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Right Speech and Fault-Finding

October 2, 2013
'Speak No Evil' by HazzHarry via

‘Speak No Evil’ by HazzHarry via

I very rarely feel driven to harm, take, intoxicate, or commit sexual misconduct. Avoiding just these actions and cultivating their opposite is part of the moral fabric of Buddhism. However, I talk every day. I speak with many people via various mediums. So in many ways, the most difficult of the moral precepts for me to enact has been Right Speech.

This work began long before my Buddhist training, when I resolved as a teenager to give up lying. That was a difficult task, but now I feel (mostly!) to have accomplished it. Yet I continue to struggle with the more subtle forms of Right Speech, particularly gossip and discussing the faults of others. In our society, gossip is often encouraged as a form of in-group bonding. Discussing the faults of others is a way of venting frustration.

I recognize both gossip and fault-finding as harmful because they have then tendency to objectify other people, to turn them into fixed “problems” and nullify their identity as complex persons. This changes how we respond to them and limits our ability to connect on a human level. Moreover, this mental dehumanization is the first step towards legitimizing other forms of harm, such as taking (of rights or property) and violence.

Nevertheless, I do feel as though there are times when it might benefit to discuss others. I often do not feel confident in my ability to “read” people and discern what is going on in human relationships. I have a strong desire to check with other people I trust to see if my perception of a situation was in error. I have a hard time deciphering, aside from motivation (which is a tricky thing and rarely pure), how this is different from gossip.

At other times, sometimes people do present problems. I resist the temptation (a mighty temptation!) to simply label them as “problem” people, however, their behavior often creates difficulties in carrying out my own work. Again, in these situations, I often seek advice from others to try and understand the person’s behavior. I feel that if I can understand the motivations (emotional or rational) behind their behavior I may be able to seek a positive resolution. Yet how is this not discussing the faults of others?

I don’t trust that my motivation simply to understand in these situations is entirely pure. I have fallen into the lure of bond-building that comes with indulging in gossip. I have felt the catharsis about bitching about so-and-so to a confidant. So I feel as though I am an addict to harmful speech and that, to use an alcoholic’s turn of phrase, one drink is too many because it’s never enough.

I look for guidance wherever I can find it, but often discover that the sources are none too clear. Either they are so absolute as to preclude anything that I might find useful in my goal to understand or they are so loose as to provide hardly any guidance at all.

What brings this topic to mind now is my most recent reading from The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics by Robert Aitken (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984). This neat little book covers the ten “Grave Precepts” of his order  followed by a series of essays on various cultivating practices. Chapter seven is titled “The Sixth Grave Precept: Not Discussing the Faults of Others.” I find that this chapter falls largely into the second type of guidance.

Aitken Roshi clearly outlines the rationale for not discussing the faults of others in classical Zen phrases: “When you judge, you place yourself in the dimension of good and bad,” he quotes Bodhidharma. (p. 65) He also frankly acknowledges the difficulty of living in any sangha or community and the human tendency to indulge in this behavior. Yet he provides many uplifting examples of what can happen when a person or community refrains from discussing the faults of others in harmful ways and engages in Right Speech. Through this upaya, skillful means, the faults of others (for we all have them!) may be corrected. However, his examples are very contextual and not easily transferable from one situation to the next.

To add further ambiguity, Aitken Roshi provides several examples in which the “faults” of others are discussed, but in a helpful way, such as a close friend pointing out a character flaw in gentle confidence and thereby enabling their friend to correct themselves. Or a brazen Dharma teacher calling out in public the errors of other teachers so as to ensure the correct path is preserved. Or a wise teacher telling a student in confidence that one option may not be the best suited for him or her, though the teacher would be more circumspect if asked about option in public. The other examples are ambiguous enough, but the last one really rubbed hard against my sense of honesty. My cultural baggage is such that I find it ill advised to say anything in confidence that I would not say in public. That sets my personal alarm bells of Wrong Speech to ringing. Yet perhaps, in that precise situation that is exactly what was called for.

In a way, I suppose that is the only lesson we can take from Aitken Roshi: Right Speech is contextual. It is our responsibility, through meditation, study, and practice, to refine our wisdom so that we can discern the ethical course of action in every situation. My desire for clearer guidance may, in fact, be a personal fault that someone somewhere is discussing even now! (If they hit upon a solution, I hope they will share it with me.) Aitken Roshi does, at least, lay out good guidance for what is possible when our Right Speech is successful.

We appealed to his better nature our of our own better nature, and he responded at that level, rather than by his old habit. …

Actually, a so-called fault is a weak place where character can change. Your quality of stubbornness, your quality of passivity, your quality of anger – these are sensitive places in your personality where your individual talent can emerge. (p. 68-69)

When people can find the Right Speech to express these possibilities for growth appropriately, great things can happen. I hope to find those possibilities in my own speech and when listening to the speech of others.


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