A person looks his ugliest when angry. In anger, a face that is normally as beautiful as a lotus blossom will tun livid and pale, even ashen. This, plus the contorted muscles on his face, his staring eyes and bristling hair, will indeed make a person’s countenance more than repulsive. As the saying goes, “When anger rises in the heart, evil intent is bound to start.” Anger brings about a change that is both psychological and physiological. Very few people can control their tempers when their purposes are crossed. Young people are prone to anger and one cross word is enough to start a quarrel. However, many elderly people are just as irascible and touchy.
I had an older relative by marriage who was over eighty and hemiplegic. He had the habit of reading newspapers in the morning. Each day he would put on his glasses and lay out the newspapers before him. Moments later, he would be pounding the table, fuming with rage and letting loose a torrent of abuse. He did not like what he read in the newspapers. He could not do without the newspapers, but they only made him angry. At such an hour, everyone in his family would stay out of his sight and nobody wanted to be caught by his rage which, like a thunderstorm, would go as quickly as it had come.
According to the Book of Poems,1 “When the ruler shows his anger, the rebellion of his subjects will quickly stop; when the ruler creates public well-being, the rebellion of his subjects will quickly end.” This means that, in a fit of anger, a person in power can crush a rebellion and cause things to return to normal. For ordinary people, however, it will be better if they keep their temper under control and avoid getting into trouble. A person in a fury loses countless blood cells in his body and causes a sharp rise in his blood pressure. In short, anger is bad for a person’s health. Worse still, when his blood boils with rage, his mind becomes muddled, and he is likely to speak or act out of line, causing injury to himself as well as others. “Count the number of days in which you did not get angry,” says Epictetus, the Greek philosopher. “In the past, I used to get angry every day; sometimes I got angry every other day; later on, I got angry once every three or four days. If you have not been angry for thirty days at a stretch, you should make offerings to the gods to express your gratitude.”
A decrease in the number of such outbreaks is a result of self-discipline. The method of self-discipline is very hard to explain. “When you are angry at someone else’s shamelessness,” says Marcus Aurelius of Rome, another stoic philosopher, “you should ask yourself, ‘Can that shameless person not exist in this world?’ That is impossible. Do not demand what is impossible.” This does not mean that we need not impose sanctions on a bad person; it only means that we need not get angry. If anger cannot be avoided, it should at least be controlled so as not to become excessive. The Buddhists list Krodha (anger) as one of the three poisons2. They believe that “a heart full of anger causes greater destruction than a conflagration” and that controlling anger is one of the basic requirements of self-cultivation. According to the Book of Yandan Zi,3 “the face of a blood-brave person turns red in anger; the face of a vein-brave person turns purple in anger; the face of a bone-brave person turns pale in anger; the face of a mind-brave person does not change color in anger.” I think that a person can become “mind-brave” only through extreme austerity and self-cultivation. A person born with a face that will betray no emotions is, indeed, exceptionally endowed.
In the early years of the Qing dynasty, a writer named Li Fu published a collection of his essays under the general title of Mutang Leigao. In one of the essays, entitled “The Story of the House without Anger”, he said, “Though I am over forty, I have not yet learned to control my emotions, nor have I succeeded in changing my temperament. I made mistakes due to anger and, despite my repentance, I soon became angry again. For fear that I will remain an irascible person to the end, I have named my home the ‘House without Anger’.” It is an excellent essay and, true to his character as a scholar, it clearly expresses the author’s fear of and vigilance against anger.