Speaking of the Faults of
by Bhikshuni Thubten
"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
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
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 mental
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 help.
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
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 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, and bitter.
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
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 far.
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 is
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
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
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!