Living Harmlessly Means Speaking the Truth

To state the aim of Buddhist practice is simple. The aim of practice is to bring suffering to an end. Bringing suffering to an end demands clear seeing and truthfulness and continuous practice.  If it wasn’t that way everyone would probably practice Buddhism.

Peace, Gentleness, Harmlessness

Also, since the Buddha taught that greed, anger and ignorance are suffering’s root causes, we can say that one who practices Buddhism practices two things… continuously. First, one practices giving up the roots of suffering. Second, and simultaneously, one actively cultivates thoughts, words, and deeds that are aimed at peace, gentleness, and harmlessness.

Yet to know the difference between what’s wholesome and what’s not asks us to honestly evaluate and scrutinize how the things we think, say, and do affect us and how they affect the people and things around us, too.  What’s more, if we’re sincere about doing the practice, we have to cultivate a ruthless personal honesty. We have to be square with ourselves about what is and is not wholesome and harmless in our thoughts. words, and deeds.

In other words, we can say that the practice is simply learning  to evaluate the things we think, do and say so we can live without harmfulness, negativity, and falsehood.  And we do this while we simultaneously cultivate bringing more of the things that we’ve accurately determined to be positive into our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Right Intention

The second step of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to Awakening involves developing right intention or right resolve.

“And what is right intention? Being intent on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right intention.” ~Samyatta Nikaya 45.8

What do we intentionally renounce as we develop this step on the Path? We renounce, geed, anger, and ignorance, of course. What is the positive side to be intentionally developed? Why, all the positive qualities of a life lived free form ill-will, free from doing harm.

Unfortunately many people, including many Buddhists, think or teach that the aspiration to live a harmless life means living a passive life removed from the cares and concerns entailed by relationships or by ordinary life in general. Yet this is not so.  Also, many people and many Buddhists think that living harmlessly means holding our tongues rather than speaking the truth.

Speak Words That Promote Unity and Friendship

In fact, time and again the Buddha taught that his most worthy followers live harmlessly, yes, but they also live in ways that actively promote human welfare. And these followers actively confront the misdeeds that require wise, timely, and wholesome confrontation.

Along these lines, the early teachings show the Buddha praising disciples who, “reunite those who are divided,” or esteeming disciples who are “promoter[s] of friendship,” or celebrating those who are “speaker[s] of words that promote concord.” ~Majjhima Nikaya 27

Likewise, the Buddha also insisted that the wholesome path we are developing includes scrutinizing and evaluating the actions of others so we can praise those who are worthy of praise. And equally, so we can criticize those worthy of criticism.

Examining and Scrutinizing

Here’s an example of the Buddha describing monks who are worthy of criticism because, “without examining or scrutinizing, they praise those deserving criticism, and they criticize those deserving of praise.” And additionally these monks,  “Without examining or scrutinizing, they arouse faith in things that are dubious, and they don’t arouse faith in things that are inspiring.”~Anguttara Nikaya 5.236

Furthermore, the Buddha pointed out that there are monks who deserve positive regard and praise because, “after examining and scrutinizing, they criticize those deserving criticism, and they praise those deserving of praise. They don’t arouse faith in things that are dubious, and they do arouse faith in things that are inspiring.” ~Anguttara Nikaya 5.236

The take away from this teaching is that as we abandon greed, anger, and ignorance and as we cultivate the positive qualities of a life free from ill-will and harming we actively engage in working to elevate the wholesomeness of our community, as well as the rest of life all around us.

Elevate the Community

This includes actively examining and scrutinizing what’s going on in our neighborhood, in our families, and in our spiritual communities as we respond responsibly with accurate and timely praise or criticism.

I want to add another example of the Buddha teaching that the well-reasoned and  timely praise or criticism of others is in fact something he esteemed.  I want to do this because there is much confusion in contemporary Mahayana practice around the appropriateness of criticizing other practitioners and especially one’s teachers.  This is  particularly true in Zen and Tibetan practice.

Many of these practice communities teach that if one sees or comments on faults in the teacher one is disrespecting the teacher. Some practice communities tell  students that if they see fault in the teacher  it’s because their own vision is impure. Or one might be told that the fault is not in the teacher but in the ripening bad karma in the fault finder’s life.

But don’t buy it. The Buddha taught us to be discriminating and to trust our judgment especially in matters of harmful conduct.

Sharpening and Quickening

Remember, a very big part of the practice involves  sharpening  our evaluative capacity and quickening our ability to scrutinize and decide what is and is not wholesome in our personal life. This heightened skill involves being clearer about what truly is and is not wholesome.  The next step in the practice is to bring these enlivened and sharpened skills,  this wisdom, to the rest of our lives.

In this next teaching the Buddha asserts that there are four kinds of people in the world. He then describes the four kinds of people based on whether or not they are wise about the uses of praise and dispraise. He says, “The most excellent and sublime kind of person is one who speaks dispraise of one who deserves dispraise, and the dispraise is accurate, truthful, and timely; and who also speaks praise of one who deserves praise, and the praise is accurate, truthful, and timely. Why is the person who can do so excellent?” the Buddha asked, “Because what excels,” said the Buddha, “is knowledge of the proper time to speak in any particular case.” ~Anguttara Nikaya 4:100

Speaking Praise, Dispraise, and Criticism

Combining these teachings on speaking praise, dispraise, and criticism, it should be clear that the Buddha asked his followers to use their critical and evaluative capacities to actively, truthfully, and accurately assess whatever’s going on in their lives so they could decide what is and is not kind, gentle, and harmless.  And this included what was going on in their spiritual communities.

Of course, it’s true that according the Buddha’s teachings we should avoid speaking criticism in harsh terms. We should always strive to bind up the wounds in our families,  between friends, in our communities, and in our  sanghas whenever possible. Yet, because we are cultivating positivity and wholesomeness, we must learn to speak the truth.  And this will sometimes requires that we speak criticism and dispraise.

Our first responsibility as Buddhist is to work towards creating a better world for all forms of life.  The promotion of Buddhism as a religion is a secondary concern. Kindness and compassion, the furthering of peace and harmony, as well as tolerance and respect for other religions, should be the three guiding principles of our actions. ~Open Letter of Western Buddhist Teachers

I’ve written this post in the light of a heart-sickening story that came up in the news this week. This week the New York Times reported on yet another deeply troubling and hugely painful scandal in a Western Buddhist community.  This scandal has been unfolding in the community of Shambhala International for four decades.

The Shambhala International community was founded by Chogyam Trungpa and is led by his son Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.  One thing seems clear, at least to me. If every student of Buddhism was  taught that it is perfectly fine to use their best judgment and to call harmful behavior out wherever they see it, then the immeasurably harmful abuse and exploitation of children, women, and other vulnerable people that is alleged to have happened at Shambhala International would be less likely to thrive or survive anywhere in Buddhism.

Here is an Open Letter from the Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers on the student-teacher relationship and on the proper conduct of teachers:

Here’s a link to the nauseating  and heartbreaking details of the Shambhala International scandal at the New York

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