May 2015: Everyday Precept Practice

The Sixth Grave Precept: Not Talking About Others' Errors and Faults

Most of us find it fairly easy to relate to the sixth grave precept, Not Talking About Others' Errors and Faults. People frequently comment on their inner dialogue of criticism and judgment, even when not voiced aloud. We seem to be hard on ourselves and others. I think it is helpful to look carefully at how this arises.

Zen Peacemaker Practice

I will bear witness to the offering of each moment. This is the practice of Not Talking About Others' Errors and Faults. I will not encourage others to talk about others errors and faults. I will acknowledge responsibility for everything in my life.

The Zen Peacemaker Practice version of this precept emphasizes three things: bearing witness, not encouraging others to talk about others' errors and faults and taking responsibility for ourself. Bearing witness to the offering of each moment means that instead of diverting our energy to look at what's wrong with someone else, we focus on what can be learned from the situation. Suppose I observe someone demonstrating a fault or weakness, for example being impatient and angry with someone who is doing the best they can. This precept literally deals with how I talk about this, if I even talk about it at all. And we could further break it down into talking to the person themselves or talking to others about that person and their behavior. And I think the spirit of this precept doesn't just concern what we say, but also what we think about the person demonstrating the behavior.

All of these aspects are really addressed by the Zen Peacemaker Practice: “Bear witness to the offering of each moment.” What does “bear witness” mean in this case? To really bear witness to the joy and suffering in the world (the Second Zen Peacemaker Tenet), we must also observe the First Tenet, Not-knowing, which means giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe (others). We can't really bear witness when we are holding a fixed idea, because then, we are simply evaluating our experience in terms of our fixed idea rather than just experiencing. So coming back to the example, I might witness this person being impatient and then think to myself “oh, they are such an impatient person, and why does the other person just take it and not stand up for themselves? They always do that” or something to that effect. I would then be missing out on the true learning experience of seeing the situation unfold. Instead, I am projecting my views of how I think I know the person (or people) to be, drawing on past memories and prejudices about that person, instead of seeing what's happening at the moment. Whatever reaction that arises on my part will not necessarily fit the situation, but is more reflective of some idea I have of the person.

When we observe a situation from the standpoint of not-knowing and bearing witness, we don't have a preconceived idea of how someone will act, what they will say and how we will react. We bear witness, take in the situation as it is and a response that better fits the moment arises. Maybe, for example, I will say something that puts both people more at ease – something non judgmental and kind – rather than reacting with criticism myself. That action is the Third Tenet of Zen Peacemakers, Taking action that arises from not-knowing and bearing witness. The reasoning is that the more we let go of preconceived ideas and just clearly take in, or we could say “become one with” what is going on, the more appropriate and helpful the action that arises will be.

We also notice that when we really bear witness in this way, the “you did it” versus “I did it” really seems to diminish if not disappear. There doesn't seem to be a huge difference between talking about my own errors and faults and talking about others' errors and faults. It is simply an action that was unskillful and had certain consequences. We can learn from it either way.

Most of us do not particularly enjoy being corrected or criticized. Some are more sensitive than others. Why is this so? When people are very sensitive to criticism, even constructive criticism, it may be due to a fixed idea they hold about themselves. For example, they may be told they made a mistake, and then react by thinking “I am such a bad person, I always make mistakes.” For whatever reason this came about, this person now needs to become aware of and release the negative message they are holding onto about themselves and allowing to color everything that comes in. The more they are able to let go of this stream of negative self-talk, the more they can see their own strengths and positive accomplishments and form a more accurate picture of themselves. Then, when they receive some negative feedback from someone, they can respond to the comment without invoking a fixed view of themselves as a “bad person.” In other words, our fixed ideas about ourselves can distort and exaggerate our perception of communication directed toward us.

Bodhidharma's One Mind Precept

Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous.
In the faultless Dharma,
Not speaking of others' faults
Is called the precept of refraining from speaking
of others' shortcomings.

The Zen Peacemakers Practice also reminds us not to encourage others to talk about others' error and faults. One obvious form of this is gossip, one of the forms of “wrong speech” mentioned in the Noble Eightfold Path. While everyone falls prey to this bad habit at one time or another, it serves no useful purpose and can do great harm.

We might immediately question how, then, can we carry on in a practice in which we have all kinds of procedures and protocols and need to point out errors frequently. Bodhidharma's One Mind Precept calls the Dharma “faultless.” How is the Dharma “faultless” when we make so many mistakes and have so many faults? The problem is not hitting a bell at the wrong time, but assigning a value judgment of good or bad. If someone is careless, certain things happen as a result, but as soon as we assign “bad,” then we are judging that person in a way that is divisive and not helpful. This, in fact, is one of the great strengths of our style of Zen practice – that it constantly puts us in a position of training, correcting, being trained, being corrected. Can we do this without falling into shaming and blaming? Can we clearly see our faults and other faults and just that – as things to work on, ingredients, learning opportunities – and not as proof of someone being “good” or “bad?”

Finally, in the Zen Peacemaker Practice, we vow to acknowledge responsibility for everything in our life. In other words, instead of trying to shift the blame to someone else – it is their fault that we made the mistake, do not have resources, were not successful, etc. - we acknowledge that it is actually our life, our responsibility. I think “acknowledge responsibility” is an important expression. It means to “admit, accept, grant, allow, concede, own, recognize...” - not just “take” responsibility for our own life, but actually see that we are in fact responsible for our own life. The word “acknowledge” includes both the taking on and the wisdom of seeing how things work, that our life is in fact our own responsibility regardless of how others behave. One of the greatest motivations for talking about others errors and faults is not acknowledging responsibility for our own situation.

Dogen Zenji's Kyojukaimon

Within the Buddha-dharma it is the same Way, the same Dharma,
the same realization, the same practice (for all disciples).
Do not speak of the shortcomings of others.
Do not corrupt the Way.

As Zen students, we sometimes have a tendency to become focused on “my practice, “ or “your practice”, “my zazen” or “your zazen.” This wonderful teaching of Dogen Zenji brings us back to the Dharma itself. It is not mine or yours or anybody's. Realization is not mine or yours or anyone's. Realization is and always has been full and complete, with nothing lacking. The degree to which we may see that varies, but the fact itself does not. We are all sharing this Awakened Nature, Awakened Life which includes everything in all directions, all times. Instead of complaining about each other, we should put all of our efforts into helping each other realize what we altogether share and are. When we speak of others' errors and faults we are upholding our limited view of that person rather than acknowledging their Buddha nature, which is infinite and complete, no matter where they stand on the journey.

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