. Once again, I believe the beliefs that Sumanasara is functioning under are contradictory and unhealthy.
While translation issues could be at work, I also felt much of the book contained demeaning insults against those whose behavior displeases Sumanasara. He throws out covert attacks as well such as when he proclaims that wise people have no desire to govern. Sumanasara's views come across as blindly fundamentalist beliefs at times.
When Sumanasara began discussing using the silent treatment as punishment, he lost my respect completely. First of all, most therapists and life coaches would argue that people need discipline, not punishment. While we all make mistakes, we need to be taught how to change those behaviors or actions that cause ourselves or others harm. Discipline conveys teaching whereas punishment conveys an attitude of humans being inherently evil. Given the negative self-judgment that Samanasara encourages throughout the book with people labeling themselves stupid or failures, this attitude should not be a surprise to me. However, I believe this is far from a healthy system for working with emotions. Second, the silent treatment in itself is an awful way of trying to teach someone. What that person will learn from being given the silent treatment is that the silencing person doesn't care enough about him/her/hir to work together to make a change. The silent treatment is not a good way to make positive change in the world. Once again, Sumanasara is taking a position of ignoring those things which cause him emotional discomfort rather than actually confronting the issues and working through them.
Some books that one does not agree with can still teach important lessons; they may contain small bits of useful wisdom. While I tried to view Freedom from Anger as an opportunity to learn from someone with a different viewpoint, I was less than successful. The most positive thing I can say about this book is that it helped me to understand many of the young, arrogant, self-centered atheist Buddhists whom I have encountered on dating websites. I have often questioned how they can hold the views they do while claiming to be Buddhists. Sumanasara’s work gave me insight into the mental workings of these men.
After reading Sumanasara’s opinion on using the silent treatment as punishment 45% of the way through the text, I quit reading the book. I was not learning anything useful from the book, and I was becoming more and more disheartened with each passing page. If I hadn't been reviewing the book, I would have stopped long beforehand. Freedom from Anger is definitely not a book that is in line with my healing philosophies nor would I recommend it to a client.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC