Working our way through a list of imperfections (defilements) of the mind, next up is revenge. [Complete list of imperfections is at the bottom of this post].
The Buddha sometimes gives us lists of qualities that seem to be different ways of saying the same thing, and revenge is a specific form of anger. But as we experience the desire for revenge, it has a unique quality:
“I’m going to get back at her”.
“You haven’t heard the end of this!”
“It’s payback time.”
There’s a popular television series titled “Revenge”. I’m not sure what it’s about, but it strikes me that a lot of our fiction and drama is based on revenge stories. Lifetime and multi-generational quarrels are legendary: the Capulets and Montagues (Shakespeare), the Hatfields and McCoys (USA), the Sharks and the Jets (rival gangs in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story).
There’s a traditional story, a sort of commentary on one section of the Dhammapada, in which two women take on various guises (mostly monsters) and kill each others’ children, lifetime after lifetime. Finally, someone brings them to the Buddha and they see that each act of revenge is the cause for the next tragedy in their own lives, and the feud is ended. It’s the quality of never-ending back and forth that distinguishes revenge from other forms of ill-will. An act of revenge doesn’t end a problem, it amplifies it. When we see this, we drop any vengeful feelings.
The reason to take up this reflection is to check ourselves, to recognize revenge if it should come up in our hearts. If we can spot it before it drives us to do something we shouldn’t, we may be able to acknowledge it, investigate it, and see beyond the immediate burning desire to get back at, i.e. harm, someone. If we can see the danger that this feeling poses to our own safety and happiness, we may be able to dial it down and decide that it’s not worth retaining, that it’s something we really don’t want.
Imperfections that defile the mind:
(1) covetousness and unrighteous greed
(2) ill will
(6) a domineering attitude
(13) conceit (mana)
from MN7, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi