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Buddhist Leader Karmapa: “Video war games satiate my feelings of aggression”


Today is The International Day of Peace! The Karmapa recently shared one of his methods for avoiding aggression … by playing video games!

“All of us have emotions, happy emotions, sad emotions,
displeased emotions and we need to figure out a way to deal with them when they
arise … If I’m having some negative
thoughts or negative feelings, video games are one way in which I can release
that energy in the context of the illusion of the game. I feel better
afterwards.”  (Link to full article)

Maybe I’m just an amateur meditator, and maybe Karmapa has mental discipline like a ninja, but in my personal meditation practice I’ve noticed that ANY indulgence in reacting to an emotion perpetuates our habitual reactivity to it.  The Karmapa says more:

“The aggression that comes out in the video game satiates
whatever desire I might have to express that feeling. For me, that’s very
skilful because when I do that I don’t have to go and hit anyone over the

I’m glad that video games allow us to not actually be hitting real people over the head, but isn’t this perpetuating the same
mental instinct for aggression as acting violently in the real world does?

I love a good video game, but I don’t know if I buy it, what do you think?

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Your Name

posted September 21, 2009 at 6:17 pm

The word is “Catharsis”
Definition: A catharsis is an emotional release. According to psychodynamic theory, this emotional release is linked to a need to release unconscious conflicts. For example, experiencing stress over a work-related situation may cause feelings of frustration and tension. Rather than vent these feelings inappropriately, the individual may instead release these feelings in another way, such as through physical activity or another stress relieving activity.
— from – psychology
The key is release, not fixation. If a violent video game becomes an attachment whereby aggressive/competitive brain states are indulged in as a “fix” to an addict, then there is a problem. Like many things, the context defines whether this tool provides a useful one for catharsis. Observing the frequency and duration of play is a useful indicator. Observing whether I am more fixated or free from violent fantasies after a gaming session is also useful. Personally, physical activity that tires is one of the best forms. All that energy can be used harmlessly, sometimes even productively, and to reduce stress.
What I do agree with is the need for catharsis. It is an excellent method to break cycles of aggressive thoughts which we all from time to time get caught in.

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Patrick Groneman

posted September 22, 2009 at 12:44 am

From “Catharsis Theory and Media Effects” (
“The results from hundreds of studies have converged on the conclusion that viewing violence increases aggression. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General came to this conclusion as early as 1972. The scientific evidence is overwhelming on this point. Viewing violence is definitely not cathartic—it increases rather than decreases anger and subsequent aggression.”
There are myriad of scientific studies that prove the Catharsis theory wrong. I would second guess my confidence in a meditation teacher if his personal experience so diverged with that of overwhelming consensus among contemporary scientists.

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Your Name

posted September 22, 2009 at 5:54 am

I may stand corrected Patrick. I will do more reading but your article, if confirmed with other peer reviewed studies, will certainly alter my view about catharsis.
Is the focus of the studies solely violence and catharsis, or are other brain states and catharsis studied?

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posted September 22, 2009 at 10:03 am

I’m not sure if I buy it, just as I’m not sure if I buy the other side of this coin, Thich Nhat Hanh’s belief that even punching a pillow doesn’t provide any constructive work with anger:
“…this technique may work temporarily because while pounding the pillow, we expend a lot of energy, and after a while we are exhausted and we feel better. But the roots of our anger are still intact, and if we go out and eat some nourishing food, our energy will be renewed. If the seeds of our anger are watered again, our anger will be reborn, and we will have to pound the pillow again.”
I find video games disturbing and fostering of aggression, but I also find screaming (my preference) into a pillow, or jogging, whatever it may be, a great way to release anger… though perhaps it isn’t sustaining. What’s the middle path?

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Iris Baron

posted September 22, 2009 at 10:17 am

Opening to what one feels is important, and I believe this requires seeing beyond what is right or wrong. If I remove myself from the conversation, meaning my personal experiences or opinions about video games because I am bothered by them, I can undestand Karmapa. Pema talks about not seeing things as right or wrong. Now matter how video games affect some people and their addictions, not everyone who plays them feeds into what is considered ‘aggressive’ or ‘violent’ action. When one brings a compassionate heart to whatever one feels or does, life really stops being black and white. This is especially true when one considers how much men are not encouraged to feel or express emotions in our society. Feelings are feelings and I don’t think that feelings are really harmful, even if feelings lead someone to want to play a video game. Finding an outlet for feelings, as in Karmapa does in playing video games, is much different from actually harming someone or being addicted to video games. By admitting that he likes video games, and in playing them, he is being honest. He is also finding an outlet for his emotions, and therefore, taking care of himself. He is going all this without really hurting anyone. There is no real harm in letting off some steam playing a video game. Causing a real life car accident or inflicting unnecessary mindless pain upon an animal without conscious awareness is much different from playing a video game to release some tension. In addition, playing a video game or enjoying a video game doesn’t have to equal addiction or violence.

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posted September 22, 2009 at 10:34 am

Its not a very clear statement from this Karmapa. I like video games myself but don’t feel they need to have my enjoyment of them be linked to some great spiritual aspirations. Sometimes its just fine to relax and have a little fun without a lot of pretension. I doubt anyone who plays video games who tries to be a force for good in the world has anything to worry about.
This man frankly does not impress me very much. When I saw him on his US tour. I paid $60 to hear him speak for what was essentially 20 minutes (if you subtract the translator) and can’t for the life of me figure what all the fuss is about. Everyone one around was freaking out like Jesus just showed up or something. Then he spoke very generally, sounding a lot more like a poor self help author not like a Buddhist lama, and said many times how he was tired and not at his best. Odd for someone who’s supposed to be enlightened. There seems to be a lot of politics around this man yet seemingly very little spiritual authority or accomplishment. I hope he’s up for the role he’s assuming.

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Patrick Groneman

posted September 22, 2009 at 10:44 am

@Your Name – I’m not sure about other brain states, but I imagine using virtual representations to evoke any emotional state will create a similar relationship with the viewer/ participant.
Beyond the Scientific research behind Catharsis, I also find in observing my own mental habits that once I’ve acted on a violent/ passionate impulse it’s already way past the point where I can do anything to prevent that impulse in the future. Video games deposit these emotional responses into a less harmful space, but do nothing to remove our attachment to them in the future.
I could see how we could use video games in a more helpful way here. Either voluntarily or as an instruction in the game play, the gamer could set an intention to “notice the physical sensation of anger as it arises”. We could use these virtual interfaces as a means of creating a rich visualization for exploring our relationship to our emotions (just like any other artform). The key though is this must be your intention in going through the game. If your goal is to blow off some steam or waste an afternoon mindlessly than there is a good chance you’ll be perpetuating many bad habits.

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posted September 22, 2009 at 11:56 am

People are not containers of hidden/buried feelings at risk of slipping out. We are–or at least have the opportunity at every moment to be–unobfuscated brightness.
Many people, recognizing the difference between the reality of committing violence and the reality of a participating in a simulation, are nudged into greater awareness by the flow of a good video game. My husband, who is peaceful and boisterous, often plays them. I tune in to his joy, which brings me joy.
It helps to see things as they are: pushing buttons on a console, sitting cross-legged on a couch, hearing noises and seeing pictures that test your reflexes and excite you. Aliveness!

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posted September 22, 2009 at 1:30 pm

If I am angry, I only complain and give the ‘aggressors’ cuss words in their absence.
Sports, silence of thoughts and absence of EGO are the best methods to get rid of aggression.
Love Birgit

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posted September 22, 2009 at 1:35 pm

We touched on this in the psychology class I’m currently taking. There have been studies that have shown that playing violent video games is linked to an increase in violent or aggressive thoughts and/or actions. So, I don’t think it’s such a good idea to “get out” your anger by playing a violent video game.
From the American Psychological Association website:
Anecdotely, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in my own tendency for aggression after playing violent games that involve shooting and killing and even those that just involve attacking others (Mario Kart can get out of hand in my house).
I think running off your anger or writing an angry letter to some one just to throw it away are good ways to deal with aggressive emotions. However, I’m not a big fan of punching or even screaming into a pillow because what are you going to do when there’s just a person in front of you instead of a pillow? Finding a way to redirect the anger into positive persuits (ie running, writing, swimming etc) seems to be more skillful to me.

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Patrick Groneman

posted September 22, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Just to be clear here:
I have no issue with video games, my concern is more what Evelyn touched on that the idea of “getting out” your anger by playing a violent video game is not helpful for extinguishing the habit of acting on your arising anger. It may temporarily dissipate your energy so that you act less harmfully in that moment, but it also keeps your mind entrenched in the pattern of reactivity.
There are two problems going on in our scenario:
#1) Anger arising in the moment is causing a physical desire to be aggressive and you don’t want to cause anyone direct physical harm.
#2) Anger arising in the moment is causing a physical desire to be aggressive and you don’t want your tendency to react in a selfish, aggressive way to arise again in the future.
Video games may help with #1, but unless you are providing space between yourself and your rising emotions, you allow them to take root again in the future (bad for #2). In the future you may be driving a car instead of just walking down the street, so maybe you are in a situation to cause more harm rather than less.
Karmapa was given an opportunity to expand on this in the interview, but he just sort of brushed off the question:
Q: “shouldn’t meditation take care of that?”
Karmapa: “No, video games are just a skillful method.”
You have the opportunity RIGHT NOW, in each arising moment to connect to a larger scale purpose for your actions. Any effort to push that connection off into the future leaves it up to chance instead of tackling it head on. This is what I wish Karmapa could have expanded on more.

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aion guides

posted September 22, 2009 at 3:04 pm

The Buddhist leader is just stating his personal encounter on video games and his statement isn’t necessarily applicable to every video gamers out there. However, I think he should have stressed out the discipline that comes with playing, otherwise, situations will get worse.

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posted September 22, 2009 at 4:16 pm

I’m with aion guides on this one. I think we all respond differently to different methods.
I myself find little help in just sitting down and “turning off” my anger. There are two things that seem to help.
The first is to listen to my anger. That angry voice in your head that says, “This is I want to do to so and so to show them just how angry I am.” I listen to it and imagine doing all of it, allowing my emotion to build up. I’ve noticed that my psyche always chooses methods of retaliation symbolically, choosing aggressive punishments that mirror the “crime” done against me. By both indulging these images and letting my emotions ramp up, I reach a catharsis state.
I always realize that what my anger wants is to truly express to the other person they way that they made me feel, the pain that they caused, and then to acknowledge it and apologize. Whether or not this desire is wise, and whether or not it will ever be realized, realizing it in each instance of anger always diffuses the aggression.
But, to do this, I have to go away from the confrontation and stew on it. You have to already be the sort of person that doesn’t respond with his fists.
I wonder if for the Karmapa video games aren’t sort of like this, a tool for catharsis?
The other thing I do is simply to remind myself that there are no victimizers who aren’t themselves victims of their own mind states. There is no one who does “evil” willingly and with full knowledge. There is only wisdom and ignorance, and when I remind myself of this it’s almost impossible to remain angry at someone.
To Evelyn: I’d like to see a study done to see if practitioners of mindfulness respond differently to various stimuli. My suspicion is that they do.

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posted September 22, 2009 at 4:19 pm

There is no road to peace except to become peace nor is there a video game that encourges such.

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posted September 22, 2009 at 4:27 pm

This paper might be of interest to some —
Unsettling the Military Entertainment Complex: Video Games and a Pedagogy of Peace
Abstract: Amid the cultural, political, and military shifts of post-9-11 American policy, the video game industry has responded with patriotic fervor and released a series of video war games. Virtual war games elicit support for the War on Terror and United States imperialism, providing space where Americans are able to play through their anxiety, anger, and racialized hatred. While commentators cite a post-September 11 th climate as the reason for increasing interest and support for the U.S. military, this article underscores the importance of video games as part of the militarization of everyday life and offers insight into the increasingly close-knit relationship between the U.S. military, universities, and the video game industry. Because video games form an important pedagogical project of U.S. war practices, they must be critically analyzed.
Full Text:

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posted September 22, 2009 at 5:08 pm

I was a little surprised to read that he finds violent video games cathartic.

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posted September 22, 2009 at 5:19 pm

I don’t play video games, but I do listen to hip hop (as the karmapa does), which often has content I find aggressive and objectionable, and promotes a lot of values that aren’t mine. yet it can be a skillful means of dealing with feelings of aggression or frustration. best thing to listen to after a bad day at work. far better, for me, than picturing the ways I would take revenge on those bengali tea boys in my life. as for teachers being less than perfect, see the discussion on trunpa rinpoche.

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posted September 22, 2009 at 6:04 pm

I wonder if the immediate culture surrounding the Karmapa makes it difficult for him- politically? socially? strategically? – to express emotions like anger even in a civil, fleeting, mature way.
My friends and I have been talking about how much it helps to just be able to sort of nod and say to yourself (or another) “Yes, I am angry” or “Yes, I am disappointed”. When emotions are acknowledged fleetingly without being clung to, they do tend to float on and leave us in peace.
May be there’s something unhealthy or unhelpful about the environment he’s in or the expectations people have of him to not even EXPERIENCE negative emotions. As far as I know, you’re “allowed” to be enlightened and still have flashes of anger…?
meanwhile, I agree that video games seem more like escape…

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Patrick Groneman

posted September 22, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Great Comments everyone
@Nancy – I think there may be a qualitative difference between the act of “listening” to music and that of “playing” a video game. The game requires you to operate on an instinctive, habitual level (and actually rewards it). All you have to do with music is listen, allowing space and time to pass in an engaged manner, and I imagine that active listening is more conducive to not clinging. What do you think?
@ Sarah – I couldn’t even imagine what it might be like to grow up with the pressure of being a spiritual leader like Karmapa. Maybe video games are actually the only place where he can let himself experience emotions in an acceptable way.

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posted September 23, 2009 at 2:44 am

“I’m glad that video games allow us to not actually be hitting real people over the head,”
you made a bit of a leap there, patrick. Karmapa is not telling “us” to do anything. buddhism is not a set of formulaic behaviors you can ape all the way to enlightenment, nor a conventional value system, whether militarist or hippy/liberal. what you do with your own mind is your business. if you find that video games evoke negative emotions you can’t handle, then it’s probably a wise choice – for you – not to play them.
maybe save the speculation about what goes on in the mind of the Karmapa for when your personal meditation practice leads you to the state of a highly realized being.

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Patrick Groneman

posted September 24, 2009 at 3:11 pm

“buddhism is not a set of formulaic behaviors”. No Buddhism is not a set of specific physical habits, but Buddhism does offer many structures to describe mental patterning which intern affects our physical actions. The conversation I’m interested in is has to do with the way a form of technology (video games) affects that mental processing.
The Karmapa is a leader in the Buddhist community and many Buddhists and Non-Buddhists look to him to articulate what it means to be a Buddhist. My personal experience with video games and the teachings led me to a different opinion about video games than he expressed and while it may not be fair to him to do so, I think his stature elevates his personal opinion to that of an expression of the teachings.

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posted September 24, 2009 at 7:31 pm

therefore if the Karmapa likes batman but not superman then his (admittedly large) stature elevates this personal opinion to an expression of buddhadharma, and if we all follow the Leader and buy the right comic book we will progress on the path. and if Tilopa likes to fry live fish on the monastery stove then we should all do the same. or maybe we condemn and excommunicate him from the kagyu lineage, because PETA wouldn’t approve and the latest studies indicate that people who torture fish have higher rates of tax fraud.
the part about which intern affects bill clinton’s physical actions doesn’t support your argument either XD

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posted September 25, 2009 at 2:41 am

i suspect mahakala practice is just as graphic if not more graphic than a video game, and is specifically designed to work with subtle emotion so i hear, and is practiced every day in the kagyu monasteries.
probably he has better training and practice with the pre-emotional energy of aggression, such that playing the game isn’t just reinforcing aggressive tendency but rather is just dancing with that energy. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason most people tend to increase the tendency toward aggression – as in studies – when playing video games is because they don’t have any practice whatsoever in noticing and staying with the energy instead of clinging to it further and letting it arise and bloom as a full emotion…

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Anan E. Maus

posted October 12, 2009 at 3:10 pm

as far as using an external aid, like a video game, to get out aggression…I think that kind of tool is very specific to the individual and to the individual’s struggles and concerns.
I think the general rule is that all violence, even video violence is not good. However, I think there are exceptions to the rule.
I would think the answers that the discipline of psychological therapy have come up with about this issue are probably quite accurate.
If, for example, a therapist thinks a particular person with PTSD should get out aggression in that way, then it is probably a good idea.
Generally, I think “getting out aggression” would be specific to some kind of problem or concern, like PTSD or some other issue. Perhaps, with monks, if they are engaging in very long meditation and hard discipline and austerities…it has some cathartic effect.
But, again, generally, it is probably not a great idea.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 11:43 am

Hey, I’m just wondering why we don’t hold out the possibility that the Karmapa, as well trained as he happens to be, is basically a young man with all the same troubles and desires that face every other young man. Maybe he likes video games for the same reason the rest do, and his explanation is just a rationalization. I have no idea about his level of attainment (maybe someone else here knows better than I do?) but it seems like that’s the most elegant answer in the Occam’s Razor sense. He likes video games for just the same reasons every other boy does. If you’re a man who grew up in the era of video games, I’m sure you can recover some of the motivation for and reward of playing hundreds or thousands of hours of video games.

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Sara the sell my timeshare keeper

posted February 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm

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Lama Tsering

posted January 6, 2012 at 11:49 am

Rehearsal behavior… fantasy role play… increasing kleshas, samskaras.. Quoting wikipedia on Buddhist meaning of samskaras..”These are called “volitional formations” both because they are formed as a result of volition and because they are causes for the arising of future volitional actions.”

Volition = willful. In working with men who were involved with domestic abuse, fantasy or rehearsal behavior.. for example, pounding a pillow, or hitting a bag, punching a manikin.. etc. were discouraged. Sakyamuni Buddha encouraged us to tame our emotions…

so, one view is, maybe not to encourage this behavior…then,

there is the experience of
being the father of a teenager who plays very violent video games.. i noticed afterward that my son had heightened respiration, heartbeat… anxiety.. I was concerned…

possibly a better approach is to explore cultivating friends, activities, thinking that promotes loving kindness and compassion.

As human beings, dealing with our aggression,anger, lust, greed… these are not easy and we as human beings have evolved many tools to help us… and in Vajrayana Buddhism, skillful means to transform our habitual tendencies toward being self centered, mean spirited, aggressive,willing to win at the expense of another, abusive emotionally and sexually… wow.. so much… out of compassion Buddhas created, evolved skillful means that do not involve our repression or denial, but cultivate our awareness, our clarity of mind, our open heartedness, our empathy for others suffering.. and encourage activities.. compassion in action.. actions to relieve the suffering of others, activities that are mental, through our spoken word, actions with our physical being. Our minds is colored by what we come in contact with through our senses. Our actions follow our thoughts. May all our negative thinking, our negative speech, our harmful physical actions diminish and clear away and our positive thoughts, words and actions arise and become stronger. May our environment inspire and uplift us… awaken within us a profound sense of beauty, of respect, for all life and all things.

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