Someone wrote me to ask if Buddhism requires us to abandon most of our passions. Must we forsake all our drive and ambitions for what we wish to achieve in life? Must we be cold people, perhaps unable to passionately and fully love someone deeply, with all our hearts? Must we avoid feeling indignation in the face of injustices in the world, all feelings of anger or disappointment? And so on.
Here are my own 'rules of thumb'. As with fire ... which burns bright with light and warmth, or burns us and runs wild ... it depends how we treat these things.
I believe that the Precepts generally guide us away from anger, greed, jealousy and other such emotions. As anyone who has ever had a moment (or days on end) flooded by those emotions can testify ... they generally do not lead to the peace and balance which is at the heart of this practice. Others get hurt, we get hurt, holes get punched in walls, plates get broken and life gets broken. These emotions are fire, and we must be careful how we play with it.
On the other hand, to fully remove these emotions from the human mind ... including potentially harmful emotions such as anger ... would rob of us of an important part of being human. We would be reduced to living in a way as emotionally numb and dull as a piece of cold wood or a stone. Some schools of Buddhism (and some other Eastern and Western religions too) have sought to completely kill or squelch such emotions within us (sometimes many other human emotions too). This has traditionally been described as pouring water on the fire until coals become completely wet and cool, and the fire is completely out.
When Buddhism came to China, Korea, Tibet and Japan ... the Buddhist teachings on the emotions subtly changed (I paint with a broad brush, but I speak as a general trend). The fires of emotions were not seen as necessarily negative things, but they must be handled carefully and with balance. A campfire, so useful for cooking our supper if skillfully made, will quickly burn down the woods if left untended. A single candle which offers light can burn us and others, and the whole house down, if handled wrong. So it is with our emotions. Thus I say that the Precepts guide us away from excess and uncontrolled anger, greed, jealousy ... Anger at injustices in the world, for example, may spur us on to fight for change ... yet that anger should be kept in balance, and tempered with an equal dose of acceptance of life, lest it burns us to ashes too. The desire for change should not be allowed to run rampant as greed for and attachment to change from 'how things are'. A healthy dose of competition need not become jealousy and violence. We should use strong words much as we would scold a 3 year old child found playing with matches ... that is, with love and concern and understanding, not simply to hurt the child. A harsh word can be an "intervention" to shake a friend up who needs to hear ... or it can simply be a cruel and destructive word meant to hurt someone (the most famous example of "Zen tough love" may be all those old tough talking Masters administering "40 blows" of Wisdom). Thus, do not extinguish life fires ... but handle them with care and use them in constructive ways!
What is more, we must all recognize that we have these fires burning within us, and we must be mindful of that fact. I tend to believe that we all have the potential for the best and worst of human behavior within us, given the right ... or wrong ... conditions. We each have a little bit of Hitler or Osama, the murderer or the thief or rapist, within us (Kannon and Mother Theresa too). Under given conditions, the fire within any of us can run wild, and we could do truly heinous things when pressed. We must be very careful, for fire is a powerful thing.
I do not know if there are or are not firey hells after we leave this earthly world ... but I have seen enough people who make hells for themself, and those around them, in this very life by their thoughts, words and deeds.
I believe that the Precepts guide us toward generally healthful and helpful ways of using fire. I believe that Zazen and all Buddhist Practice ... with its emphasis on understanding the "mind theatre", not being ensnared by it, learning to let thoughts and emotions go, learning to embrace life and find balance ... make our living by the Precepts easier and easier. As the days and years of Practice pass, we do become much better fire handlers!
I also believe that, in the early days of Buddhist practice, we may not yet be good at keeping with the Precepts, so we may just have to "cold turkey" it! We may then have to do our best to grit our teeth, bite our tongue, and not yield to anger ... simply not letting the harsh words pass our lips. In that case, the Buddha's Precepts really are more like the "rules" that a parent sets for a child ... and insists that the child abide though the child does not like it or understand ... all until the child matures and learns to live by the Precepts herself. The children (us) must be forced as a "law" to not play with matches ... until the child grows up and is old enough to understand their use.
I believe that there is a difference between angry thoughts, angry words and angry actions. Thus, if you think ugly thoughts (I do not know of any human being, short of a Buddha, who will not think ugly things sometimes ... like yesterday when someone dumped trash in the farmfield behind our house), simply do as you can not to let them pass your lips. If ugly words pass your lips (again, I think it hard to be a human being and escape that ... as my wife can testify when we have our semi-annual husband-wife barn burner) ... do not act upon the angry and harmful impulses. All should be avoided, but thinking "I want to burn down your house" is not quite saying out loud "I want to burn your house" ... each far removed from actually pouring gasoline on the house and lighting it!
What is more ... we are not machines. We will all slip (although, hopefully, not doing too much damage in the process. I have never killed anyone ... Thank Buddha! ... let alone broken anyone's jaw ... but I do have a lovely dent in the wall that I made about 5 years ago in a moment of unbridled fire. I intentionally never fix it ... and even cut it out and brought it with me when we moved ... as a reminder of what I am capable of.) That is what it means to be human ... a creature made, in traditional Buddhist understanding, partly of the fire element!
If we fall into the fire we should simply pull ourself out, dust off, learn from the experience ... forgive what can be forgiven in our actions, sincerely apologize to whom we should ... move on and try not to fall into the flames again.
It is for these reasons that we recite again and again and again ... the Verse of Atonement ... the Verse of At-One-Ment ...
All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,
On account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,
Born of my body, speech, and thought,
Now I atone for it all.