Cuong Lu’s book, The Buddha in Jail, is a collection of 52 stories and vignettes from his experiences working as a prison chaplain. The stories are meant to broaden our perspectives, not just about others but also about ourselves, and they get to the root of human goodness. This excerpt, the 18th story in the book, is about anger and not reacting to it. Here, Cuong Lu – who is a student of Thich Nhat Hanh – tells the story of a person he worked with who was able to sit with his rage and not react, eventually solving the problem he had in a peaceful manner. An inspiring read.
John hadn’t slept for nights. A prisoner in a cell on the floor below him played loud music all night long. John tried to practice patience, but he really couldn’t sleep. So one day he went to the other prisoner, explained the problem, and asked him not to play music so loud in the middle of the night. The other prisoner immediately began yelling at him. That’s normal in prison culture. If he had acceded to John’s request too quickly, he would have been seen as weak, and that could have horrible consequences. Weaklings are abused and extorted. He scolded John and went straight back to his cell. John yelled back and went to his cell. The rest of the prisoners held their breath. Tension was in the air, everyone could feel it. John was muscular, intelligent, and had many friends. Everyone expected a fight.
John was enraged and was planning to beat the other guy up. But when he got to his cell, he sat down and followed his breathing. He observed his anger. Later he told me, “I did what you taught us, Cuong. I didn’t judge my anger. And suddenly I saw my anger for the first time. I was livid and really wanted to hurt him, but instead I sat quietly. I thought about your teaching ‘doing nothing,’ and I did nothing. I sat and watched my anger disappear.” It was a great victory. “If I’d been able to do this before, I wouldn’t be here. I’m here because I couldn’t control my anger.”
John left his cell and went back to the other prisoner. Everyone held their breath. They knew that John was boss of the unit. He had to do something, because he’d been insulted.
“I went into his cell and could see he was scared. I reached out my hand and said, ‘Sorry.’ He was clearly disarmed. Then he held out his hand, we shook hands, and he said: ‘I’m sorry too.’ And Cuong, that night the music stopped.” John was proud of his victory. It was a victory in himself.