Heaven or Hell? It's Your Choice

Americans need to think about anger. It's time to examine our ruffian soul, our John Wayne machismo and taste for revenge.

Watching the evening news last night, this message was painfully obvious. Here was another prickly right-wing pundit (in this case, Liz Cheney, the daughter of our ex-VP) complaining that Barack Obama doesn't seem angry enough. Too much diplomacy, not enough punch. Too much wisdom, not enough ass-whupping. Too much effeminate forgiveness (ech! Those doves!), and not enough of Goliath's roar.

If this weren't so lunatic, it might be funny. Like addicts of bloodshed, American hawks are hankering for the good old days when foot stomping, threats, and calling nasty schoolyard names formed our hairtraigger nation's persona. Forbearance makes warmongers irritable. They miss the frisson of the first strike. In Machiavelli's famous phrase, they believe that it's better to be feared than loved.

But Obama doesn't do it that way. We have a Zen master in the White House, not a corporate cowboy. This is making us look at ourselves anew. If we're not angry Americans, who are we? If we're not in offense mode, do we exist? Anger is the toxin of privilege, and Americans, by definition, see ourselves as privileged people. But the old way doesn't work anymore. Anger is the old guard.

This reminds me of a Zen story I've always loved. Hakuin was a great Buddhist teacher in the 17th century. Fierce and stately in his black robes, he could meditate for days at a time, recite sutras by the thousand, and live on nothing but rice and air. Hakuin was not afraid of anything.

One day, a samurai arrived at the master's mountain zendo. The samurai approached Hakuin and bowed. "Sir," he announced, "I wish to understand the difference between heaven and hell."

Hakuin was the picture of disdain, eyeing the samurai from head to toe like yesterday's chop suey. "I would tell you," the old man said, twirling his silver mustache, perhaps. "But I doubt that you have the keenness of wit to understand."

The samurai's face blazed with wounded pride. He pulled back in astonishment. "Do you know who you are speaking to?" asked the soldier, puffing out his astounding chest.

"Not much," shrugged Hakuin. "I really think you are probably too dull to understand."

"What?" the samurai demanded, unable to believe his own ears. "How can you speak to me in such a tone?"

"Oh, don't be silly," Hakuin mocked him. "Who do you think you are?" The samurai trembled with fury. "And that thing hanging from your waist," the teacher added. "You call that a sword? It's more like a butter knife."

Finally, the samurai could take it no longer. With sweaty hands, he drew his sword and raised it over his head to strike.

"Ah," Hakuin said. "That is hell."

The samurai spun round in his own mind. His eyes then shone with recognition as he lowered the sword and sheathed it.

"And that," the old guy told him, "is heaven."