A Zen’s-Eye View: Slogan 31: Don’t malign others

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When we engage in negative gossip, our impact, whether intentional or unintentional, is to cause harm. The saying that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” simply isn’t true. Words do have power and certainly can create happiness and cause pain. This is why the historical Buddha taught that one of the eight ways to be free of suffering is to practice “right speech.” Right speech benefits self and others. Spiteful and mean-spirited speech breaks hearts and destroys lives, especially in a town the size of Creston where local news travel fast.

In working with spiritual training, we work not only with speech and actions, but with the mind that is behind them. For example, before we say something, it is helpful to ask ourselves why we are saying it, and take some time to anticipate the impact that our words might have. Are we trying to connect with someone or get rid of them? Are we trying to help them or destroy them? Or maybe we are talking just to talk, to fill empty space because we are uneasy with shared silence. This practice allows us to examine whether our words will enhance the lives of self and others, or have a long-lasting harmful effect.

If we malign others to feel good about ourselves by comparing our strengths to the others’ weaknesses, we will never feel happy with who we are. If we build our self-concept by comparing ourselves with others, when we meet people who are exceptional, our encounter with them will make us feel inadequate. In Zen, feeling inadequate is the most common spiritual error, and it is a very serious one, because it denies the existence of our Buddha nature. This slogan advises us to stop that whole destructive approach.

Not maligning others does not mean that we ignore the differences in people. It does not mean that we fail to recognize people’s hateful or destructive attitudes and weaknesses. And it does not mean that we should refrain from speaking up when we witness harmful acts of body and speech. This slogan is not an invitation to abandoning wise discernment. Everything does not become a mush.

To realize compassion, it is necessary to see others’ problems, but when we use other people’s weaknesses to prop ourselves up with negative gossip, we are misusing our minds and our ability to speak. If we lift the veil that props up our own insecure egos and prevents us from seeing life as it is, we can respond directly and appropriately. By stopping the habit of maligning, we begin to realize the three great precepts of Zen, “Do no harm, do only good; do good for others.” We will also begin to develop the spiritual confidence that Zen training develops.

Suggested practice: Pay attention to your speech and to how you talk to and about other people. What is the difference between speaking with critical intelligence and using speech that causes harm?

This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.