Speaking of the Faults of Others
by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©
"I vow not to talk about the faults of
others." In the Zen tradition, this is one of the bodhisattva
vows. For fully ordained monastics the same principle is expressed
in the payattika vow to abandon slander. It is also contained in
the Buddha's recommendation to all of us to avoid the ten destructive
actions, the fifth of which is using our speech to create disharmony.
What an undertaking! I can't speak for you,
the reader, but I find this very difficult. I have an old habit
of talking about the faults of others. In fact, it's so habitual
that sometimes I don't realize I've done it until afterwards.
What lies behind this tendency to put
others down? One of my teachers,
Geshe Ngawang Dhargye, used to say, "You get together with
a friend and talk about the faults of this person and the misdeeds
of that one. Then you go on to discuss others' mistakes and negative
qualities. In the end, the two of you feel good because you've agreed
you're the two best people in the world."
When I look inside, I have to acknowledge he's
right. Fueled by insecurity, I mistakenly think that if others are
wrong, bad, or fault-ridden, then in comparison I must be right,
good, and capable. Does the strategy of putting others down to build
up my own self-esteem work? Hardly.
Another situation in which we speak about
others' faults is when we're angry with them. Here we may talk about
their faults for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's to win other
people over to our side. "If I tell these other people about
the argument Bob and I had and convince them that he is wrong and
I'm right before Bob can tell them about the argument, then they'll
side with me." Underlying that
is the thought, "If others think I'm right, then I must be."
It's a weak attempt to convince ourselves we're okay when we haven't
spent the time honestly evaluating our own motivations and actions.
At other times, we may talk about others' faults
because we're jealous of them. We want to be respected and appreciated
as much as they are. In the back of our minds, there's the thought,
"If others see the bad qualities of the people I think are
better than me, then instead of honoring and helping them, they'll
praise and assist me." Or we think, "If the boss thinks
that person is unqualified, she'll promote me instead." Does
this strategy win others' respect and appreciation? Hardly.
Some people "psychoanalyze" others,
using their half-baked knowledge of pop-psychology to put someone
down. Comments such as "he's borderline" or "she's
paranoid" make it sound as if we have authoritative insight
into someone's internal workings, when in reality we disdain their
faults because our ego was affronted. Casually psychoanalyzing others
can be especially harmful, for it may unfairly cause a third party
to be biased or suspicious.
What are the results of speaking of others'
faults? First, we become known as a busybody. Others won't want
to confide in us because they're afraid we'll tell others, adding
our own judgments to make them look bad. I am cautious of people
who chronically complain about others. I figure that if they speak
that way about one person, they will probably speak that way about
me, given the right conditions. In other words, I don't trust people
who continuously criticize others.
Second, we have to deal with the person whose
mistakes we publicized when they find out what we said, which, by
the time they hear it, has been amplified in intensity. That person
may tell others our faults in order to retaliate, not an exceptionally
mature action, but one in keeping with our own actions.
Third, some people get stirred up when they
hear about others' faults. For example, if one person at an office
or factory talks behind the back of another, everyone in the work
place may get angry and gang up on the person who has been criticized.
This can set off backbiting throughout the workplace and cause factions
to form. Is this conducive for a harmonious work environment? Hardly.
Fourth, are we happy when our mind picks
faults in others? Hardly. When we focus on negativities or mistakes,
our own mind isn't very happy. Thoughts
such as, "Sue has a hot temper. Joe bungled the job. Liz is
incompetent. Sam is unreliable," aren't conducive for our own
Fifth, by speaking badly of others, we create
the cause for others to speak badly of us. This may occur in this
life if the person we have criticized puts us down, or it may happen
in future lives when we find ourselves unjustly blamed or scapegoated.
When we are the recipients of others' harsh speech, we need to recall
that this is a result of our own actions: we created the cause;
now the result comes. We put negativity in the universe and in our
own mindstream; now it is coming back to us. There's no sense being
angry and blaming anyone else if we were the ones who created the
principal cause of our problem.
There are a few situations in which seemingly
speaking of others' faults may be appropriate or necessary. Although
these instances closely resemble criticizing others, they are not
actually the same. What differentiates them? Our
motivation. Speaking of others'
faults has an element of maliciousness in it and is always motivated
by self-concern. Our ego wants to get something out of this; it
wants to look good by making others look bad. On the other hand,
appropriate discussion of others' faults is done with concern and/or
compassion; we want to clarify a situation, prevent harm, or offer
Let's look at a few examples. When we are asked
to write a reference for someone who is not qualified, we have to
be truthful, speaking of the person's talents as well as his weaknesses
so that the prospective employer or landlord can determine if this
person is able to do what is expected. Similarly, we may have to
warn someone of another's tendencies in order to avert a potential
problem. In both these cases, our motivation is not to criticize
the other, nor do we embellish her inadequacies. Rather, we try
to give an unbiased description of what we see.
Sometimes we suspect that our negative view
of a person is limited and biased, and we talk to a friend who does
not know the other person but who can help us see other angles.
This gives us a fresh, more constructive perspective and ideas about
how to get along with the person. Our friend might also point out
our buttons - our defenses and sensitive areas - that are exaggerating
the other's defects, so that we can work on them.
At other times, we may be confused by someone's
actions and consult a mutual friend in order to learn more about
that person's background, how she might be looking at the situation,
or what we could reasonably expect from her. Or, we may be dealing
with a person whom we suspect has some problems, and we consult
an expert in the field to learn how to work with such a person.
In both these instances, our motivation is to help the other and
to resolve the difficulty.
In another case, a friend may unknowingly be
involved in a harmful behavior or act in a way that puts others
off. In order to protect him from the results of his own blindness,
we may say something. Here we do so without a critical tone of voice
or a judgmental attitude, but with compassion, in order to point
out his fault or mistake so he can remedy it. However, in doing
so, we must let go of our agenda that wants the other person to
change. People must often learn from their own experience; we cannot
control them. We can only be there for them.
The Underlying Attitude
In order to stop pointing out others'
faults, we have to work on our underlying
mental habit of judging others. Even if we don't say anything to or
about them, as long as we are mentally tearing someone down, it's
likely we'll communicate that through giving someone a condescending
look, ignoring him in a social situation, or rolling our eyes when
his name is brought up in conversation.
The opposite of judging and criticizing others
is regarding their good qualities and kindness. This is a matter
of training our minds to look at what is positive in others rather
than what doesn't meet our approval. Such training makes the difference
between our being happy, open, and loving or depressed, disconnected,
We need to try to cultivate the habit of noticing
what is beautiful, endearing, vulnerable, brave, struggling, hopeful,
kind, and inspiring in others. If we pay attention to that, we won't
be focusing on their faults. Our joyful attitude and tolerant speech
that result from this will enrich those around us and will nourish
contentment, happiness and love within ourselves. The quality of
our own lives thus depends on whether we find fault with our experience
or see what is beautiful in it.
Seeing the faults of others is about missing
opportunities to love. It's also
about not having the skills to properly
nourish ourselves with heart-warming interpretations as opposed
to feeding ourselves a mental diet of poison.
When we are habituated with mentally picking out the faults of others,
we tend to do this with ourselves as well. This can lead us to devalue
our entire lives. What a tragedy
it is when we overlook the preciousness and opportunity of our lives
and our Buddha potential.
Thus we must lighten up, cut ourselves some
slack, and accept ourselves as we are in this moment while we simultaneously
try to become better human beings in the future. This doesn't mean
we ignore our mistakes, but that we are not so pejorative about
them. We appreciate our own humanness; we have confidence in our
potential and in the heart-warming qualities we have developed so
What are these qualities? Let's keep things
simple: they are our ability to listen, to smile, to forgive, to
help out in small ways. Nowadays
we have lost sight of what is really valuable on a personal level
and instead tend to look to what publicly brings acclaim. We need
to come back to appreciating ordinary beauty and stop our infatuation
with the high-achieving, the polished, and the famous.
Everyone wants to be loved - to have his or
her positive aspects noticed and acknowledged, to be cared for and
treated with respect. Almost everyone is afraid of being judged,
criticized, and rejected as unworthy. Cultivating the mental habit
that sees our own and others' beauty brings happiness to ourselves
and others; it enables us to feel and to extend love. Leaving aside
the mental habit that finds faults prevents suffering for ourselves
and others. This should be the heart of our spiritual practice.
For this reason, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, "My religion
We may still see our own and others' imperfections,
but our mind is gentler, more accepting and spacious. People don't
care so much if we see their faults, when they are confident that
we care for them and appreciate what is admirable in them.
Speaking with Understanding and Compassion
The opposite of speaking of the faults of others
is speaking with understanding and compassion. For those engaged
in spiritual practice and for those who want to live harmoniously
with others, this is essential. When we look at other's good qualities,
we feel happy that they exist. Acknowledging people's good qualities
to them and to others makes our own mind happy; it promotes harmony
in the environment; and it gives people useful feedback.
Praising others should be part of our daily
life and part of our Dharma practice. Imagine what our life would
be like if we trained our minds to dwell on others' talents and
good attributes. We would feel much
happier and so would they! We would get along better with others,
and our families, work environments, and living situations would
be much more harmonious. We place the seeds from such positive actions
on our mindstream, creating the cause for harmonious relationships
and success in our spiritual and temporal aims.
An interesting experiment is to try to
say something nice to or about someone every day for a month. Try
it. It makes us much more aware
of what we say and why. It encourages us to change our perspective
so that we notice others' good qualities. Doing so also improves
our relationships tremendously.
A few years ago, I gave this as a homework assignment
at a Dharma class, encouraging people to try to praise even someone
they didn't like very much. The next week I asked the students how
they did. One man said that the first day he had to make something
up in order to speak positively to a fellow colleague. But after
that, the man was so much nicer to him that it was easy to see his
good qualities and speak about them!